John Rallo, Binky Jones

Ground Control's John Rallo (left) and Binky Jones have been friends since playing youth football together as kids in Baltimore. Both men used wrestling skills learned at local high schools as a bridge to mixed martial arts. (Pramit Mohapatra: Special to

Drive east along Boston Street, past Canton and the 1st Mariner building and you arrive at the Broom Factory, less than a mile from Interstate 95 on the left-hand side. Resembling an old industrial building from the outside of 3500 Boston St., inside the Broom Factory contains inconspicuous office suites used by a variety of businesses. The second-floor door to one of the suites looks like any other, but step inside and you may be surprised -- instead of an accounting office or small tech company, you'll find the home of Baltimore's mixed martial arts movement, Ground Control Baltimore Academy.

Ground Control boasts close to 200 students and holds classes every day of the week in its nearly 3,500-square-foot training facility, according to co-owner John Rallo. The facility is separated into a larger room consisting of mats, a half-cage, a locker room and a smaller room with a number of punching bags and weight machines. Ground Control trains a wide variety of students in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu classes, as well as boxing and kickboxing. Students range in age and ability; some train simply to get in shape or gain self-confidence, while others participate in competitive MMA for Ground Control's fight team.

The story of Ground Control, Rallo and his star fighter/instructor (and lifelong friend) James "Binky" Jones is the story of MMA in America. Most casual fans of the sport see the glitz and the glamour of the Ultimate Fighting Championship today, but MMA has been around for more than a decade and much of its recent success stems from the grassroots foundation laid by many fighters across the country. Ground Control is Baltimore's contribution to this grassroots movement.

John Rallo -- Fighter and Entrepreneur
Rallo, 37, has an energetic personality as big as his 6-foot-1, 275-pound frame. He grew up in Baltimore and, as he puts it, "ran the streets of Highlandtown, before it was a nice neighborhood." He excelled in sports and went on to star in football at McDonogh High School, where he also wrestled on the side, filling in whenever the wrestling team needed him.

After graduating from high school in 1986, Rallo attended Widener University in Chester, Pa., before transferring to Towson University. Rallo never finished college, opting to leave school early to start a computer company with a relative. After eight years with the company, Rallo left to work with Mutual of New York, a financial company.

Around this time, Rallo became interested in the Brazilian system of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu after watching early UFC events. He was particularly moved by Royce Gracie's victory over Dan Severn at UFC 4 in 1994. In the bout, the 176-pound Gracie beat the 250-pound Severn by first-round submission. The undersized Gracie impressed Rallo so much that he began looking for a school to learn Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, techniques developed by Royce and his family members. After the Severn-Gracie fight, Rallo thought, "I am not having some little dude beat me like that -- I need to learn what [Gracie] knows."

As fate would have it, Rallo won a 16-fighter grappling tournament at Essex Community College in May 1998 that was refereed by Mark Finley, a Rickson Gracie (Royce's older brother) representative from Los Angeles looking to start a jiu-jitsu school in Baltimore. Finley invited Rallo to start teaching mixed martial arts classes with him at the Baltimore Boxing Club on South Broadway. These first classes -- representing the humble beginnings of Ground Control -- had very few students and were held in the middle of the floor at the boxing gym.

Ground Control's next training facility was a YMCA, where classes were taught in the basement. Finley became a police officer in Anne Arundel County and handed the school over to Rallo. The school moved again to the aerobics room at the Canton Club and then the Broom Factory, initially occupying a suite about one-third the current size. Rallo and his two current co-owners -- Rob Mulqueen, who handles much of the business side, and Rocky Marcantoni, a brown belt and an instructor at the academy -- finally moved Ground Control to the current facility in April 2005.

Rallo continued to fight, even as the school became more successful and a bigger part of his life. In 1999, he won the East Coast Grappler's Cup, defeating two of Renzo Gracie's fighters along the way. Rallo then won Grappler's Quest a few weeks later, earning a phone call from Renzo Gracie, a member of the famous Brazilian clan and a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu teacher in New York City. Based on Rallo's performance, Gracie awarded him a Blue Belt and deputized Rallo to represent Team Renzo Gracie at tournaments.

Rallo has amassed a professional mixed martial arts record of 6-0 as a heavyweight fighter and recently earned a Gracie Black Belt for his accomplishment as a fighter and a teacher of the art. However, a torn ACL in the spring of 2005 forced Rallo to focus almost solely on the academy. Rallo says the ACL injury made him withdraw from a spot on season two of Spike TV's reality show The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) -- cutting short a chance to break into the UFC -- but the misfortune may have ultimately been a boon for the school.

When Ground Control moved to the Broom Factory in 2005, the academy had only 40 students, according to Rallo. Almost two years later, Rallo says there are close to 200 students, all of whom must sign long-term contracts which guarantee the academy a predictable source of income. Students pay $125 per month to train at Ground Control, which includes unlimited access to all of the academy's facilities (discounts are available for college students and law enforcement).

Binky Jones -- Fighter and Teacher
Jones, a 37-year-old Baltimore native, stars on the Ground Control fight team, which represents the school at competitions around the region. The mild-mannered Jones holds a Renzo Gracie Purple Belt, fights in the 155-pound weight class and has been with the academy for three years.

Jones met Rallo when both played pee-wee football together in Dundalk. Jones was primarily raised by his mother as his father was in and out of his life, but he was fortunate to encounter male role models in youth football coaches, including Rallo's father, John Rallo Sr., and Robert Ray.

In high school, Jones wrestled at Mount St. Joseph's and found another childhood mentor in wrestling coach John Hefner. Jones remembers his time on the Gaels' wrestling team fondly because of the close relationship he shared with his teammates -- a feeling of brotherhood he now feels as a member of Ground Control, forged from countless hours of "training … sweating … bleeding together."

After high school, Jones wrestled two years at Morgan State University, but with no real opportunities to wrestle professionally, his chances of continuing in the sport after college appeared slim.

That changed when Jones' former high school teammate and current manager, Cordell Hunter, introduced him to UFC and the early fights won by Royce Gracie. Jones' interest in MMA then led him to Lloyd Irvin's mixed martial arts school in Camp Springs, Md. Jones believed in MMA after his first workout with Irvin. Even though he could take Irvin down using wrestling skills, once the two were on the ground, Irvin came out on top.

Jones struggled in his early years as a fighter, estimating that he didn't start making money in the sport for "five to six years." His wife Sherry worried about the violence in MMA and didn't understand the amount of money Jones spent on training, working out and competing. Those years of sacrifice and hard work paid off for Jones, who now earns money as an instructor at Ground Control and through fight sponsorship.