NEW ORLEANS - Sitting backstage at the Patterson Civic Center in Louisiana, minutes before his debut mixed martial arts fight, John Zimmer kept his nerves down by cracking jokes.
“If I win this fight, I just want the other guy to know that he got beaten up by a nerd,” said Zimmer, a security specialist with Headquarters Battalion, Marine Forces Reserve and a sergeant in the Individual Ready Reserve.
The fight was over within minutes. Zimmer took a flurry of punches to the face, but he was able to follow his game plan and trap his opponent, Kesler Jones, with a leg lock. Unfortunately, Jones escaped and submitted Zimmer with a guillotine choke.
The Metairie, Louisiana, native does not fit the description of a typical muscle head MMA fighter. Weighing in at 137 pounds, the wiry Marine is as comfortable navigating security protocols as he is rolling in a grappling match.
Zimmer competed in his first MMA fight at the Caged Warrior Championship V on Oct. 4, 2014.
For Zimmer, his passion for MMA complements his identity as a Marine.
“There are similarities between the two,” Zimmer said. “Everything the Marine Corps does is about fighting as a whole. Being a Marine means training for combat. The difference between MMA and the Marine Corps is that one is for sport and one is for real.”
Zimmer first became interested in martial arts through the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. This interest further developed when he deployed to Iraq in 2009 with Intelligence Support Battalion, Force Headquarters Group. During the deployment, he met Capt. Daniel Park, a MCMAP instructor trainer, who showed him new grappling techniques.
“He was a black belt with a red tab and he was a captain, which kind of shocked me,” Zimmer said. “I went to him multiple times and asked, 'sir, can you teach me some MCMAP?’ I came to find out he had a kickboxing background and he also had a purple belt in Brazilian jiujitsu.”
Throughout the six-month deployment, the captain showed Zimmer advantages of different styles of fighting.
“He was the first person who showed me real grappling,” Zimmer said.
When Zimmer returned from Iraq in 2010, he continued grappling at New Orleans Brazilian Jiujitsu where he has trained for the last three years. The Marine eventually moved from traditional forms of the sport to his own unique style.
“The same time I started training at NOLA BJJ, there was this coach Reilly Bodycomb,” Zimmer said. “He comes from a different style of martial arts called combat Sambo.”
Soon Zimmer was training in combat Sambo under the coaching of Bodycomb, a martial arts instructor who teaches at various gyms throughout the New Orleans area.
Bodycomb explained that combat Sambo is an unarmed combat system developed in the former Soviet Union. It was developed by combining a bunch of the folk styles of wrestling with Japanese judo and jiujitsu.
About nine months ago, Bodycomb tapped Zimmer to train for a MMA competition.
“John has a style of grappling that is very aggressive from the feet, which is very common in combat Sambo,” Bodycomb said. “He's not a slow grappler and he doesn't have to get his submissions from the ground position, which is what most jiujitsu athletes do. The more upright the battle, the better his submissions get.”
For the last nine months, Zimmer trained at least four days a week in submission grappling, sport Sambo, kickboxing and MMA rules sparring to prepare for his debut fight, Bodycomb said. The Marine dedicated roughly two hours a night to hone his abilities.
"To succeed in MMA, you need to want to succeed even through adversity, which I think is a thing a lot of people have trouble with," said Bodycomb. “The one thing that John is good at is pushing through adversity.”
Jorge Menes, director of electronic systems security at HQBN MARFORRES, has known Zimmer since 2008 and works with him at Marine Corps Support Facility New Orleans. Menes is also a gunnery sergeant in the Selected Marine Corps Reserve and supervised Zimmer as a Marine.
"He's the type of Marine you would like to work for you,” Menes said. “He follows directions really well, he's self-motivated and just sort of one of those Marines who needs very little direction."
Menes views Zimmer's passion for MMA as something natural for a Marine to take interest in.
"There's a real draw to MMA for military guys because we do have an exposure to fighting," Menes said. "I think there is a real desire to be good."
Even though Zimmer's debut fight went down as a loss, the Marine maintains a positive attitude toward practicing martial arts and grappling.
"Whenever you find something you are really passionate about, you can kind of tell that it's something you are going to do forever," Zimmer said. "For me it was jiujitsu and grappling. I just kind of found my thing with grappling."
Zimmer does not see himself competing in MMA again, but he is looking for his next test as a martial artist. His coach wants him to compete in a Combat Sambo invitational in Montreal, and he plans to continue training in kickboxing in the future.