Written by @NickRiznerMMA
This piece was originally published in the January, 2016 issue of Fighters Only Magazine. With editing help from Chuck Mindenhall, Josh Samman, Matteo Urella and Alyssa Carreau along with quotes from Isaiah Longs, Nick Newell and Matt Bessette, I was able to tell one of the most inspirational stories I’ve ever come across. The following is the long version, which was later cut down due to spacial restrictions in print.
Limitations are an illusion. An invisible barrier between an individual and their goal; placed there by outside influences, but kept there by the person they’re blocking.
Discouraging words. Dismissive actions. Envy towards those who were dealt a better hand. At every corner, you can find evidence to support the claim that your limitations are real.
But make no mistake about it: they are only there if you allow them to be.
This story is one of hard work, perseverance, and a tireless push towards improvement. It’s about a twelve-year old boy who found a way to see past his illusion. A kid who looked at his life, decided to make a change, and went on to inspire the inspirational.
His name is Isaiah Longs.
It all started three years ago. And like so many good stories, this one begins with a fork in the road.
I was always a big kid growing up. At six years old, it hit a point where my weight really started to become a problem. Years went by and the next thing you know, I’m in the doctor’s office, and he says, “Man, you really need to start straightening out your eating habits.”
I was over 300 pounds at this time. It was this very emotional moment where he sat me down and told me, “If you keep eating the way you do, by the time you’re eighteen-years old you will be 600 pounds, if not more.” At that moment, it was like a conscious, but unconscious switch in my head. I was like, ‘This is reality now, Isaiah. No more games.’
Longs was born on July 6, 2000. His mother has spent the past 16 years working in the school system, mostly with special needs children. She also works as a personal care assistant for two elderly couples who need special assistance. His father, a retired military man with 29 years of service, worked as a residential coordinator in addition to mentoring a young man with special needs for over a decade. And to this day, both his mother and father serve as adult foster care owners, providing care for adults with disabilities.
Positioned on the eastern banks of the Connecticut River lies Isaiah’s hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts. About an hour-and-a-half west of Boston, Springfield is rarely the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of a New England metropolis. It’s populated by a people that simply put their heads down and work. Never for notoriety nor accolades, but for pride in the work itself.
Springfield is a tough city. And tough cities breed tough people.
It would follow, then, that the ability to overcome an obstacle – to ignore the naysayers and strive towards an ‘impossible’ dream – was instilled in Isaiah all along. But it wasn’t always in the forefront. For years, he fell victim to excuses and a lack of motivation. He quit on diets. He quit on sports. He nearly quit on life.
My sister had been helping me out with my dieting and eating healthy. I would stick with it for a little, but then I would just fall off. My mind would just wander from the fact that I needed to make a change. My whole family was supportive – they would try to help with my weight issues – but again, it was just my lack of decision-making skills.
I did a few sports, but never decided to go through with them. My interest was never 100% there. I did football, swimming, and Kung Fu for a little. Looking back now, I can see that I had zero self-confidence. No motivation. I was more of the one-and-done kid. I would do it one time, and if I didn’t get it, I would just forget about trying again.
Persistence takes a long time to develop. In Isaiah’s case, two major moments served as the catalysts for change. The first was the stern warning from his doctor. The second: a television commercial for a local MMA gym called Fighting Arts Academy.
We had meant to call a few times, but we just kept putting it off. So I hear that they have an open house one day and it’s the same day as the XFC tryouts. My sister takes me, we walk in, and the place seems pretty cool. It seems legit. I meet the ladies who handle the sign ups, and I sit and watch Jeremy Libizewski, who is now my head coach, teach a class for the first time.
I just felt an automatic connection. So my sister signs me up for the first month. I come back on Tuesday, but don’t show up that next Wednesday or Saturday. Then, when I walk in the following Tuesday, Jeremy says, “Where you been, buddy,” and I told him, “At home.”
Then he says, “Ah, come on buddy, you gotta be here training.” That’s when I really felt welcomed and wanted.
After that, Isaiah didn’t miss a single day. It wasn’t long before he was completely enthralled with martial arts, as it soon began infiltrating every aspect of his being. In the gym, at school, while brushing his teeth or eating dinner. It was all he would think about. The weight loss. The confidence. The new attitude towards life. This was all simply the byproduct of his obsession.
Through a fighting family, singularity is achieved. Passion is contagious. True inspiration is reciprocated. Isaiah found his inspiration in those around him. He views his teammates and coaches as role models, from whom he can seek guidance and look to for direction.
And as he continued to make progress, he began to spark inspiration in those who inspired him. For Matt Bessette, a Bellator veteran who was diagnosed with leukemia as a child, it was Isaiah’s maturity that he connected with. But it was his newfound confidence that left a lasting impression:
When I have support from the already-inspirational, it gives me wings. And Isaiah is one of those people. Without a doubt he’s one of those people. No matter your age, a life-changing decision – and a plan that anyone can follow – is inspiring.
It was clear that he didn’t have an outlet to get in shape, let alone stay in shape. Now, looking at Isaiah, it’s astonishing. He’s quite literally in a completely different body. He’s always been the same good-hearted kid. Now he’s got a whole lot of confidence to boot.
Isaiah isn’t even old enough to drive a car. But when he is, a hundred bucks says he will be driving some honeys around in his 1991 Honda CRX, with the rusted-up racing stripe. (Well, maybe just one honey. It’s not a very big car.)
It’s easy to grasp onto Isaiah’s story, because it’s one that we can all identify with. He had a problem and he dealt with it. There is no secret to his success. There are no shortcuts. He simply worked hard in the face of adversity, and amazing results ensued.
This concept is what really hit home with Nick Newell – top lightweight contender and longtime member of the Fighting Arts Academy.
Born with a congenital amputation of his left arm, Newell has dealt with his fair share of adversity in life. Naturally, some days are harder than others, and in those moments, Nick draws inspiration from Isaiah’s story:
He completely changed his life. For a 12-year old to do something that major and have that much discipline to come to the gym every day, to eat right, and really make a change… that’s inspiring.
There are adults that make excuses every day. ‘Oh I have this. And this is wrong, and this and that.’ They don’t have the discipline to get up and make a change. This kid’s twelve years old, decides he wants to change his life, and just does it.
I make excuses for things sometimes! I’m like ‘Oh, I can’t do that,’ and Jer’s very hard on me with stuff like that. But I’m human and I get discouraged sometimes. But to see Isaiah do that and slowly become… he’s one of the guys now. He’s in the crew. I’ll always look out for Isaiah and take care of him however I can, because he’s like family to me.
Together, Newell, Bessette, and Longs have formed a limitation-defying collective, each encouraging the others to be better.
Isaiah is now 15 years old. It’s been nearly three years since he joined FAA, and through consistent effort and endless hours of hard work, he has managed to lose over 160 pounds. Diet and exercise transformed Isaiah’s body. But martial arts transformed his mind.
Forgiveness. Appreciation. A willingness to give back. Through his experiences at FAA, Isaiah has developed an affinity for all three. He has reached some clarity on what is truly important in life. In addition, he has provided himself with the building blocks for future success.
Success that is not defined by money or material possessions. Success that is defined by a wealth of experiences, otherwise out-of-reach, and reinforced by his influence on everyone he meets.
Growing up – being big – it had its challenges, for sure. Not just physically. But socially and mentally also. I’m not afraid to admit that I did get picked on when I was younger. It was actually pretty consistent. I had friends, but there were always going to be kids who were just kids.
Now, so many kids have come up to me and told me it’s amazing that I lost so much weight. I’ve noticed a lot more kids are open to talking to me. One thing I’ve come to realize was that the reason kids were cautious to talk to me before was because what I was going through wasn’t normal. That’s the reality of it. Most people try to avoid things that aren’t ‘normal,’ and I get that now.
Many people ask how I did it, and I let them know that there is no shortcut. You have to work hard and be dedicated. There are two things that most people in this generation are afraid of: the truth and hard work. If you can conquer both of those, everything else should follow.
I love when people show appreciation for what I have done. It gets to the point where you just keep trying to think of ways to express how much you appreciate it. I can do things now that I wouldn’t have been able to come close to doing when I weighed as much as I did. But the only way I got there was by messing up. It was through those moments that I got better and stronger.
Through a 15-year old mind, Isaiah Longs has gained a better understanding of the world around him than most people will achieve in their entire lives. To say that this mindset will help him succeed in life is an understatement. Now that he knows what is possible through hard work and dedication, he will forever possess an unwavering focus on distant goals. Goals that may seem ludicrous to those who don’t know any better. To those who lack the vision attained through firsthand experience.
To those who have yet to see past their illusion of limitations.
There’s something I always say to myself, in my head: ‘Don’t follow your dreams. Chase them.’
Through my weight loss process, I’ve thought about how badly I wanted to succeed; how so many go through what I had been through and how their lives have been affected negatively because of it. For me, it’s about making change in a positive way. Training with phenomenal training partners is cool, but I remind myself that I have to give back to those that are walking in for the first time; those people who weren’t sure that they wanted to come but they did anyway.
My ultimate goal is to be the UFC World Champion. And I know I will get there as long as everything else falls into place. I carry that mentality into training every time. In my head, I want to get to the point where even perfection is still a smidgen off from where I need to be.
That UFC strap… I picture that every time I go for that 6 am run, every time I get done sparring, every time I know I’ve done what I need to do to get myself to that point in my life. I will become the UFC World Champion.
For most, this may be considered to be a lofty goal. But for Isaiah Longs, it’s likely just the beginning.