Fighter in Disguise: CSULB Student on the Way to a Professional MMA Career
WORDS BY: YASMIN CORTEZ
PHOTOS BY: TRANG LE
Hundreds of screaming fans can be heard cheering for the man they call “Gifted,” with only a gate separating the crowd from the action.
He pins his opponent against the ropes with quick jabs and a knee to the stomach. His adversary instantly drops to the floor as firm legs begin to coil up around him. He's unable to move.
3...2...1... and the crowd goes wild for “Gifted”! He stands up and is blinded by flashing camera lights as he waves to his family in the crowd. “And the winner is…” echoes through the arena as the referee yanks his arm up in the air, officially declaring him the winner.
Meet “Gifted” Gabriel Green.
He’s 5’10 complete with a ponytail of long jet-black hair trailing behind him and a huge fox-like grin on his face, and is often seen carrying a gallon of water around the Cal State Long Beach campus.
One wouldn't peg this 23-year-old for one of the top-ranked mixed martial artists in the nation, but "normal" doesn't necessarily describe this business economics major.
“I don’t like the idea of being ordinary,” he said. “So, once I started fighting, I realized I liked it. I just didn’t want to be another person. I want to be the best, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
“Gifted” is a senior in his last semester at Cal State Long Beach, currently working on earning his bachelor’s degree.
He has kept up a 3.2 GPA, all while never losing a match, boasting a 3-0-0 pro MMA record and an overall nine-streak win when factoring in his amatuer fights.
According to Tapology.com, Green is ranked 31st out of 193 active California Pro Lightweights and 79th out of 434 U.S. West Pro Lightweights.
Green's gym, Tracy Hess’ Subfighter MMA, is less than three miles from the CSULB campus, which is convenient on days he needs to get back and forth quickly, he said.
Green started fighting about two years ago when Ryan Medina, a friend from Warren High School in Downey, suggested that they train together.
Medina, unlike Green, had prior training in jiu jitsu and was no stranger to the MMA world.
“We had classes together, but I didn’t really know him,” Medina said. “He was a football player, and I was a wrestler, but we slowly started talking and found out we both liked fighting.”
It took Green one year to take up Medina’s offer to start hitting the punching bags.
“He kept saying, ‘I’ll be there next week,’ and I said ‘Quit being lazy!’” Medina said. “Finally, he came in and fell in love with it, so I guess it was love at first sight.”
Terry Hess has been Green’s coach for less than two years, but he has already seen rapid growth in his technique.
“He is a dream student,” Hess said. “You get a guy that comes into your gym with that much athleticism and his hard work matches it. A lot of guys come into the gym who don't have the drive and don't work as hard and it just comes naturally; he’s the opposite. He works harder than he is talented.”
Hess was not sure what to expect of Green when he first walked into the gym. He said it is rare for someone to climb up the ladder so quickly, but is grateful to see him grow not only as a fighter but as a person.
“He was actually a really quiet kid. He was athletic but very raw and didn't have any wrestling background—no formal martial arts training. He was just a football player,” Hess said. “But, he had a strong cardio base and picked up everything instantly.”
Green earned a blue belt in jiu jitsu within six months, Hess said.
“Some people can train six months, but they only come to class two days a week, three days a week tops, and that's as fast as they’re learning,” Hess said. “Gabe was coming in every day, twice a day. So, within a six-month period, he’s getting 10 times the amount of training someone else is.”
When Green isn’t in the ring or in class, he spends his free time teaching MMA classes to kids.
During his classes, he encourages his students to not only be passionate about MMA, but about their future in general.
“I want to get them to think about what they want to do with their career,” he said. “When you’re in elementary school they teach you history, math and science but you don’t really know or get any idea of what you can do with it in the future besides being a firefighter or doctor. They don’t really see what options are out there.”
Medina said that although Green is one of the best MMA fighters, it doesn’t stop him from being goofy or humble. In fact, his teammates and his coach would describe Green as being one of the kindest and funniest guys.
“You never know when he's serious or not,” Medina said. “He’ll walk up to you and he’ll be like, ‘You look good!’ and you’ll ask, ‘Where did that come from?’ and he’ll walk away. But he's never talking down on you. He’s hilarious. He’s just being Gabriel.”
Not everyone ranks up as quickly as Green. Just this past September, Green qualified to fight in Bellator, the second-largest fighting association behind Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
Even though he is qualifying for professional MMA fights, he doesn’t get nervous or worry about winning or losing because he has complete faith in his own ability and training.
“It's like when you're getting ready for a final in school,” Green said. “I know all the material already because I've brushed my ass studying. So, even though I don't know the exact questions word for word… I know the material, so I'm chilling. I usually just lay down, relax, eat some snacks backstage and take a nap.”
Green said he is typically calm the moment before a fight. He isn’t aware of the people around him. He's in his zone.
“I'm not really scared or nervous,” he said. “I'm just really excited and happy. I just spent weeks getting ready for the fight. That's hours and hours of my time I'm never going to get back. I couldn't eat the food I wanted to eat, couldn't hang out with my friends and family. All I was doing was grinding for this one moment. So, I'm just happy all the bullshit is over and now all I have to do is the fun part. All I gotta do is go out there and collect the fruits of my labor.”
Now that Green has ranked up and earned more professional fights, more people recognize him.
“Randomly, I'll be in town, and I’ll be at a food spot eating with my buddies,” he said. “A guy will just walk up to me and be like, ‘Hey, did you fight this person at this place?’ They’ll shake my hand or ask to take a picture. Usually, it’s after fights where it gets crazy and people start asking for autographs. It’s surreal. I never thought it would be like that, ever.”
Indeed, Green did not always envision his life as an MMA fighter.
“Originally, I wanted to be a doctor,” he said, “but now I send people to the doctor.”
Green also wanted to be a biology major but switched to a kinesiology major and then eventually settled on being a business major.
He admitted that his GPA has slowly begun to decline the more time he has spent training, but Green has no regrets.
“I’m going to be honest, fighting comes first. I don’t always go to class,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll message my professors to tell them my situation.”
In previous semesters, Green has found himself struggling to balance school life and his MMA life.
Green said that after becoming so invested in MMA, thoughts of not finishing school began to run through his mind.
“My parents wanted me to go to school and finish for sure because the whole fighting thing isn’t guaranteed,” he said. “A couple of times, I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t finish school.’”
But, with great fighting comes great responsibility.
Green is determined to keep his promise to his family by finishing school.
“I said I was going to get my degree,” he said. “I told my parents I would because I had started it already, and I said I would finish it. But, as soon as I’m out of Long Beach, it’s going to be full on MMA.”
Although his heart lies with MMA and his world revolves around fighting, he said he also needs to plan for the future.
“I have this window,” Green said. “My body can only be an MMA fighter for so long, but then my bachelor's degree will always be there, or if I need to go back to school to get a master’s, that will always be there.”
Green’s family is incredibly supportive of his passion, he said.
Whether it's New York or Hawaii, they will make the trip to every single one of the fights regardless of how far or busy they are.
“My family [members] are like my biggest fans,” he added. “I’m really lucky.”
Every fight, Green usually sells, on average, about 120 or more tickets, a majority of which are purchased by relatives.
Despite the overwhelming support, his family still has their worries about the dangers of MMA fighting.
“They hate the idea of me fighting,” he said. “I mean, who wants someone they love to go into a cage with someone else who will hurt them real bad? They don’t like that part, but they know this is what I really, really want to do.”
Editor's note: Video added to story on Feb. 8.