“I just think there’s something special about getting to wake up with a dream.” AJ Fletcher, Gladiators Academy

Atlas Fights 54 brought about the much anticipated return of combat sports on the Gulf Coast in spectacular fashion! In spite of the great difficulties presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, fighter, fan and staff safety were held to the utmost regard, and 8 mixed martial arts bouts rocked the cage, reverberating the echos of a return to some piece of normalcy. Atlas Fights looks to repeat that success with Atlas Fights 55, Saturday August 22nd, from the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi, Mississippi. As usual, Atlas has put together a stud of a fight card, culminating in two title fights (the Atlas Fights Amateur Flyweight title and the Atlas Fights Professional Welterweight title).

Atlas Fights 55 on Saturday, August 22nd, from the Mississippi Gulf Coast Coliseum in Biloxi, Mississippi. To purchase tickets, please visit http://www.atlasfights.com/  or  http://www.mscoastcoliseum.com.

Vying for the Atlas Fights professional Welterweight title is undefeated phenom AJ “The Ghost” Fletcher. Fighting out of Gladiators Academy by way of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, AJ is 4-0 in his professional career. He’s currently on a 7 fight win streak (amateur and pro), and before turning pro, AJ compiled a stellar 7-2 amateur record. AJ is on the short list of professional mixed martial artists to watch on the Gulf Coast, and a win Saturday night would go a long way to getting him his opportunity at the next level of competition. We last interviewed AJ right before his final amateur bout, so we decided to catch up with him ahead of his first professional title fight.

It’s been almost a year-and-a-half since our first interview.  At that time, you were still fighting as an amateur.  Since then, you’ve turned pro and beaten your first 4 opponents.  What is it that you’re doing right?

Man if I had to say something in particular I guess I would just say that I really have kind of made this sport and this dream my life. And, I’ve fallen in love with the work and the process and the things I learn along the way, to the point that it really is just what I do everyday, you know? Whether it’s teaching, doing hard practices, stretching, road work outs, conditioning, pad rounds, buying technique videos (Shoutout to the Facebook ads). I just love what I get to do, and try to just keep doing it everyday and keep improving how I do it. I guess I realized towards the end of my amateur career that if I wanted to get a life out of it, I had to build my life into it day to day.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a good many days like anybody else where shit’s just tough and you wonder what the hell you’re doing. But I think what’s kept me on track and been a part of helping this run is that every time that comes up, I ask “Ok so what would you rather be doing?” and man I really can’t think of anything else I’d want to do, and I feel like that’s a rare thing to get to say. So I just try to be grateful for that and take everything that comes with it in stride.

Another thing I think that’s kind of helped is that I try my best to always make sure I keep learning, and keep finding new ways to integrate things I learn into fighting. I think that’s what’s really allowed me to keep bringing new skills to the table each time I have a fight.

“I think everybody kind of wonders what you’ll do in those situations where shit hits the fan.”

Who’s been your toughest opponent as a professional thus far and why?

I’d have to say my debut vs. Dan Street was probably my toughest. It was just a decent bit of obstacles to overcome, and also I’d say I probably had to pull the most out of myself more than I had in any of my amateur career. A pro debut, in Dan’s hometown, first time doing 5 minute rounds, and a slip-n-slide for a cage. And then in the fight, that was probably the most damage I’ve (ever) taken, and with the round time jump from amateur to pro.

What did you learn from that fight?

Well I think everybody kind of wonders what you’ll do in those situations where shit hits the fan. Where it’s really a fight, you know? Where you get bloody, the other guy lands some shots, not everything goes your way. And finding out first-hand, that you respond by going towards the danger and pushing through it and overcoming it. I learned who I was in tough situations, and that’s a card I carry in my back pocket every fight and every day now.

“I just think there’s something special about getting to wake up with a dream.”

What’s the biggest thing that the fight game has given you?

Of course it’s given me confidence, and brought me to meet incredible people from all kinds of places and all kinds of backgrounds, and taught me all kinds of lessons, all of which have made a big impact on me. But man, if I had to say the biggest thing it’s given me is just the fact that throughout this whole journey I’ve gotten to wake up everyday with a dream. And along the way it’s given me confirmation that dreams are possible, for everyday people, and the lessons I’ve learned along the way are lessons that I can take with me in other parts of my life, and in the future to bring whatever other dreams I have down the line to life. 
Legitimately 6 years ago I was getting ready for my senior year high school football season, never having thrown a punch, other than at my brothers, in my life. A little over 5 years ago I had just started training, and went with my family to my first MMA event at a LFA show at the Golden Nugget. I remember Thomas Webb fought that night and he seemed like some sort of super human to me that night when he fought (and still in some ways does).

But throughout my journey of just staying training, and always trying to learn and improve, and going wherever that takes  me, I eventually met him, got to train with him, got to learn from him, and realized he was a real person, and was in my position at some point. And then Tim Creduer, and then Eric Scallan, and then Dustin Poirier. And seeing all these people, once again thinking they’re super human (still do), but eventually realizing they’re all just normal people too, who learned how to work hard, and how to build better versions of themselves over and over and over again, so that they can go out and achieve what they dream up.

I don’t know what I’m really trying to say. But I just think there’s something special about getting to wake up with a dream, and knowing it’s possible because you’re around people who’ve had that same dream and have gone on that same journey you want to go on, who also started from step 1 at some point. You wake up with a different drive, a different bounce in your step, and carry that through everything you do when you wake up with that idea, you know? And then on the other side, I’ve started coaching/ teaching, and it’s cool to turn around and try to do the same thing for people that may have, at least a piece, of that same dream or goal and seeing how they light up when they learn some new technique or combo or whatever it is.

I think people can find that in ways other than fighting, but for me, fighting is my way.

What has fighting taken?

Time. Of course blood, sweat, tears, all that good stuff, but time. It’s the great equalizer. It’s one thing everybody starts out with when you’re born, and something that can’t be taken or spent in any way you don’t allow it to be used. I’ve lived apart from my family, and my girlfriend for 5 years now seeing them on weekends mostly, driving in after training. I’ve sacrificed a lot of time with them and missed a lot of things that I could easily have if I chose some other career path. I don’t say that for pity or anything like that, but that’s what it takes to make your dreams work, and it makes you want to make whatever time you do have with them count, you know?

I wouldn’t say it’s taken it, but more that I’ve given it to the game. There’s a movie called “In- Time” where the whole idea of the movie is that time is a currency in some sort of post-modern world. You pay for food with it, you pay rent with it, you can waste it, or you can do things that turn whatever dollar amount your time is worth into something more. That’s kind of how I think about it in some ways. Make your deposits now, each day, and at least from my experience, it pays off months and years down the line. Everybody has to make sacrifices in their life, you don’t choose that. What you do choose is what sacrifice you make, and your attitude toward that sacrifice.

And a bit of my right nostril. I’ll spare you the details but the Dan Street fight gave my nose airway a slight detour. I’m interested to see how this Covid test is going to go in that sucker. I’m hoping they bring some sort of bendy straw or something like it.

“My tool belt is big enough so that whatever challenge I see in front of me, I find openings and I use whatever tool gets the job done.”

What’s it like training with Tim Credeur and the Gladiators crew?  Tell me, what’s the culture like over there?

So there’s a book by probably the greatest college basketball coach ever, John Wooden, called Leadership. And at some point in that book he explains how he noticed a common theme throughout his years with the different teams that he coached. What he said, I’m paraphrasing of course, was that he noticed the teams, to some extent, took on the attitude and certain traits of whatever the leader, or leaders, of their team exhibited. 

I feel like that’s been true of our gym and the people in it. Tim, Josh, all the coaches, all the teammates we have at Gladiators are so giving with their knowledge, in fighting and really just life in general, that it’s created this hub of knowledge and exchanging ideas where everybody teaches and learns from each other. You can just tell there’s a commitment from them to better us, and everyone who comes into the gym, and that commitment has rubbed off on a lot of our crew, I think. If somebody learns something new or keeps seeing a certain opening in sparring, or sees something in your technique, they’ll be the first to give you their tricks and anything they think that could help or work for you.

When you have a group of people committed to helping you along, it’s like its contagious, and you really see that throughout the whole Gladiators culture, I feel, and it’s like this circle of everyone trying to learn, and help others around them learn too – whether it’s some kid just starting in the jiu jitsu program, somebody in their 30’s who’s never done martial arts in their life, or one of the fighters. It’s a special place.

You’re 4-0 going into this fight next weekend.  If you get your hand raised, you’d have to think that you’d be on the short list to getting called up to a major organization soon.  What do you think that you need to do to show that you are ready for the next level of competition?

Hope so brother! As much as I want that to be true, I know all I can really control is what I do leading up to my fights, and in my fights, and if a call comes it comes, and if not then I’ll just keep on this track, and keep winning fights until it does.

As far as what I need to show, I think I just need to go in there and keep doing what I’ve been doing. You know, I like to think I have pretty exciting fights each time I’m out there, and I fight to finish each time, and I think that’s shown especially as of late. Just like each one of my fights, you’re going to see some new skills, and I’ve had 10 months and 2 full fight camps (with fights falling through) prior to this one, to hone those new skills.

You’re fighting Christopher Anthony this weekend at Atlas Fights 55.  He’s been fighting professionally since 2010 (before you were even in high school).  What do you think Christopher brings to this fight, and what have you been doing to prepare?

Haha, that’s a pretty cool stat! Obviously, he brings a lot of experience, you know, he’s been in there with some good guys. He’s got some power in his hands and knows how to mix it up with kicks as well. He’s no slouch on the ground either. He brings an interesting set of challenges to me for this fight.

In terms of my preparation, not much changes from my day-to-day. Obviously we’re aware of what he’s good at and we’ve prepared for that, and done all the stuff that we do to make sure we’re peaking on fight week. We have an idea of some openings that may be there in the fight, and we’ve drilled those. But most of my preparation is just focused on me. Whether I have an opponent, or a fight coming up, we just keep improving the version of myself I bring in there each time. New techniques, sharpening basics, improving the mindset. My tool belt is big enough so that whatever challenge I see in front of me, I find openings and I use whatever tool gets the job done. And that’s all we really focus on is making the tools I bring into the fight better, and more adaptable, and knowing how and when to use them based off of the patterns brings with him that night.

“I just tried my best to make some lemonade from this 2020 lemon.”

What would winning the Atlas Fights Welterweight title mean to you?

It’ll definitely be cool to have my first pro title, but I’ve got one thing hanging on my wall from my fight career thus far, and that’s a small little flier from the first ever kickboxing smoker I did at Russell Jones’ Kickboxing gym. Any other awards, belts, whatever, are all either buried under clothes on my floor, or tucked in a corner somewhere. The Atlas belt would be a sign I’m on the right path, but I won’t see it as a crowning achievement of mine. I like to be reminded of where I started, and where I’d like to go, and not get too fixated on any one step on that path. Maybe I’ll let myself think about it on Sunday, then come Monday after my fight, getting back in the gym will be the main focus.

How have you been staying sane during the Covid-19 pandemic and the quarantine?  Has it affected your training at all?

I ended up going and staying at my parents’ house in Baton Rouge for about a month, so I was able to spend more time and be in the same city with my family and my girlfriend for more than just a day or two at a time. I just tried my best to make some lemonade from this 2020 lemon. In the beginning, back in March I think, the gym shut down completely for a bit, but we were able to get a Thai bag and a pretty sweet wall mount, so that thing became my best friend during the first month or so. I just got into a routine of bag work, shadow boxing, drills and bike riding or trail walks and it wasn’t too bad.

This is your space brother, anything you’d like to say?

When I first started at Gladiators we had a Muay Thai coach, Jon Marino, who along with the others, gave a good bit of his time to me. He took the time to wake up early and hold pads, give lessons, the whole 9, for me before I had class a few days a week, on top of classes at night, and really helped me progress. Over the hours and weeks he became a friend as well as a coach. He didn’t charge me a dime, and gave me his time out of the goodness of his heart. He got some news recently that his heart is going to have to receive some treatment that isn’t the most cost-friendly. If anybody who reads this would be interested in helping me give him and his heart more time, it would mean a lot to me, and I know, to him. He’s got a GoFundMe set up to help, with more details on everything than I’d be able to give.

Click here to donate to Jon Marino’s GoFundMe.

If you liked this article, don’t forget to share, like and subscribe – and go ahead and like our Facebook page and follow us on Instagram @fightsportfocus. You can catch AJ in his upcoming fight with Christopher Anthony at Atlas Fights 55 on Saturday, August 22nd, from the Mississippi Gulf Coast Coliseum in Biloxi, Mississippi. To purchase tickets, please visit http://www.atlasfights.com/  or  http://www.mscoastcoliseum.com.

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