|What’s a Nice Jewish Kid like Rory Singer doing in MMA?
By Thomas Gerbasi
Benny Leonard, Barney Ross, Maxie Rosenbloom, Abe Attell - all greats from the world of combat sports (specifically boxing) and all Jewish. At one time, back in the 30’s, you couldn’t go through the top ten rankings in The Ring magazine without coming up with a handful of Jewish fighters in each division, and local clubs were filled with fighters sporting the Star of David on their trunks.
Yet over the years, as economic well-being increased for early US immigrants like the Jews, Italians, and Irish, you saw fewer and fewer Jewish fighters competing in combat sports. So it’s no surprise that when one pops up in the fight game, it’s a big deal.
Meet Rory Singer.
A member of the cast of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’s third season, Singer – who faces Ross Pointon Saturday night at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas – is well aware that being one of the few Jewish fighters in mixed martial arts can be a lightning rod for media attention. And what self-respecting reporter would let an interview by without asking the burning question…
What’s a nice Jewish kid doing in a sport like this?
“You’re not the first person to ask me that question,” said Singer. “I just look at myself as a normal person who happens to be a Jewish fighter. But I like the attention, I like being in front of the camera, I like giving interviews, and I’ve enjoyed a lot of what I’ve gotten to do because of the show. So I’ll take it. If Jewish newspapers and people want to make a big deal out of the fact that I’m Jewish and happen to be a fighter who hopefully will do well in the UFC, then that’s great.”
And while Singer, a pro since 2001, has been around the game, compiling a 9-6 record, it wasn’t until after his stint on ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ that people really started to put two and two together and see ‘Outburst’ as an athlete with crossover potential into an entirely new market. He recalls a phone call he received from a Rabbi in his home state of Georgia recently.
“I got contacted by a rabbi that runs an organization called NCSY (National Conference of Synagogue Youth) – it’s basically a Jewish youth group organization,” said Singer. “They were having one of their bigger get togethers, because it was Memorial Day weekend, and he said that the kids love the show and they love MMA, and he’s a giant MMA fan himself - I don’t know who was more excited, him or the kids. But he asked me to come and talk about my fighting. And being Jewish, he felt that they could relate to me.”
Singer spoke to the group of over 150 teenagers, and though he doesn’t consider himself to be religious, he did relish the opportunity to speak to young people who would be impacted by his journey, not only in the fight game, but in life.
And that’s the real story here.
“I’m not your typical fighter,” said Singer. “I’m not all tattooed up, I have an education, I’m going to finish my education regardless of what happens and I will have something to fall back on, I’m not a thug or a punk, or a convict or an ex-convict. If that’s something that can be played up and used to promote the organization, then great. That can’t hurt anybody, and I’m certainly not against being the guy that gets that attention because I think I can handle it, and I think I’ll enjoy it.”
Born in Brooklyn but raised - with his brother Adam - in New Jersey, Singer saw his mother struggle with an over two hour daily commute each way into Manhattan to give the family everything they needed, and as he grew up, Singer carried that work ethic with him. He and his brother moved to Georgia for college, where Singer earned a degree in Biological Engineering from the University of Georgia in 1999.
That same year, Singer – a wrestler in high school - won a Georgia Golden Gloves boxing title and with his training in all aspects of combat sports picking up, he decided to give MMA a try.
“I tried my hand at Toughman, amateur boxing and amateur Muay Thai and it just seemed like a natural progression,” said Singer, who owns the HardCore Gym with brother Adam. “We were introduced to some good people who helped us make the evolution away from what we were doing into more MMA stuff, and I love competition, so why not try this?”
After a couple amateur MMA fights, Singer made his pro debut in November of 2001 with a submission win over Ludwig Strydom, and over the next few years he would have varying success in MMA, beating fighters like Wilson Gouveia, but losing his share to the likes of Daijiro Matsui and Dennis Hallman. Then again, he wasn’t training full-time, as he split his time in the gym with jobs as a lab tech, research engineer, and auto insurance agent, and later, he went back to school to obtain a Nursing degree.
That’s a full plate for anyone, but then his buddy and training partner Forrest Griffin got the call to be on ‘The Ultimate Fighter’s first season, and we all know how that story went. Singer, who had a ringside seat to Griffin’s evolution from unknown fighter to UFC superstar, liked what he saw.
“To be so close to it, it was like ‘wow, I want to be a part of this,’” he recalled. “I’ve done the small shows in Florida and Boston, I got to go to South Africa to be in a show and I got to go to Japan to fight in Pride – The Best against Daijiro Matsui, but they were still just smaller shows. This was the UFC.”
And he told UFC matchmaker Joe Silva that he wanted in.
Singer’s opportunity would come in season three of TUF, where he knocked out Solomon Hutcherson in his first bout before losing to Ed Herman via a second round submission in the semifinals. Saturday, he gets a chance to go back into the win column against hard-hitting brawler Pointon. It’s a long way from Biological Engineering, so you’ve got to ask – why?
“Why am I wasting time getting beat up in an Octagon when I could be making $100,000 doing what I should be doing, which is being a nurse anesthetist or doing something with my engineering degree?” he asks with a chuckle. “My opinion on that is, I am only 30 years old and I’m still young. I’m in better shape now than I was when I first started doing this, and I’m certainly smarter and wiser as a fighter. It took a little while to say that I’m gonna try and make the most of being a professional fighter. I was always in school or working, and I never got to get up at 10 or 11 o’clock and go to the gym, and relax during the day and not have to do homework or worry about anything but fighting. During the show I got to experience that, although it certainly wasn’t the healthiest environment to be in.”
In other words, this is his shot, and he’s not going to let it pass him by and have regrets later. Singer has taken a leave of absence from school and he’s going to see what happens if he dedicates his entire life to fighting. That’s admirable, but mom can’t be too happy about that, can she?
“It took my mother a long time to finally accept the fact that this is what I’ve chosen to do,” he admits. “I always had school or work in addition to the fighting and I was always a part-time professional fighter. It’s not until now that I’ve been fighting full-time. After the show I haven’t done anything except train. So it took her a while to get used to me possibly getting hurt and going out there and doing this, especially since I decided to take a leave of absence from school to try this on a full-time basis. What mother is happy with her child choosing a profession in which they can get hurt badly? So in that sense, she’s not happy with it, but she does realize that this is something that I really want to do, and I’m dedicated to doing it, like I did with school and I’ve done with my jobs. When I do something, I give it my all, and now I’m finally able to give fighting my all. So she completely supports it and wishes me nothing but the best, but then there’s always that Jewish mom part of her, ‘my little boy’s gonna get hurt’ and all that silliness, but what mom doesn’t dislike that part of such a brutal sport?
She’s even a visitor to various MMA forums and Singer’s own website to keep up on all the latest news on her son.
“She really wants to know about it and keep up with it, but I’m sure there’s a part of her that will breathe a big sigh of relief when I finally say ‘Mom, I’m done, I’m going back to school and getting my RN.’ I’m sure she’ll be happy to hear that.”
But that speech is not coming today. Singer will see what happens on Saturday night and then decide his future in the fight game.
“I know its cliché, but my goal right now is just to win the next fight,” he said. “At that point I’ll need to make a decision. I know I’m gonna win my fight; I’ve been training ever since I came home so that one thing I’ll always have is that I’ll be able to say ‘I fought in the UFC and I won.’ After I win that fight, I’m gonna have to do some thinking. Is this something I think I can do? Can I compete on this level if I continue to train full-time, take care of myself, stay healthy and continue to get better? If I decide that this is something I can do, then sure, I would love to take this as far as my abilities will allow. Am I good enough to be the champ right now? Probably not, I need some more time. But again, I’m only 30 and I think I’m hitting my prime.”
And even though the tendency is to look at Singer and say ‘oh, this is a lark, he’s not as hungry as someone with nothing to fall back on,” he vehemently disagrees with such a notion.
“We’re not talking about who grew up the hardest in the street,” said Singer. “We’re talking about who put in the time and the work to get into the UFC. I’ve put in as much, if not more than anyone to be where I am. I sacrificed as much as anyone to get to where I am today as a fighter. I’m sorry that I didn’t grow up on the mean streets, getting shot at and stabbed by my girlfriend, and getting in bar fights, but I’m not going to apologize for getting an education and growing up in a fairly comfortable middle-class environment.”
No apologies necessary, Rory Singer. Anyone who gives up the money and security of the ‘real world’ for a shot at glory in the fight game certainly has got the guts to succeed, and it will certainly be interesting to see where this middleweight fighter takes his talent in the coming months. As for everything else, he’s got plenty of time.
“I have many years of earning potential left in the ‘real world,’” said Singer, “so why not just do this now and give it everything I’ve got?”
Why not, indeed.