(Jay Hieron swings on Jesse Taylor in his Strikeforce debut.)
Michael Huang’s profile of Jay Hieron first appeared in the Aug. 2009 issue of FIGHT! Magazine. Hieron will fight Joe Riggs on Jan. 30 at Strikeforce: Miami.
When the walls that surround you are covered in shit, that might be a sign you’ve hit rock bottom. For Jay Hieron, his entire world had atrophied to a tiny cinderblock jail cell. The sink was more like a urinal, and there was no mattress on his bed, just coils of rusty bed springs spiraling up like thorns.
And the stench! Someone had smeared shit all over the walls. The floor was probably venomous. On those rusty coils, he curled up into a ball in his orange jumpsuit and tried to sleep. The springs creaked and lurched underneath him. He could see his own breath. Thanksgiving had just passed. He pictured being back at his mom’s house, maybe having some pasta and her homemade Italian sauce he loved so much.
The thing about jail was it gave a man time to think. And there was plenty going through Hieron’s mind: the decisions he had made, the things he had done. The drugs he had used, the drugs he had sold. And while all the trappings of fast money—cars, booze, women, parties— made him think he was living life, in fact the real Jay Hieron had already died.
Gone was the skinny kid who sat with his wrestling coaches for hours after practice and during his lunch period at school watching wrestling videos. The gutsy kid who learned how to fight because neighborhood bullies beat him up now got into fights on Pearsall Avenue just for the hell of it. Though he had not yet fallen asleep, Jay Hieron had his wakeup call. Indeed, the real Jay Hieron was about to be resurrected.
A CHAMP BRIEFLY
Brazilian Delson Heleno had to be carried out of the ring on the shoulders of his trainer. The International Fight League had done away with its team format and thrown its belts up for grabs amid the four best fighters in each weight class in a Grand Prix tournament. After dismantling Donnie Liles one month earlier, Hieron punished Heleno on December 29, 2007, to capture the IFL Welterweight belt.
Heleno’s leg injury looked like the product of Hieron’s repeated outside and inside kicks. When Heleno crumpled, he tried to pull Hieron into a full guard. No chance—not with an injured left leg. Hieron rained down punches until the referee stopped the fight and pulled him off. He then climbed over the ring corner and raised his arm in victory.
“It was the proudest moment of my life,” Hieron said. “It was like all the sacrifices I had made were all worth it. I dedicated that fight to my father, John, who had passed away. He was sick leading up to the fight.” The victory served as the early pinnacle of Hieron’s metamorphosis from scared little kid to dominant high school and college wrestler, then to drug dealing street thug, and finally to IFL world champion. It was an arduous journey, but one that Hieron said needed to happen.
“When I got into wrestling, it gave me focus and something to pour all of my anger and energy into. It saved my life,” he said. “When I got into mixed martial arts, fighting and combat saved my life again.” However, after Hieron defeated Mark Miller by TKO in New Jersey, four months after winning his championship, the IFL went out of business, and Hieron was out one title belt.
The home of Theo and John Hieronymous had plenty of extra love. Adoption was nothing new to them, having already taken in a little girl. They befriended a young Coney Island woman who was having trouble caring for her new baby. Theo and John, meet baby James. “Jay was eight weeks old when we got him,” Theo said. “His mother really wanted to take care of him but was so set in her abusive lifestyle, she couldn’t change. We eventually went to court after eight years and they terminated her rights. We could officially adopt him. It was the happiest day of my life.
The family lived in Freeport, a town on Long Island’s southern shore. Theo worked as a nurse on the graveyard shift, while John owned a fender and body shop in nearby Oceanside. When Hieron was ten, Theo and John divorced, forcing Theo to move to a rental property the family owned and lease out their primary residence. Freeport had its relatively affluent parts, but it also had its thorny parts, such as its northern edge, where Theo had moved with her kids. There, one either learned how to fight or learned how to run.
An 85-pound James Hieronymous learned the latter. His anger and frustration welled up inside, locked in by his fear. “I was mad at myself, really,” Hieron said. “There always was a bunch of kids picking on me; it was never just one guy. Before you knew it, it was fi ve on one.”
Even more humiliating was standing at the local 7-11 waiting for his older sisters to come walk him home. From his sisters Barbara, Cindy, and Suzie, there was no tough love, just love. They didn’t leave him out there to fend for himself, but he never escaped without a little bit of teasing. As Hieron was a naturally hyperactive youngster, his anger fueled his engine. And that kinetic energy needed to get out. Sliding down all of the banisters in his house just wasn’t cutting it.
While he remembered his father being a huge boxing fan, it was the martial arts that first intrigued him. “My dad loved Sugar Ray Leonard,” Hieron said. “But I always loved Bruce Lee. I’d sit in my room and beat up on my pillows, doing kicks and karate chops.”
At thirteen, he began experimenting with boxing at the Police Athletic League. The first taste electrified him. However, the gym was nearly a half an hour away. Getting there became just too difficult. But that electricity stayed with him. So a year later, when he entered high school, Hieron decided to join the wrestling team. “[The high school] was a tough place,” he said. “It was learn to defend myself or keep getting beat up.”
A NATURAL SMARTASS
“He was in my gym class as a ninth grader,” said Freeport High School head wrestling coach Russ Cellan. “His name was so long, I couldn’t pronounce it. Then he came out for the wrestling team.” Cellan was amazed at Hieron’s physique. There was nothing—nothing but a thirst for knowledge.
“He was just a little guy, like ninety pounds. There was not an ounce of fat or muscle. But he’d say ‘Coach, show me moves.’ Anything. You’d see that in his wrestling style—always aggressive. He’d give up points, but he’d get them back.” Hieron took to wrestling like a thirsty man gulping down a glass of ice water. An eventual high school state championship gave way to a national junior college championship at Nassau (NY) Community College. In between, Hieron had a brief stint at an Iowa junior college, with hopes of transferring to the University of Iowa, but he returned home after one semester.
Hieron later found his way to nearby Hofstra University and ascended to be the third-ranked wrestler in the country at 158 pounds. What happened next set off a chain reaction of decisions that derailed his life. “I got busted for smoking weed, and Hofstra had a new rule that if you got tested positive, you were out for the season,” Hieron said. “I was a knucklehead, and the funny thing was it was nobody’s fault except mine, but I was mad at wrestling. Mad at the school. Mad at everything.”
That anger manifested itself in late-night brawls on Pearsall Avenue. Combat continued to be his outlet, marijuana and cocaine his pacifier and a source of income. The James Hieronymous who had won championships on the mat forsook it all—throwing his trophies, medals, and plaques all in the garbage. At one point, good friend and wrestling teammate Phil Baroni tried to interest Hieron in mixed martial arts. Baroni was fighting in Toughman competitions and in some amateur boxing matches. He brought Hieron to Bellmore Kickboxing Academy. Baroni asked owner/trainer Keith Trimble if Hieron could spar with someone.
“Phil, your friend hasn’t done any training,” Trimble said. “Jay’s a tough guy, a great wrestler. He can handle it,” Baroni said. “I wouldn’t let Jay spar unless I taught him a couple of things first,” Trimble said. “So I taught him some jabs, then I let him get in there. Basically, he sparred with my guy for about eleven minutes, and my guy bloodied up Jay pretty good. After that, Jay disappeared. I didn’t see him for two years.”
Unlike players in other sports, like baseball, football, and basketball, wrestlers had no “real” professional options until the rise of MMA. In other words, there was no money in wrestling. “I had all my friends from high school chasing their dreams—Morlon Greenwood (NFL linebacker) and Speedy Claxton (NBA guard). And what did I get out of wrestling? I got thrown off the team. So I said I was going to go and make some money.”
And make money he did, amassing a fleet of cars, motorcycles, jet skis, and four-wheelers. The focus and energy that Hieron had put into wrestling he applied with the same zeal to dealing drugs. And he succeeded by being smart. He kept a store of cash in case of an emergency. “Drug dealers don’t usually think that way,” he said.
After two years of dealing drugs, an internal clock in his head said that his luck was running out. Dealers and customers he knew had gotten pinched. He was looking for a way out, but the realization had come too late. It was just after Thanksgiving. Local authorities had already come by Theo’s house once looking for Jay. Hieron’s lawyer—funded by his store of cash—laid out the situation: A-2 felony, mandatory three years to life. He turned himself in, donned his orange jumpsuit and, for a month and a half, found himself in a world of shit.
“I took a look in the mirror before I turned myself in,” Hieron said. “I didn’t like what I saw. And, honestly, the whole time I was dealing drugs, I never liked the fact I was doing it. But I liked the money. It [getting arrested] was one of the best things that could have happened to me.” His mother put up her house to bail him out. “I gave them the deed to my house,” Theo said. “Basically, if he took off, I would lose the house. But I knew that Jay would never do that to me.”
Though he was out of jail, Hieron found himself still shackled by indecision. Where he was terrorized by bullies as a child, he now found idle hands to be his worst enemy. The anger had returned, and the only release he knew was working out. He found himself back at Bellmore Kickboxing Academy.
“Jay came back and asked if he could just come and work out, use the weights,” Trimble said. “After about a week, he came up to me and said ‘I want to fight. Can you teach me how to fight?’” Trimble was familiar with Hieron’s background as an accomplished wrestler. He was also familiar with Hieron’s checkered past. “I was thinking at fi rst this kid’s full of shit. He’s not going to show up, he’s a troublemaker,” Trimble said. “So I would give him weird times to be at the gym, but he was always there every day, ready to train.”
Hieron first learned how to strike and punch, competing in several Muay Thai and kickboxing competitions before even venturing into MMA. “Jay basically lived at the gym,” Trimble said, echoing Cellan. “He lived to learn, always asking questions. His work ethic is unbelievable. There would be times where I would lock up his stuff and tell him to take a couple days off. So what did he do? He’d go in the back room and watch tapes.”
“Those old films just got the competitive juices flowing again,” Hieron said. “It got those hairs standing up again.” Hieron’s striking skills improved and sharpened. Trimble then taught him how to avoid submission holds before teaching him how to apply them. Quickly, Hieron knew both.
Meanwhile, Hieron’s court proceedings resumed. He pleaded guilty, so the charge was reduced to a “B” felony, meaning a possible maximum mandatory six-month jail sentence.
Hieron collected several character testaments from Cellan and other wrestling coaches who confirmed that he was a decent kid who had just made some bad decisions. The judge came back with the verdict: Five years of probation and no jail time. By July 19, 2003, Hieron had his first MMA fight.
In a high school gym in Bayonne, New Jersey, Hieron, with Baroni and Trimble in his corner, ground-and-pounded Keith Plate. By 1:23 in the first round, the referee called a stop to the fi ght by way of TKO. “I fought on emotions, basically,” Hieron said. “It was a blur, but it felt good. The sport was my life now.”
If Iowa didn’t appeal to Hieron, perhaps he just hadn’t gone far enough west. At one point, Baroni had a fight in Las Vegas and asked Hieron to accompany him. For Hieron, watching the fights in Vegas was an epiphany.
“I came to Vegas, and that really opened my eyes,” Hieron said. “I saw guys like Tito Ortiz training, and I was like, ‘Wow.’ This is what I want to do.” Hieron came to the conclusion that Las Vegas was where he needed to chase his MMA dreams. Only one problem: his probation officer.
After having requested twice that his probation be transferred to Las Vegas, Hieron took a leap of faith, and he and girlfriend, Maira, moved out west. After three months, Hieron returned to find his probation officer sympathetic to his plight and confi dent in his turnaround. He only asked Hieron for a monthly report from Las Vegas on his progress.
Today, Jay Hieron is 17-4, riding a six-fight winning streak, most recently pounding Jason High in late January. He married Maira. He changed his ring name from Hieronymous to Hieron because he’s too proud of it to have it butchered by ring announcers. He works and trains for Xtreme Couture and is signed with Affliction, awaiting that next fight card. Resurrection complete.
“There was a time in my life when I fell down,” Hieron said. “Now I don’t take my life for granted. I lived two separate lives—one as a bad guy/drug dealer and the other as a fighter. I’ve got a second chance. I won’t waste it.”