In an event that felt like deja-vu to those who followed Gordon Ryan’s sudden rise to fame, Renzo Gracie standout Jonathan Calestine has gone from rising star to superstar overnight on the EBI stage. With just 24 hours’ notice, the Finishers, Onnit, and Sapateiro champion stepped up to compete in the featherweight division of EBI 15 after his famous teammate Eddie Cummings was stricken with the flu and left unable to even make the flight out from his native NYC to California to compete. And by the end of the night, he was a champion.
Calestine has a bit of a Cinderella story attached to him — once a high school dropout, he found his calling in grappling, where he soon learned that he had a special talent for breaking limbs. He’s been slowly, but steadily climbing the ranks for years with the help of coaches like John Danaher and Daisuke Yamaji and teammates like Garry Tonon, Eddie Cummings, Ottavia Bourdain, and Matt Kaplan. But even though he’s consistently been taking home wins in the sub-only scene, the following he developed remained relatively small… but very, very loyal. Long before Cummings was revealed to have pulled out of EBI, Calestine’s friends, teammates, and fans were aggressively pushing for him to get a spot on the stage so he could get his well-deserved chance to shine. There was no doubt that Calestine was going to get the opportunity at some point, but no one expected it to happen when it did.
The short, stocky grappler quickly and easily leglocked his way up the bracket, first submitting Edwin Ocasio with a heel hook before tapping out Jason Hayden in the second round. Mike Davila was the next opponent to have his chance at $15,000 cut short by Calestine, and before you knew it, the 23-year-old was in the finals against 10th Planet star Geo Martinez.
The Martinez v. Calestine match had more than the cash prize and championship title at stake — Martinez and Cummings have had a rivalry between them since Martinez defeated Cummings at EBI 10 in what many considered to be an upset. Cummings’ sudden withdrawal from the event prompted a lot of “NOs!” from fans who were eager to see the two have their long-awaited rematch, but to see another Renzo athlete in his place was enough to make you lean forward in your chair whether you wanted to or not.
The match went the distance, with both grapplers showing that they could play defense just as well as offense as they smoothly evaded each other’s submission attempts. Although Martinez was undoubtedly exhausted by his intense match with Rafael Domingos in the semi-finals, he still proved to be a tough opponent for Calestine, who appeared to have barely broken a sweat in his first three matches. Calestine eventually won in OT after achieving the quickest escape time — injuring his shoulder in the process — and just like that, a lot more people suddenly opened their eyes to the grappler they’d been sleeping on.
In a post-event phone interview with the Jiu-Jitsu Times, Calestine described the opportunity to compete against his opponents as an “honor.”
“Jason [Hayden] beat me at Sapateiro. He is, without a doubt, one of the best in the world at his weight. Without a doubt,” he said. “It was incredible to be able to compete in the same bracket with him and all those other guys — Mike Davila, John Battle — all those guys that I’ve basically come up with over the years. They’re all great.”
Calestine also had words of admiration for Martinez, who he called “super tough,” and expressed his desire for a rematch with him. “If Geo wants it, I’d love a rematch with him. I didn’t get the result I wanted, but if he’s up for it, I’d love to do it again with him,” he said, explaining that he’d been hoping to land a submission in regulation instead of winning in overtime.
Before you get too excited, though, keep in mind that Calestine’s victory came with a cost: his shoulder (and his “good” one, at that). “It happened in the last round of overtime when [Martinez] had me in that armbar… he was pulling while I was pushing, and I felt it pop,” recounted the new champion. It’s currently uncertain exactly what’s wrong with his shoulder, but he says he’s not too concerned since he can lift his arm over his head. This marks the second time within the past year that Calestine has suffered a shoulder injury — he hurt his other shoulder in a freak accident at the Jiu-Jitsu Kumite last summer and had to take an extensive break from competing as a result.
Calestine’s future plans hinge on how soon and how well his shoulder heals, but he hopes to one day compete against athletes like Caio Terra and Bruno Malfacine. “I just want to compete against the best. Anyone and everyone,” he says, adding that he’s made a lot of sacrifices to enjoy the victory he did last night. “I don’t have a lot of money; I don’t buy myself nice things. I train day in, day out, and that’s all part of it, you know? Never be satisfied and never stop — that’s what I’d tell people who want to succeed in this.”
There’s no doubt that we’ll be seeing Calestine in the future, especially now that he has to defend his shiny new EBI belt. But for now, he’s just grateful for the opportunity he’s been given and all the people who have helped him get there. “I’m just so thankful for my sponsors, Cash Chicks & Championships and Fuji; my teammates and coaches, especially John [Danaher] and Daisuke and Eddie and Ottavia; and Matt Kaplan and Chris Pagliuca, who came out to Cali to corner me. And my parents, of course, and my girlfriend — she always supports me, and it means a lot to me.”
Hide your feet, hide your legs — Jon Calestine is here, and he’s coming for your heels and your titles.