Tom DeBlas: How an MMA Fighter Overcame Childhood Abuse and Father’s Addiction to Be a Champion

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At the time he was too young to really understand that it was the result of an alcohol addiction, but his family tried to explain it to him anyway, referring to the nights he “slipped up” at home as frustrated. Will reach

On those occasions, DeBlass — a former MMA fighter who competed in the UFC and Bellator — knew something wasn’t right.

“His hair used to fall flat when he was drunk,” DeBlas recalls to CNN Sport. “Usually, he’ll brush it back, [but] Whenever he was drunk he would be flat and on edge. Right now, I knew today was not going to be a good day.

“Some days, he’d be really, really awesome and just super sweet and kind, and some days, he wasn’t very kind. His voice would rise, and he wasn’t affectionate and then I realized something was up. .. not smooth.

“I didn’t really understand at the time what alcoholism was, but I understood that something was out of the ordinary.”

His father’s alcohol and drug addiction was a recurring theme throughout DeBlass’s childhood. On the day he was born, DeBlas says police had to be called to his house to “snatch me from my father’s hands” because he was too drunk.

A week later, Tom Sr. overdoseed in the Harlem, New York District, several times requiring him to be hospitalized.

DeBlass quickly found that physical activity helped him process the confusing emotions brought on by his troubled home life.

In his new autobiography, “How You Bear It: Triumph and Resilience in Life”, DeBlas described the sport as “a desperate escape” during his youth and, despite eventually excelling in the martial arts, initially took to football. Found that release via Medium.

However, it was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu that eventually gripped DeBlas and never let go.

Now 39 years old and retiring from combat sports, he has enjoyed an illustrious career that has won him numerous gold medals in ADCC competitions – the highest level in grappling and submission disciplines – and has earned him contracts in both the UFC and Bellator, which he won in the UFC. Two of the most prestigious in the world. mma organization.

sexual abuse

Much of DeBlass’s book is centered around the car journey he’ll take with his father on his way to and from the clinic for treatment.

DeBlass used to fill his father with moments from childhood when he was either absent or forgotten due to the effects of alcohol and drugs.

But there was a moment that he could never bring himself to tell his father. When he was seven years old, DeBlas says he was molested by an older child.

“I’ve never been angry with that person,” he tells CNN. “I don’t know why, because I’m assuming they too were in a terrible situation in their lives and had seen certain things.

“I always try to look deep within myself and say: ‘Why are you the way you are? What’s right and what’s not?’ And I think I just started to understand that some of my flaws were because of him, and I never asked for that. That just happened to me.

“People say everything happens for a reason, I think that’s not true. I think it’s bull**t. Not everything happens for a reason. Sometimes, terrible things just happen for good with people, you know?”

DeBlass overcame his troubled childhood and went on to compete in the UFC.

Coming from a staunchly religious family made the feelings more confusing, DeBlas says, as he wrestled with personal feelings of guilt over the incident.

“When you’re a kid, you’re so pure, you’re so innocent and I used to believe a lot in Jesus and believe in God, and I still do,” he says. “And when it happened, I thought it was my fault.

“I thought it was all my fault and I thought I was going to hell. I remember going downstairs, and I had a little goofy stuffed animal. I was crying, and I said I had a headache But I was crying because I thought I was going to hell.

“Over the years, I felt guilt as if it was my fault and it was probably one of the things that changed me the most because in facing and dealing with life, I liked to make myself kind of emotionless. I had to make myself care, because if I cared, I’d just be crushed.”

The incident continued to influence DeBlas well into her adult life and influenced how she developed relationships with people in school as a young man.

The complex emotions resulting from the manipulation took decades to process, and DeBlas believes he wasn’t really at peace until he wrote the book.

DeBlasse is covered with scars and tattoos and looks battle-hardened fighter in every way, with a deep, hoarse voice in his stern exterior.

In a world where men are often expected to be strict externally and internalize their feelings, DeBlas hopes that their opening up can help break that stigma for others.

“Because if I talk about it, how many other men are helping, you know?” He says.

“You look at me… I’m a fat looking dude, man. Even if you don’t know I’m a fighter, I look like a guy who’s a fat guy — and If I can go through it, anyone can go through it.

“so I think [writing the book] really helped me. You know, I’m going back to what I said, ‘Not everything happens for a reason.’ Maybe this happened to me for some reason, you know, to help me understand and touch and help other people.”

Tom DeBlas Sr. with his grandson

healing through play

As he continued to struggle to process his emotions, DeBlas wrote in his book that he began contemplating suicide in his 20s.

During those dark moments, he says that jiu-jitsu saved him from depression, but the sport was always something DeBlas found comfort in.

At the age of four, he entered football and then discovered his first martial art, Taekwondo, when he was in second grade. Although he was too young to realize it at the time, DeBlas later acknowledged the important role physical activity played on his mental health when he was a child.

“Sport is physical and it is a proven fact that physical activity, you know, increases serotonin levels, releases endorphins…

“So I think that’s probably most likely when I was doing it, it was just … to take away any kind of aggression or resentment or anger through physical activity.”

DeBlass fell in love with Taekwondo—which he says was taught as non-contact at that age—and then did not pursue the martial art for more than a decade.

In his early 20s, DeBlass began teaching special education children after earning a college teaching degree, but by this time he had discovered a new passion in martial arts.

DeBlas says his father struggled with drug addiction as a child.

It was when he was in school that DeBlas first enrolled at the Jiu-Jitsu Academy and, despite going on a full-time job in teaching after graduating, his training never ceased.

Every night after work, he would drive for an hour and a half to training for four hours, before driving and getting up early to teach the next day.

From the very beginning, there was something about jiu-jitsu that attracted DeBlas.

“You’re not punching or hitting like, it’s not like a blunt force to you,” he explains.

“Jiu-Jitsu is a push-pull type of thing, it’s so complicated and it’s just addicting. Every single day, you’re learning something you didn’t think existed and even today Learning as a black belt for 13 years, I am learning more.

“You have to really be in tune with your body for jiu-jitsu, you have to understand your body. You have to understand how to move. You have to understand your strengths, your weaknesses. You find out about yourself : You discover things you didn’t necessarily know before.

“I don’t believe other martial arts do as much as jiu-jitsu. It’s a special thing and it’s really like playing a board game every day. I always say to people with jiu-jitsu: ‘Don’t fight it , play it.’ Don’t think that jiu-jitsu is a fight, think of jiu-jitsu as a sport. When you look at jiu-jitsu as a sport, it’s a lot more fun.”

After a conversation with his teacher, DeBlas decided to devote all his time to martial arts and in 2004 opened his own school: Ocean County Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in New Jersey.

“I had a handmade sign because I couldn’t buy a real sign,” he recalls with a smile. “It was all crooked — I’m not very artistic — and it was just history from there. I just kept growing and growing.”

DeBlas with his son.

As well as being the owner of his own school, DeBlas — who unbelievably says he was always physically the weakest member of his family — rose through the ranks and eventually earned his black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. earned, a belt he has now held for 13 years.

In his professional fighting career, he competed in the prestigious MMA Championships of the UFC and Bellator, before retiring in 2014 with a record of nine wins and two losses.

DeBlass can lay claim to multiple gold medals in different events, disciplines and weight categories—not that he’s the bragging type—and he finds it difficult to pick a single career highlight.

“Maybe winning the ADCC North American Trials three times, it’s like our Olympic Trials,” he says. “Winning the Pan American Games … I don’t think there’s just one, ’cause I think each one meant something different to me.

“One of my most memorable is my loss – when I lost in Sweden, my first loss in MMA – because I realized I was harder than I thought. Because mentally I was able to come back, Get up and move on.”

lifelong learning

DeBlass and his father, who passed away earlier this year following infection with Covid-19, forged a strong relationship, which he was able to support during his adult life.

Even during those troubled early years, there was a glimmer of becoming a father, DeBlas Sr.

“When he didn’t have ‘slip ups,’ he was the best dad in the world,” DeBlas recalls of his childhood.

From his father, DeBlass says he learned to accept his mistakes. She learned her work ethic from her mother, who DeBlas described as the hardest working woman ever.

To this day, he remains in awe of the strength shown by his mother during those years, living with his father in the lowest moments of his addictions.

DeBlass says his father was 'the best father in the world' when he was not consumed by his addiction.

“If my mother had left my father, [he] Of course I would have died too soon, and I would have been without a father,” he says. “You know, I would have been left without that male figure and it taught me unconditional love.”

Despite his difficult childhood, DeBlas says that the characteristics he learned from his parents – combined with lessons learned as a schoolteacher – have molded him into a better jiu-jitsu teacher.

He sees a lot of his old self in the people who come to his school.

“A lot of kids who do it, it will help them… and it’s probably not something they do forever, but for some of the adults I find, it’s their last chance. ”

“They’re just fed up with life, they’re tired, they’re stressed, they’re lonely, they’re angry and I think jiu-jitsu gives them an outlet they never had before.

“So I am overall grateful for providing an environment where people from all walks of life – your complexion doesn’t matter, your religion doesn’t matter, your choice… nothing matters, man. Everyone’s the same. You just get on the mat and train.”

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