Former App State wrestler Tony Gravely makes UFC debut

A conference champion with the Mountaineers, the 28-year-old won a Fight of Night bonus in Raleigh

Tony Gravely, who won a conference championship wrestling at Appalachian State, made his UFC debut in Raleigh last month. (Jeff Chiu / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — Tony Gravely knows the secret to success in the cage — listen to your wife.

The 28-year-old bantamweight made his UFC debut at the organization’s Raleigh card in January, after 24 fights over five years in lower-level MMA promotions. He earned the spot with a win last summer on the Dana White’s Contender Series, which gives up-and-coming fighters a chance at a UFC contract if they win and impress White, the UFC president who is cage-side for the bouts.

Gravely, a former Southern Conference wrestling champion at Appalachian State, earned the offer from White after knocking out Ray Rodriguez in the third and final round of their Contender Series fight.

Gravely controlled the first two rounds of the matchup but headed into the third knowing that a decision probably wasn’t going to get him the UFC contract. Winning isn’t enough for MMA’s major league, which looks for action fights and stoppages, either by knockout or submission.

“It’s one of those things where I look for finishes, but I don’t rush them,” Gravely said. “It’s never a panic like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get this finish.’ I just constantly push, push, push, push, and they break. You feel them start to go down as the rounds go. I knew going into third, he was going down. His morale was going down. His spirit was breaking. He was tired. I knew I had to just keep doing what I was doing and I’d eventually break him and get the finish.”

First, Rodriguez had one last rally, which is where Gravely’s wife, Kayla, came through with an assist.

Instead of touching gloves, a gesture of good luck fighters usually do at the start of each round, Rodriguez broke etiquette and leapt forward attempting to hit Gravely in the face with a flying knee. 

In the days leading up to the fight, Kayla had a dream that Rodriguez would try that exact tactic in the upcoming match.

“She did,” Gravely said. “She said, ‘I had a dream that he came out to touch gloves, and he flying-kneed you and knocked you out.’ She kept saying, ‘You’ve got to make sure you keep your hands up.’”

His wife’s dream may be an odd place to get scouting information, but Gravely and his team took it seriously.

“Flying knees have been more common lately,” he said. “Everybody wants to do that. So we worked on some different scenarios, some counters. It was one of those things. Make sure you drill that. Keep your hands up.”

Gravely was able to avoid the surprise knockout blow and finish off Rodriguez in that round, earning the chance to fight in the UFC. Then came the long wait. Used to fighting every month or two in the MMA minor leagues, Gravely was inactive from the Contender fight in August until his UFC debut in January.

“It’s been rough,” he said. “It’s one of those things where you made it, you got the contract, and now you’re twiddling your thumbs. ‘When is it going to happen?’ I mean, it wasn’t like I wasn’t doing anything. I still worked out the same and trained the same, because I know that fights can pop out of nowhere. You can have nothing one week, and all of a sudden, they call up and say, ‘Can you come fight?’”

Eventually, he received word that he’d be officially joining the UFC with his Raleigh fight against veteran Brett Johns. That made things easier, mentally.

“You can train hard on your own, but when you have a goal and a face of your opponent to visualize, obviously, that makes it easier,” he said. “(Before the announcement) I had no clue where I was going to be. I expected it to be somewhere far from where I live. But Raleigh is prob two, two and a half hours from my hometown (in Virginia). It’s kind of like I’m the hometown guy.”

Gravely had between 300 and 500 supporters in the stands for his UFC debut, including several former App State wrestling teammates.

“There were people who I wrestled with that moved away, but they said they were coming back to watch me fight. It was a super cool experience,” he said.

As the big fight neared, Gravely had one last piece of preparation to take care of. He checked with Kayla to see how she’d been sleeping.

“She hasn’t really told me anything,” Gravely said a few days before the fight. “She’s been trying to avoid the whole scenario. I think she’s more nervous and anxious than I am about it. Every time I ask her, she says, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ She hasn’t warned me about anything yet, though, so I’m assuming nothing bad’s happening.”

Or it could have been that she knew what was coming. Johns used his experience to control the action the first two rounds and finished off Gravely with a third round submission from a rear-naked choke. The night wasn’t a total loss for Gravely, however. He and Johns won the Fight of the Night award, which included a bonus of $50,000 for each of them. Like his experience on the Contender Series, it also likely meant that he would get another chance to fight in the UFC since he was able to bring the action, even in a losing effort.

Regardless of what the future holds, there’s no question that Gravely will be sure to check with his better half before stepping into the cage.

“I listened to her,” he said. “She’s right almost all the time. I try not to tell her, but she is.”