Jason Parillo was a 30-year-old father of two young children when a detached retina brought an abrupt end to his undefeated boxing career.
A pupil of Hall of Fame boxing coach Jesse Reid, who would ultimately guide 23 fighters to world titles, Parillo had only begun to mine the extent of his abilities. But, as the fighting gods would have it, a unanimous-decision victory over Reggie Strickland at the Columbia Club in Indianapolis was the final stop on that particular stretch of Parillo’s journey.
Even amid such jarring uncertainty, and with the responsibility of providing for a family bearing down on him, Parillo was resolved to do one thing, the only thing he could. His time in the ring was over, but there was no shortage of fighters who required molding.
And so, despite his then partner imploring him to leave the brutal fight game behind forever, he committed to coaching, though it would not be in boxing where he would truly make his name.
Over the last decade, Parillo has steered MMA greats such as B.J. Penn (16-11-2 MMA, 12-10-2 UFC), Michael Bisping (30-9 MMA, 20-9 UFC) and Cris Cyborg (18-1 MMA, 3-0 UFC) to UFC world titles. But back in 2004, as he set out in earnest as a full-time coach, merely staying afloat was the height of his ambitions.
“There was a panic and fear, obviously,” Parillo told MMAjunkie. “At that stage of my career, I wasn’t making anything, but I was living off sponsorships and knew I was going to lose all that. Also, the personal life also dictates what’s going on and how you handle things. At the time this happened I had some struggles with my family and, you know, I could really write a book on this stuff.
“It was very difficult. I had a lot of discussions with my father – he knew how difficult it was for me – but I was able to take all that ego and drive towards myself, turn it around and put it into other guys.”
Since the age of 16, when he first walked into Reid’s gym in Westminster, Calif., Parillo had been addicted to the pugilistic arts. And, like so many addicts, that love for his drug of choice was unwavering, regardless of the predicament it had just landed him in. So, he persevered.
“I did do some junior college courses, and I had girlfriends and people over the years wanting me to do something else,” Parillo said. “The mother of my kids – we’re not together anymore – but back in the day, I had twin daughters, was 30 years old, with one eye and one hand, she begged me to do something else.
“I didn’t have any successful fighters yet, but I knew this was what I wanted to do and what I’d always want to do. I’m 43 and, since I was 18 years old, I’ve made my living either punching someone or holding the pads.”
One blatant difference between then and now is that Parillo is no longer lacking for marquee fighters. In addition to Bisping and Cyborg, the New York native is also working with former UFC lightweight champion and current welterweight contender Rafael dos Anjos (28-9 MMA, 17-7 UFC), who earned his third consecutive win at 170 pounds with a dominant display against one-time champ Robbie Lawler (28-12 MMA, 13-6 UFC).
Between Nov. and Dec. 30 of last year, his work with the trio took him to four cities, across three countries and two continents. Unsurprisingly, Parillo is a little worn out at present – a small price to pay for doing what he loves.
“I can be a very shallow man, because this is all I do and all I think about,” he said. “I get burnt out. I am right now, because I’ve been travelling the last four months, between the fights with Bisping, RDA (dos Anjos) and Cris. But I know that I would never consider doing anything else in my life. It makes me feel good to gain ground with these guys and see them get what they dream about.”
Parillo was last doling out advice to one of his charges at UFC 219 as Cyborg not only completed the inaugural defense of her women’s featherweight title, at the expense of Holly Holm (11-3 MMA, 4-3 UFC), but also fought a full five-rounds for the first time.
Believing it to be a bridge she needed to cross, watching Cyborg perform over 25 minutes was most pleasing for Parillo, whose primary gripe about her glittering career to date is a lack of activity. All the training and drilling in the world, he contends, is no substitute for time banked in the cage.
Late Monday night, Cyborg took to social media to reveal that she had agreed to take on UFC women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes (15-4 MMA, 8-1 UFC) at UFC 226, in what would be the first female super-fight in promotional history. Parillo is sure that bout will eventually go down, but he’s not overly concerned about the identity of his pupil’s next opponent.
“With Cris, I feel like she’s got the ability to beat most of these girls, no matter who is with her, but I feel like we’ve gained some proper ground,” he explained. “I think she’s still climbing, but I’d like her to be a little more active.
“Unfortunately, it’s been hard to get her consistent fights, and back when we were in Invicta, we had seven or eight girls pull out of fights. But it’s great coaching a girl like that because she’s probably the most exciting fighter in the sport right now.”
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Born in New York in 1974, Parillo was raised in Southern California but still returned to his birthplace each summer until he was 13. Looking back, he’s sure it was the upheaval during his childhood that led him to combat sports.
“I was the first in my family to fight. I got into fighting because of a dysfunctional family,” he said. “I think a lot of fighters do – it all somehow stems from your childhood. I was always involved in martial arts from a kid, then I got into boxing when I was 16 and fell in love with it. I don’t know what it was in me, but I loved the idea of fighting and knew it was what I wanted to do.
“There wasn’t a boxing gym in the neighbourhood I grew up in, but I found one in Westminster. The first time I got in the ring with a professional fighter, to have a guy sit there within inches of me, and I’m throwing my punches as fast as I can into his face, and he makes me miss, then pay – to me, it was like ‘The Matrix.'”
When not pondering the possibility of alternate cyber worlds, Parillo’s formative years were spent in a bruising, sweat-soaked reality. Shadowing Reid, his apprenticeships as a fighter and coach were concurrent, and the knowledge he accrued in those early days not only taught him how to win a fight, but to impart that invaluable information to others.
Even still, in his callowness, he was not immune to the distractions that so often impede a youngster’s focus. Subsequently, Parillo was 24 before entering the professional ranks, following a brief stint as an amateur.
“I went back and forth, because I lived a pretty wild life when I was a young man,” he recalled. “As much as I loved boxing, there was a lot of distractions for me coming up, but that’s a whole long story itself.
“But I had a lot of experience of being in the corners for high-level fights. I was mentored by Jesse, and he wanted me with him everywhere he went. He had guys like Johnny Tapia (five-time world champion) and Paul Spadafora, who I did eight or nine camps with when he was defending the IBF lightweight title. Jesse developed me from A-Z and had a lot of confidence in my future.”
Of the few mitigating factors in the aftermath of Parillo’s enforced retirement, the most prominent was the coaching acumen he had acquired while still a fighter. He was already supplementing the modest income he earned in the ring by giving private lessons and teaching classes at the L.A. Boxing gym. A facility he co-established, that developed into a thriving franchise.
“I had been mentored by a Hall of Fame coach, so I really already had a solid foundation going in, even though I hadn’t been coaching forever,” he said. “Also, when I was still fighting, I would go train with my coach and then head over to L.A. Boxing and hold pads for four or five hours.
“And I would hold the pads how I wanted to, because I knew how to fight and was actually a pretty talented fighter, and there were particular positions and movements I wanted to feel in there. It was so we could get as close as we could to sparring – getting the heart rate up and eyes sharpened.”
He began encountering more and more aspiring mixed martial artists at L.A. Boxing and, unlike many of his contemporaries, Parillo was a fan of the still nascent sport.
“I had boxer friends say, ‘What are you doing?’ In all reality, even though it wasn’t light years behind, boxers would look at some of these guys throw punches and just be like, ‘Are you serious?’ There just wasn’t a whole lot of respect for it,” Parillo said. “I respected it, because my boys did it. Did I see vulnerabilities in what they were doing and how they fought? Yeah, but that made it easier for me to help them.”
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Such was his aptitude for the job, Parillo soon was making significant headway as a full-time coach. Danny Perez, the first boxer he worked with on a permanent basis, clinched the NABC and IBC world titles.
Word spread like wildfire and, after meeting Penn years previously through a mutual friend, Parillo’s presence was requested in Hawaii. Having been opposing coaches on the fifth installment of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Penn was readying to face Jens Pulver in a rematch at the season finale. Parillo and Penn bonded instantly, but there was still a brief feeling out period to be had.
“I moved around with B.J. a little bit, back in the day,” Parillo said. “I was younger and just coming off fighting, so I got in there with him and earned some respect pretty quickly. I became very close with B.J.’s family. They’re great people and only just looking for the best for him. And, when they saw what I was helping him with, it was easier for them to be happy with me being there.
“What separates B.J. from a lot of other people is that he does what you tell him. He puts into action. It’s one thing to have an understanding of what you’re going to do, but actually putting in motion in a live situation, that’s where the psychological aspect of the game comes in.”
Penn defeated Pulver via rear-naked choke in the second round and, seven months later, in January 2007, took the vacant UFC lightweight title by finishing Joe Stevenson in exactly the same manner at UFC 80. Parillo’s life once again changed irrevocably, this time for the better.
“And, you know, I could have been a one-trick pony with B.J., then gone back to working with lower level fighters, but it made people want to work with me,” Parillo said. “Where B.J. was at in his career, I was really able to help him. Once you win a world title with a guy, then defend a few times in high level, pay-per-view fights, you’re in now.
“My buddies were asking why I wasn’t doing the boxing, but I had B.J. Penn catapult me into the MMA world, and I realized I could make a living doing this.”
Penn defended his crown at the expense of Sean Sherk, before moving up to welterweight to challenge then-champion Georges St Pierre (26-2 MMA, 20-2 UFC) at UFC 94. Another rematch, Penn’s disdain for the Canadian was almost visceral, as relayed during the lead-up to the bout in the outstanding “UFC Primetime” series.
“I think that almost wakes up the mind of GSP when you do that, it’s almost going against the grain,” Parillo said. “At the time, I wasn’t the biggest fan of that fight, but it wasn’t my job or my choice.
“B.J. wanted to get in his head a little bit, because he’s that type of fighter, just like Michael Bisping. That’s where they’re similar – they’re both fighters as opposed to athletes. Did B.J. talk a lot of (expletive) and it not work out against GSP? Of course, but it takes a lot of balls to do that and even more balls to get in there.”
Penn’s goading of St Pierre did not have the desired affect and, for the better part of four rounds, the latter took the former to the ground repeatedly and pummeled him with strikes and elbows. In the minute between the fourth and fifth stanzas, Parillo decided Penn had endured enough punishment and called a halt to the contest.
“That was ultimately my decision – 100 percent,” Parillo said. “That’s the advantage of knowing your fighter. I went in there, took a look at his face and knew what was going on there. I wanted to see B.J. fight again and, as the smaller guy, the type of damage he was taking would truly affect his future, not only in fighting, but life.
“Every other shot he would have taken in that fifth round would have affected him for the rest of his life. He went out and defended the lightweight title two more times. Had he gone out for that fifth round, would it have affected those fights? I don’t know, but I wasn’t willing to take that chance.”
It wasn’t a decision Parillo took lightly and, although he’s never regretted it for a second, Penn’s gratitude was precious to him.
“He thanked me. He called me up on two different occasions to thank me, and I love and respect him for that,” Parillo said. “I went up to him in the cage straight after and apologized to him, and he said nothing, but he had just been through a war.
“I don’t even want to pat myself on the back for that because it’s what you’re supposed to do. If you don’t have the ability to do that, don’t be a coach. Don’t get into this game if you’re not looking out for the best interests of your guy, because you’re just hurting people.”
In what was arguably the most exhilarating championship run ever, Penn went on to defend his crown on a further two occasions, first submitting Kenny Florian and then stopping Diego Sanchez.
To this day, the Sanchez win still puts a smile on Parillo’s face, but he admits that preparations may not have been quite as they should have going into Penn’s bouts with overwhelming underdog Frankie Edgar (22-5-1 MMA, 16-5-1 UFC). Penn lost his belt to Edgar by way of a contentious unanimous decision at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi. There was no such sentiment when, four months later, Edgar repeated the feat at UFC 118.
Almost eight years on – including almost two in retirement – Penn has recorded a solitary victory inside the octagon, though was frequently on the receiving end of ferocious beatings, namely from Nick Diaz, Rory McDonald, Edgar, and Yair Rodriguez (10-2 MMA, 6-1 UFC).
Although not officially retired, Parillo reckons Penn has more than earned a less hazardous life.
“As a friend, I love the relationship we have. We talk all the time, because he’s great person,” Parillo said. “He deserves to hang it up and let it go. People ask me all the time if I could see B.J. fighting again. Of course I could, because that’s who he is.
“I just think he deserves to let it go for himself, and that’s going to take some time. But the people around him, who care about and love him, are probably happy he’s not putting himself in harm’s way.”
Their hard-wiring being what it is, Parillo has learned that the greatest challenge facing a coach when first working with a new fighter, is gaining their confidence. Without that, the partnership is destined to fail before it ever begins.
“You have to remember that fighters trust nobody,” he said, “They probably wouldn’t be fighters if they did. Most people don’t trust other people, but fighters are a whole different breed. So, when they trust you, they really (expletive) trust you. I see a lot of con in this game, so I’m patient with the trust and don’t force-feed stuff to people, because they have to learn at their own pace.”
To do what a prize-fighter does, he believes, they have some intangible ingredient on an almost molecular level, to enable them to process fear and anxiety in a way the average person cannot.
“They’re all crazy. All of them,” Parillo said. “This stuff we do is really crazy and then, to learn to calm down with it, it’s psychopathic. The real talented, smart fighter – you’re not going to (expletive) him. The best fighters are almost suicidal. They’ll jump off that cliff, because that’s what it is.
“They’d rather die than lose that fight. They never go in there worrying about what kind of pain they’re going to go through, but they go into a fight worrying about what kind of humiliation they’ll go through.”
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Parillo is no stranger to playing a pivotal role in a feel-good story or two. He was at the helm as former UFC light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz – who as Cyborg’s manager matched her with Parillo – reveled in his first victory in almost five years after submitting Ryan Bader at UFC 132
But even that cathartic night in Las Vegas doesn’t quite compare to witnessing the UFC middleweight title being wrapped around Michael Bisping’s waist at UFC 199. On just 17 days’ notice, Bisping stepped in for the injured Chris Weidman (14-3 MMA, 10-3 UFC) to face champion Luke Rockhold (16-3 MMA, 6-2 UFC), a man he not only had an ugly history with, but who had submitted him in the most chastening fashion.
However, just over a minute and a half into the first round of a fight he was expected to lose spectacularly, Bisping clobbered Rockhold with a pair of left hooks to conjure a seismic upset. It was Parillo who noticed Rockhold could be undone by that particular shot.
“There’s two punches that a lefty is vulnerable to, the straight right and the left hook,” he said. “Sometimes that stuff plays out in a fight, and it’s nice when it does. It’s one of the things I’m proudest of in my life. When Michael called me up to specifically thank me about that fight, it brought me to tears, and I don’t cry.
“That’s what I love about Michael, because there’s humility in that. A lot of guys when they win, it’s all them and it’s all you when they lose. That fight, I think some oddsmakers had Michael as an 8-1 underdog. It solidified his story – his ‘Cinderella’ story.”
In an unexpected career twilight, Bisping returned home to Manchester and defended his title against Dan Henderson – avenging that devastating knockout loss at UFC 100. And that, according to Parillo, is Bisping in a nutshell.
The willingness to continue moving forward, no matter the adversity or derision he encounters. Georges St Pierre usurped Bisping by way of third-round submission at UFC 217 and three weeks to the day later, Bisping was knocked out by Kelvin Gastelum (14-3 MMA, 9-3 UFC) at UFC Fight Night 122 in Shanghai. But Parillo is adamant that Bisoing, no matter what the future holds, will reflect on his scarcely believable career with only great pride.
“Mike gives me inspiration, because he brushes this stuff off,” Parillo said. “Does he have hard times when he’s by himself? I’m sure. We all do. With the mental strength that he has, I don’t think he’ll have any regrets for the rest of his life.”
As for Parillo, he’s content to see those taking the risks reap the rewards.
“I’m kind of living vicariously through them,” he said. “Do I feel good when they win? Yeah. Do I feel like (expletive) when they lose? Yeah. I’ve always kind of stayed under the radar, I guess. I try not to make it about me, because it should be about the fighters. If I wanted to make it about me, I’d still be fighting myself.”
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