Jaywalking: Local battler has no quit
Joe Leonard won his first career mixed-martial-arts match one month ago, but it was far from the first fight he’s won.
It won’t be his last, either.
The South Deerfield resident has spent the past six years living with Crohn’s Disease, and during that time he’s not only battled the illness but has also begun his MMA career. Both have presented Leonard with challenges, and the 32-year-old has repeatedly beaten the odds to take both head-on. It’s the kind of tale reserved for a movie.
Leonard bounced around for much of his childhood, born in Holyoke and raised in Chicopee and Greenfield. He actually delivered The Recorder on Hope Street as a young boy. After graduating from Greenfield High School in 1999, he joined the service and eventually married wife Angela. Leonard took her and his new step daughters and moved in 2007 to South Deerfield, where he began working at Berkshire Brewing Co. job he called a perfect fit. Life was good.
But nothing comes easy for Leonard. It started in 2009 when life threw him its version of a round-house left hook. Just a few months after learning he had Crohn’s — an inflammatory bowel disease — Leonard had to have emergency surgery to remove a diseased part of his large intestine. That forced him to leave his job at BBC. He followed the surgery by taking treatments for about a year. But instead of getting better, he got worse and in 2010 underwent a second surgery.
Following that procedure, Leonard was dealing with a number of horrible complications, from constant pain to spending what he said was six to seven hours a day in the bathroom. Doctors prescribed a number of medications to help, but Leonard is sensitive to even the mildest pharmaceuticals. Too much to take, predictable depression set in.
“I was in a lot of pain, and I had to deal with this stigma that you get when you are looking for pain medication because typically you don’t have pain with Crohn’s,” he said. “Life was falling apart around me. I didn’t want to be on medication but thought, ‘If I don’t want to take medication, I needed to do something.’”
And do something he did. Leonard weighed in at 240 pounds at this point in his life, and he decided that while he may not be able to control some things, one thing he could do was to get in shape. This led him to the Body Shoppe in Greenfield. And it’s there that he met Todd Selva, a personal trainer who began Leonard on a cardio workout with some light lifting.
Selva eventually found out that Leonard had an interest in extreme sports. Leonard’s father, Joe Leonard (not Sr.), was an amateur boxer in Holyoke. So fighting was in Joe’s blood. Selva had been fighting with the local MMA group, Team Ravenous, and invited Leonard to check it out.
“I was like a moth drawn to a flame,” Leonard recalled. “I gained a lot of respect for Todd. I had no ambitions at all to be competitive but had a background in martial arts and I was attracted to the submission grappling. I decided that I was going to start training, not to just get healthy, but so that I could go join those guys in the gym.”
But due to Crohn’s, Leonard had to stop working at the brewery, which left him with limited funds. And with two stepdaughters at home and a wife taking college classes, he knew he would be unable to afford the Body Shoppe. That’s when the Body Shoppe reached out to him and offered to give him some work as a night janitor. He began doing that to pay for his gym time, and he also began to train with Team Ravenous founder Jeremy Reipold and the rest of the team. Soon after that, he attended his first fight, traveling to Manchester, N.H., to watch Ravenous member Nick Vaughn fight. Then, in 2011, he took in a Sarah Payant bout, which dramatically changed his outlook.
“That’s when I really started to want to step it up,” he said. “I was still kind of heavy, but the guys let me know that I could compete at any weight. The only issue is that the guys at the higher weights are not out-of-shape heavy guys. That was a huge motivator for me to lose weight.”
And lose weight he did. Nothing the doctors were doing was helping him with the Crohn’s, but Leonard had already shown his ability to grab life by the throat and do what he needed. And so it happened again. This time it came after watching the Australian movie “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead,” which is about a guy with an autoimmune disease. The movie inspired Leonard to go on a 60-day juice cleanse, the results of which were remarkable.
“I had nothing to lose so I did a 60-day fast,” he explained. “After day three or four, I felt awesome. My bowels felt great.”
Rather than eat solid foods, Leonard started juicing everything he ate and kept a journal to note what he was doing. His main “juiced meal” consists of kale, spinach, a green apple, cucumber, lemon and ginger root. He said that now he occasionally mixes in coconut milk, yogurt, cereal or a muffin.
“I have a pretty strict nutrition plan now,” he said. “I only eat solid meals maybe two times a week. It was hard at first, but now it’s not something I struggle with. I feel great and I hope someday that I can help other people out, because it’s a challenge.”
Leonard had hoped to trim down to 185 pounds and got there, but just kept going. He got all the way down to 138 pounds, which was 102 pounds lighter than where he started. That’s the kind of thing you see on The Biggest Loser. He currently weighs 155 pounds, and that’s where he stays.
Leonard’s story took a happy turn on Aug. 24, 2012, when he took on Michael Tabor as part of a Warrior Nation event in Chicopee for his first career bout. The match did not have a Hollywood ending — it was stopped 52 seconds in the first round when he got put in an arm bar submission hold — but that day was not about winning and losing.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “It was nice to lose the jitters.”
His next fight came this past June against Rob Brown in a much bigger venue. Fighting as part of the Reality Fighting promotion, Leonard went to Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn., where he fought in front of 5,000 people. He again came up on the losing end — suffering a stoppage 2 minutes, 6 seconds into the first round due to strikes — and this time Leonard was looking for more than just making it into the cage.
“I had a really unimpressive bout,” he said. “The video’s up on YouTube.”
Finally, on July 19, Leonard got the chance to celebrate a win. He again fought for Warrior Nation in Chicopee, where he took on Chris Walker and he earned a technical knockout 1:11 into the first round.
“It felt amazing, and it felt effortless,” he said.
This is typically where the movie would end. Cue the victorious music as Leonard celebrates with his family. THE END. Only this is not the way the story ends. Leonard is not done yet. Following his fight with Walker, Leonard went in to see a doctor for medical procedures. The doctor saw something she didn’t like. Suddenly, there is more suspense in his life. Remember, nothing comes easy for Leonard. So when he is told by the doctor that he has cancer, it does not come as a surprise. Neither does his response.
“I’m trying not to get down about it,” he said. “I can’t, or else I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning.”
This is all still fresh for Leonard. He is currently in the process of seeing specialists and getting second opinions. In fact, he hasn’t really talked with anyone outside his immediate family about it. But he opened up to me. We had a long conversation. The kind that chokes you up and puts things into perspective.
“What I have learned from all of this is that you can either lay down and let it lick you, or you can get back up and beat it,” he said.
He’s got a lot of fight left.
Anyone who wants to meet Leonard or work out with him is welcome to attend one of his classes.
Leonard teaches a strength-and-conditioning class three days a week at the home of Team Ravenous on Main Street, Greenfield. Ravenous is located above King’s Gym and can be accessed by a door next to the gym. Leonard is there Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights at 6:30. He can also be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com.
“I relish the chance to talk to people,” he said.
And Leonard is planning to get back into the cage in November. So keep an eye out for that this fall.
You can find out more about Leonard, Team Ravenous and the entire MMA scene in western Mass. at www.westernmassmma.com.
Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.