WOODSTOCK – Mary Ruffino remembers her son champing at the bit to get back into mixed martial arts.
Ruffino, the cousin of professional fighter Clay Guida, had enrolled her son Nathan, 8, into kickboxing a couple of years ago, but the expensive nature of the sport and a long drive to classes had made it tough for the single mother to keep him enrolled.
But when Ruffino’s parents flew in for one of Guida’s fights in New Jersey, they met Adam O’Sullivan and Josh Felperin, a couple of Johnsburg natives who grew up with the local fighter. The two had recently founded The Next Contender Foundation to give underprivileged and special needs children a chance to learn mixed martial arts.
O’Sullivan and Felperin saw Nathan Ruffino, who has bilateral hearing loss that forces him to wear a hearing aid, as a perfect fit. They found that Ruffino was one of the nicest kids they’d ever met, but they felt he lacked confidence – a trait O’Sullivan says comes hand-in-hand with MMA.
“It does multiple things that other sports cannot do – build confidence, teach discipline, provide structure, teaches honor and respect,” he said. “We’re trying to shed the idea that MMA is this barbaric, violent sport for Neanderthals.”
The organization now grants the Ruffinos the money Nathan Ruffino needs for equipment and classes, and it hasn’t taken Nathan long to latch on.
The third-grader is a green belt going on blue belt, and he doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon.
“I want to go for black belt,” he said.
For its part, The Next Contender plans to do everything it can to help Ruffino reach that goal.
O’Sullivan and Felperin set out a couple of years ago to find a way to give back to the community, and they figured their connections within UFC might offer the best avenue for doing so.
The organization sponsors all the MMA-related expenses for children ages 5 to 17 that the board approves.
And their efforts are starting to raise eyebrows. A couple of weeks ago, a TV crew was at Young Masters Martial Arts Studio in Woodstock filming Ruffino for an upcoming segment on “UFC Ultimate Insider,” a program on the new Fox Sports 1. The episode will run sometime in September.
“It’s been tremendous,” O’Sullivan said. “This ‘UFC Ultimate Insider’ show, that’s been a long time coming. We started talking to them back in October. They reached out to Clay.”
On top of the exposure O’Sullivan’s organization is getting, the show has Nathan Ruffino bouncing off the walls in excitement.
His mom said he wrote her a letter soon after he got the news.
“Thank you very much, Mom, for letting me be on TV,” it said. “I can’t wait.”
The Next Contender program already has paid dividends in other areas, Mary Ruffino said.
The confidence boost O’Sullivan promised has been evident, and Nathan – whose condition might someday cause him to go deaf – has been starting to think of others before himself.
The other day at the doctor’s office with his grandparents and 5-year-old brother, Nicholas, Nathan held a door for an elderly couple who were struggling to get it open. A couple of minutes later, he was helping an older man into a wheelchair.
One of the men came over and told Ruffino’s grandparents that his mom must be doing something right – a message Mary Ruffino reveled in when she heard it later.
“I’m doing the best I can being a single mom,” she said.
Those stories aren’t necessarily what keeps O’Sullivan chugging along with The Next Contender, but they do serve as a bit of validation.
“It’s just the right thing to do,” he said. “It makes me feel great when I get an email from Mary, or any of the kids’ parents.”
Take the next step
To learn more or apply for a grant from The Next Contender Foundation, visit www.nextcontender.org.