Jordan Rinaldi still has a tough time comprehending that this is his job. It still makes him nervous.
“I mean, it’s a good nervousness, because it keeps it sharp,” says the 30-year-old Butler High and UNC Charlotte alum. “At the same time, you’re like... ‘How did I choose this? How did I come to be standing inside a cage about to try to beat another man up?’ It’s just insanity.”
That’s what was going through his mind as the bell sounded for his first fight as an amateur mixed-martial artist, back in 2008.
And that’s what he’ll be thinking on Jan. 27 in Charlotte, when he touches gloves as a professional with the undefeated Gregor Gillespie to start the biggest match of his career: a lightweight bout that’s part of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s big “Fight Night” event.
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His big brother Joseph, 32, will be equally tense.
Joseph’s done as much as anyone, Jordan says, to help him navigate the path from fighting for bragging rights at a Charlotte flea market to this televised pro bout at cavernous Spectrum Arena. Jordan may be a heavy underdog in this fight, but the smartest bet of all would be on Joseph shouting his head off from his seat in the lower level.
But exactly how did Jordan Rinaldi – a guy who has bachelor’s degrees in both finance and accounting from UNC Charlotte – come to make beating people up a career? And why was his brother so dead-set on him doing it?
‘I cared more about partying’
It would have been tough to picture Rinaldi as a fearsome professional fighter back when older brothers Johnny and Joseph were putting him in headlocks, or when he came out for Butler’s wrestling team as a freshman who couldn’t hit 100 on a scale without a 10-pound backpack.
In fact, for a while it would have been tough to picture Jordan Rinaldi amounting to much of anything.
Though he eventually found his footing as a wrestler in high school, qualifying for the state meet three times, Rinaldi’s early taste for trouble often got the best of him.
When asked, Jordan is somewhat evasive: “I cared more about the partying ... than I did about athletics and school.” Joseph is a bit more direct: “He nearly flunked out of college, and essentially was drinking himself to death.”
Cops busted both of them when Jordan was a junior at Butler and Joseph a freshman at UNC Charlotte, for a Halloween spree in which they destroyed a bunch of roadside mailboxes with stolen pumpkins. That scared Joseph straight. But Jordan’s wild streak continued.
Within a period of about six months – starting a few weeks before his 20th birthday – Jordan was cited three times for alcohol-related offenses. And even after he turned 21, his troubles continued: In 2009, he was pulled over for swerving around the streets of Wilmington during spring break and proceeded to fail a Breathalyzer test.
At the same time, somehow, he’d managed to find just enough time to study so that he didn’t flunk out, and just enough time to train so that on Nov. 14, 2008, he took his first fight as an amateur mixed-martial artist.
‘No idea what’s going on’
Rinaldi happened into that first fight the way other guys might wind up on a fishing or skiing trip with buddies.
Uninspired by UNC Charlotte’s wrestling club, he’d been turned on to jiu-jitsu by a co-worker at the Autobell Car Wash near campus, and started training with Team R.O.C. at the Gracie Charlotte gym in Harrisburg.
“I had done really well in training, and my coach said, ‘Hey, you wanna have a fight?’ ” Rinaldi recalls. “I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ ”
Next thing he knew, he was at Metrolina Tradeshow Expo off Statesville Road running that “How-did-it-come-to-this?” question through his mind.
“You get into a cage and you have no idea what’s going on,” he says. “Everything’s a thousand miles per hour and you don’t know if you’re gonna get knocked out in front of all your friends and family, if you’re gonna get your arm broken. Who knows what’s gonna happen?”
He ended up winning easily, as Joseph – there with a group of college friends that included a young woman named Kara Allgood – hollered from ringside.
Over the next few months, Jordan and Kara were formally introduced and started dating; he got talked into another amateur bout (at a rec center in Lenoir, where he also won); and Joseph began to see that the kid brother he used to beat up had the potential to be a pretty good fighter.
Over the next year, Jordan racked up a 5-1 record as an amateur while continuing to work at Autobell and bringing his grades back up. Joseph started managing his fight schedule and tried to feed Jordan’s ego by telling him he was probably the best in North Carolina. He also encouraged him to go pro, which Jordan did in 2010, in a fight he won on the rooftop level of uptown’s EpiCentre.
Joseph did all the things Jordan never would have done on his own: scheduled medical exams, drummed up publicity, read over fight contracts with a fine-toothed comb.
But Joseph – a data support manager at Bank of America by day – wasn’t in it for the money; after all, Jordan says, professional mixed-martial artists at that level at that time earned maybe $500 to $1,000 per fight. In fact, Joseph says he helped out with training and travel expenses for Jordan. No, this was about a big brother wanting to help his trouble-magnet of a little brother find a purpose.
Even if that purpose might seem brutal to others.
‘A lot of thinking involved’
Mixed martial arts – more commonly referred to by fans as MMA – is a notoriously bloody sport that’s kind of like boxing, if boxing also allowed for kicking and opponents could put each other in chokeholds. (In professional boxing, fighters typically wear puffy 10-ounce gloves designed to protect their hands. In MMA bouts, combatants come out with lean 4-ounce fingerless gloves.)
Over the course of his career, Jordan Rinaldi’s list of injuries has encompassed “a good bit of everything” – including dozens of stitches in his face, multiple knee surgeries, hip surgery, a broken hand, and one concussion.
He suffered that concussion in Culver City, Calif., three and a half years ago, when James Moontasri threw an uppercut that connected to Rinaldi’s head and sent him crumpling to the mat like a rag doll. Rinaldi woke up in the hospital, in a neck brace.
It was his fourth loss in five fights after starting out 6-0 as a pro, and he buried his bruised face in his hands as he asked his older brother: “Do you think it’s time to hang ’em up?”
Joseph shook his head. “I said, ‘I truly believe you’re one of the best lightweight fighters in the world, and I think you would be doing a disservice to yourself to not give it one more run,’ ” Joseph recalls. “I said, ‘Look, if you go out in your next fight and you get knocked unconscious again or somebody that doesn’t belong in a cage with you (beats) you, then sure, hang it up. But I don’t want you to look back in 10, 15, 20 years and dream about what could have been.’ ”
This could make the casual observer uneasy: A man who just watched his kid brother get knocked into next week encouraging him to risk the same fate again?
But that’s part of this game. A frightening and painful part of it, but part of it. On the other hand, there are parts that Jordan Rinaldi loves: the competitive aspect that dates back to scrapping with his brothers as a kid, and the nerdy aspect that made him pursue finance and accounting in college – the numbers.
“Absolutely, I do analyze numbers (when scouting opponents) – how many strikes per minute he lands, how many strikes per minute I land, takedown accuracy, stuff like that. ... I love learning how to dismantle people. ... Some people do think of MMA as human cockfighting, or ‘That’s savage!’ But the fact of the matter is at the higher levels especially, there are game plans, there are strategies, there’s a lot of thinking involved in the fight.”
And Rinaldi wound up listening to his brother, bouncing back from the blow that put him in the ER to win six of his next seven fights, the last two of which were for the Ultimate Fighting Championship – the largest MMA promotion in the world.
Feeling much more settled
Jan. 27 will be when the whole thing truly comes full circle.
Rinaldi’s first amateur fight was at Metrolina’s fairgrounds. His first pro fight was in front of a few hundred people at the EpiCentre. Now he gets to fight in his hometown in front of friends and family again, only this time, it’s on the biggest possible stage in Charlotte, in a primetime bout that will be televised live on Fox.
He now only lives in Charlotte on a limited part-time basis: Six to eight weeks before a fight (he’s fought just once in each of the past two calendar years), he uproots himself from the home he shares with his wife Kara in the Atlanta suburbs and comes back to Charlotte, to train with Team R.O.C. and the Harrisburg Weightlifting Club.
Generally speaking, though, Rinaldi is in a completely different place in his life than he was when he jumped inside the cage for the first time – much more settled spiritually, professionally and romantically.
He mentored young men at The Crossing Church in Las Vegas while living and training there from 2013 to 2015, got baptized in 2014, and still goes to church every Sunday. He quit his job as an auto mechanic in 2016 to focus on fighting full-time, after he and Kara were married; her steady job in the financial sector allows him to continue to chase this dream.
Interestingly, although Kara is a longtime MMA fan, she literally can’t bear to look when Jordan’s in the ring: “I’ll be getting some popcorn while he’s fighting,” she says. “People always ask me, ‘How can you watch him do that??’ I’m like, ‘I don’t!’ ”
Joseph, on the other hand, can’t take his eyes off of Jordan’s fights. He screams for Jordan as loudly in the big venues as he used to in the small ones. He is no longer Jordan’s manager, because he helped hook Jordan up with noted MMA agent Lou DiBono, who had better connections and could get his brother’s foot into bigger doors. But Joseph still tries to keep Jordan away from beer and junk food, still serves as his press liaison, still takes an active role in his career in myriad ways.
In fact, in May 2016, when DiBono got Jordan signed to the Ultimate Fighting Championship – the pinnacle of the sport – he phoned Joseph first; DiBono knew Joseph would want to be the one to tell Jordan, so he let Joseph take the lead on the momentous call, a call that Jordan once had believed would never come.
The fighter couldn’t fight back the tears.
And neither could his big brother.
UFC Fight Night
What: The main card features Ronaldo Souza vs. Derek Brunson, Ovince Saint Preux vs. Ilir Latifi, Dennis Bermudez vs. Andre Fili and Jordan Rinaldi vs. Gregor Gillespie. There are seven bouts on the undercard. More info: www.ufc.com.
When: Early prelims start at 3:30 p.m., prelims start at 5 p.m. The main card begins at 8 p.m.
Where: Spectrum Center, 333 E. Trade St.
Tickets: $53 and up, available at www.ticketmaster.com.
On TV: Early prelims will air on UFC Fight Pass, prelims on Fox Sports 1, main card on Fox.