Islander wins Northeast Grappling Championship
James Blanton, 25, son of Mary Lovegreen, picked up a gold belt after he tapped out one contender with a “rear naked choke” and sent the other one packing with “a heel hook/kneebar,” his friend Debbie Granara said.
Blanton didn’t bank any money from the tournament, which drew about 1,000 spectators, but hopes this victory will boost his standing with sponsors hungry for a contender.
This win marked his first victory in the expert division, he said, although he has won tournaments in the other divisions, such as novice, beginner and intermediate.
Grappling, sometimes dubbed “submission wrestling,” borrows some tactics from wrestling. But instead of pinning the opponent, he said, you “want to win by tapping,” meaning the opponent surrenders the match. Typically, that happens when a competitor goes for a chokehold that would suffocate the adversary, or for a lock.
If you’ve never heard of grappling, you could be over 50, Blanton said. He fell in love with the sport after watching the Ultimate Fighting Championships, or UFC, first over pay-per-view and then on Spike TV.
Grappling’s also part of an up and coming sport, dubbed mixed martial arts, he said. Think combat arts, with a combination of boxing, wrestling and jiu-jitsu. Blanton aims someday to make the leap from grappling to MMA tournaments, he said. “It’s the fastest growing sport in the world.”
He added that it’s gaining legitimacy. Blanton said that mixed martial arts is going mainstream and will move to network television soon. ESPN already reports tournament scores, he added, and some backers want MMA in the Olympics.
Blanton said that MMA is more skill than physical strength, but size can make the difference if opponents have equal experience.
“There’s definitely a physical advantage with size,” he said, even though the idea behind mixed martial arts is that with skill, a smaller man can defeat a bigger and stronger opponent.
Fighters do have to get on the scale before a match and there are different weight categories, he added. But fighters try to compete in a lighter division than they actually weigh.
“You’re allowed to cut weight,” he said, so some fighters will “sit in the sauna all day” to try and drop 10 to 15 pounds.
“I just didn’t eat before I went,” he said. “I was competing in my weight division, but yeah, the idea is to beat someone a lot bigger than you.”
A match lasts six minutes, but Blanton won both matches at Twin River in less than a minute each.
“Ultimately, I want to make the transition to MMA,” he said.
Until the big break comes, he makes a living in town as a landscaper. Blanton and his brother Nick, 27, now of Maine, own Jamestown’s Greener Pastures. They also dabble in real estate, he said.
“Having my landscaping business helps me a lot because of my flexible schedule,” he said. “I am able to mow a few lawns in the morning, go to the gym and train mid-day, then come back and continue to mow for the rest of the day. I can then return to the gym at night to train again. Also, having winters off from landscaping enables me to be able to train more during the winter. I will have to continue working and training until I one day hopefully make it into a large organization and get enough sponsors.”
Most grappling competitors need a day job, he said. Only a few can fight professionally and make enough to get by. Several own their own gyms, while others work as personal trainers. One man designs kitchens and devotes nights to gym workouts.
People from all walks of life are taking up MMA, he said. “All kinds of different people,” Blanton added. “People you’d never think would be in it.” That includes women who compete in their own MMA division but train beside the men at the gym.
Asked what makes a winner, he pointed to competitiveness.
“Self motivation, I guess,” he said. “This isn’t exactly a team sport. You train with people, so it’s kind of like they’re your team. But you’re competing on your own. You got to get up and decide you want to go to the gym.”
Blanton attended the Melrose and Lawn Avenue schools. He played team sports – baseball, hockey and soccer – in town, but never tried out for the high school wrestling team.
He regrets that now, he said.
Blanton graduated from Bishop Hendricken High School. He studied for a year at the Community College of Rhode Island before enrolling at Rhode Island College. He went to RIC to pursue a teaching career, but switched majors and ultimately graduated with a degree in technology studies, instead of education.
While at RIC, he made up his mind to follow his sports dream.
“I found a gym close to Rhode Island College,” he said. Blanton trains at Tim Burrill’s North Providence gym and at TriForce Mixed Martial Arts Training in Pawtucket.
He’s with basically the same people at both sites, he said, and he makes friends at tournaments.
“At a lot of tournaments, I see some of the same guys and pretty much become friends with them, rather than enemies,” he said. “If you lost on a bad decision, you might be unhappy if the ref gave him points and didn’t give them to you. But if a guy beats you, you want to ask him how he did something.”
Blanton doesn’t worry about injuries, although he has been hurt.
“I got tendonitis in my elbow,” he said, “just from a guy throwing an arm bar on me.” Blanton demonstrated the technique with his own arm. “He pulls it back and tries to break it that way,” he said.
He’s also made his mark a few times.
“I ripped a tendon in a friend’s knee,” he said, something that happened during training. “Another buddy broke his hand on my forehead, but he did that to himself.”