Looking at Justin Governale you’d probably think he was just like any other mixed martial artist -- tough, motivated and maybe a little bit wild. If you've ever taken a gander at his Instagram you might think he was a little nuts too.
But it’s what you can’t tell just by looking at him that really defines who he is.
I first spotted Governale at Bellator 136, when he defeated Jay Bogan via a rear-naked choke in Round 2. He had an explosive fighting style and he wasn’t holding anything back. I sensed no hesitation on his part, I could tell he was on a mission and nothing was going to stop him. I could tell he knew what he was in there to do, and he did it. I was curious about him after he produced a United States Marine Corps flag during his victory celebration.
I began following his career, attending his fights because something drew me to his style. He is fun, kind and vicious, depending on where you meet him, of course. It was through my internet stalking and a little bit of fangirling that I learned his story. I would pick up pieces here and there based off his Facebook posts, but it wasn't until I finally interviewed him that I got the full picture.
Governale has a unique journey into the cage. You hear all the time about how fighters are addicted to drugs, or getting into trouble and how martial arts saved their lives. This is not one of those stories.
Governale's career began overseas. He was a Marine -- a sniper, to be exact -- on his second deployment to Iraq when he met Cpl. Sean Stokes, a higher-ranked Marine with whom Governale often chatted. It was during one of these conversations while stuck on a ship in the middle of nowhere heading for war that Stokes suggested that Governale get into MMA when he got back to the states.
"I was crazy. I would get into fights on the weekends," he said. "He asked if I had even gotten into MMA because he thought I was a little wild and it might tone me down."
Governale gave Stokes his word that he'd look into it when they got back and shook his hand as a promise. But he didn't really give it another thought. He went to war, and he did his best to get by.
Unfortunately Stokes was killed on that very same tour.
"He was a senior Marine to me, everybody in the battalion knew who he was," he said. "He was a badass, straight up, and when he got killed there was a piece of me that thought ‘I told this guy I would do it’ I promised him."
When Governale was making his way back home, on the very same ship on which he last spoke to Stokes, he saw some Marines sparring.
This would be his very first taste of MMA.
"I saw some guys beating each other up, they looked like they didn’t have a clue what they were doing, so I asked if I could join in,” Governale said laughing.
He says that they were bloody, fighting each other bare knuckles and just going at it. There was no organization or timing, they just hit each other until someone gave up.
"I trained with them for a few days," he said. "But it was just us beating each other up and calling it MMA."
He said that every now and again someone would come along and show them something new, but for the most part they were just fighting.
"The Marine mindset is you just go," he said. "You don't know any better, you don't really understand. You just fight every day and get better."
He says later when he started really fighting, that mindset hindered him as he had to learn to fight smart, not just brave.
When he got back to the states he entered a jiu-jitsu tournament on base, mostly to check it out and see what he could do. He lost three in a row, but caught the eye of a Adam Lynn at Subfighter MMA in Southern California and began training there.
"I remember he [Lynn] came up to me and asked where I trained," Governale said. "I laughed because I never had trained. That's when he told me to come join his gym."
Lynn is also a former Marine, and Governale says he offered him the structure and brotherhood he had been missing.
But by then he had left the military and was broke. He barely had the money to put gas in his car, but he kept on training. He said he would sleep on friends' couches or sometimes in the woods. Surviving off Cliff Bars and generosity, he kept training.
Shortly after leaving the service Governale was offered a job he couldn’t refuse. He was hired has a Designated Defensive Marksman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. He moved back to the desert, this time as a civilian. He was bringing home a six-figure income, which would be paradise for any other single 20-something. This job provided him with an experience of a lifetime and a paycheck most his age only dream of, but he wasn’t happy.
He tried to keep up the training while in Afghanistan, but it wasn’t the same.
He recalls rolling out a few yoga mats to form makeshift gym mats and offering to train with guys there. He looks back on it and laughs now because he says he only knew an arm bar and three sweeps, and he did that for two years and nothing else because there was no one to teach anything different.
In the back of his head he kept thinking about Stokes, the talk they’d had and what he knew was going to finally make him happy. He knew he still had a promise to keep.
“As Marines we hold that promise really tight. Our words mean something,” he said.
He toyed with the idea of quitting and training full-time. Besides, he had a lot in savings and wasn't loving the job. He said he called his mom and she advised him to follow his dreams. That's all he needed. He quit on the spot and flew straight to Thailand to begin training.
"I knew life would get in the way, so I wanted to be out of the country to focus on training 100 percent," he said.
Governale joined a training facility called Tiger Muay Thai and trained extensively for six months under Ray Elbe and Andrew Gardineer. He traveled during his downtime and used up all his savings. But he was having the time of his life.
"Ray pushed me to do my first fight," Governale said. "I did a smoker out there."
He picked up a fight for Master Toddy's promotion against an opponent with over 160 professional Muay Thai bouts. Governale got the submission in the first round.
"I feel like the universe just brought me that way," he said. "I was living in a non-stressful environment for the first time in six years. After about three months of not seeing a firearm I realized a lot. I needed some family time."
From there he decided to return to the states and his home in Texas.
For the next six months Governale trained at Presa BJJ in Laredo, TX under coach Fred Reyes. He stayed there until receiving a call from Lynn at Subfighter, the gym he had tried out in the very beginning. They had a fight for him and he moved the very next day.
He rejoined his former teammates and has been training there ever since. Surrounded and supported by his coaches Lynn and Russ Miura he has continued to grow in the sport. He has reached a brown belt level in jiu-jitsu and often teaches classes, offering special free training sessions for vets and current military.
"Sometimes when you get out of the military you feel like you don't have a purpose," he said. "Fighting gave me that purpose and now I tailor my life around it."
Things still aren’t easy for Governale. A fighter’s life is hard and his money dried up a long time ago. He supplements his income by driving for Uber and teaching at the gym. He says he wouldn’t trade the life he has now, even for all the money he used to make.
He says that being a Marine has helped prepare him for MMA as he knows in MMA he won’t die.
“You’re still a warrior. Everybody you fight is a warrior,” he said. “In the Marines, you can die, in MMA the worse that could happen is you get knocked out. That’s why I just go for it.”
His mother Patricia, who signed papers allowing him to join the military at 17 years old says that she prefers him in MMA over a war, but neither is easy on her.
"I'm his biggest fan but I don't like watching him get hurt," she said. "But I have never discouraged him from doing anything. Even though he gets hurt I just thank God he came back from war in one piece."
Governale has already had a career to be proud of, he was a former Tuff-N-Uff Lightweight Amateur Champion and currently holds a 5-3 pro record, including a win in Bellator. In that bout he was given just a small chance of winning. Governale says he's never believed in that kind of thing anyways.
“I just want to grind. In order to get noticed I have to keep going, I need to fight anybody,” he said.