John Alessio’s fighting career started when he was pumping gas at a Cowichan Valley Esso station 18 years ago.
Jason Heit, a pro boxer living in Duncan at the time, pulled in for a fill up.
“I had some Gracie MMA stickers on my car and (Alessio) noticed them and started asking about them,” recalled Heit from his Island MMA gym last week.
It was a chance meeting that’s led Alessio through a 15-year career as one of Canada’s best mixed martial arts fighters.
“I didn’t have a gym yet, me and a few guys trained in mixed martial arts out of my garage,” Heit said. “(Alessio) was only 15 when he came out but mentally he was tough – no matter what you did to him in practice he took it and came right back.”
Alessio (36-14) is now based in Las Vegas but is returning to fight at Aggression Fighting Championship 13: Natural Selection, Nov. 3 at Bear Mountain Arena, against David Mazany (10-4), also of Las Vegas.
His first fight came soon after that chance meeting, one that’s not on the books anywhere. Just 16 years old, Alessio fought a 29-year-old and won.
“He destroyed him,” Heit said.
It was still the early days of the sport and some MMA events were running illegally, long before Heit and co-owner Darren Owen started the AFC.
“Back in the 90s, we were in the ring in Surrey when there was a raid; 30 RCMP officers came in. I guess it wasn’t licensed,” Heit recalls. “Alessio was fighting and I was in his corner. I threw a hat and a sweater on him and we made it out of there.”
By 1999 the two went their separate ways.
Heit moved to Los Angeles in 1999 to pursue pro boxing but ended up doing much better as a bodyguard to movie stars such as Drew Barrymore, David Duchovny, Nicholas Cage and music star Robbie Williams.
Alessio moved to Victoria to pursue his training with kickboxer Stan Peterec – who now shares his gym space with Island MMA – and pursued pro fighting.
“After day one training with Jason (in 1994), I knew there was something inside of me screaming for that,” said Alessio from Las Vegas. “For some people it’s like touching that bad drug, something they keep chasing, and I’ve kept chasing it.
“And now I’m back for my first fight in Victoria in 14 years.”
Starting in 1998, Peterec put together a few modified MMA tournaments which were deemed legal enough for those days, and they became Alessio’s jumping off point. He was 7-3 when he signed on to fight at UFC 26 in June of 2000.
At that time, Alessio began making regular stays in California to train at the Lion’s Den with famed UFC veterans Ken and Frank Shamrock, though these days he’s permanently based out of Vegas where he trains with Xtreme Couture, owned by UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture.
“Alessio is an MMA pioneer. He would say at 15-years-old, ‘I’m going to fight in the UFC,’” Heit said.
Back then, UFC was still on its way to becoming the preeminent MMA organization that it is today. Alessio lost that fight but has stuck around the MMA scene, and has won at various levels.
In 2012, he returned to the UFC for the third time and, although he lost his July fight to Shane Roller at UFC 148, he’s a big draw for the AFC next month.
“I just love the sport and always saw the potential of it,” Alessio said. “It’s grown so much and the difference now is the average person has accepted it.
“It took a long time to happen, especially in the smaller parts of Canada, and that’s part of the reason I struck a deal with AFC, to help it grow.”
Alessio has never shied away from fighting in back-to-back dates and, should all go well on Nov. 3, he’s committed to AFC 14, Nov. 23, in Edmonton.
“It’s how I like it. You’re in shape, hopefully coming off a nice win, so you feel great and your adrenaline is going, so go make some more money,” Alessio said.
AFC here and there
Darren Owen and Jason Heit merged the AFC with similar promotions from Edmonton and Calgary earlier this year. Each of the chapters runs its own events, but also pool their resources for “expansion” shows, like AFC 11: Takeover, which drew about 2,000 people to the Winnipeg Convention Centre last month.
AFC 13 will also debut Kendall Grove of Hawaii, winner of UFC’s reality television contest, the Ultimate Fighter 3, in 2006. Locals entering the cage on Nov. 3 include Triston Connelly and Dillon Brown of Island MMA in Victoria with Diego Wilson, Ryan Jane and Alexi Argyriou of Zuma in Vic West.
Tickets available through aggressionfc.com.