By Calvin Suh
Photos by Meghan Wonder and Sam La Foca
How often do we hear that experience is life’s greatest teacher, only to be reminded of it in the most difficult of times? At a young age, Joseph Febles is a fighter, putting mind and body at risk for a passion that is his expression in his life. In the unpredictable world of combat sports, Joseph, who also goes by Joey, was put to that test a lot faster than he ever anticipated.
On September 11, 2011, Joey Febles made his debut on at the U’s ‘Salute to Service’ card against Audrey Ortiz of Legends MMA. Representing Team Danger, his brotherhood of training partners at Tarzana Boxing, Joey brought his style of wrestling to the match and scored a split decision win. However, it was the young fighter’s mental preparation that proved to be most impressive: he took the fight on short notice and overcame his doubts going into his debut.
“Going into the fight was kind of nerve-wracking,” explains Joey, who was preparing for a fight in a different promotion when his opponent fell out. This temporarily put his training on hiatus, but the University of MMA was there to make sure Joey had his day in the cage. Two weeks before ‘Salute to Service,’ matchmaker Jay Tan and Joey’s coach/teammate Thor Skancke, were able to enroll the young man in the U.
“Joey will tell you this – when he first came to the gym, I didn’t even really look at him. I just thought he was kind of a clowny kid. Really small and kind of goofy,” recalls Thor. “The little things that I showed him in practice, he couldn’t really pull off. Because the guys that he was training with were either bigger or a lot better than him. They were stuffing him.”
“I went to corner him [but] he was more like [Team Danger coach Jon Levy’s] project. All he did was stand-up. And this kid went and fought this 38-year old guy with man strength, and put this guy down with all the takedowns I showed him. Every round, perfectly. Hi-C’s, single legs, double legs.”
“I’ve come a long way,” noted Joey. “I didn’t even know I had that kind of wrestling in me.”
Born and raised in the 818 of Los Angeles, Joey and his friends, Kevin Gonzalez and Josh Luviano, found a passion for MMA at the Tarzana Boxing gym. The trio are friends since childhood, staying tight all throughout their formative years. Joey and Kevin played in several punk and hardcore bands (among the names was ‘The Borrachos,’ which translates as ‘The Drunks’), with Josh always right in the mix with them. Eventually, Joey picked up on Kevin and Josh’s other longtime love: fighting.
“They were definitely an inspiration of why I train here,” Joey explains. “Kevin and Josh have been doing kickboxing almost all their lives. During high school, I realized this is something I want to do. I didn’t want to go to school. I thought fighting was something cool. It ended up being something much more than that to me.”
Under the tutelage of Thor Skancke and Jon Levy, the trio embodies the spirit of the adage ‘for the love of the game.’
“This is my school,” Joseph laughs. He studies by hitting the bags, preparing for tests that teach him victories. No doubt he has the right formula: passion and people.
Since his debut, Joey has amassed at 2-1 record in amateur MMA. He didn’t fight again until June of this year, but in finishing that bout with a dominant second-round TKO, its clear that ring rust never played a factor. In fact, Joey specifically points the growth between matches as the biggest advantage over his opponent.
“I could see it in his face, just by looking at him, how nervous he was. I could tell that the same person in my first fight was in him,” he recalls. “But I knew that I was a lot better than I was in my first fight. So I came out. I didn’t really give him any time and I just laid it on him a little bit.”
“I knew the process. I don’t care about the opponent or where it is. It’s about myself,” he explains. “My last two fights, I came out not worried about [anything]. I think that’s a big part of fighting, from my perspective.”
Joey’s most recent match didn’t go his way, getting submitted after being rocked in a heated slugfest of fists. However, he takes the loss in impressive stride. His approach to the match in retrospect is more of a future champion learning from his mistakes, perhaps acknowledging that the bigger challenge is in how one grows from setback, rather than worrying about an unblemished record.
“After my loss, I just took that home and I’ve just been thinking a lot. Kind of get a lot of things out of my head. Especially with the loss. That doesn’t mean I can’t do it. Just because somebody was better than me doesn’t mean I’m not good at all.”
In many ways, Joey’s personal life parallels his professional life, as the comfort level among his loved ones about his choice of career path grows slowly but steadily, like his own experience and confidence in the cage. His girlfriend and his parents naturally worry about his path, but as father to his 20-month old boy and still a son to his own dad, Joey has twice the responsibility to his family. None of this has not softened his resolve, but rather steeled it for the trials ahead.
“I’m taking it more seriously than I did before,” says Joey. “I want [my son] to be ringside one day. He does push me forward; I see him every morning, I wake up to him and I automatically think of training – how to be at the next level. I definitely want to be the person he looks up to.”
It will still be some time before Joey’s mom or girlfriend are ready to attend one of his matches, and even his father at first was against him pursuing a career in cagefighting. However, his dad is starting to come around, taking the time to work out and hold pads for his son when Joey can’t make it into the gym.
“He doesn’t really know much [about fighting]. He just tells me everyday ‘I want to see you go back in the cage and beat the shit out of someone,’” jokes Joey.
And although Joey would like nothing better than to be in that cage, over the long term, he’d much prefer to take his time and do things right, rather than right away. He’s not even keeping a particular timetable, other than hoping that his continued training and more victories lead him to an eventual amateur title shot, and perhaps some title defenses after that. Indeed, youth, a reliable team, and growing family support are on his side
“A lot of fighters have been training their whole lives. Their parents put them into kickboxing or whatever. I don’t have that background. So what I would want to do is to get better with what I already know, and just improve from there. To be the best in amateur right now, and then go pro.”