By U of MMA Staff
Photos by Stephanie Drews, Mitch Viquez, Meghan Wonder, and courtesy of Renardo Palmer

It’s difficult to pinpoint the Renardo Palmer story, if only because it seems like it’s still being written. On one hand, the man known as ‘Big P’ is a sad tale of a young man with great athletic potential and even greater responsibilities to his family (including a brother in jail, a sister with five children, and a wheelchair-bound mother who recently lost her fight to diabetes).

(Photo by Mitch Viquez)

(Photo by Mitch Viquez)

That said, Palmer does his best to keep his head on straight. When he’s not tending to his family responsibilities at home, he’s throwing himself into the two passions that feed his optimism: church and sports. And as the University of MMA’s defending heavyweight champion, Renardo ‘Big P’ Palmer doesn’t host idle time for the devil’s playground.

Born and raised on the south side of Chicago, Renardo Palmer has known struggle throughout most of his life. His father was involved with a gang that will remain nameless. Suffice to say that when Renardo was 10, things finally came to a head and the family moved to Southern California to escape a bad situation and live with Renardo’s grandmother.

Ironically, the Palmer’s family new home was in South Central Los Angeles, notoriously known as a hub for gang activity. However, the young Palmer had less of an issue with gangs in SoCal than Chicago, attributing that ‘lighter’ situation in one part to seemingly different norms in gang culture (perhaps in part due to the Los Angeles Gang Truce of 1992).

“In the Midwest, they don’t work the same like out here. Out here, they’ll ask ‘hey, do you bang?’ And you’ll say yes / no, then its over. Out there, if you look like a gangbanger, you are a gangbanger,” explains Palmer. “From age 10, I grew up with [South Central LA] gangbangers. They all knew me and they knew I wasn’t a gangbanger. I didn’t really have a problem there.”

Despite this, life for Renardo stayed tumultuous. His parents fought and eventually divorced. Substance abuse issues were involved. His mother also fought diabetes throughout her life, losing both her legs before finally passing last month). His younger brother fell in with the wrong crowd and eventually was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to a prison term that he’s still serving.

The Palmer family, with Renardo second from the right. (Photo courtesy of Renardo Palmer)

The Palmer family, with Renardo second from the right. (Photo courtesy of Renardo Palmer)

With so much chaos in the house, Renardo was put on a short leash early in life, held tightly by his devoutly religious grandmother. Being the eldest of three siblings, high standards of leading a strict, guided, trouble-free life were set for Renardo. For the longest time, girlfriends were forbidden. Church attendance and participation, including the church choir, were mandatory.

Of course, this strict lifestyle was met with some rebellion, and even today, Palmer somewhat struggles with the hand he’s been dealt. But as the eldest of three siblings, he recognizes that his role in the family is as much a blessing as a responsibility that he cannot ignore.

“As I got into believing in the Lord, I felt ‘maybe this is my destiny.’ Still, to this day, the family depends on me. If I were to die, that would be the worst thing to happen,” he laments. “Everyone calls and talks to me about problems. I never tell them about my problems. I make them feel better.”

It was in high school and subsequently at college that Renardo discovered his love and natural aptitude for sports, performing at Franklin High School in Highland Park) as a triple-sport athlete. In football, Palmer was a varsity squad outside for four years. He also wrestled during his junior and senior years, but it was his third sport, cheerleading, that fed (and continues to feed) his sense of optimism in a life otherwise riddled with tough challenges.

“My ex-girlfriend in high school wanted me to come and watch her after football practice,” he recollects. “One day, the coaches were like ‘hey, why don’t you spin around with your girlfriend since you’re always here.”

It's hard to envision an MMA fighter moonlighting as a cheerleader until seeing a photo like this. (Photo courtesy of Renardo Palmer)

It’s hard to envision an MMA fighter moonlighting as a cheerleader until seeing a photo like this. (Photo courtesy of Renardo Palmer)

According to Palmer, much like the church, the energy generated in cheer is hopeful, energizing, and communally supportive, such that he continues to train and compete with the Stealth Phoenix All-Star cheerleading team in national and international tournaments.

“Cheerleading, I’ve found that it releases all my stress. It’s such a happy environment,” he says, beaming. “The people there are so happy. They don’t bring nothing to practice. Everybody there just works hard and is really loving and close. I just love that atmosphere.”

After high school, Palmer attended Glendale Community College, where he continued his passion with the college cheer squad. It was also during that time that he met Gabriel Ibarra, kickboxing coach at Mike Arreola’s HPK Fitness. Ibarra molded Palmer’s striking game, taking him to a 3-2 record in amateur kickboxing. Palmer also did a Pankration fight, winning by disqualification. The no-head strikes rule soured Palmer’s interest in fighting briefly, until football teammate (and future local MMA / kickboxing star) James ‘The Beast’ Wilson inspired him to give it another shot.

Over the next several years, Palmer would train as a journeyman, linking up with friendly fighters (such as Wilson), migrating from gym to gym, and taking fights as they presented themselves. His natural talent and potential was undeniable and universally recognized, but with a personal life in constant turmoil, making a solid commitment to a head trainer or fight team was almost always impossible, leaving both he and whatever gym he was with at the moment frustrated.

Palmer’s debut match with the University of MMA was in their heavyweight championship tournament, which started at ‘Champions of Tomorrow!’ event in May 2012. He went to a majority draw against 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu brown belt Amir Allam. A rematch was expected, but when Allam withdrew from the tournament, citing PhD. obligations, Palmer was granted a slot in the finals.

Licensing issues delayed Palmer’s title shot briefly, but at ‘University of MMA: Fight Night,’ in March 2013, he came to the cage focused and ready, wresting his first championship title with a thunderous second-round KO.

“I felt cocky. I’m not gonna lie. I felt a little over my head. I was flaunting that belt like it was a wedding ring,” he confesses. “When I transferred over to Bas’ gym, that’s when I had to realize ‘hey, it’s not time to be cocky anymore.’”

That ‘transfer,’ to Bas Rutten’s Elite MMA Gym, was the missing piece of the Palmer puzzle. Since he began his MMA training, Palmer had bounced from one gym to the other, looking for the right chemistry. Ironically, it was a former opponent (and Bas Rutten protégé), Jens Grau, who campaigned for Palmer to join their squad.

With the same mix of camaraderie, competitive spirit, and positive support that he found with his cheer squad, Palmer was quickly welcomed to the team. And at ‘University of MMA: Fight Night 2’ in May, he successfully defended his crown in a decisive three-round war.

The champ with coaches Randy Kahtami (left) and Bas Rutten. (Photo by Stephanie Drews)

The champ with coaches Randy Khatami (left) and Bas Rutten. (Photo by Stephanie Drews)

“Working with Bas and Randy [Khatami], you want to be on a higher standard, for them,” says Palmer. “From Amir to Alex [Arslan] to Joe [Hernandez], I feel like I’ve been through so many camps. But now we see who’s the real camp. There’s no lollygagging. It’s bout one thing: train hard. Go home and sleep, and let’s train hard tomorrow.”

On paper, for a church-going choirboy and cheerleader to fight and play football might make little sense, but upon further investigation, it makes all the sense in the world. Palmer carries a heavy family burden with which he constantly struggles: the desire to chase after one’s own dreams versus answering the call to help and support people to whom he’s obligated, at least by blood, if not simply love and empathy. It’s a taut tug-of-war that would cause mixed emotions for just about anybody.

“Sometimes I don’t even care about being hit. Because I’m so mad at the world. I think it might help me in the ring,” says Palmer. “I got in two fights in high school. All my friends that watched me fighting say I was smiling the whole time. I’m angry, but for some reason, I smile. I don’t know why.”

That subconscious reaction earned him the nickname ‘the Smiling Kid’ in high school.

To have outlets like MMA and football for anger and frustration, alongside communities like church and cheerleading to satiate a need for support, optimism, and hope, becomes wholly understandable and even admirable.

Despite this sense of responsibility he carries, there is hope and appreciation in Palmer’s life. His father is 13 years sober and maintains a job on the UCLA campus. His mother, although deceased, got to see her son win (and defend) his championship. Palmer himself has written two songs for church, both of which he performed with his choir. And not to mention that between cheerleading, church, and MMA, his extended families continue to support him.

“I think you should live [life] on caring about others. I think that’s why I was made – to care about others.”

Share your view

Post a comment