Success in Mixed Martial Arts is typically measured by a fighter’s ratio of wins to losses, as well as the level of competition faced, and takes into account championship gold the individual has racked up along the way. With a professional record of 17-4 and the IFL’s final welterweight title-holder, it is fairly safe to say Jay Hieron has had a successful MMA career thus far.
However, truth be told, Hieron’s success in the sport goes far beyond his accomplishments inside the ring, as he’s overcome a number of battles in his personal life and ultimately emerged victorious in each (as indicated by both his status as a top 170-pound Mixed Martial Artist and as a hard-working, intelligent, considerate human being). From growing up in a rough section of Long Island to a solid collegiate wrestling career cut short by a mistake to an arrest for drug trafficking to Phil Baroni’s assistance on the path towards enlightenment to being an original member of one of the elite training facilities in the world to his involvement in a battle so bloody the UFC refused to air it, Hieron has lived a fascinating, thought-provoking life and opens up candidly about his experiences therein, plus much more, in the following exclusive 5 Oz. of Pain interview…
Conlan: I’d like to wind the clock back a bit before getting into current affairs or even looking forward to what the future holds. You first started boxing and wrestling in your early teens, in some ways taking your first steps on the career path you eventually chose to walk down. What originally sparked your interest in those particular sports? Did you ever think you would make a living incorporating either skill-set?
Jay Hieron: Nah, I mean…you know…that’s what still amazes me…I always liked boxing, wrestling at the time was like WWF stuff, but I always liked a contact sport, a one-on-one type of combative sport. I never thought about pursuing it. I was a kid that didn’t grow until later on in my life so I was always small or my age.
The reason I’m a boxer is that I started getting picked on, so one of my sister’s boyfriends at the time was boxing and took me to the boxing gym…that was right around the age of about thirteen…and when I was going into high school…you know, I’m not from the best place in the world…my high school was a little rough…so I that’s why I wanted to start defending myself. I couldn’t make it to the boxing gym anymore..it was too far away, I didn’t have a car, and I couldn’t depend on my sister’s boyfriend to take me all the time. They had wrestling at my high school so I ended up joining wrestling and I fell in love with the sport.
Conlan: At one point in high school you quit wrestling. What influenced that decision? How much of your present success do you credit to your high school coaches’ persistence about getting you back onto the mat during your senior year?
Hieron: Yeah, I mean…I was a young kid, I got my first car – it was like in eleventh grade – and, ya know, I was kind of over being in wrestling and sweating. Pretty much, I’m a strong-minded person so I just put…I was just like, “Man, I’m done with this, I just want to have fun right now.”
Definitely I owe a lot to my coaches. They were like father figures to me. They tried to pursue me every day…they would sneak around and see when I would be gettin’ out of class and act like they were walking – just run into me down the hallway. That was my coach Russ Celland. My other head coach was Terry Haise. He was more tough love. But you know, I owe a lot to those guys…I mean, if I didn’t wrestle my senior year I don’t think I would be in this position I’m in now, because I don’t think I would have went to college for wrestling.
So…definitely I owe a lot to those guys, and it’s one of those things where they give me guidance and they were definitely like father figures to me.
Conlan: Just prior to the start of your senior season in college you tested positive for marijuana use and ended up serving a season-long suspension as a result. What was your immediate reaction to the school’s decision to keep you out of competition? Did you feel at that point you were completely done with wrestling?
Hieron: Like I said before, I’m no angel – I’ve been through a lot of stuff, ups and downs in my life – and that’s something I did to myself, and it was one of those things where at that point in my life I was doing…you know, smoking herb and it came and backfired on me.
When I tested positive for it, I didn’t blame nobody. I blamed myself. But also, I was just like, “Wrestling took me as far as it could anyways.” I mean, there (were) no professional sports like now there is with Mixed Martial Arts, but back then it wasn’t like you could make a living off of MMA because it was still new. So, I really didn’t pay attention to it really. I was pretty much like, “I’m done anyways with the sport. It took me as far as I can go and now it’s time to make money.” And that’s when I put my full focus on trying to make money.
Conlan: When you left Hofstra you were only a semester or so away from graduating. Is that a decision you ever look back on and regret? Have you ever considered going back to school and finishing your degree?
Hieron: Well, yeah, of course I regret that decision. I mean, I’m kind of a bull-headed guy. Like I said, wrestling for me was taken away and I just supressed all those feelings I had for competition and stuff like that. I dropped out…I just left the school. You know, of course I do.
One day, I mean when I have time…my full focus right now is on my career…one day, I’m only fifteen credits away from my Bachelor’s Degree so that’s definitely something I would like to accomplish and finish, but it would have to be the right time, and right now all my time is in the Gym and trying to get my technique and skills better to be the best fighter I can be.
Conlan: Speaking of Mixed Martial Arts, you were introduced to the sport by fellow New Yorker (and childhood friend) Phil Baroni. What about MMA did you find appealing? What made you realize it was something you wanted to attempt as a profession? Where do you think you would be today if you hadn’t ever set foot in Bellmore Kickboxing Academy?
Hieron: Well, it was a time that, with what I was going through, made me feel like I was really supposed to do this with my life. When (Baroni) introduced me to it,…I knew it was fighting and stuff, and he brought me down to train with him, but I wasn’t really interested at that point.
Then, when I got arrested and I had nowhere else to go in my life, and I was looking at myself in the mirror and I was really at a point in my life where I didn’t know who I was…just something reminded me about going to the Gym – to the Bellmore Kickboxing Academy – and when I went there, it was just the craziest (thing)…it’s like when you find yourself, I was reborn again. From that day on I had a different attitude on everything and I felt I had a second chance at something in my life.
That’s why I train so hard and I work so hard, because I’ve been through a lot in my life and I know stuff can be taken away and I know stuff can be given to you with hard work.
Conlan: Can you elaborate more on your relationship with Phil Baroni, even as it stands today? Are you still on good terms today? Do you have an funny/crazy story involving Baroni that you can share and won’t get either of you in too much trouble?
Hieron: *laughs* Nah, it’s all good. Yeah, me and Phil go way back. I’ve know him since we were both kids…fourteen. We wrestled together in high school, not at the same high school, but we wrestled together in high school all through the years. He’s a great guy. Deep down, he’s a great friend and a great guy. A lot of people don’t see that about him because he’s the “New York Bad Ass”, but behind all that he’s a caring friend and all that. Me and the guy, we come from the same place, and he’s just known me for a long time. He’s the one who introduced me to the game. He’s a true warrior.
A story about him? *laughs* One time we were at a wrestling tournament in college…we were both at Nassau Community College…and we were upstate at Edinborough at a wrestling tournament. As long as we’ve been friends and stuff, of course we’re gonna get into it sometimes…you know, we’re both hotheads…so we got into it up there at the tournament. We were tussling around, and at the time he knew how to box…he already had a couple boxing fights…so I was like, “I’m not messing with this guy boxing.” So, I picked up a chair and the coach came out and he was like, “You guys are both wrong! If you guys don’t stop right now and make up, you guys are both walking…you’re finding your way back down to Nassau County.” This is about 6-7 hours away…driving…and its the dead of winter too.
So we both look outside, there’s like three foot…four foot…snow out there, and we’re both like, “We’re sorry!”
Conlan: Your professional debut came in July 2003. What do you remember about that experience? Can you describe your emotional state after not only winning the match but also finishing your opponent in less than 90 seconds?
Hieron: It was an incredible feeling. I was training for awhile before that and that was the start of my career. I had a bunch of people, friend and family, there…I had more people there than any that I ever had at my wrestling matches. People wanna come out to see fights.
The fight itself I really don’t remember. I was an amateur, it was my first fight…I really didn’t know how to control my emotions. So, to me, it was a real fight. I was fighting for my life out there, but the wrestling technique, of course, took over and I started ground-and-pounding him…but emotionally it was a real fight for me. When you get more experience in your career you know how to deal with that…but (winning) was a great feeling. I won the fight in front of a lot of people close to me and it was incredible that it was the start of my career.
Conlan: After earning wins in your first four fights you found yourself inside the Octagon and across from an up-and-coming young French-Canadian welterweight by the name of Georges St. Pierre. Did you feel any additional pressure to perform due to it being your first appearance in the UFC? Seventeen fights later, and after countless hours of training, how differently do you feel things would go if you ever got an opportunity to throw down with St. Pierre again?
Hieron: Yeah, first off…I mean, yeah, I felt pressure, but I went into the fight all wrong. Again, I was still early in my career. I was still, you could say, an amateur then. It was only my fourth, fifth fight. The worst thing that could have happened to me for that fight (was) I trained with St. Pierre about two months to three months before that…not sparring or nothin, but wrestling…and I took him down a couple times. Like I said, I went into that fight totally emotionally wrong…I went out there fighting on my emotions, and you know it didn’t work out too well for me, that fight. St. Pierre was definitely a better man that day and it was a learning experience.
I got back to New York and I knew I had to get better training partners. My trainers were great – Keith Trimble at Bellmore Kickboxing Academy and I had Rodrigo Gracie for my groundwork, over there, which were great trainers…but the training partners, there weren’t that many to beat up on me like I need to get better. So that’s what ultimately made me move to Las Vegas after (the St. Pierre) fight.
There are two roads you can take after losing a big fight like that. You can either take the left and be like, “You know, this is not for me. I don’t know if I got what it takes”, or you can take the right road, and just go, “I just gotta suck it up and become a better fighter and do anything possible in my power to get better.” And that’s what I did.
Conlan: …so if you threw down with St. Pierre again you think it would be different?
Hieron: Totally different. I’m a totally different fighter. I’m not saying he isn’t either, but that fight would never happen like that again in my eyes. To me, when I go into a fight, whoever I’m fighting, I’m totally confident and feel I’m gonna win the fight. I know how hard I train. I’m 365-days in the gym. I take a week off after a fight but I’m always in the gym. I’m the hardest worker in this sport. I train just as hard as anybody or harder. Bottom line.
Conlan: A few fights later you suffered an injury to your eye that was originally labeled as being career-threatening. Can you shed some light on exactly what happened and how severe the damage to your eye was? Did you actually feel as though you might never fight again, and if so, how were you able to cope with such a serious injury?
Hieron: It was the WEC I was fighting in. The first round, I was doing well and he clipped me with something right before the end of the first round. I come back to the corner and I can’t see. What I thought was that I had Vaseline on my eyeball, cause it was all black and all white. I couldn’t see anything. I go back out, I finish the fight, I won thank God.
When I got back to Vegas I went to see the eye doctor and he says, “Hey, man, there’s a big problem. Your iris is not contracting.” You know how it contracts and opens and closes when you see bright light like the sun? Mine was wide open – it wasn’t contracting. He said it was a serious injury and didn’t know if I could fight again.
I tried to stay as positive as I could. I went to see another eye doctor. I got a second opinion. He said he’d seen the injury before in (MMA). He said the eye was an organ so it should heal, just takes time. So, you know, I did what I do best…I got in that gym and sweated that stress out and hoped for the best.
Conlan: In your second UFC appearance you took on Jonathan Goulet, receiving a nasty cut in the process that caused enough blood loss to have some fans mistaking the Octagon for the set of a horror movie (and eventually causing the ringside officials to stop the fight). What is your recollection of the bout? How were you able to stay mentally focused in light of the cut? Is it true that the UFC decided to not air the fight due to the amount of blood involved?
Hieron: Yeah, yes sir, the UFC said they would never air that fight. It was definitely one of the bloodiest fights…I think “Top 3″…in the UFC. I was winning the fight hands down everywhere. I was taking him down…I thought I was winning the striking, submission threats…everything…I was doing incredible. I got kneed in the head in the second round and it opened up a cut on my forehead, right by the vein, where it was pumping blood out like crazy. I really couldn’t see anything. I just remembered going into fight mode and trying to finish the fight as fast as I could, because I knew they were going to stop it…it was just too much blood. It was everywhere. I was bloody head to toe. He was bloody with my blood head to toe. It was a crazy fight.
I have no quit in me. I’ll try to get it done as best as I can out there. I’m prepared for that. I get in “dog” shape, so it’s just one of those things. It’s the “hurt” business. Stuff like that happens. We’re throwing elbows, knees out there. Cuts happen.
Conlan: The following year you took your abilities to the International Fight League. How would you label your overall experience in the IFL? Did the company’s eventual downfall surprise you or was it something you suspected might happen? What have you since done with your IFL Welterweight Championship?
Hieron: The IFL was a great experience for me. It gave me that stage to perform on, to showcase my skills, when I was going into another direction in my life where I didn’t know where my career was headed. IFL came about and it had TV exposure, and you know, a lot of people know me from the IFL. I have nothing bad to say about them as an organization or how they treated me. I don’t know about anyone else but they always treated me with respect.
From a business point of view I think they just made too many changes where it ultimately ended up with them having to sell the company. And, you know, that happens in this game. My belts? I’m trying to frame them as we speak. I still have them and I’m gonna frame them up real soon.
Conlan: You trained with Bas Rutten. Anything crazy ever happen with you two?
Hieron: Oh my god…a million things! That guy is a comedian, man! I love Bas. He just brought that lighter side to training…don’t get me wrong, it was VERY very hard training..rigorous workouts…it was incredible…but he just brought that lighter side by cracking jokes and stuff like that.
One time (The IFL’s Anacondas) were getting ready to fight the Wolfpack, Matt Lindland‘s team, and we were all getting taped up in the locker room. And everyone started busting…you know, farting…*laughs* and it was crazy! Bas had to leave the room, the commissioners had to leave, they made us stop taping and leave the room until the smell got out. It was crazy! But that was just one of those times…
Conlan: Most recently you faced Jason High on the “Affliction: Day of Reckoning” card, who was 6-0 at the time, and knocked him out in close to a minute. What can you say about High as an opponent? What are your thoughts about how the fight unfolded now that you’ve had a chance to assess your performance?
Hieron: Jason High is a definite threat. He was a tough opponent, under the radar. Undefeated. Nothing to lose, everything to gain. I was stuck in a position where I had to perform – I had to go out and finish this guy. I’m the one with a name. But, I don’t let any of that stuff get to me. I’m a professional. I get in the gym and I train just as hard to fight anybody. I don’t look past any opponent. I look at him like, “This is what I’ve gotta do. I’ve gotta take care of this guy and then I’ll look to the next.”
(High) is a tough guy. My performance, I felt was great. For what I went through that night, I definitely feel I performed and took care of business. I was supposed to fight at 4:00. I was gloved and ready the whole time. I didn’t fight till about 10:00. It was a growing experience for my career. For what I went through that night, to still come out and perform…it shows me something to myself – that I know how to come out and compete.
Conlan: To the surprise of many, including yourself most likely, the bout was bumped from the HDNet portion of the card due to concerns about fitting it into the allotted programming time. As a result, the fight ended up taking place until after the night’s main event between Arlovski/Emelianenko had concluded. Can you please walk fans through the experience in terms of when you were told about the company’s decision, how you were affected by the postponement, and what was going through your mind at the time? Did the situation sour your opinion on Affliction or do you still want to fight for them again?
Hieron: Nobody told me nothing – they told me, “Just stay warm.” If they would have told me, “You’re after the main event,” I would have been fine. But nobody told me. I was ready, warmed up, and ready to walk out before the Nogueira fight. That’s what I had planned. Nobody told me anything different. When I was ready to walk out for my fight they told Nogueira to come out. It was all unfolding at the time, unfolding right in front of me at the time.
So, Nogueira goes out, and I’m like, “Okay, when do I fight?” Now you’re a swing bout, which means pretty much you get in where you fit in. So, you gotta stay warm, and then somebody says, “Your fight might be cancelled. You might you get your show money but there’s no time.” So I’m going through all these emotions. Thank God I have great people around me – Randy Couture, Shawn Tompkins, my manager did a great job of keeping us in the loop – so if they would have told me exactly when I was fighting it would have been okay. “You’re fighting after the main event.” That would have been fine. So me not knowing was a little nerve-racking, but again…that’s what you deal with. You deal with a lot of stuff in this business that you can’t control. What I can control is going out there and handling my business and performing. And that’s what I did that night. And like I said, that showed me something me about myself, how I can compete
under drastic circumstances, and God Bless…everything turned out well.
Conlan: So does that give you a poor opinion on Affliction and the way they handled your fight?
Hieron: No, I mean the show was a success to me. It was a great fight. It was one of the greatest cards assembled. It wasn’t in Affliction’s control. It was the TV…the PPV and HDNet…HDNet was running out of time, the fights were going longer than expected, and it’s all about time frame and times. It’s out of everybody’s control when there’s TV involved. There’s a swing bout every PPV.
Conlan: Any injuries to report from training for High or from the bout itself? Any idea what’s next for you in terms of future opponents/events?
Hieron: Nah, I came out healthy thank God. I hope my opponent is healthy too. I having my manager talk to them…you know, I want to fight “Top 10” guys…the type that are gonna inch my career and make me go up higher in the rankings. That’s what I want to do. I want to fight fights that mean something. Jake Shields isn’t signed yet to anybody. Maybe that fight can happen down the road somewhere, maybe Affliction or we’ll see…
Conlan: Is Strikeforce on your radar now that they’ve just made the acquisition of EliteXC and they’re going to be on Showtime/CBS?
Hieron: Yes, definitely Strikeforce on the radar. Like I said, first and foremost I fight for Affliction so we’ll have to go and talk to them to see what’s going on, when’s the next show…if it doesn’t conflict with them we’ll move forward with Strikeforce. We’ll see what happens. There are a lot of options on the table, which is great, and we’ll see what the next step is.
Conlan: Many people may not realize this, but you were part of the foundation of Xtreme Couture before the actual training facility in Las Vegas even existed. How did you originally become involved with the group?
Hieron: Well, I started when I moved here (to Las Vegas)…I was training at two different gyms with “One Kick” Nick and I was training with Cobra Kai’s Marc Laimon. I was having to drive across town after training sessions to go get my striking and then I would have to come back to do my grappling. So, I met Mike Pyle and he was training at John Lewis’ gym so I would go there from time to time to spar and he was a great training partner. He started training with Randy Couture when Randy would come to town and then we all just started training together whenever (Couture) would come in town. We just started forming the team like that.
Everybody had a good head on their shoulders – no egos. Everyone wanted to train and get better. Forrest Griffin started training with us, Gray Maynard…Tyson Griffin came along and moved out here…Alex Schonauer…I mean, the list goes on and on. I could sit here all day and list everybody, but the biggest thing was that nobody had an ego, everybody wanted to train and get better, and everybody works well together.
And it was cool because we would train at (John Lewis’ gym) and when J-Sect was closed we would all contact each other and meet up at Xyience. And if Xyience wasn’t working for us we would just meet up at UFC’s TUF Gym. Just a solid core group of guys where everybody wanted to train together and we would make it happen.
Conlan: What are your thoughts on Randy Couture as not only a trainer but a human being in general?
Hieron: Randy Couture is a great guy. When I got with him my career started going up from there. He’s the guy who leads by example. He don’t even have to talk that much. You just watch his demeanor, how he acts, how he conducts himself…you know, he’s just a great guy to look up to.
Conlan: As a native Long Islander what are your thoughts on the importance of getting MMA legalized in New York? What would the opportunity to fight in front of your home-state fans mean to you on a personal level?
Hieron: One of my dreams was to be the world champ. One of my other dreams is to fight at Madison Square Garden in front of everybody that supports me back home. I can’t wait till that happens! You know, I would fight in the Garden for free. *laughs* Don’t let the promoters hear that, but really…it’s definitely one of my dreams to fight in MSG. I watched Knicks games there…and you know, that’s just the place to go if you’re a New Yorker.
Conlan: Do you feel the hardships you faced earlier in your life helped mold you into the man you’ve since become? Do you feel the adversity you’ve dealt with benefits you in any way as far as training or even inside the ring?
Hieron: Yeah, of course…I wouldn’t change my life for nothin. I feel everything I went through in life made me stronger, made me the person I am today. I’m a great guy, I’m a real guy, but that’s all from learning experiences…through ups and downs…I have had nothing given to me ever in my life. I had to work for everything I’ve gotten and that’s how I like it.
Conlan: Do you have any advice for young people who might find themselves in situations similar to what you’ve experienced throughout your life?
Hieron: Dreams come true. You can always change your life no matter how bad it’s going. Hard work definitely pays off. You don’t have to just be a fighter either…there’s other things out there…there’s a million different things you can do that make you feel good and can change your life, somethin’ you love to do. You don’t just have to have my story and be a fighter. This is my niche and I found it. Just go out there and don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do anything you want to. Just stick with it, go for it 100%, and the sky is the limit.
Thanks to everyone at XTreme Couture – Randy, Shawn Tompkins, Ray Sefo…my sponsors, Gamma-O, Evolution Energy Drinks, Bulletproof Athletics, RZST Clothing, Zenetti Rims, Affliction…God…all my fans…thanks again!