Bronx native Jerome Mickle has come a long way from tussling with promoters in unmarked halls and dank boxing gyms on the unsanctioned MMA circuit.
A former champion with New York's Underground Combat League, Mickle has climbed out of the clandestine fight clubs littered around the boroughs, and is now just days away from throwing down at Madison Square Garden, the most famous arena in sports.
It's a major opportunity for Mickle, 29, who'll get his first glimpse of MMA's big-time on June 24. Set to face Anthony Giacchina on the #Bellator180 preliminary card, Mickle is seizing the opportunity to promote himself and New York’s emerging MMA contingent. But still, he’s quick to reminisce about his days with the #UCL.
“It was invite only, so you would either have to know the fighter, or know the promoter, or be a friend of a fighter to even be invited,” recalls Mickle, who began his unsanctioned MMA journey under the tutelage of controversial UCL promoter Peter Storm. “The referee was either the promoter, or friends of the promoter. I don’t think he even really knew how to referee at the time ... it was like a big secret in plain sight."
Taking up MMA seven years ago, Mickle made his bones with the UCL, debuting just months after he began training.
Mickle relied on raw power and natural athleticism to make up for a lack of formal martial arts training. And, combined with a few judo sweeps and tricks he picked up from Storm, Mickle rattled off eight-straight wins to capture the promotion's welterweight strap.
Still a near beginner to MMA at the time, Mickle fought despite severe jitters and backstage nerves. Introspectively, he recollects how "the ref doesn’t make you feel any safer and the ambulance doesn’t make you feel any safer. It actually makes us more nervous cause somebody might have to get carried out. Period.”
Always eying something more, something legitimate, Mickle focused on the big picture, forgoing the stomps and soccer kicks of the UCL's #PRIDE-style fights and refraining from bare-knuckle bouts. Mickle competed, strictly, under the widely accepted unified rules of MMA in an effort to prepare himself for a future in the cage, with a reputable promotion. And, unlike his peers who went the standard route, starting up sanctioned, amateur careers, Mickle would be ready for the knees and elbows allowed in the pro ranks.
"Despite there being no officials, I always fought by the [unified] rules. I was never with the soccer kicking and everything. Some people got soccer kicked, stuff like that. They were into that. I guess you had to be into that. I wanted to train and fight where I wanted to go, so I [couldn't] be practicing soccer kicks," states Mickle, who now competes at lightweight. “I feel it got me prepared for the pros cause meanwhile everybody else had fought amateurs, they’re not used to knees and elbows.”
Jerome Mickle continued his early run with the UCL, competing on open mats and unsavory surfaces, fighting in mosques and martial arts schools around the city. However, he aspired for a larger stage, in the MMA mainstream; it was that desire that ultimately led to Mickle’s departure from the UCL.
Engaged in a bitter dispute with his former coach and promoter, where racial epithets and hate speech were casually thrown around social media, Mickle was, for a brief moment, slated to face Storm in a grudge match. The bout between the welterweight champion and the UCL boss never came to fruition; however, as Mickle opted to vacate his title and compete for the New York Fight Exchange, where he also won a championship.
Years later, Mickle has, for the most part, moved on from the rivalry, but trace amounts of resentment still linger.
“I don’t badmouth people, man. Listen, what’s done is done, but … if you’ve heard of Peter Storm than you know his reputation,” comments Mickle. “Sometimes, when you sit on the devil’s lap, you can’t really see where you’re sitting from. It’s comfortable and you know you’re getting everything you want at the time, like I mean I wasn’t paying for training … he was training me for free, but I didn’t have a team of coaches, I didn’t have people instructing me in jiu-jitsu, wrestling, boxing … it was just a lot of drama. But you know what they say, controversy sells.”
Free of the UCL and Storm, Mickle made the jump from amateur fighting to the professional ranks in July 2016, shortly after MMA was legalized in New York. But with few regulated shows booked in the city (high operating costs largely keep regional and mid-tier promotions out of the five boroughs), Mickle opted to make his pro debut in Massachusetts, where his career trudged off to an unforeseen, rocky start.
“I could’ve done without that fight,” explains Mickle, who was submitted via second-round arm triangle choke. “I made like 175 dollars and broke my hand, for that. I could’ve stayed and worked for the weekend.”
Mickle quickly rebounded, though, winning his next two bouts with New Jersey’s Ring of Combat promotion. The pair of victories in Atlantic City were enough to propel Mickle to Madison Square Garden; however, as #ROC promoter Lou Neglia, who helped discover MMA champions #ChrisWeidman and #FrankieEdgar, pitched Jerome to Bellator's matchmakers.
“I actually thought I was competing [at ROC] on the second of June, and that’s what I was looking forward to,” states Mickle. “I was told ‘cancel that, we’re going to Bellator,’ so I guess with the ties that we have with the promoter Lou Neglia, he set it up. He knows the matchmakers and he threw my name out there … next thing you know, I got the call for Bellator.”
Now based in Queens, Mickle took his fight camp across the East River, where he set up shop at Striking 101 in Kew Gardens. Mickle also spends time at King’s Combat, where he sharpens his muay Thai skills, and through cross training, he has quickly become one of the most active members New York City’s fight community.
Just last Saturday, June 17, Mickle rallied friends and fellow fighters John Salgado and Hugh McKenna for an independently run open-mat workout to promote the Bellator card, attracting a handful of local sponsors from around the city.
“Nobody’s gonna hustle as hard for you as you, so I mean I’m getting everything done,” explains Mickle. “Coming from ratty boxing gyms to being in the garden … it let’s me know hard work does eventually pay off. It may take time, but it pays off. It took me a little over seven years to get here, so I’m like excited ... this was the overall goal to actually be able to perform in my city.”
Jerome Mickle fights Anthony Giacchina on the Bellator 180 prelims; catch his Madison Square Garden debut on Bellator.com.
Bellator NYC & Bellator 180 June 24, 2017
Bellator NYC (Pay Per View, 10 P.M. / 7 P.M. PST)
- Chael Sonnen vs. Wanderlei Silva
- Fedor Emelianenko vs. Matt Mitrione
- Douglas Lima vs. Lorenz Larkin (welterweight title fight)
- Michael Chandler vs. Brent Primus (lightweight title fight)
- Aaron Pico vs. Zach Freeman
Bellator 180 Card (Spike T.V., 8 P.M. EST)
- Phil Davis vs. Ryan Bader (light heavyweight title fight)
- Chinzo Machida vs. James Gallagher
- Dave Marfone vs. Neiman Gracie
- Heather Hardy vs. Alice Yauger
Bellator 180 Preliminary Card (Bellator.com, 6 P.M. EST)
- Ryan Couture vs. Haim Gozali
- Jerome Mickle vs. Anthony Giacchina
- Hugh McKenna vs. John Salgado
- Sergio da Silva vs. Matt Rizzo
- Bradley Desir vs. Nate Grebb