By Matt Sutin
In Balance Studios of Philadelphia, giant red sliding doors are decorated by a black Sanskrit Om symbol. This, says owner and trainer, Phil Migliarese, represents “the veil of illusion.” In a sparring session, Frank Ambrifi, Migliarese’s student, circles him creating the illusion of an overly aggressive fighter. He fakes a kick. The trainer kicks back and the student explodes. Ambrifi shoots in for a quick double leg. Whether or not Phil lets this happen is anyone’s guess. Ambrifi’s movements are not done maliciously. They are executed with a backing of his belief in Eastern philosophy that expresses a purpose-driven mind. When was the last time a professional “non-violent” athlete cited Eastern philosophy, Phil Jackson and co. aside?
Ambrifi, 34, is training to become a UFC fighter. Physically, he is jacked. His jaw is square, although his demeanor and facial expressions outside of the ring are unassuming, especially considering his talent. “Frank [Ambrifi] either hangs with, or destroys guys who are in the UFC,” Migliarese says. He knows this because he has two UFC fighters (including Frank Edgar) and 14 professional mixed martial artists training in his gym. He has also trained extensively with the Gracie brothers. Ambrifi has fought in gyms before, but, as of this past summer, never in an organized arena. What makes him nervous is not his opponent, but what his friends will think when they see him, he says.
Being held in high esteem by others is important to him. This is why, in his part-time job as a real estate agent, he does not tell people about his passion for MMA. Ambrifi is not alone in this regard. The professional world is filled with people who will only discuss beer, golf, and local professional teams. When he bruises or scrapes his face, he makes up a story to tell to his clients. If they knew Ambrifi well enough, if they did not have misconceptions about MMA, he would have nothing to hide. If he was the type to brag about his accomplishments, he might even tell them about his fourth place finish in the Pan Am Games in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in 2002. Frank isn’t alone in this regard.
And what helped Ambrifi to this high level? “It took me a year to learn how to breathe through yoga exercises. It made a 100 per cent difference.” This answer is not what most people would expect. The veil of illusion once again presents itself. If illusion is the gap between perception and reality, then Ambrifi is a master of this duality. “Some people think of this sport as barbaric. It’s not. [MMA] is like a game of chess. You have to stay one move ahead of your opponent,” he says. Ambrifi’s style in the ring proves his pensiveness. In a training session with Frank Edgar, even when Ambrifi is on bottom, Ambrifi’s face never shows any emotional extreme. His breathing is constantly even, displaying a calm character. He says that he fights best when he feels like he is fighting a brother of his.
This makes perfect sense. In wrestling rooms, athletes will ring each others faces across their fists or across the mat, give each other fish hooks, wet Willies, and other forms brotherly punishment. Doing so establishes a fun kind of familiarity between the wrestlers. It frees them to be more physical, and even more punishing.
Ambrifi’s ability to punish comes from a high energy level due to a training regiment that includes one day off during the week. He will work odd hours in order to train throughout the day. He eats well, almost never drinks, and stays away from fast women. Younger fighters who are in their twenties can live at home or find a cheap crawl-space in a buddy’s apartment. Ambrifi, however, in his mid-thirties and needs to support himself by working two jobs. He looks at his age as an advantage because he knows his body well enough to know how to push it.
Although Ambrifi is a dedicated fighter, stoic in the ring, he does have his fear. Germs. Inspired by a 20/20 episode on disease, he now uses four different soaps after workouts, and washes his hands nearly 20 times a day. His worst day came at a wedding. “This lady I knew was intoxicated and dancing everywhere. She had water stains on her dress. She came over to me, hugged me and kissed me, and left sweat all over the side of my face and on my suit,” he says.
This moment was a true test of Ambrifi’s ability to think rationally in the moment. He showed no disgust on his face. He didn’t say a word to anyone. Instead he left the wedding, drove home, showered, and returned. There are rampant stories in the fighting and sports world of athletes with quirks and superstitions. Wade Boggs used to shave his mustache and and start or stop eating chicken to get out of a slump. Sonny Liston feared blood. Ambrifi hates germs.
Even with his level of success, Ambrifi does not scream out his many accomplishments. “Balance Studio teaches me to lose my ego. It only hurts a fighter,” he explains. The sign that greets all students upon entering Balance tells them to leave their shoes and their egos at the door. On the rare occasion that he loses, he maintains his composure. “I don’t make a scene, I keep my mouth shut and show people that nothing bothers me. I don’t want to hurt my teammates.” If only all of us could accept setbacks as Ambrifi does.