Bellator 257’s Jay Jay Wilson spoke to FanSided about his path from living on the street to undefeated MMA contender.
Undefeated Bellator featherweight Jay-Jay Wilson has a life he probably never could have imagined. Living across the globe from his native New Zealand and ranked in the top-10 of Bellator’s stacked featherweight division, Wilson’s incredible MMA origin story brings new meaning to the martial arts trope of “living in the gym.”
Wilson (AKA “The Maori Kid”) has all the potential to be one of MMA’s next big stars, with dreams of a lasting legacy and multiple championships, but not that long ago he seemed destined for an entirely different life.
“Before I started MMA, I was a street kid. I was living on the street,” Wilson told FanSided MMA in an exclusive interview.
At 16-years old, Wilson had been expelled from elementary, middle, and high school — all for fighting. He had been booted from multiple alternative education programs designed for exactly the type of troubled youth he was, again for fighting.
“I was in trouble with the police. I was in trouble with my family. I was in trouble with practically everybody. They thought I was just gonna wind up in jail or be dead. And when I started mixed martial arts, it literally saved my life,” he said.
Before MMA, Wilson was aimless.
“I was kinda floating around. I was living in a garage with my friends, there was probably 8 of us… A bunch of troubled youth just, ya know, doing bad things.”
Abruptly, Wilson’s life changed. One day, a friend brought him food to eat. Wilson offered to pay the friend back, but the friend, who had recently started Brazilian jiu-jitsu at the request of his probation officer, insisted that Wilson need not repay him, but rather just pay a visit to the gym.
“I went to train with him the next day and I practically never left,” Wilson remembers. “I came back the next day, and the next day, and then it turns out I ended up moving into the attic of the gym and just evolved my whole life around mixed martial arts, from 16-years old.”
Taken under the wing of coach Steve Oliver (who was also the longtime coach of Mark Hunt), Wilson quickly plunged himself into Brazilian jiu-jitsu, MMA, and kickboxing.
“I went from trying to find parties and doing crazy things to competing every weekend, when I was doing a jiu-jitsu tournament or wrestling tournament, a kickboxing fight, a mixed martial arts fight. I was fighting every weekend. And if I wasn’t fighting, we had a training camp for the weekend.”
Once living on the street, Jay Jay Wilson is now undefeated and will face Pedro Carvalho at Bellator 257.
Just like that, Wilson had re-directed his life entirely. After a few weeks of training in any capacity, he took his first amateur MMA fight. It’s a memory that Wilson is able to look back at and laugh, but it’s clear he had an early and natural aptitude for fighting.
“I literally had done no striking,” he recalled. “I had done one striking class. I had one sparring session and they had professional kickboxers that were 15 fights in, 20 fights in, and it was my first time sparring, actually. I had street fights, and I had sparred with my friends, but I hadn’t sparred with actual professional fighters.
“So that sparring session was four days before the fight and they beat the crap out of me and dropped me so many times. And I show up to the fight and my coach is like ‘bro, just close the gap take him down and you should win…’
Wilson would win the bout, but not without his street-tough tendencies showing through.
“I come out with my hands down. You know how you come out and touch gloves? I punch him as he’s touching gloves,” Wilson laughed. “And my hand is down I’m like full-on street fighter, I throw this weird kick, then I shoot a double leg ,and then I arm-barred him… I finished the fight in under a minute, which is good.”
A few weeks later, Wilson accepted his first kickboxing fight, again with just a handful of proper training sessions under him. He won that fight, too, and would continue that lifestyle of training and competing, living literally in the gym, until he was 18.
At 18, Wilson was faced with a decision: stay in New Zealand and pursue MMA, or use the connections Oliver was able to provide and move to San Diego to focus his efforts on Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He chose San Diego, where he could work toward his goal of becoming a black belt world champion under the tutelage of Johnny Faria at Alliance Jiu-Jitsu.
“I consider San Diego to be the mecca for jiu-jitsu,” he said, “even better than Brazil. We have all the world champions here and it’s a great place. It’s like New Zealand in the summertime all the year around.”
That jiu-jitsu world championship is still something Wilson wants, and at just 23-years old and already a black belt, it’s a real possibility. But when Bellator gave him the opportunity to make is professional MMA debut in the organization, and he kept winning fight after fight, he re-focused his efforts on MMA.
Now seven years removed from living on the street and that first amateur MMA fight, Wilson is 7-0 as a professional, ranked no. 7, and will have his biggest test to-date when he faces former title challenger Pedro Carvalho at Bellator 257.
“[Carvalho] is definitely a big step up for me,” Wilson said. “He’s the biggest name I’ve fought, and I feel like I have more weapons to beat him.”
Indeed, Wilson sees his advantage on the ground, where he has collected all but one of his six finishes. Against Carvalho, he predicts a first-round submission. And from there, Wilson has big ambitions.
“I feel like when I go out there and put a dominating performance, I feel that solidifies my place in title contention with the top three guys. Just practically waiting for the [featherweight] grand prix to be over so we can bang it out for the title.”
Wilson’s ambition doesn’t stop at one title, as he hopes to one day secure a belt at lightweight, as well. Those aspirations might sound like the bluster of a young and over-confident, undefeated fighter. But considering how far Wilson has come in such a short time — from street fighting to elite prizefighting — his goals seem quite attainable.
“I see myself as one of the greatest fighters in the world a few fights from now,” he said. “I want my name to be in the history books. I want to be one of the greatest fighters in the world. Within the next fights I want that… Even in two weight divisions.”
Bellator 257 takes place on Friday, April 16, 2021, live from the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT. Follow along with FanSided for all your live news and highlights.