By Joseph Wilhelm
Photos by Meghan Wonder and Laura Baker
Cries of “Gio, Gio” thundered in unison from the stands of Club Nokia, as big men Gio Zavala and Jens Grau answered their cheers by trading deafening blows against each other.
But in spite of the rousing support from friends and family, it was Grau, not Zavala, who stood the victor by decision.
“I just go in and try to knock the other person out. The last guy (Zavala), I couldn’t. He had a good head. He really did. I’m glad it actually went three rounds so that we could see what we’re capable of doing. But he was a tough opponent. He was a big dude. He could take some punches,” Grau said.
It was a sweet moment for the Danish-born Grau, whose MMA journey began much later than most. In 2009, Grau, then 38, opted to try MMA after his powerlifting career was cut short by a tear in his left bicep.
“I’m an old young guy,” Grau joked. “I wanted to give myself a challenge. I wanted to see what is and isn’t possible to do with my body, to physically test it. I don’t care what people think about me. I want to see how far I can take it. At this age, I think what really matters is how fresh your mind is,” Grau said.
If this is the case, Grau need not worry, for the fighter brings a cerebral approach to his craft that most would not expect upon first glance. Although svelte in comparison to his days as a national champion powerlifter, Grau is as imposing as they come; standing at 5’9, 205 pounds and boasting a mere eight percent body-fat index.
And while his frame appears perfectly equipped for destruction, it’s not the purely physical element of MMA that Grau enjoys most.
“I love all the learning. I find it very beautiful. I find the human body in general to be very beautiful, what you can accomplish with it, it’s uniquely put together. Especially when you think about what pressure we put it through,” Grau said.
Indeed, the learning curve has been a steep one for Grau, whose transition from powerlifter to fighter has not been seamless. Including his victory over Zavala last month, Grau has a 4-3 record as an amateur.
Sheer physical strength and endurance have never been an issue, a fact easily observable when Grau’s punches meet their mark.
“Jiu jitsu has been quite a challenge. It’s starting to come together, it’s fun now. It’s very complicated, but when you’ve passed the burden of that complication, and you understand the basics, it becomes fun. And then you can take it to any level you want,” Grau said
Grau stayed positive, persevering through a 2-3 start to the tune of recent victories over Zavala and Michael Bettis, a fight in which Grau TKO’d his opponent with a devastating right hook. The fight lasted all of ten seconds; ominous footage for Grau’s future combatants.
Invaluable in his acquisition of jiu jitsu has been trainer and sparring partner Jamie Toney, a professional fighter who pulls no punches with his amateur pupil.
“We go hard. I can dish it out and I can take it. Usually if somebody’s new, I try to equalize, let them set the pace. You’re not going to bully people off the bat. You shouldn’t. But if somebody comes at you like they’re shot out of a cannon, then you need to come right back,” Toney said.
When Toney says “we go hard,” Grau’s eyebrows raise in a telling expression. He chuckles and says, “I know.”
Though Grau owns a fifteen-pound weight advantage over Toney, the smaller fighter routinely employs his technique and experience in besting his opponent, who they call ‘The Sandman.’ A title earned, as Grau simply puts it, “Because I know how to put you to sleep.”
Monday through Friday, the duo can be found squaring off in Bas Rutten’s Elite MMA gym. These sparring sessions are bouts that often leave the participants’ faces with a distinctly asymmetrical appearance.
Born from this ultra-competitive atmosphere, Grau and Toney have become fast friends, something they cannot totally forget inside the cage.
“We’re buddies, man. We like to punch each other in the face and laugh about it. We have a good time when we train. Sometimes, people wonder if we’re in there training or telling jokes, because we’re laughing hard as can be; in a weird position on the ground or punching each other in the face. I’m really glad he’s here and that we have the opportunity to train a lot. It makes it a lot of fun. It’s work, but it’s fun,” Toney said.
Grau hopes that his rigorous training will pay dividends, and even at the unprecedented age of 41, he has aspirations of a professional career.
“I’m going to take it as far as I can. I’m not going to put a number on my amateur fights. I want some more ring experience, I want some more training,” Grau said.
His eggs aren’t all in one basket. Outside the cage, Grau owns two janitorial companies, one of which specializes in crime-scene clean-up. It’s a rare line of work, but then again, so is professional fighting.
Opportunity is abound for Grau, who’s in the process of chasing his own American Dream.
“This is the greatest nation on the planet. People just don’t see it because they don’t get out of here. Everything is in America, every opportunity you could want. You can travel, go wherever you want, speak the same language and use the same money,” Grau said.
His next opportunity? March 3rd, 2013, where he’ll take the stage in pursuit of the University of MMA’s light heavyweight championship.
Once more, hard-hitting action is all but guaranteed.
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