Two men with local ties are fighting Mixed Martial Arts bouts tonight at Biddeford Arena.

One is a 27-year-old who won a bronze medal at the Pan-American games in California earlier this month. The other is a 35-year-old who credits being a mailman with his training.

John “First Class” Raio, a former standout wrestler at Gardiner Area High School, is a mailman by trade. Also fighting tonight is Jarod Lawton, who teaches Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at Maine Isshinryu Karate Academies (MIKA) in Manchester.

If you’re wondering, yes, the “First Class” nickname is a play on Raio delivering mail. It was coined by Ryan Cowette, who owns MMAAthletix in Brunswick, where Raio trains. Raio said the name has also found its way onto notes from co-workers at the office.

“At work I get it a lot from guys,” Raio said. “Everybody kind of rides me about it.”

Raio, who estimates he’s trained 15-20 hours a week leading up to tonight’s bout, wrestled in college at Plymouth State and the University of Southern Maine, but hadn’t been in any competitive matches since graduating in 2001. He was introduced to Mixed Martial Arts about a year and a half ago, and was hooked immediately.

You might say Raio’s body was in an “active resting” phase during the intervening years. He kept up with his lifting, and estimates he’ll walk 7 to 9 miles a day on his mail route. So he was still in fine shape, but his body was spared the pounding it would have received had he taken up MMA earlier in life.

Raio won his first fight, on Feb. 11 at Fight Night 1. He said there were about 3,200 spectators on hand. The matches are three, 5-minute rounds, and in winning, Raio surprised himself with his abilities.

“In wrestling, you can go 100 percent in practice,” Raio said. “In Mixed Martial Arts, you can’t go all out in practice, because no one would be able to compete. So it hit me: This is real now. Some of my moves, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I just did that?’ “

Tonight, Raio is fighting 19-year-old Erik Nelson, who is closer in age to each of Raio’s children (ages 10 and 4) then to Raio himself.

“I think, initially, I was kind of surprised at the age gap,” Raio said. “But once it starts, it doesn’t matter if he’s 20 or 40 — he’s going to be out there as an opponent.”

While Raio is a bit of a newcomer to martial arts, Lawton got involved while he was growing up. While living in Florida, he trained under Pablo Popovich, who won a submission wrestling world championship in 2009.

Lawton also has a 1-0 record in MMA, but that fight was a few years ago, and he took it on short notice. He said he’d like to take on a more regular schedule of bouts in the future.

“I guess they’re having another show in June. That might be a possibility,” Lawton said. “I’m going to play it by ear, and hopefully make it happen.”

In Lawton’s experience, there is more awareness now for MMA from people he meets, but not many people realize just how much dedication and sacrifice it takes to prepare for a bout. Lawton had to weigh in at 171 Friday night, and was at 175 earlier in the day.

“That’s one of the most difficult things for me, because I love to eat,” Lawton said. “I eat healthy and I eat clean, but eating on a regular basis is a good thing for me.

“I lost 16 pounds since Monday morning. It’s just part of the game plan and everybody has to do it, but it’s brutal, man.”

Lawton’s opponent tonight is Darrius Heyliger, who has also won his only MMA bout. Earlier this week, Lawton found an online video of Heyliger competing, and that’s helped him come up with a game plan.

“I think our styles are going to match up well,” Lawton said. “I think what I have to bring to the table is going to be a good game plan for his style of fighting.”

Matt DiFilippo — 861-9243

[email protected]


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