It’s midweek and almost closing time at the Ithaca Mall. A crowd of 15 or so shoppers has gathered before a wall-sized storefront window — their eyes wide and full of wonder. Some “Ahhhss” and a “Whoa!” sound out from among them.
It is nearing late March and early summer-like temperatures have blessed New York State, but what has drawn these customers to window shop inside when they should be curing cabin fever? Is it the new iPad?“Inside leg kick, Leone! Inside leg kick!” shouts a voice from inside the store.
In truth, they are watching a sparring session between fighters from Team Bombsquad, which along with its parent gym Ultimate Athletics, relocated to the Ithaca Mall in January. Inside the cage, two Bellator veteran featherweights — Anthony Leone and Kenny Foster — trade leg kicks as they circle each other and vie to control the center of the mat.
“As far as I know, nobody has a MMA gym in a mall of this size,” said Bombsquad’s head manager Ryan Ciotoli. “We took a risk in coming here, but it is already paying off. We have exploded with new members. We don’t even need to advertise.”
While Bombsquad regularly trains 25-30 professional and amateur fighters, the public has the opportunity to take classes in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing, Muay Thai kickboxing and grappling from top-notch coaches. A four-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion and current Bellator lightweight standout, Rene Nazare takes charge of the grappling arts and jiu-jitsu.
“I haven’t seen a gym like this, even in Rio de Janeiro,” Nazare said. “The new space will help expand jiu-jitsu and MMA across New York.”
Recalling Bombsquad’s backwoods beginnings
In 2006, Team Bombsquad made its start in an unused barn in the Village of McGraw, just outside of Cortland. The camp’s name derives from the alma mater of head manager and owner Ryan Ciotoli, who was a three-time Division III all-American wrestler for the Ithaca College Bombers.
Team Bombsquad’s barn-gym sat in Ciotoli’s backyard; he recalls having to bring in space heaters to make the livestock shelter bearable during Central New York’s brutal winters and having to install padding over its wooden walls. It was just big enough to fit a wrestling mat and not much else.
“MMA began as more of a hobby for us than anything,” Ciotoli said, since he served as the Ithaca Bombers’ assistant wrestling coach at the time of the gym’s conception. “It didn’t take too long before we started getting some fighters in the UFC and other big promotions.”
Ciotoli, who entered the cage as a pro five times himself and competed in innumerable grappling tournaments, soon found six fighters as roommates. Jon Jones came to train with Team Bombsquad as a young aspiring amateur who recently dropped out of college, showing considerable promise from the start. Jones is the current UFC lightweight champion and an international superstar.
“As the UFC grew, we grew,” Ciotoli said. “We were the ones who kick-started MMA in Upstate New York.”
By 2010, Ciotoli and company had outgrown the village barn and relocated to a site beside downtown Ithaca. While Jones moved onto the Tristar Gym in Montreal, and later Jackson’s MMA in Albuquerque, Bombsquad continued to produce a number of rock-steady mid-level fighters, who competed all over the Northeast and in some major promotions.
Bombsquad also began to invite the general public to train in the gym for learning various martial arts form or just general fitness. A number of weighty challenges go along with training in a state where MMA remains unsanctioned. For Bombsquad, local fights usually mean at least eight-hour van drives and they often face hostile crowds cheering on their hometown heroes and vehemently against the New York visitors. At a fight earlier this year in Salem, N.H., Combat Zone 40, Bombsquad’s Don Carlo-Clauss TKO’d local favorite, John Ortolani. An anti-New York vibe in the crowd and post-fight trash talk led Ciotoli to cut the celebrations early.
“We all know it will be sanctioned in New York eventually,” Ciotoli said. “We set the standard for MMA in Upstate, and we look forward to that day.”
Scaling it up to the next level
Now in the Ithaca Mall, Bombsquad’s new space with Ultimate Athletics must feel like making it to the big leagues after years of inching their way up from the minors. With 23,000 square feet, the gym holds two cages, a boxing ring, wrestling mats, plenty of bags, an ultimate fitness center and a weight training space.
To go along with Rene Nazarre’s BJJ expertise, the team has hired full-time boxing coach Alex Stewart, who spent his formative pugilistic years under the tutelage of legendary heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson; full-time Muay Thai coach Jeremy “Primo” Bellrose, who fought in the Muay Thai World Championships in Thailand for Muay Thai Team USA; and several strength and conditioning experts. Many pro-fighters also serve as part-time trainers for the general public.
Ciotoli credits his business partners for helping him put a plan into place that works to bring in both pro-fighters and the general public. One of those business partners and co-owners of the gym is Ciotoli’s wife Melanie — a Cornell alumna who also earned her MMH from the Johnson School of Management in 2010.
As Ciotoli is now married with two kids, his days of having fighters crash on his couches have winded down, but he revels in the fact that he has helped build a team considered to be among the very best in the Northeast and a gym that welcomes all walks of life.
Realizing a window of opportunity
Back at the midweek sparring session, two flyweight fighters might not be punching at full strength; however, they are putting on a show. In the final 45 seconds of a round, Evan Velez launches fellow teammate Pete Cole in suplex-like slam and immediately starts his ground and pound. But Cole soon reverses Velez and lands some shots of his own. Ending up back on their feet after a scramble, both fighters trade a flurry of kicks and punches just before the bell rings.
“That rocked!” yelled an onlooker.
For his part, Ciotoli does not worry about the new location being a distraction for Team Bombsquad.
“We can always find quiet times to train when nobody is around,” he said. “When there are groups of people sometimes watching these guys, well, hey, they’re fighters — they love it.”