On September 30, Mikey Musumeci will be making ONE Championship history as a contender for the promotion’s first ever submission grappling world title. He’ll be facing off against rival Cleber Sousa in the co-main event of ONE on Prime Video 2. This marks the conclusion to a trilogy matchup, as Musumeci and Sousa are currently 1-1 in previous scraps.
“The last time I competed with [Sousa] was five years ago, so I feel like I’ve evolved so much since then,” Musumeci tells the Jiu-Jitsu Times. “So I don’t really see him as the same person, or myself as the same person, so I feel like it’s a clean slate: a brand new start for both of us.”
For a guy like Mikey, who his opponent is doesn’t matter nearly as much as his own game plan. “I don’t really pay attention to the opponent specifically,” he explains. “I just pay attention to what I’m working in the gym, and making it work in the match, you know? I do a sequence, and they have a reaction to it, and if I have the answer to their reaction, I get my move to work. So it doesn’t matter what opponent I’m fighting; they’re trying to react to my position the same way.”
While Musumeci is no stranger to high stakes competition – after all, he’s won just about every major title there is to win in the gi, and has cut a swathe through no-gi competition more recently – getting used to the sheer size of the ONE platform has taken some adjustment. Mikey’s ONE debut – during which he submitted the legendary Masakazu Imanari – reportedly broke records as the single most-watched match in jiu-jitsu history.
Which is a tremendous accomplishment, to say the least, but Mikey mostly remembers being petrified by the crowds on debut night. “It was horrifying!” he exclaims, all frank good humor. “Being the introvert that I am, being in front of so many people, it’s definitely horrifying. I remember when I walked into the cage, and just walking out, I was like, ‘*********, this is different.’ I remember just staring at the floor because I didn’t want to look up and see everyone around watching.”
He confessed as much to ONE’s CEO Chatri Sityodtong, who according to Musumeci, simply observed, “So that’s why you were looking at the floor the whole time!”
Nevertheless, at the end of the month, Mikey will be stepping into the ONE Circle again – this time for the chance to become the promotion’s first ever world champion in submission grappling. “I feel like I needed that [first experience in the ONE Circle],” says Mikey. “I feel like I’ll have the advantage over Cleber in this match in that aspect as well, because I [already] experienced that for the first time – it’s definitely different for us jiu-jitsu people, being in the center of a cage, instead of being on a mat in a regular gymnasium.”
What about wall work from inside the cage? Mikey’s not too worried about it. “Something funny that happened during my match with Imanari was when I took his back – usually in jiu-jitsu, when you’re out of bounds, if you look at the ref, they move you back into the center – so when I had him on the cage, I remember instinctively looking at the ref!” He laughs. “And then I remember that there’s a cage, and there is no center! So that definitely threw me off, that aspect, but then I ended up turning away from the cage.”
And the rest, as we know, is history. “It definitely does add an element, the cage,” says Musumeci. “But one of my coaches – Gilbert Burns, who’s a high-level UFC fighter – I remember talking to him about this, and whether I have to prepare for using the cage at all for this. And he told me that I’d only need it for wall wrestling – and I don’t really wrestle all that much, so I don’t really need to do that much.”
That said, he’s definitely a big fan of Kade Ruotolo’s ninja-worthy wall work at ONE. “I haven’t figured out something cool, like jumping off the cage!” exclaims Mikey. “I should definitely think about it, though.”
“For sure, I’m taking this match more seriously than I’ve ever taken any other match,” he adds. “I’m really disciplined in my routine, and I’m training every day. I’m not taking off any days. I’m studying jiu-jitsu every day. I’m treating this match like it’s the biggest match of my life – which it is.” After all, he’d love to break his own record – and give a performance in the ONE Circle that attracts even more viewers than his showdown with Imanari.
Instead of taking traditional rest days, Mikey avoids overtraining by adjusting the intensity of his training – what might be the equivalent of an “active rest day” in common parlance: “If I’m feeling burnt out, I’ll train without using any power, and just move a lot, and do a lot of thinking. And if I’m feeling good, I’ll push a little more. So I just change the intensity depending on how my body feels that day – and that enables me to train way more.”
His work ethic may be off the charts, but that doesn’t mean Musumeci can’t have fun too. In fact, his secret sauce for athletic success seems to lie in making the work as enjoyable as possible for himself. He’s previously gone on record about his famous pizza and pasta diet, as well as his penchant for training primarily with hobbyists, rather than fellow jiu-jitsu pros. “The only way that I’m going to keep competing – because I’ve been in this for 22 years – is if I’m having fun,” says Musumeci. “If I’m not having fun, there’s no way I’m going to continue this.”
Are his hobbyist training partners ever intimidated by an athlete of Musumeci’s caliber? Not really. “They’re more excited, because it’s fun for them,” explains Mikey. “They’re not these professional athletes who are miserable training – they’re actually there having fun. So they have this energy and excitement, when I’m training with them, and I feel like that makes it more fun for me.”
In combat sports, where athletes so frequently torture themselves physically and psychologically for a shot at success, Mikey seems determined to take the opposite path: eating the food that he finds tastiest, and training with the people whose energy makes him happiest. “I basically find ways to enjoy myself while I’m working hard,” says Mikey. “And I feel like that’s something I’m really good at. But if I don’t find enjoyment, I feel like I’m just suffering, and I feel like that yields less results. And because I’m enjoying myself, I’m able to sustain this. That’s the main thing: sustainability. You can’t sustain [your career] if you’re suffering all the time. You can succeed – but it’s not sustainable. But if you enjoy yourself while doing hard work, then you can sustain that hard work.”
What about vegetable intake amidst all that pizza and pasta? Mikey offers a sheepish grin. “There’s tomato on the pizza. Does that count?”
Much of Musumeci’s success on the mats stems from his genuine love of learning – which also translates to his life off the mats. Jiu-jitsu mastery aside, he’s also learned to cook those much-loved Italian meals of his from scratch, studies for the GMAT due to a potential interest in business, and has become quite the polyglot. He’s taught himself Portuguese in order to better communicate with Brazilians, picked up Indonesian when he started competing in Singapore, and is even adding a bit of Mandarin Chinese to his language repertoire, courtesy of his girlfriend. “My girlfriend speaks Mandarin, and it’s such a hard language! Like all the vowels and tones” – here, Mikey hesitantly demonstrates the four tones found in Mandarin Chinese – “It’s hard! [My girlfriend] tried teaching me [the correct tones], but I can’t really do it, it’s too hard. Maybe one day I’ll get into it more, but right now I’m focusing on learning Indonesian.”
According to Mikey, a lot of his jiu-jitsu mentality has also been influenced by his older sister Tammi Musumeci, who’s a tour de force in jiu-jitsu in her own right. The Musumeci siblings still train together regularly – Mikey’s quick to show off the home gym he’s constructed in his Vegas residence, where he and his sister, who’s now a successful attorney, roll around and trade work stories after she finishes her day at the office. “My sister’s really happy being a lawyer – and she sometimes talks to me about cases and things, and it’s really cool,” he shares. “I still have a passion in law also – I have a passion for every subject, basically! When I’m older, I could possibly do more things, but I have this gift for jiu-jitsu, and I’m at a prime age to do it, so I feel like I would be wasting my talent, going to do something I could do at any age.”
“Tammi and I roll every night – she wakes up at like 5 AM, works all day, and then trains at 7 at night in my garage,” adds Mikey, panning the camera around to display the mats he’s set up. “It’s a cool garage! My friends come and train here with my sister too. I think [becoming a lawyer] made her love jiu-jitsu again, honestly – because jiu-jitsu became her place of having fun. When you’re just a competitor, and you’re just training, it’s your workplace, right? So you’re like, ‘oh my god, I’m working,’ and when you’re not training, you’re eating or watching TV, and that’s like your fun time. So for Tammi, because she works [an office job], jiu-jitsu is her fun time.”
Mikey compares his relationship with his sister to the bond between twin jiu-jitsu phenoms and fellow ONE contenders Kade and Tye Ruotolo. “We’re very similar [to the Ruotolos], honestly – I’ve spoken to Kade and Tye about it before, and we are very similar.” While the Musumeci siblings aren’t identical twins, they’re close enough in size that they were always natural training partners. “We’ve always been only like fifteen, twenty pounds apart in weight,” explains Mikey. “So we’ve been close enough in size, where she was always my main training partner as a kid, and growing up. That was actually really beneficial to me. And she would always beat me up every day in training! She was always way better in jiu-jitsu than me, honestly, so I always felt this chip on my shoulder, where I had to work harder. And having somebody to push you to do that – I always felt like she helped me a lot, because I felt like I was less than her, in jiu-jitsu.”
He grins ruefully. “The main difference between [me and Tammi] and the Ruotolo twins is that with them – I remember talking to them – one of them isn’t really ‘alpha’ over the other. But my sister was always alpha over me. She would bully me!”
Spending most of his formative years focused on elite competitive training also means that Mikey missed out on much of the typical adolescent experience – and now, as an adult, feels like he’s making up for lost time. “It’s interesting because I think I went from being a kid to an adult, so I skipped being a teenager – and now I feel like I’m a teenager.” He chuckles. “It’s making me more of a complete person, now that I’m getting people skills in that way – I feel like I’m speaking better, and just in all aspects of life, I’m doing better, now that I have a better balance.”
It took some time for him to cultivate that balance. “To get to the level that I got to in the time that I did, I had to accept not having that balance for a while,” he admits. “And I feel like that’s a hard thing for people to accept, because when you don’t have balance, there’s no stability. I feel like that’s why I battled a lot of depression and stuff, because I lacked balance. But now that I’ve found balance, I feel way better, all the time.”
Musumeci really gave himself permission to start seeking balance after making his early mark on the sport: “The trigger for me to figure out the balance was once I achieved the title I wanted, by winning Worlds – I was like, ‘Okay, now I can allow myself to balance more.’ I had this crazy mindset as a kid, where I couldn’t do anything until I won black belt Worlds. So then, once I won black belt Worlds, I was like, ‘Okay, now I can start working on other parts of my life.’”
“And what helped me, honestly, was just being around other people. In school, I wasn’t really talking to anyone, I was just training every second, not really having many friends or socializing – just being at home with my parents and sister. So when I started traveling to do seminars, traveling the world, meeting new people, learning from their experiences and lives, meeting so many people – it started teaching me these skills that I didn’t get when I was a kid.”
Now that he’s fought his way to the top echelons of the jiu-jitsu world, where does Musumeci see ONE’s new grappling championship fitting in among the current major tournaments of the sport, such as IBJJF Worlds and the ADCCs? “I believe that ONE Championship is, and will continue to be, the biggest stage in jiu-jitsu, and will continue growing,” says Mikey. “And I believe that ADCC and IBJJF Worlds – which are the two biggest tournaments; notice that I say tournaments and not super-fights – they will be the place where ONE Championship gets their athletes.”
In that sense, he hopes that sport jiu-jitsu will eventually model itself somewhat after MMA’s regional circuit: “You’ll see up-and-comers who don’t have a name yet working hard, they’ll go to IBJJF Worlds and ADCC, and then they’ll have a place in ONE Championship. I feel like that’s the future of jiu-jitsu.”
While Mikey himself was at one point slated for the already-stacked ADCC 2022 World Championships, he was forced to withdraw – and doesn’t particularly regret it. “The thing about ADCC for me is that it’s a heavier division, significantly, than what I’m doing in ONE,” he explains. “I’m competing at 135 in ONE while hydrated – which is basically 125 in the US. In ADCC, it’s 145, with seven hours before weigh-ins, where everyone’s cutting from 160. So that’s about 25 pounds heavier than the division I’m doing in ONE, so I love ADCC, and I think it’s a great thing for jiu-jitsu, but it kind of sucks for the lighter guys that they never had a lighter category for us. It’s completely different competitors than I would face in my division.”
That’s not to say that Mikey can’t hang in higher weight divisions – earlier in his career, he was quite the giant slayer in the absolute divisions, at one point going toe to toe with ultra-heavy black belt world champion Mahamed Aly, and losing only by a mere single advantage point.
Right now, though, Mikey doesn’t see himself returning to the absolute divisions to duke it out with the monsters there: “Here in Vegas, I have a lot of small guys to train with, so it’s not as much impact on my body.” Not so, after scrapping with big grapplers: “You can’t walk, your lower back is out all the time – I used to only have big guys to train with when I was in Florida, when I was younger, but it’s a lot of impact on you. Now in Vegas, and when I’m at Evolve in Singapore, I’ve got all little people – like, my size. So I’m able to just have a lot more volume [in training] without impact on my body, and I feel like that’s so important.”
“At least right now, I’m retired from open weight,” he says. Chuckling, he quips, “Though if I’m crazy again, and want to be in pain all the time, I’ll do open weight again.”
Does he have a prediction for who will come out on top in ADCC 2022 at 66kg – the lightest of the men’s divisions, and the one Musumeci was originally slated for? “I think in the 66-kilogram division, there’s so many monsters,” says Mikey. “There’s so many people that can win that division, but I’m personally rooting for Cole Abate. He’s incredible, and I think he should win that division.”
As for Mikey himself, he’s investing all his own energy into making ONE’s very first showdown for a submission grappling world title as exciting as possible. “It’s the first grappling match in ONE history with a belt on the line, so I have this certain chip on my shoulder – this pressure, where I want to make it super exciting, so that we can continue to have jiu-jitsu in ONE Championship. So I feel this pressure – and I’m using it as fuel in my training.”
“Besides even how big ONE is, I also love how they treat the fighters, and I love what they’re doing for the fighters,” he adds. “Now, they’re having drug testing, which is amazing for me, because being a natural person my whole life, fighting all these steroid people kind of sucks. Because everyone I’m competing against takes so many steroids, it really sucks, but now that there’s drug testing, they’ll have to at least cycle off for like a month.” He laughs. “That’ll make it easier for me. Between that, and the hydration tests – which really helps prevent kidney damage – I feel like ONE is really looking at the health of the athletes, not just money, or publicity – just the health alone is so much better with ONE, so I really respect that, and it’s another reason why I want to push ONE to be the biggest platform for the next generation of jiu-jitsu.”
“Right now, I feel like I’m a pioneer – one of the beginning pioneers of ONE Championship for jiu-jitsu,” says Mikey. “So I feel like it’s up to us to make sure ONE remains the biggest platform for jiu-jitsu. Then, the next generation will have drug testing for jiu-jitsu, and will have hydration tests for athletes – all these things that will be a positive impact on the next generation of athletes, which is my goal.”
Don’t miss Musumeci vs Sousa at ONE on Prime Video 2 on September 30, 8 PM EST.
In the meantime, to stay up to date with all things Mikey Musumeci, follow him on Instagram.