As far as rising stars go in jiu-jitsu, you’re going to have a hard time finding one who’s risen faster and is shining brighter than Renzo Gracie brown belt (under Daisuke Yamaji) Jon Calestine. The 145-lb Finishers: Show the Art champion and 155-lb Texas Jiu-Jitsu Kumite champion is quickly becoming one of the east coast’s most prominent grapplers, with wins over 2016 brown belt no-gi Pans champion Ryan Clay, 10th Planet leglock specialist Sean Applegate, and EBI 11 combat jiu-jitsu veteran JM Holland. But less than ten years ago, Calestine was on his way to a much less promising future.
Calestine grew up an “angry kid” who was always getting into trouble both in and out of school. “I grew up in a house with a single mom who worked all the time so my brother and I could have nice things,” he said. “I was always interested in sports and hated going to school.” It was largely because of this that at just fifteen years old, he dropped out of high school after taking up a construction job and then working for a DJ company. “My mom wasn’t happy, but I really hated school,” he said. “I could not figure out what to do with my life but I remembered when I was a kid seeing Phillipe Nover on the Ultimate Fighter and wanted to give MMA a try. I went back to school at 17 to get my high school equivalency and signed up at Renzo Gracie Fight Academy in Brooklyn.”
The passion and dedication that Calestine had lacked in the classroom came out full force at the gym. During his first year of training, he wrestled every day and only took two jiu-jitsu classes per week because he didn’t enjoy training in the gi. But after deciding that he wanted to do MMA, he pushed himself even further, staying until 9 pm at the gym to take boxing classes as well. Still, despite how hard he was training, Calestine was nowhere near ready to make a living competing in martial arts. After getting his diploma, he was prepared to sign up for the military in order to make money as an adult.
But life and fellow Renzo Gracie brown belt Matt Kaplan had other plans.
“After getting my blue belt, Matt asked me to work with him before one of his MMA fights. After training with him for a few weeks, he told me not to sign up to the military that Saturday and instead go to Grapplers Quest with him and the other competing team members. I didn’t really want to compete in grappling, but the day before I was on weight and showed up the next day. I won my only match at intermediate 129 lbs against one of Eddie Cummings’ students,” recounts Calestine.
Before long, Calestine began training with Cummings, Kaplan, and Ottavia Bourdain in Cummings’ competition class, and whatever plans he had to go into the military vanished. “I got there and rolled with Eddie and I saw all the things he was doing and how badly he beat the crap out of me. It was fun to me. I saw guys like him and Garry [Tonon] competing in these high level tournaments and I really wanted to be able to do that. What motivated me was finally having a goal — something to achieve that I wanted to do, and I’ve been trying to get good enough ever since.”
Now, the former troubled teen makes a living as a competitive grappler and teaches at Pure Hart Fight Gym in Astoria, New York. He still trains mornings and afternoons at Renzo Gracie academy and nights at Pure Hart, and he hopes to one day compete — and win — at ADCC and EBI. For many athletes, such lofty ambitions might be met with skepticism. But for an athlete who’s already overcome so much in life, it’s likely a question of when, rather than if, he’ll smash through the obstacles in his path to achieve his dreams.