RISING SUN, Md — There was enough late-morning sunlight shining through the sliding glass door of Chad Racine’s walkout basement that the light bulb dangling over the blue and red grappling mats was rendered almost useless.
It’s in this intimate setting that Racine operates Cecil County’s only mixed martial arts training facility, dedicating the bottom floor of his Rising Sun-area home to coaching active and prospective MMA fighters. On this particular January morning, five of his students have gathered in the homemade gym to help Jasha “Iron Man” Vann gear up for his second professional fight.
One after the other, they take turns engaging Vann in abbreviated sparring sessions, with a new fighter joining the fray every minute while he remains on the mat. The “shark tank drill” helps strengthen Vann’s endurance and prepare him for what should be his toughest test to date.
“In order to be in the kind of shape you need to be in to be a professional athlete, you have to push it,” Racine said. “You can see it right now, we have five different guys and they’re more tired than he is. So that tells you how good a shape he’s in.”
The 26-year-old lightweight from Newark is hoping to leave his mark Saturday night when he takes on Ryan Rizco in the Etess Arena at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, N.J. in the preliminary portion of the Cage Fury FC event airing on UFC Fight Pass.
It’s a big moment for Vann (8-0), who has never lost inside the octagon. After winning all his bouts as an amateur, he shined in his professional debut on Oct. 13, earning an unanimous decision over James Sanchez at Maryland Live! Casino.
“I like working with Chad because it’s less of getting out there to fight and be a brawler and more of having a mission and putting together a puzzle,” Vann said. “You see a guy, he’s got a certain set of problems. How are we going to fix that? We go to the drawing board, how are we going to solve it? It’s like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle or going on a ninja mission. That’s what gets me out of bed more than just wanting to fight. It’s more the cerebral aspect of it.”
Vann’s steady climb up the MMA ladder comes as no surprise to Racine, who has been present for every one of his fights, even if it didn’t begin in the same corner.
“Josh’s first fight, I actually coached against him. The opportunity for one of my fighters came up to fight him and we took it. There’s not a lot of gyms around here, so you take fights that you can get,” explained Racine, who first observed his future fighter when Vann was a member of Jack’s Kickboxing Gym near Newark. “I didn’t know anything about him because it was his first fight.”
The two merged after Vann began training with Racine early in 2014. With his new coach by his side, the 5-foot-10-inch fighter proceeded to rattle off five consecutive amateur victories before turning pro in 2018.
“This is like an Apollo Creed and Rocky story,” Racine said. “I’ve been in his corner or opposite his corner since the beginning.”
Saturday will also deliver a David vs. Goliath story. While Rizco (6-2) will be making his professional debut, he enters as a representative of Strategic Combat Academy, which was established in upstate New Jersey with the New York City skyline in the distance. His corner includes renowned Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu trainer Tony Rivera.
It’s a world away from Racine’s basement gym in Cecil County.
“He’s definitely a big guy. He trains out of a good gym. I like the challenge,” Vann said. “It’s going to be a great show and I can’t wait. I’m excited.”
Racine sees an opportunity for Vann, who noted his striking techniques have improved since he graduated Newark High as a standout wrestler.
“Josh is an extremely good defensive wrestler. This guys has a wrestling base… and is going to want to take Josh down, but Josh should easily be able to pick him apart on his feet. I think that’s what you’ll see Saturday night. You’ll see Ryan trying to take Josh down, and if he does, we’re going to try to make him pay for shooting,” Racine said. “You see a lot of wrestlers who look like wrestlers, who get heavy hands but they don’t look like smooth, fluid strikers. Josh looks like that. He’s also 5-0 as a kickboxer. You would think he’s been kickboxing and striking all his life.
“I think Josh is a complete fighter. He’s evolved everywhere. He’s constantly getting better every fight, and when you get that much experience… you see a difference. You see him get that much more comfortable.”
Keeping his unblemished mark in-tact will be critical if Vann intends to continue turning heads.
“I’m hoping to have a few more wins and just get attention,” Vann said. “If I keep going the way I’ve been going, it won’t be long. It’s going to get harder and harder to keep my undefeated record.”
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