By U of MMA Staff
Photos by Stephanie Drews, Primo Catallano, and courtesy of Jerell Cephas

Born into a family of performers and martial artists, Jerell Cephas has always known athletics. Raised primarily in Las Vegas, where his parents were professional magicians with residence shows at several hotels, Cephas wrestled and played football in high school. His talents earned him scholarship invitations from several different schools, but as his heart still resided in California, he returned to attend college at Mount San Antonio College and Orange County College. He eventually was lured to Ohio Wesleyan University on a football scholarship, where he finished up his academics with a B.A. in sociology and anthropology.

Jerell Cephas (right), presented with his Chi-Kara Puma Federation elite membership certificate, by his grandfather and soki (sensei), Willard Cephas, Sr.

Jerell Cephas (right), presented with his Chi-Kara Puma Federation elite membership certificate, by his grandfather and soki (sensei), Willard Cephas, Sr.

As if those sport credentials weren’t enough, Cephas is a third-generation martial artist, now a black belt in a discipline founded by his grandfather, Professor Willard Cephas, Sr. The discipline itself, known as Cephas Karate-Jiujitsu, is an all-encompassing style with bases in Professor Cephas’ original backgrounds, Chi-Kara Puma and Wado Ryu karate (which Jerell himself started training at the age of three).

“Growing up, martial arts was just my lifestyle. It’s not like I didn’t have a choice, but my grandfather, everybody in my whole family was in it. So that’s what we did. You wake up, you brush your teeth, you comb your hair, and then you go out there and you train. I had no clue that my life was going to take this route,” he reflects.

Upon graduating college, Cephas returned to his SoCal roots and continued his work as a martial arts instructor. With his football career ending in Ohio, Cephas accepted that his dreams of glitz and glamor probably weren’t meant to be. He took a job at UFC Gym in Corona as a personal trainer, never considering the possibility of realizing that same dream in MMA.

Until a fight was offered and he realized he could.

For better or worse, it’s not wholly unheard of that amateur fighters sometimes get title shots with their debut match, and in Cephas’ experience, that was the case. In January of 2012, he was called to fill in a last-minute dropout in a middleweight title bout. The match was over fast and didn’t go his way, but solace wasn’t far away, because in was in that match when he was bit hard by the MMA bug.

“My eyes were opened up. Anything that I see, I hunger for it. I’m always constantly reading and learning new materials. You can show me something that I don’t know, and I want that knowledge. I hunger for knowledge. I’ve had that same passion for martial arts, so it blends very well together,” he explains.

That hunger fueled his MMA training, leading the way to a three-fight win streak that, in turn, led to a title match at the U’s ‘Fight Night 2,’ in May.

Just the name itself, Cephas Karate-Jiujitsu, indicates a fundamental value in combining stand-up and ground fighting. And whereas many MMA fans might point to Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do or vale tudo in Brazil as the due accreditors to the beginning of MMA, the Cephas legacy doesn’t lay claim to any idea that the seeds of MMA begin with them. Despite the arrogant isolationism that kept most martial arts separate from each other in past decades, it isn’t unrealistic to presume that Bruce Lee and the Brazilians weren’t the only ones to see the wisdom of combining styles.

“Everything that you see in MMA, we’ve been doing for years. Minus the cage work. Because that’s a new element that was put up there. But to do off the wall and stuff like that? Yeah, we were doing stuff like that,” says Cephas. “Yeah, Bruce Lee is the best when it comes to martial arts. But we have been around for years. It’s nothing new. It just might be newer to the public eye.”

As the adage goes, the family that trains together stays together.

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Cephas following up with a right straight, sealing the deal to win the University of MMA light heavyweight championship. (Photo by Stephanie Drews/University of MMA)

Despite that MMA is a one-on-one sport without city team affiliation, there can be a sense of hometown advantage when debuting for a promotion against a familiar fan favorite. In Cephas’ case, the popular-and-affable Grau had a lot of legitimacy going for him. He was 3-0 in the U of MMA and the reigning champion with two brutal TKO finishes and Fight of the Night honors for his slugfest in October 2012. Grau’s loyal following witnessed his coronation in March 2013 and eagerly anticipated his first title defense.

However, Cephas was undeterred and approached the match (his own U of MMA debut) with the focus and determination of a U of MMA fighter ready present his thesis.

“When I got the call, I looked [Grau] up, and I told my uncle. [Cephas’ coaches] didn’t really say ‘you can take this guy.’ It was like ‘it’s a title shot. You can’t take it lightly,’” he recalls.

“In my head, how I saw the fight going out, I said ‘you know what? I’m gonna have to beat him in the second round.’ And if it went three rounds, I have to push the pace. They gave me that game plan, and they said ‘this will work.’ I don’t really question what they say. So I’m like ‘okay, stick to the game plan.’”

In the match, Cephas shot rapid-fire combinations, stunning the big Dane early and pressing on him with continued punches. The end result was a jaw-dropping first-round KO over Grau, who himself boasted four TKO finishes in his five amateur MMA victories.

In true martial arts fashion, Cephas stays humble in his new championship, taking nothing for granted. His discipline comes from a belief that victory is never guaranteed to anyone, even a champion, all the time. “When it comes to all martial arts, if you’re doing a match, it’s ‘who’s the better person that day? Who’s better prepared? Who did their homework? Who’s in the gym longer?’ I’m not saying go out and train six hours a day, but who’s using that time effectively? And that day, I happened to be the better man.

Jerell Cephas is sponsored by Fight Me Clothing (www.FightMeClothing.com)

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