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Before The Biggest Match Of His Career, Troy Russell Is "Living The Dream"

Before The Biggest Match Of His Career, Troy Russell Is "Living The Dream"

Troy Russell discusses his path into competitive jiu-jitsu, training with Rafael Lovato Jr. his preparation for bouts on Tezos WNO, and more.

Aug 1, 2023 by Erica Zendell
Before The Biggest Match Of His Career, Troy Russell Is "Living The Dream"

Though Troy Russell has been active on superfight stages across Texas and Oklahoma since 2017, the Lovato black belt’s breakout moment within professional jiu-jitsu was unequivocally at Tezos WNO 18 in May 2023. In beating middleweight journeyman Austin Oranday via heel hook from a leglock shootout, Russell did more than punctuate his Tezos WNO debut with an exciting submission victory; he punched his ticket to the biggest opportunity of his career so far, a Tezos WNO main card appearance against rising star, Andrew Tackett. 

Russell spoke with FloGrappling about his path into the world of competitive jiu-jitsu, his experience training with Rafael Lovato Jr. his preparation for his previous and upcoming fights on WNO, and more. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

FloGrappling: Tell us a little bit about how you got your start in jiu-jitsu and when you started training. 

Troy Russell: The long version of how I got started in martial arts is kind of fun. My friends and I thought we were going to be the next Dana White, and hosted a backyard bare knuckle vale tudo “event.” You wouldn’t really call it an “event” because it was so poorly organized, but we would get together and have bare knuckle fights where we would try to match up style versus style.

I was the “wrestler” with a basic wrestling style that would go in and try to take people down and ground and pound, and I got matched up against someone who actually trained martial arts. He had Muay Thai experience and he beat me so badly that I couldn’t open my eye for a few weeks. He was beating my head against the side of a car door and everyone was saying, “Stop! Stop! You’re going to damage the car!” and no one was worried about me. The guy was like, “You're gonna dent my car,” and I'm like “I think he’s dented my head at this point.”

After that, I thought, “Man, maybe I should go and learn some Muay Thai." So I found my way to what was then 805 Fight Club in Oklahoma City. It was very underground, kind of like what you would picture in a movie for how an MMA gym would look. Dirty, grungy, no organization, every man for himself. I think I was sixteen at this point and I was just looking to get into trouble any way that I could. So this was a natural next step.

I started to train there. I started to find some structure and some direction in my life. All the angsty energy that I had back then was channeled into Muay Thai, then Muay Thai and Jiu-Jitsu, then MMA, then strictly jiu-jitsu. It was maybe four or five years before I was just training strictly in jiu-jitsu. 

Flo: A lot of your fight history on FloGrappling shows you competing in both gi and no-gi, but in the last few years, and most obviously with Tezos WNO, it looks like you’ve chosen to build your identity primarily as a no-gi grappler. Tell us about when you decided to pivot to no gi and why you chose to build your brand and reputation as a no gi athlete

TR: I always trained both because that was just what everyone did. Back then, they would say “to get good at no-gi, you have to train in the gi.” For how I started to shift just to no-gi, I can actually thank Garry Tonon for that. Garry came to Oklahoma City to fight Justin Rader [2013 ADCC medalist] for Fight2Win, and he was going to teach a seminar at our school the day after. 

I was fortunate enough to spend two days before the fight helping Garry with his final preparation, getting to see how he wanted to drill and the positional sparring that he would do. I got to talk a little bit about mindset with him. He basically told me that in five to ten years, there would be no more gi training, that the gi would die in five to ten years and submission grappling would take over the world. He also told me that if you want to make a name in the sport at all, you have to be exciting. Nothing is as important as being exciting. Winning is cool, winning is important, but if you do it in a boring way, no one will care to watch you. 

All of that insight came from Garry and in like four days, it changed my trajectory in jiu-jitsu, the way that I train, and my view of jiu-jitsu entirely. So I’ve always been super grateful to Garry for that. I’m sure a lot of people have similar stories because he’s a pretty awesome dude, but yeah, that was a really big shift for me. I hope to be able to train again with him one day.

Flo: When you first interacted with Garry ahead of that Fight2Win, you were still training under a different instructor in Oklahoma. Tell us about how you ended up training with Rafael Lovato Jr.

TR: In 2018, I had gotten my brown belt from my previous professor, and it didn’t feel very good. I wasn’t that excited to get it from him. So I was like, “Man, the next belt is the last one I am going to receive, you know? I want to get it from someone I respect and admire.” 

A few things happened at my previous academy that I wasn’t okay with. When I left, I was in a free agent position for a bit. I visited all the schools in Oklahoma, met with all the professors, most of whom I already knew. I got to talk to everybody and had a lot of amazing opportunities to teach and to train with certain people. I was fortunate enough to be training strength and conditioning at the same place that Rafael Lovato Jr. was training. I was able to see Rafael’s schedule, his discipline, the way that he carried himself. We got to speak a little bit, and I was invited to come try the training room there.

I still have not felt anything like the first time Rafael mounted me, put my arms above my head and smothered me with his rashguard and basically waterboarded me. I had my first panic attack and knew that I wasn’t going to tap there so I was either going to die or escape.

I had all those feelings for the first time–not the last. And I was like, “Man, if he can do this to me, I can learn how to do this to other people.”

The rest is history. Rafael has been the most incredible mentor, professor, manager, friend, big brother figure that I could have asked for. He’s really exceeded my expectations in every way. It’s one of those situations that feels like it was meant to be, if you believe in that kind of thing. I like to. And here we are, five years later. And I’m one of his black belts. 

I got my black belt in October of last year. It was really special. Receiving it from someone I have so much respect for, have such a good relationship with, and is a legend in the sport, it felt how I wanted it to feel.

Flo: Switching gears to Tezos WNO and specifically to your debut appearance on the promotion back in May: tell us about how things have been since then and what has changed for you–if anything–since that opportunity.

TR: That came across the board and it was the biggest opportunity that I've ever had. So everything went into making sure that I could capitalize on that opportunity. And after doing so, there has been a shift.

Winning on a stage like Who's Number One can change your entire career. It’s given validation to what I do. It's caused people to be more interested in what I'm doing and what I'm teaching. It's opened a lot of doors, specifically, for the next match, which is–again–the biggest opportunity of my career. A win on a stage of this magnitude is, I think, every grappler's dream, you know, it's something that shouldn't be taken lightly and that I definitely have not taken lightly. 

It's all very surreal because it's like, from the time that I was sixteen and looking for a place to put my focus and energy, this was the dream. To win on big stages to be recognized as a legitimate grappler, who is exciting, who finishes matches by submission. It's everything that I dreamed about and more, being able to make a living doing what I love and literally living my dream. 

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Flo: What does living the dream mean to you? 

TR: It's doing what you love to do every day, you know, and sharing that with the people around you. 

Flo: Diving into your last performance at Tezos WNO: how did it feel to perform on the last card in Oklahoma City–especially to get the submission in front of your whole team and to win via leglock, an area of the game that has become your specialty?

TR: There's a lot of cool aspects to that. Leg locks were such a taboo thing when I came up. I got in so much trouble for doing leg locks in the gym.They would get so mad if you tapped the upper belts with leg locks. They would just hate you, like, as a person, every fiber of your being, for doing leg locks.

But since that conversation with Garry I really started to focus on leg locks. I thought, “If I need to be exciting, if everyone is obsessed with leg locks and I win with leg locks, that's gonna help me." It’ll help me sell instructional material, private lessons, seminars, you name it. It opens a lot of doors whenever you're able to implement the things that you're teaching in the academy. So that was really cool to go from like getting slapped on the wrist for using these techniques to being celebrated by everyone on the team for using them.

As for winning in front of the whole team, winning in front of my family: it was electric. I got the finish, and I don't even remember all of the celebration because something just took hold of me and caused me to rip my rash guard off and scream at the crowd. But that was one of the coolest feelings of my whole life. It was really something special to share with everyone there. 

Flo: That was an iconic moment, ripping the rashguard off. 

TR: I don't know where it came from, but I regret nothing. 

Flo: Tell us a little bit about the camp for your previous fight and how it compares to the camp for your upcoming one. How did you prepare for your match against Austin Oranday and are you changing anything in preparing yourself to face Andrew Tackett?

TR: Leg locks were a big focus for the last camp, because I knew that I could win there. I still plan to win with the leg lock against Andrew, because I think that that's a position where I'm better than most people. 

The difference with this camp is there's a heavy emphasis on wrestling. I know that Andrew likes to push the pace. He's exciting and he loves to bang it out from the feet. He's not afraid to take a risk, and he'll shoot big shots. I want to be able to match his intensity from the feet, and give a really exciting performance while we're standing. The entries to leglocks will likely be coming more from the standing position than from a passing position. I don't imagine Andrew is going to pull guard, whereas I knew that Austin probably would.

That is the main shift: going from preparing for a guard puller to preparing for a more top, top side, wrestling-heavy opponent. So I’m looking to enter into the legs from the feet and to shake things up in the wrestling department. I've been doing a lot of work with my wrestling coach, Nick Heflin, who’s an Olympic level wrestler, and with Professor Rafael, who’s an exceptional scrimmage wrestler.

I'm also making sure I'm doing a lot of good cardio work to be prepared for a 15-minute match. The pacing of the match will be important: you have to keep a high enough pace to where someone like Andrew doesn't put you in a bad position at the beginning because he is exceptional with his pace. I think that's one of his greatest attributes: his pace. So I want to keep a pace that matches his without going too far and then be able to build my pace over time. I think that that's what we see a lot of the best guys doing: coming out with maybe 30% or 40% and slowly building as time goes on. I think that that can give you a significant advantage: being mindful of how you're using your gas tank.

For that last match, I also got the call while I was the biggest I had ever been at 195 pounds: I was bulking up to help Rafael's training camp [against Elder Cruz], and be a better training partner for him. [The cut from 195 to 170] worked out pretty well, but since the last WNO, I've stayed at a lower weight so this next one won't be as significant. I think I'm gonna have better energy and explosiveness because I'm not cutting 25 pounds. I'll be cutting more like 15. 

Flo: Though you’ve never fought Andrew, this is not the first time you’ve faced someone in the Tackett family. What do you remember about your experience fighting William Tackett back in 2020? 

TR: Similar to this fight, at the time, fighting William was the biggest opportunity that had come across my table. I had the opportunity to fight him [at Fight2Win 141 for the brown belt middleweight title] right after things were starting to reopen from the lockdowns in 2020. People were still freaking out, and a lot of people were like, “No, you can't do that during this time,” but it was too good of an opportunity to pass up. 

William pretty decisively handed me my ass, to put it lightly, but getting to face an opponent of that caliber, someone that I have watched for years and really respect as a competitor is a super cool and invaluable experience.

Flo: You've alluded to this a little bit already, but to put a finer point on it: what can people watching expect from you in this match against Andrew Tackett on WNO? 

I'll be looking to win the wrestling exchanges and find dynamic entries from the feet into the legs if possible. That's a big place where I think I have a competitive advantage, and I do think I will be able to capitalize on the leglock exchanges. I know that Andrew is really good at the wedge back takes, so that's a specific area that I'm very cognizant of and doing a lot of preparation for. I'm sure that there will be some back and forth with him trying to take my back from the leg lock entries, but I'm doing a lot of good work preparing for those counter back takes.

But yeah, that's how I see it playing out: we’ll probably spend the first five or so minutes on the feet before there's an entry to the legs. Then I hope to find a clean finish from the legs.

We'll see. I feel confident going into it that I'm going to be able to play my game and show my work, but I'm sure that Andrew feels the same way. So only time will tell. But things already feel even better than they did the last time. 

Flo: Zooming out, what are the goals you currently have for your career on and off of the Tezos WNO stage? 

TR: I'd love to win this match and fight for the title. I'd love to fight the winner of [Rene Sousa vs Nicky Ryan], and I think I should be in line or close to the top of the list as far as that goes. Competitively, that's a big goal, and, obviously, winning the ADCC Trials to qualify for the soon-to-be biggest ADCC of all time is a huge goal. 

Off the mat, I'm working on opening my own school (Lovato Jiu-Jitsu Northside in Edmond, Oklahoma) which has always been a big part of the dream for me. I think it's a great way to positively impact the community in my immediate area and hopefully the entire world with my message of positivity, self-development, and growth through jiu-jitsu. So that is another part of the dream that's coming to fruition, something I'm working very hard on right now, to get those doors open. As for personal goals, I want to continue to build my family here in Oklahoma: I want to marry my girlfriend and start having children of our own. 

Those are the big goals: the personal goals, opening the business, and continuing to get big wins in the competitive scene to boost all of that up and amplify everything. 

Flo: Wrapping up, any last words that you want to share with the fans?

TR: I think that it’s important to share my gratitude: to everyone at FloGrappling and Who’s Number One for giving me these life-changing opportunities, to you for writing about me, to Professor Rafael for everything he's done for me, to all of my training partners and students at headquarters, to my family for helping me through these training camps and these weight cuts. 

Maybe one last thing to the young aspiring grapplers out there: the hard work will come to fruition. If you stick with it, you know, you keep your nose clean. And stay focused on that self-development the sky's the limit. There's nothing you can't achieve if you stay focused and work hard.