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Mikey Musumeci Sacrificed A ‘Normal’ Childhood To Become A BJJ World Champion

Jul 5, 2022

Mikey Musumeci has been one of the hottest additions to ONE Championship’s submission grappling roster this year, but his road to the top has come from a lot of sacrifices. 

Known as “Darth Rigatoni,” the American sensation has trained Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu his whole life – giving up what most would consider a regular childhood – but this commitment has forged him into a five-time World Champion. 

Learn all about the 25-year-old’s unique journey in martial arts and how he became a BJJ great with a big vision on the global stage.

A Content Childhood In New Jersey

Musumeci was born in East Brunswick, New Jersey, though his blood runs back to Italy through the Italian-American stronghold of Brooklyn, New York.

“Both of my parents were from Brooklyn. As an example, they would be [like] ‘Goodfellas,’ the movie, super-Italian background,” he explains. 

“They moved from Brooklyn to New Jersey, where I was born. Every weekend, I would visit my grandparents in Brooklyn, so I have a lot of culture in New York also.”

Meanwhile, the young Musumeci had an idyllic upbringing in the suburbs. He enjoyed a great relationship with his parents and sister, Tammi, and he has nothing but fond memories of this time. 

And though he had started his martial arts journey, it was nothing serious yet, meaning he was free to take part in a variety of sports, living the carefree life of a young kid. 

“New Jersey was a really cool place to grow up. I was very close with my parents. I would play outside every day – football, soccer, baseball with kids in the neighborhood,” he recalls. 

“In New Jersey, there’s a lot of woods, so we would always be in the woods, playing. I was super active. During winter, it was a lot of fun because we get to play snowball fights, making igloos, things like that.”

‘It Was So Scary’

Inspired by his father, Musumeci began immersing himself in martial arts at a very young age.

Though his dad wasn’t a fighter, he loved combat sports, and this gave “Darth Rigatoni” the initial push to see what it was all about.

“My dad was a big fan of MMA and fighting in general. When I was 4 years old, I was watching him train Muay Thai, and I remember thinking, ‘I want to do that, that’s cool!’ Musumeci says.

“So, at that moment, I started training Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu.”.

The American first trained under Fernando Cabeca at a local gym, and with his talent becoming evident, he soon began competing.

However, even with some early success, it wasn’t something the youngster enjoyed straight away.

Musumeci reveals:

“I competed in my first competition when I was 4 or 5 years old in New Jersey. I remember doing this match, and I beat the kid but went off the mat crying into my dad’s arms saying, ‘I don’t wanna fight anymore,’ because it was so scary.

“I was horrified. And then, I just kept training for so many years until I was 10 or 11 years old, and my whole family moved to Florida.”

Giving Up His Youth For Jiu-Jitsu

Up until his move to Florida, “Darth Rigatoni” was more of a recreational jiu-jitsu practitioner.

However, that quickly changed when he began learning “the gentle art” from Emyr “Shark” Bussade at an American Top Team affiliate club. 

“When I got to Florida, I started training with Professor Shark, who then became my main instructor, as he was the one who made me become fully dedicated to jiu-jitsu,” Musumeci says. 

“Before then, I just did it every week, but I did not think that my life was going to be with jiu-jitsu.”

From then on, the talented athlete became single-minded in his quest for grappling success. Everything else took a back seat, including friendships outside of the gym.

Musumeci was still a bright student, but his life was devoted to training – starting with drills before school alongside his BJJ World Champion sister and then at the gym during the evenings.

“I wouldn’t say I was facing any challenges as a kid until I fully dedicated my life to jiu-jitsu when I moved to Florida. There, my life changed a lot,” he says.

“In Jersey, I grew up with a lot of friends. In school, I talked to a lot of kids. Then, when I moved to Florida, I didn’t have as many friends because I was fully focused on jiu-jitsu. So, living life with no friends, not talking to anyone at school.

“My coach was kinda crazy, so he would tell me that I can’t eat this, I can’t eat that if I want to be World Champion. So at 11 years old, I would look at cookies and brownies, and be like, ‘If I want to be a World Champion, I can’t eat this.’”

It wasn’t the easiest regimen to follow, but Musumeci continued to excel on the mats and ran through the local and national competition scenes.

He also continued to move up through the belts and built a name for himself on the BJJ circuit, laying the groundwork for his future career.

There were certainly times when he questioned whether his unique journey would be worth it, but these days, “Darth Rigatoni” doesn’t regret a thing.

He says:

“It was a lot of sacrifice, and there were times when I got older, I was thinking, ‘Is this the right thing to do? Why shouldn’t I have lived my teenage years, have friends, and have a normal life?’

“But now, looking back, it was worth the sacrifice because of my position in life. The dedication and sacrifice I learned at that age made me who I am today.”

‘It’s Just About Having A Good Impact’

Musumeci went on to win juvenile IBJJF World Championships, followed that up with more success at purple and brown belts, and was promoted to black belt at the age of 18 in 2015.

His rampage continued in the top flight of the sport, where he became America’s most successful IBJJF competitor in history, with four World Titles in the gi and one in no-gi. 

He did all this while studying for his business degree but then decided to fully pursue his athletic career – again making sacrifices to achieve greatness.

“Darth Rigatoni” says:

“I had a full scholarship to law school in Las Vegas, and I didn’t take it because I wanted to follow my passion.

“I feel that God gave me this gift in jiu-jitsu. I do not know if he gave me the gift of jiu-jitsu itself or the gift of work ethic. I think both work hand in hand, and I felt that I didn’t want to waste it.”

With his big goals in BJJ, Musumeci signed with ONE earlier this year and moved to Evolve MMA in Singapore, where he trains alongside World Champions in various disciplines every day. 

He then showcased his immense talent with a dominant debut win over MMA icon Masakazu Imanari at ONE 156 in April, earning a US$50,000 performance bonus for his effort.

Now, the 25-year-old is motivated to continue proving himself on the biggest stage of all. But at the same time, he’s determined to use his new platform to influence the next wave of competitors in a positive and uplifting way.

Musumeci adds:

“The thing I like about ONE, very much, is the culture. In America, the culture is a lot about talking crap. It’s not about respect and honor like in martial arts. And the problem with that is we are competing and sparring in front of the next generation. So how are they going to behave? Horribly.

“Any competition I do, any titles I have won, it’s awesome, but next year, someone else might win it, and the question is, what would last from what I’ve done? If it has a positive impact, then I would have a purpose to live because I impacted somebody’s life. 

“For me, that is everything. It isn’t about money, it’s just about having a good impact on the next generation.”

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