Wrestling keeps legless boy motivated as UFC champ aims to help
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Isaiah Bird is 6 years old. He loves wrestling, and not the kind you'd expect a boy of his age to enjoy. He's pretty good at it, too.
Isaiah Bird lives in a shelter in Freeport with his mother and 2-year-old brother.
"He has no clue what's going on in is his life," said Miguel Rodriguez, his wrestling coach with the Long Beach Gladiators. "He's such a happy kid that he doesn't know he doesn't have a bed, doesn't have a TV."
Isaiah Bird was born without legs.
When UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman first heard Isaiah's story from a News 12 video posted on Facebook, he was shocked.
That's why he needed no persuading from his brother-in-law, Chris Encarnacion, to put his name and popularity to good use to help Isaiah.
"Who wouldn't want to help a kid out like that?" Weidman said. "Anything I can do for a local wrestler, especially a kid who's young and struggling, I was down."
Weidman will host a fundraiser Sunday at his gym in Garden City, with all proceeds going to help Isaiah and his family. Rodriguez said they hope to move the boy's family into a studio apartment in Long Beach by the end of June.
The event at Power MMA on 1 Commercial Ave. begins at noon with an open workout and follow-up question-and-answer session with Weidman. The fundraiser (donations start at $5) also includes youth and teen wrestling seminars and a meet-and-greet with UFC fighters Aljamain Sterling (Uniondale), Al Iaquinta (Wantagh), Eddie Gordon (Freeport), Gian Villante (Levittown) and Pete Sell (Bay Shore).
And, of course, Isaiah Bird.
"We've been doing it alone for this long, so for someone to go out of their way to help, it's a blessing," said Isaiah's mother Bernadette Hopton.
Rodriguez spends each day with Isaiah at an elementary school in Long Beach. As his 1-on-1 teaching assistant, he's with the boy in the classroom, at lunch, in the library and, of course, the wrestling room.
"Wrestling is the only thing this kid talks about," Rodriguez said. "In wrestling, he can actually feel normal because he's the man."
Rodriguez has learned to use Isaiah's excitement for wrestling to help him develop academically after starting school later than most.
"You do good in math, we'll go wrestle," Rodriguez said he tells Isaiah. "You do your reading, we'll go to a wrestling tournament."
Isaiah, who was born in East Meadow, placed third in his age group and weight class at the New York Kid Wrestling Championships at Bay Shore in March, then finished sixth in a national tournament in New Jersey known as "War at the Shore."
That's now. In the beginning, however, Hopton wasn't sure if she should let him participate.
"Like any mother, I was scared out of my wits," said Hopton, who grew up in Amityville. "He's gonna get hurt, he's gonna lose teeth. I didn't know what to think."
Weidman can relate to the boy's passion for wrestling. Weidman was a state champion at Baldwin High School in 2002, and then twice earned All-American honors at both Nassau CC and Hofstra.
"I hear he's a sweetheart of a kid and a hard worker, and he's winning matches," Weidman said. "He's a little stud."
Weidman, the undefeated mixed martial artist, is no stranger to charitable endeavors. After winning the title, he donated and also helped to raise more funds to support the wrestling program at Baldwin Middle School.
When superstorm Sandy destroyed the entire bottom floor of his Baldwin home where he lived with his wife and two children, in between ripping apart walls and Sheetrock, he still managed to organize a food and clothing drive at his neighborhood church.
This time, it's about wrestling. Sort of.
"The happiest, most positive kid I've ever met in my life," Rodriguez said of Isaiah. "In his eyes, he's no different than any other kid."