Photos by José A. Alvarado Jr.
UFC star Gregor Gillespie loves to fight, but he lives to fish.
Cars and trucks rumble past the pond at 40 mph. On one side is a gas station, and on the other are rows of uniform apartments. It’s not the kind of place you’d expect to meet a mixed martial arts star for an afternoon of fishing.
Gregor Gillespie, followed by his friend Nick Karamoshos, makes his way to the pond with a brown bag clenched in his fist. He sits on a bench, takes a frozen yogurt out of the bag and scarfs it down, pausing only to sprinkle M&Ms on top. If you told me this is how my afternoon with a guy who punches people in the face for a living was going to start, I’d call you a liar. The snack and small talk are dealt with swiftly. Gillespie is here to fish. He and Karamoshos pull rods, a net and a tackle box from the car and make their way to a secluded section of the pond. Gillespie removes new plastic lures from their packages; Karamoshos, who is 17, finds a country music station on his phone.
“I tell Nick all the time about the health benefits of vitamin D,” Gillespie says, taking off his shirt. Covered in tattoos, his physique is what you’d expect from an undefeated (12-0) professional fighter who works out three times a day (except for Sunday, when he only works out once). He’s ripped. The only other six packs you’ll find around this pond are on ice in Coleman coolers.
Gillespie rigs a pair of spinning and baitcasting rods and leads Karamoshos to a spot he likes to fish that’s about 20 feet from the busy road. It’s clear their relationship isn’t just that of friends; they interact like brothers. In fact, Gregor rents an apartment connected to Karamoshos’ father’s house, so they live under the same roof. The pair also have a teacher-student relationship. Gillespie, a former NCAA Division 1 champion wrestler, is a private coach to as many as 50 athletes. Nick, a top high school wrestler in New York, is one of his star athletes.
“He’s a great mentor,” Karamoshos says as he plucks weeds from his lure between casts. “He’s probably the person I look up to the most besides my dad and grandfather. He teaches me about wrestling and fishing and about life.”
When you’re friends and fishing buddies with a champion mixed martial artist, you have your share of unique experiences, says Karamoshos. “Just yesterday a guy came up to us and said, ‘I know who you are; you’re Gregor Gillespie,’ ” Karamoshos says. “He was a really nice guy. We talked to him for about an hour.”
Gallery: The Fighter. The Fisherman.
Those who are familiar with Gregor and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (one of his post-fight interviews garnered more than 120,000 views on YouTube) know him as a relentless athlete with a vicious left hook and expect a tough-as-nails persona. “People in my school think he’s scary just from looking at him,” Karamoshos says. “They say, ‘Oh my God, you have a UFC fighter living in your house.’ I don’t think of him as a UFC fighter — I think of him as a normal guy.”
Despite the respect the two have for each other, there’s always rivalry in a brotherly relationship. “Nick and I are really competitive. Sometimes when it’s cold we compete to see who [relents] and puts his gloves on first,” Gillespie says with a laugh. “It’s the kind of competition no one wins.”
“But it’s also one no one loses,” Karamoshos adds.
Karamoshos lands the first bass of the day. The two pose for a picture, release the small fish and get back to business. The fighter and social media star (@Gregorthegift) who goes by #BestFishermanInMMA doesn’t want to be shown up.
As with many aspects of Gillespie’s life, his introduction to angling as a kid was unconventional. His father, a former canoe racer, is one of the top wooden canoe paddle makers in the world. When out paddling, he’d put his son in the back of the canoe with a fishing pole. “I’d sit in the back, open the bail and bzzzz, just let the line out and we’d be trolling,” Gillespie recalls. “There was no motor, just the paddle, so fish wouldn’t get spooked. I still remember being in the Saranac Lake chain in the Adirondacks, and I’d be in the back catching pike.”
Fishing was put on pause as the boy in the canoe morphed into one of the country’s top wrestlers. Gillespie won two state championships for Webster High School outside Rochester, New York. Later, his relentless style of attacking made him one of Edinboro (Pennsylvania) University’s winningest wrestlers and an NCAA champion.
After college, free from the structured routine of an elite athlete, Gillespie started partying. A tattoo on his neck reads “1 or 100,” which speaks to the fact that when he commits to something, he goes all in. That’s a good mantra to apply to wrestling, not so much for partying. At the urging of his coach, he entered rehab in 2010.
“That was almost eight years ago,” Gregor says as he checks his lure and casts. “May 31st will be my eight years clean and sober anniversary. This is certainly a healthier vice than that type of partying lifestyle. Fishing is about as crazy as it gets now.”
After rehab, Gillespie returned to the wrestling mat and was competitive on the world stage, placing in the U.S. Open, a prelude to the World Championships. He then followed the path of other successful wrestlers into the Octagon — the enclosed ring where MMA fights are held. It was around this time that a friend from Edinboro introduced Gillespie to muskie fishing. After just 45 minutes on a lake, he caught the fish of 10,000 casts. “I was hooked again.”
Gillespie hasn’t stopped fishing since, and he says the sport gives him a chance to take a breather from his training regimen of 19 workouts a week. “For a while everything was the same every day,” he says. “It could be Monday or it could be Saturday — it didn’t matter. I’m good at fighting, and I like it, but fishing is definitely a much-needed break.”
The day we met, Gillespie — who fights at 155 pounds — was six weeks from co-headlining a UFC event in Utica, New York (which he won). Gillespie says he abstains from fishing in the three weeks leading up to a fight to gain aggression and a competitive edge.
The hours pass, and the #BestFishermanInMMA has yet to land a fish. That might be stressful for some, especially with a photographer waiting for a shot, but Gillespie is no stranger to pressure. “You have to be like water to a rock; water breaks down rocks over time,” he says as he sends his lure across the pond. “I’m very persistent in all walks of life. Whether it’s fishing or fighting, I’ll do something until I get it right.”
Gillespie has been known to fish all day, even if the action is slow, which makes it difficult to find fishing partners. The photographer and I look at each other, hoping it doesn’t take that long. Gillespie’s rod tip dips, and the photographer scrambles into position. The fighter lifts a chain pickerel.
It’s a funny juxtaposition, the fierce fighter holding the diminutive fish. Gillespie takes out his phone to shoot an Instagram video. He doesn’t care about the size of the fish. He’s not looking for a physical fight; he gets enough of that from his day job. He’s looking to be tested mentally. “I never use bait,” he notes. “I like tricking the fish into biting.”
Gillespie is wired for a challenge; without it, he tends to get restless. It’s why one of his favorite species is muskie. “There’s just a mystique around muskie because they’re so hard to catch,” say Gillespie, who bought his small fishing boat with bonus money he received after knocking out an opponent in the first round. “To me it’s the long game. If I catch three muskie it’ll be a good season. Something that’s elusive and difficult to attain is more interesting to me.”
Gillespie has been fighting professionally for four years in the lightweight division, yet even with his successes, he’s all too aware that a career in the hurt business is short. As long as he’s healthy, Gillespie tries to compete in the UFC every four months, which is typical given the rigors of this style of fighting. While some athletes compete into their 40s, the average retirement age in the UFC is 35. Gillespie is 31 and intends to hang up the gloves in another four years. “Hopefully I can springboard my fighting career to help me do something serious in fishing [when I retire],” Gillespie says, loading his gear into the trunk. “Hell, maybe I can get a fishing show or something, even if it’s a YouTube channel. Or maybe a podcast on a boat. Fishing is something I’ll do until I die.”
In the Octagon, Gregor is known as “The Gift,” a nod to his natural athletic ability. The real gift, however, might be the one thing that has brought balance to the young fighter: fishing.