Before orchestrating the two greatest upsets in UFC history, trainer Ray Longo cultivated success stories. The type of story he thrives being a part of but rarely touts.
Before Matt Serra and Chris Weidman registered those improbable championship knockouts, Lee Dolowich just tried to avoid vomiting in the ring.
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Dolowich was a teenager from Bellmore who wandered into a gym in the back of an auto detailing shop in Mineola more than 20 years ago. His parents divorced. He lost his way. He identified with no one and nothing.
That day he met Longo, who gave him purpose, gave him confidence. It shaped the course of his life. "Every day I live, everything I do, I trace back to him teaching me," said Dolowich, now 40 and living in California. "Ray inspired me to do things way beyond what I thought I could ever do in life."
Dolowich fought six amateur bouts in the early 1990s but never turned pro. Now he has a degree in physical therapy and is a few months shy of earning his medical degree in psychiatry. But he never forgot the things he learned from Longo, as much in life as in the ring.
"I'd walk across the country to talk about Ray," Dolowich said. "I had no identity until he told me I fought with heart."
There's a special bond
Life as a Ray Longo-trained fighter goes far beyond the jabs and elbows, the kicks and knees. Behind every punch is a connection, a bond, a deep-rooted concern for the person throwing that punch.
"At one point, everyone walked through those doors wanting to learn how to fight," said Eric Hyer, a former champion kickboxer who once trained under and now coaches with Longo. "What we all got was someone to teach us how to fight, but also to teach us how to be successful."
Those two monumental upsets in UFC history share a common thread: Longo. He trained Serra, the only man to knock out Georges St-Pierre. He trains Weidman, who knocked out Anderson Silva, considered the greatest fighter of all time. Weidman, from Baldwin, will defend his middleweight title against Silva on Saturday in Las Vegas at UFC 168.
Not bad for a kid from Williston Park with an accounting degree from St. John's who grew up attracted to the martial arts and the principles of Jeet Kune Do, a fighting philosophy put forth by Bruce Lee.
Longo, 55, connects with people, whether they are professional mixed martial artists or people who go into other careers. "There are a lot of good coaches out there that know a lot of technique and teach their students well," Weidman said. "What Ray brings to the table is he gets to know his students, becomes close with them, knows when to push them, when to pull them back. He has no ego."
Just a few words from the man with the jet black hair, piercing baby blue eyes and gravelly voice with the unmistakable New York accent can change a fighter's entire outlook. Knowing which words to use and when to use them is the real trick. That's Longo's gift.
"When he tells me, 'You do this, it will land, this is working for you,' I believe him," said Serra, a former welterweight champion from East Meadow. "Or 'what you landed in last night's sparring, you hit him with that with the four-ounce gloves, he's sleeping, I don't care who he is,' and I believe him."
Serra met Longo when he was 17, and 23 years later, the two are the closest of friends. It's a relationship built on trust and respect.
Longo was in Serra's corner (in life and in fighting) when there was nothing to gain. From pushing cars outside the gym at midnight to running the hills of Herricks High School -- Longo's alma mater -- he was there to make sure Serra had whatever he needed to succeed in the cage on fight night.
"The difference is, he's leaving on Christmas night to go hold pads for you," Serra said. "He's down there in Hurricane Sandy holding pads. Very few guys you're gonna see where they're there for the guy, where they want the guy to genuinely do well. He has a bond with all the fighters. You end up trusting the guy, and you know the guy cares for you."
The rules of UFC's reality competition series "The Ultimate Fighter" prevented Wantagh's Al Iaquinta from having contact with the outside world. But whenever Iaquinta fought, Longo was amid the 20-somethings at a Massapequa pub cheering on his guy. And when Iaquinta reached the final and could talk to people again, whom did he call and ask to be in his corner? Longo and Serra.
Longo does not receive the recognition and credit he deserves in helping to raise a pair of UFC champions. Nor does he seek it. Those already in the know understand who and what Longo is. In the bigger scope of MMA, Longo's name rarely enters the conversation beyond fight week for one of his fighters.
Much of that is by design. Longo runs a closed camp with local fighters. He doesn't recruit, either. Take a look at the building he runs his gym out of on Commercial Avenue in Garden City. It's a nondescript brick warehouse. The only signage out front are small, non-illuminated letters that say Ray Longo MMA. The gym has since changed names to Ray Longo and Chris Weidman's Power MMA. Still, very little signage on the outside. Part of that is because of zoning regulations for the village of Garden City, but it falls right in line with Longo's approach.
"The guy has business cards from 2007, and he hasn't had to order new ones," said Hyer, who has known Longo for more than 20 years.
Self-promotion isn't Longo's style. He'd rather hoist his guy on his shoulders than pat himself on the back. Longo is a throwback to a different time, when it was more about doing than tweeting about what you could do.
"He's got a unique ability to, in the corner, to fire up guys and motivate guys," said UFC commentator Joe Rogan, who also has a black belt and was a national champion in tae kwon do. "He's also a guy that fighters love. They love and respect him, so when he's in the corner telling you what to do, you want to make him happy."
Longo runs a mom-and-pop shop of a gym, filled with guys from the neighborhood, and he does it all on a handshake. Never has he signed a contract with a fighter. Never has he asked. Not his style. It would take something away from what he and his fighters are doing. It would somehow weaken that connection.
"Never had a contract with Matt, don't have one today and never will. The same thing with Chris," Longo said. "If Matt never paid me, I'm not changing a thing. That wouldn't have meant anything. That's not what I was doing it for. I was doing it because I liked the guy. I wanted to see him succeed. It's nice watching other people succeed and you have something to do with it. Then the very essence, by extension, you succeeded. What's better than that?"