John “First Class” Raio returned to the gym a year and a half ago merely to get back into shape.
Eighteen months later and about 50 pounds lighter, the Portland postal worker suddenly finds himself living every athlete’s dream — performing in front of big crowds.
The 35-year-old Raio has emerged as a fan favorite in the state’s fledgling mixed martial arts scene, with his second-round victory over Derek Shorey of Berwick at Fight Night III last Saturday at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston drawing a reaction from the 3,000 fans in attendance second only to the MMA debut of two-time former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia in his home state later in the evening.
“I never imagined anything like this, not a chance of it,” said Raio, a husband and father of two children who is now 3-0 as an amateur in his mixed martial arts career. “I’m putting mail in mailboxes and not many people cheer for that, a lot of people are upset that I’m there. They’re like, ‘Why are you bringing the bills to my mailbox.’
“It’s amazing how many people have come out to see me,” he said.
Raio is not a newcomer to competitive fighting. He was a former 125-pound individual state wrestling champion while at Gardiner Area High School in 1995, then went on to wrestle at both Plymouth State University and the University of Southern Maine before veering away from the sport as he started a family and pursued a career in social work for several years.
“I’ve always been a fighter growing up, first at Gardiner and then wrestling at Plymouth State and USM,” said Raio, who now lives in Topsham. “I got into a few off-campus run-ins, nothing major like these fights, but then I grew up, had a wife and kids and never thought I’d be doing anything like this again.”
But when Raio returned to the gym in 2010 to drop some weight the competitive juices resurfaced.
“I didn’t go back to training to compete, I went back to get in shape,” said Raio, who topped out at 195 points and now competes at 145. “Naturally my weight went down, and the harder I trained the weight kept dropping.”
Raio competed in several jujitsu matches, but as he was doing that current New England Fights co-owner and matchmaker Matt Peterson, a state representative from Rumford, was working with others to legalize mixed martial arts in Maine.
The state Legislature approved MMA as a sport in Maine in 2009, and this new option proved attractive to Raio.
“When I started training again a year and a half ago, the more I got involved and became more competitive, I could see I was doing pretty well against USM wrestlers and friends of mine who were fighting,” he said. “I thought I had to try this for myself, and right off the bat people started wanting to watch me fight. I don’t know what it is, but it’s awesome.”
Raio made his MMA debut in February at Fight Night I, and scored his first two victories by unanimous decision before defeating Shorey by submission with a guillotine choke.
“I like to pride myself in being all-around, but a lot of people haven’t seen me do that yet,” said Raio, who trains at MMA Athletix in Brunswick. “My first fight I just shot in on a boxer, took him down and went ground and pound, my second fight I stayed up the whole fight and won fight of the night in Biddeford [at Fight Night II in April].
“All I do is train at everything, I don’t want to just be just good at one thing,” Raio said. “If I was that way I would have just lost [to Shorey] on my feet, but it was a heck of a fight and Derek’s a a tough kid and a really nice guy. We met a few times before, but I’m never quite as friendly before my fights because if I get too friendly then I don’t want to fight.”
Raio said he plans to continue fighting as long as he keeps winning, and then he’ll reassess this newfound career in relationship to his family life.
“My wife’s very supportive of me and I have a 10-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter and they’re very supportive, too,” he said. “I’m a family guy, believe it or not, and training four or five nights a week is hard but I try to spend as much time as I can with them, I try to spend every Sunday with them and my day off with my daughter. I just want to keep going until I lose, and at that point I’ll sit back and think about whether it was because I’m too old or or did I just lose because I wasn’t trained well enough.
“It’s been great so far,” Raio said.
Fight Night III gets HDNet exposure
Saturday night’s Fight Night III card received some national exposure when highlights from several matches were featured Monday evening on HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television program.
The report began with a discussion between hosts Kenny Rice and Bas “El Guapo” Rutten about Eastbrook native and two-time former UFC heavyweight champion Tim “The Maine-iac” Sylvia’s quest to return to the UFC. Rutten — himself a former UFC heavyweight champion — acknowledged that Sylvia has won seven of his last eight fights but suggested he would need to defeat higher-caliber opponents to have any chance of convincing UFC president Dana White to consider letting him back into the top-tier MMA organization.
Sylvia left the UFC in 2008 with one fight left on his contract to sign with a rival organization, Affliction, that is now defunct.
Highlights of Sylvia’s 12-second knockout victory over Randy “The Wolf” Smith at Fight Night III followed, as did highlights of Brewer’s “The” Ryan Sanders’ victory over Ray Shawdee and his Young’s MMA teammate Bruce Boyington of Brewer knocking out Keegan Hornstra in 10 seconds with two spinning back kicks.
Fight Night IV set for Sept. 8
New England Fights, the promotion organization behind the Fight Night series of mixed martial arts cards, will stage Fight Night IV on Saturday, Sept. 8, at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston.
The event is being billed as “a night of Maine state title fights,” with one headline bout already announced, a 185-pound clash between former Maine high school wrestling champions Jesse Peterson and Cody Lightfoot.
Peterson was the 2000 Class B state champion at 189 pounds from Mountain Valley High School in Rumford, while Lightfoot won the 2002 Class A 189-pound title while attending Marshwood High School in South Berwick.
Both sport 6-3 MMA records.