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John Yoo: “The Gentleman’s” Guide to MMA

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(John Yoo and 10th Planet corner celebrate victory over Demar George, photo: Kareem Girgis)

It’s rare to find an athlete that began their career from behind the desk but after serving as executive assistant to Bjorn Rebney, John “The Gentleman” Yoo was hooked on the business of MMA. Beyond the prospect of a career, Yoo found a new direction for his life in the community and practice of martial arts. Overcoming a debilitating injury and personal struggles, Yoo has earned an amateur record of 4-2 in 3 years. As a young prospect working in the roughest game in town, we ask what led him to working on the other side of the Bellator desk.

(John Yoo, photo: Kareem Girgis)
(John Yoo, photo: Kareem Girgis)

Scifighting: How did you get involved with Bellator and work as the assistant to former CEO Bjorn Rebney?

Yoo: I actually met Bjorn and Tim Danaher through one of my training partners at 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu. When they hired me, things were already in the works to have Scott [Coker] come in. I was in a situation where I was the assistant for the previous regime but as I met Scott and the new regime, I got to know everybody well. It sucks that they had to let me go but it was a corporate decision when Viacom made changes in the office. I have a good relationship with Scott and Rich and still talk to them pretty often. I’m trying to see if Bellator can take me on within the year, but it’s unlikely that I’ll be on the 132 card. I’m just working on building relationships within the industry.

SF: Where were you training before you took the position at Bellator?

Yoo: I have been training as a martial artist for a little over 3 years now. I had an injury in the end of 2003 and I had a lot of personal demons to beat at that time. I got into a fight and got a really severe boxer’s fracture in my 4th and 5th metacarpal on my dominant right hand. I left it uncorrected like that for over a year. I had 3 fingers and the 4th and 5th were basically non-functioning and useless. All the symmetry on the right side of my body was pretty much gone too.

I hit rock bottom and didn’t know to do. After my reconstructive surgery I had a breakdown moment where I didn’t know if I was ever going to be right physically again. I was cooking Korean food and making a traditional dish. My right hand was broken and it was the first time time I ever had to use chop sticks in my left hand. I couldn’t do it. I threw my chop sticks and just started bawling and couldn’t eat. I made the same dish again the next night and had to become ambidextrous.

SF: How did you adjust to the injury in training?

Yoo: I had reconstructive hand surgery about a year after the injury. After recovery, I didn’t do my physical therapy to the best that I could have and I wasn’t really functioning properly. I started doing jiu-jitsu and kickboxing and I really fell in love with it. I did everything I could trying to get right physically.

(John Yoo, photo: Kareem Girgis)
(John Yoo, photo: Kareem Girgis)

SF: What made you want want to want to pursue martial arts as a means of recovery over any other activity?

Yoo: I was a big UFC fan and I just wanted to try it out. After training, I really felt like I had potential and never quit. It’s been 3 years and I’ve just been training harder and harder everyday. I feel like I can be one of the best at this.

SF: How did you come across the team at 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu in Costa Mesa, CA?

Yoo: That’s a funny story actually. When I was at Reign Training Center 4-5 months into training, I wanted to fight and see where my level was at. I took a fight, but my opponent was replaced on Wednesday of fight week and I had to move up to 145. He happened to be trained by coaches Ron Turner and Casey Halstead and pretty much everyone I know now. I meet Ron and Casey through my very first fight, they were the coaches of my first opponent. It was like Yushin Okami training with Chael Sonnen after he got the wrestling beat down. I went over to Tenth Planet and started working with them on my ground game and they really emphasized jiu-jitsu. Now I’m considered a jiu-jitsu fighter, but I feel comfortable everywhere the fight goes.

(John Yoo vs. Demar George, photo: Kareem Girgis)
(John Yoo vs. Demar George, photo: Kareem Girgis)

SF: You’ve had the chance to train at many different gyms in Southern California. Why did you decide to stick with 10th Planet?

Yoo: I’ve trained at a lot of gyms and I’ve seen a lot of different gym environments. 10th Planet has more of a family feel, camaraderie and brotherhood. It feels like family. There’s no one I would rather do this with, everything just feels right.

SF: What do you make of the antitrust case against the UFC? Do you think that Bellator will become a major competitor as a result of the case?

Yoo: My take on this is from a fighter/manager’s perspective. The UFC has the market power and notability woldwide. You’ll hear a lot from managers and fighters that there’s personalities in the UFC that are really hard to deal with on a personal and professional level. I think the regime at Bellator is doing it right. They might have changed a lot of things that were Bellator traditions but I think they’re doing it right. I think everything in life is about relationships and wanting to work with people. All good relationships lead to good things and if you really like to work with the people around you, you’re going to do it to the best of your ability.

SF: What professional fighters do you look up to?

Yoo: My favorite fighter of all time is Jose Aldo. I love the way he fights and I try to model my game after him. I also really like Frankie Edgar.

SF: What is your personal goal in pursuing martial arts? What makes MMA so significant to you?

Yoo: I’m a huge fan and I love the sports industry. Now, I have the ability and aspiration to train and become the best I can be. I don’t do it just to fight, it’s a bigger release to me than that. It’s something that has a purpose to me. I have some demons in my past and regrets–that’s what drives me. I feel like I can help a lot of people and change a lot of things through representation for fighters. That’s why I don’t just label myself as an MMA fighter.

(John Yoo, photo: Kareem Girgis)
(John Yoo, photo: Kareem Girgis)
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Kurt Tellez
Kurt Tellez is a Southern California-based writer and musician. He first developed a passion for writing and literature in high school that carried through to the completion of a B.A. in English from Cal State Fullerton in 2013. Inspired by Joseph Conrad, Emily Dickinson, Alan Moore and Hunter S. Thompson, he has pursued a career in writing through contributions to online magazine publications, blogging, and social media management. His musical studies began at thirteen, and has since played in garage bands, concert bands and jazz bands everywhere from Honolulu to The Matthew Street Beatles Festival in Liverpool. Kurt has followed MMA since becoming an avid listener of the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast. Inspired by Eddie Bravo's appearances on the show, he became a member of Tenth Planet Jiu-Jitsu in 2014.