What is the common thread that binds all folk tales together? Is it the play on morality? Is it the struggle between good and evil? In America, we like our heroes, and so they have become entwined with our folklore, the “common thread” if you will. On one end of the spectrum there is fact. On the other end of that spectrum there is fiction. Our folk tales, and their heroes, tend to meet somewhere in between. John Henry, Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill are some of the names that come to mind when one thinks of American folk heroes closer to the fictional end of the spectrum. On the other end are names like Paul Revere, Jesse James and Davey Crockett, historical figures whose exploits have been, over time, infused with an almost mythical quality. After John “First Class” Raio (2-5), leaves the cage for the last time at “NEF XIV” on September 6, 2014, his name will belong to the ages and his tale will grace the halls of Maine folklore.
John Raio’s foray into the world of mixed martial arts (MMA) is not your typical story. Like many competitors, however, the Gardiner, Maine native got his start early in life on the wrestling mats. He won a Maine State Wrestling championship at 125-pounds competing in high school in 1995. Raio went on to wrestle for Plymouth State University and the University of Southern Maine. It is there that Raio’s competitive career takes a twist.
After college, Raio turned his attention to more pressing matters – namely, making a living and raising a family. Like the majority of high school and collegiate athletes, he let his competitive days slip into the past. Raio lived the nine-to-five life for the better part of the next two decades while raising two children alongside his wife, Jody. Hoping to get back in shape, Raio began training in MMA at age 33. Then, just weeks shy of his 35th birthday, he found himself locked in a cage in Lewiston, Maine, competing in his first amateur fight for New England Fights Mixed Martial Arts (NEF MMA).
“I am happy with what I have been able to accomplish considering that I didn’t start training to fight until the age of 33, after a twelve-year layoff from competitive college wrestling,” said Raio. “I took my first amateur fight at 34 years of age and my second at 35. I became a pro at 35 years of age after just nine months of amateur competition and an undefeated 4-0 record ranking me top-ten in the northeast US.”
Because of his day job as a mailman, and his respectful demeanor, Raio was quickly dubbed “First Class” by fans, friends, and teammates. It was those same fans and friends who would flock to the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in droves to watch their hero. Raio became known for having exciting fights, the arena filled with an infectious atmosphere of thousands cheering him on to a chorus of “Raio, Raio.”
Raio’s success as an amateur did not immediately transfer over to his professional career. In the story of John Raio, however, winning or losing is not the plotline. The story of John Raio is the story of heart and determination. Like the fictional character of Rocky Balboa on the big screen, Raio refused to give up when faced with opponents many years his junior and in their prime, making “First Class” the perpetual underdog. Also like Rocky, Raio got the opportunity to compete on the national stage when Bellator came to town to co-promote with NEF MMA in the spring of 2013.
“I lost my pro debut to one of my favorite fighters and one of the most exciting fighters to watch, undefeated and top-ten ranked Ray Wood,” stated Raio. “It was a tough fight to take knowing I like him outside of the cage, but I knew with us both being top ranked amateurs that it would happen soon enough, as we both were competing for NEF MMA in Maine. I was able to fight for Bellator on Spike TV in my third pro fight and compete in front of a national audience in Lewiston, Maine. That was the highlight of my career—to be a part of the second largest MMA promotion in the world.”
It was around the same time that Raio undertook another endeavor – opening his own MMA gym in Topsham, Maine. Aptly titled “First Class Fitness and MMA,” Raio’s gym quickly benefited from the respect its owner had earned in the local community and the many contacts he had made. It is the camaraderie of the sport that Raio may enjoy the most.
“I have met so many great people through this awesome sport and spend half of my time training at the Choi Institute in Portland and the other half at my gym First Class Fitness and MMA in Topsham,” said Raio. “I also train a lot with IABJJ, owned by my friend Jarod Lawton and CMBJJ in Lewiston, whose fight team is managed by my friend Jesse Erickson. I can honestly say that almost every fighter that I have met is humble and respectable outside of the cage. I am glad that the fighters NEF MMA puts on their cards are great examples for young children viewing the sport and most of them great representatives of mixed martial arts.”
While Raio’s fight on September 6 in Lewiston, Maine will be his last, Raio will not be leaving the sport all together. The decision to retire was a difficult one to make, but Raio will remain active in MMA outside of the cage.
“I am going to stay in the sport by continuing to train fighters at my gym First Class MMA and I will continue to train with Choi’s, CMBJJ and IABJJ,” declared Raio. “I also plan to continue to work for NEF MMA as their Athlete Development Manager. It has been a difficult decision for me to retire from the sport that I love. I am still healthy and in the best shape of my life. I have many fights left in me and am still growing as a mixed martial artist every day. I am constantly learning more and my striking improves weekly. These past four years have been tough on the family as I fight professionally, training two to three hours a night, six days per week. I have done so while working full-time as a mailman for the USPS for my first three years and three months in the sport and now as a SSR at Cintas for the past nine months. I also own First Class Fitness and MMA in Topsham and have six other MMA fighters that train there. Not to mention, two children in school and my wife Jody. My wife and children have been very supportive of me, but I can’t continue to train at this pace and be there for my family at the same time. I owe it to them to be home more and I will continue to train, but will be spending much less time doing so.”
Raio’s opponent on September 6 will be an athlete he knows very well. Derek Shorey (2-8 amateur) will be making his pro debut that night at “NEF XIV.” He will be looking to avenge his loss to Raio as an amateur at “NEF III” in June 2012. Coincidentally, former two-time UFC World Heavyweight Champion Tim “The Maine-iac” Sylvia (31-9) will headline “NEF XIV” just as he did at “NEF III” over two years earlier. That is where the similarities between the two bouts end. Shorey insists that he is more determined than ever, and that John Raio will face a much different opponent this time around.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for John as both a father and a family man and for what he has accomplished in his MMA career,” said Shorey when reached for comment. “I know first-hand how hard it is to juggle the two lives. In a way, I envy him for being able to let this go. I’ve taken the last year off since my fight with (Brandon) Bushaw to try and mend some damage to my own family, and though we’re not perfect, the call to compete is louder than ever for me. I make no excuses about my amateur career. I definitely tapped earlier than I had to on most occasions. I’m excited to get the chance to show the fans of NEF MMA what I’m truly capable of. It is truly an honor for me to sign on with NEF and get the opportunity to entertain the fans in my home state of Maine. In parting—John, you’re a great guy and I have nothing but respect for you on every level. If you’re training to fight the same guy you’ve already beaten, you’re mistaken. I underestimated you once, it won’t happen again. Overall, thank you John and thank you NEF MMA for this opportunity.”
Win or lose against Derek Shorey on September 6, John Raio will hang up his MMA gloves when he exits the cage. Thousands in attendance will give him a standing ovation. “John Raio, the Fighter” will be gone, but “John Raio, the Folk Hero” will live on for as long as fathers tell sons about the working-class family man who defied the march of time and thrilled the masses in Central Maine. Then, his name will truly belong to the ages.
“Thanks to NEF MMA—you guys have been awesome to me, the fans and all of the other fighters that have competed on your cards,” said Raio in closing. “Thanks to all my friends, family and sponsors that have been so supportive throughout my career whether I have won or lost. I have given 100% every training session and every time that I have stepped into the cage to compete. I will retire healthy and with no regrets. Thanks to all of you.”
NEF MMA’s next event, “NEF XIV,” is scheduled to take place on Saturday, September 6, 2014 at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston, Maine with a bell time of 7:00 pm. In the main event of the evening, Tim “The Maine-iac” Sylvia (31-9) returns to Maine to face fellow UFC veteran Christian Morecraft (8-3) for the Super-Heavyweight Title. Featherweight Champion Ray “All Business” Wood (4-0) returns from injury after a year of recovery. Plus, Bruce “Pretty Boy” Boyington (6-7) and Jesse “The Viking” Erickson (3-2) will meet for the Lightweight Title, and John “First Class” Raio (2-5) competes for the final time. Tickets for “NEF XIV” start at just $25 and are on sale now at www.TheColisee.com or by calling The Colisee box office at 207.783.2009 x 525. For more information on the event and fight card updates, please visit the promotion’s website at www.NewEnglandFights.com. In addition, you can watch NEF MMA videos at www.youtube.com/NEFMMA, follow them on Twitter @nefights and join the official Facebook group “New England Fights.”