Ray Longo and his star pupil, former UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman, will walk into a Buffalo arena Saturday for a potentially career-altering fight that comes nearly a year to the day New York ended its prohibition on professional Mixed Martial Arts bouts.
Until last April, New York had been the lone state in the nation with an MMA ban on its books, which some in the industry considered peculiar considering the sport’s popularity, buoyed by a network TV deal with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and the potential for huge paydays at world-class arenas, such as Madison Square Garden.
This Saturday, April 8, Longo, the steely trainer who grew up in Williston Park, and Weidman, an All-American wrestler at Hofstra University and a Baldwin native, will collectively serve as the face of Mixed Martial Arts on Long Island as the latter battles Gegard Mousasi in UFC 210 at Buffalo’s KeyBank Center. Foremost in their minds, however, will be whether Weidman can overcome a pair of setbacks.
The 32-year-old Weidman may boast the headline-worthy name and Hollywood appeal, but it’s the 58-year-old Longo who has been instrumental in developing title contenders, and thus, raising UFC’s appeal on Long Island and across the country.
A lot has changed in the decades since Longo first began pursuing martial arts and before Taekwondo and karate studios became ubiquitous with strip malls across Long Island. Back then, Longo received lessons from neighborhood martial art instructors for free inside garages, backyards and school gymnasiums—anywhere. By the time he became a full-fledged trainer, his fighters’ names appeared on kickboxing cards at hotels and catering venues, among them the Huntington Hilton, where his fighters attracted large crowds.
The indefatigable Longo doesn’t appear ready to explore retirement or abandon training for other pursuits just yet. But if he ever does, it won’t be because of a lack of opportunities. Longo recently had a stand-in role in the mob film, The Brooklyn Banker, appeared in the CBS drama Kevin Can Wait, and hosts his own internet show, “Training Day with Ray,” produced by Garden City writer/producer Michael Ricigliano.
“Your life is an accumulation of experiences,” he tells me inside his Garden City gym, which he and Weidman operate.
Growing up in Williston Park, Longo attached himself to kids four or five years his elder. He became fascinated with the art form ever since a neighborhood friend told him about how he prevailed over a bully at school.
Longo’s first gym was actually the backyard of someone’s home in Roslyn, because his father, who worked for the transit authority, bristled when Longo told him about a dojo charging $16 a month for lessons.
So he found a guy who would train him for nothing at all, which was just as well.
“He was willing to beat the crap out of you…and it was free—no charge,” Longo says.
After graduating St. John’s University in 1980, Longo became an accountant, which helped supplement his marital arts lifestyle. UFC would not be established for another 13 years.
By night, Longo was training guys out of a Victorian house with a stable and at his mother’s home.
Longo wasn’t building the framework for a fledgling business, nor did he have delusions of grandeur. At the time, he was just “going with the flow,” he says.
“I was never in this to make money,” he adds, noting his philosophy at the time was simple: “Find something you can do for free and then figure out a way to get paid for it.”
For Longo, everything seemed to happen organically: from his own unconventional foray into martial arts to using his education to teach other fighters and then opening a nondescript gym in Mineola—all before MMA entered the mainstream.
When MMA suddenly creeped into combat sports, Longo, who had already practiced boxing, kickboxing and Muay Thai—a form of martial arts from Thailand focused on “stand up” striking—was uniquely qualified to train fighters entering the budding industry.
Longo pulled off a coup early in his career when he began training Matt Serra, which he attributed to his experience in Jiu-Jitsu. The East Meadow-born Serra would later pull off a stunning knockout of welterweight champion George St-Pierre at UFC 69 in 2007. Longo caught lightning in a bottle again eight years later, when his newest protégé, Weidman, knocked out UFC legend Anderson Silva to earn the middleweight title.
On Saturday night, Weidman hopes to rebound after an excruciating defeat at Madison Square Garden in November, and the disappointment of having to pull out of a headlining title fight in June due to injury.
“We gotta get him back on track,” Longo says of Weidman. His advice to Weidman: “Believe in your training and believe in yourself.”
That Longo has a steady crop of Long Islanders holding their own in the Octagon comes as no surprise to the veteran trainer. He credits the region’s strong “wrestling-based community” for producing talented Mixed Martial Artists, and cites Weidman’s own stellar collegiate wrestling career.
“They had literally no striking experience when they got here,” he said of Weidman and Serra, who was a martial artist. Both ended up hoisting championship belts, anyway.
On a rainy day inside his gym last month, Longo was focused on stabilizing Weidman’s career. Longo appears to be a steadying force for many. When he started taking his own lessons back in 1973, he never knew where it’d lead him. He was just enjoying the ride—and still is.
“To be a kid, and to watch all the great fights growing up at Madison Square Garden, and to actually be coaching someone there yourself, is sort of surreal,” he says.
Amid a cacophony of music and fists violently striking pads, Longo, the one-time accountant-turned UFC trainer and part-time internet show host, considered the winding, battle-tested path that led him to where he is now—one future fighters are unlikely to repeat, considering the dearth of MMA facilities and other gyms dotting Long Island.
“This story is fucking nuts,” Longo laughs.
Judging by how much fun he’s having, Longo appears years away from writing its final chapter.