Mickey Gall's journey to UFC 203 passed through Rutgers
LEBANON, N.J. —— Mickey Gall ran laps around the training mat at Gracie’s Jiu-Jitsu Academy, shadowboxing an opponent made of air in the moment that would turn into skin-and-bones in a few short weeks.
The mixed martial artist has been in the Ultimate Fighting Championship for less than a year and has fought in just two bouts, but he is involved in one of the biggest storylines surrounding the fighting promotion company's upcoming pay-per-view event.
The Green Brook, New Jersey, native will be the first opponent Phil Brooks — more widely known as CM Punk — will face as a member of the UFC after transitioning from professional wrestling with WWE at UFC 203 on Sept. 10 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.
“Great. I feel amazing,” Gall told the Daily Targum prior to teaching a class at Gracie’s on Aug. 30. “Today’s my last day of hard sparring. Tomorrow’s gonna be my last workout, gonna take the next few days off. My weight’s perfect. Training real hard, two times a day. Things are good.”
Brooks isn't the first and likely won’t be the last to make the jump, but unlike those who preceded him — most notably Brock Lesnar — he has no prior experience in mixed martial arts, or any other competitive fighting outside of professional wrestling for that matter.
Gall’s journey to the octagon is nowhere near as publicized as Brooks', but is a big reason why he’s a considerable favorite despite being unknown outside of professional fighting circles.
He began dabbling in combat sports at age 13, adding weekly boxing lessons on Saturday evenings to an array of other sports he played from a young age, including basketball, baseball and football. Gall was a captain of the Watchung Hills High School football team his senior year as a standout linebacker, but the gridiron wasn’t his main focus.
He made the transition from boxing to jiu-jitsu a year prior when he was 16, beginning classes at Gracie’s and training under Professor David Adiv.
“Immediately, first day of class, fell in love with it,” Gall said, and he hasn’t fallen out since.
He chose to stay close to home and attend Rutgers for college, not for academic reasons, but because it allowed him to continue working with Adiv at Gracie’s as he chased his dream of entering the UFC.
The Israeli has seen many fighters in his 35 years of teaching jiu-jitsu and judo, but had no hesitation when put to the task of placing Gall among his former pupils.
“He’s the most impressive of the guys," Adiv said. "The way he’s the most impressive is because of course, he’s very technical. He’s a submission specialist … He’s very meticulous, focused and has a lot of courage. Some people have one of those qualities. I saw right away he has all those qualities. Very focused on what he’s doing, very coachable … does things like most people won’t take a risk to do."
He graduated from the School of Communication and Information in 2014 with a degree in communications, but he didn’t spend much time sitting in the lecture halls of Scott Hall.
Living at Rutgers all four years — first at Nicholas Residence Hall on Cook campus and then off-campus on College Avenue the last three — Gall would make the 40-minute commute to Lebanon for training twice a day throughout his entire stay in New Brunswick.
To make ends meet, he’d drive a truck and deliver bread to local Wal-Marts in the mornings.
“My real major was in (jiu-jitsu),” Gall said. “I did what I needed to do to get by, graduated in four years. … (Balancing school and MMA) was rough, I’d be lying if I said school was my main focus but … it was important to me. It was important to my family too, so that made it more important to me.”
The diligence paid off when he earned his first amateur fight a few months before his college graduation at CFFC 32, where he faced Woodmy Jean. He won by unanimous decision, kicking off his current streak of four straight wins without having dropped a fight since.
Gall’s next bout came against Marvin Nino at Dead Serious 15, where he won by submission via a rear-naked choke.
The move became his winning tactic as he brought it over to his professional career, where he is currently 2-0. The first victim was Ron Templeton at Dead Serious 17 and the latest was Mike Jackson at UFC Fight Night 82, both fights ending in the first round.
“I’m more of a submission guy,” Gall said. “Typically, I’ll usually go in there and thump a strike, I’ll hit him hard and drop him or rock him and I’ll finish with a submission.”
The jump from fighting Jackson, who had never been in a professional fight before the matchup, to a high-profile name like Brooks came from what he called a "Hail Mary."
With the knowledge that UFC President Dana White was in attendance at his fight with Templeton in Philadelphia filming an episode of "Dana White Lookin’ For a Fight," Gall called out Brooks, who had signed nearly a year prior and had yet to find an opponent to make his debut against.
White was impressed by both “the win and the ability to recognize an opportunity,” according to mmaweekly.com, and offered him a contract with the UFC. Gall was then scheduled to fight Jackson with the understanding that the winner would be CM Punk’s first opponent in the octagon.
The former Scarlet Knight won and the fight was set for February 2016, but it was delayed a week after Gall’s win over Jackson due to Brooks undergoing back surgery to repair a herniated disk.
The delay gave Gall more time to prepare the fight, but with limited tape aside from footage from “The Evolution of Punk,” a documentary on Brooks’ transition to the UFC, there isn’t much film to study. The element of surprise is in the adversary’s favor, but that doesn’t scare Gall.
“I fought guys who have been doing this longer than me and I’ve beaten those guys,” he said. “So someone who’s been doing it less than me, probably a fourth as long as I’ve been doing it, he’s gonna be in big trouble.”
He radiates confidence when talking about the fight, backing up a previous claim he made promising he would beat Brooks’ in the first round. It extends beyond this fight, with his ultimate goal to become a UFC champion.
But before he could taste a chance to fight for a championship belt, before he got on a plane to Cleveland to take part of the main card of a major UFC event and take on one of the biggest names in WWE history in his MMA debut, Gall was dreaming about it in his dorm on Cook campus.
“It’s amazing man. It’s exactly what I wanted,” he said of living his dream. “I remember being at Rutgers, running around, being in school and just thinking ‘I can’t wait’ to be where I’m at right now. Just running and working out in the middle of the day just waiting to go to class, which I did not like to do, and just waiting. I remember listening to some songs and it reminds me of that, just wanting this, where I’m at right now, and I love it. It just makes me appreciative.”