Jimmy Drago just needed someone to believe in him.
“Whatever you’re doing, just keep doing it,” said Jimmy’s roommate Mike. “It’s always going to work out.”
“I believe in you.”
With those few words, the fighter’s life was changed forever.
At Fordham Prep High School in The Bronx, Drago showed real promise for a future in football.
At the wide receiver position, he was a star. In his senior season in 2013, Drago set school records of 77 receptions and 1,042 yards in a single year. But while the athletic talent was always there, what really pushed Drago to the top was dedication.
Dedication to the game, and practicing the most intricate of details to be the best.
“Entering my senior year, the starting quarterback and I met twice a week,” remembers Drago, who developed an almost perfect on-field chemistry with his team’s signal-caller.
“We ran every route known to a high school football player, generated a hand signal for every route, practiced every route multiple times a day.”
“By the time the season came around, he knew exactly where I was going to be and I knew exactly how the ball was going to be thrown.”
Despite the star receiver leading his Fordham Prep squad to the postseason semifinal round, his football career stalled out. It wasn’t due to a lack of talent, though. To this day, he regrets not pursuing the sport further, not reaching out to prospective college coaches, and not attending combines.
He calls it “a ‘chump’ way of saying I didn’t pursue it enough.”
Fortunately, the next stage of Drago’s life had even better plans in store.
By the time he was five years old, Drago was already taking up the sport of karate. That’s where his passion for the art of fighting began.
At least one or two months of the year were devoted to boxing. Football was always in the cycle as well.
The inspiration behind Drago’s athletic-heavy life? His father – and also his hero.
“I always wanted to emulate everything he did,” Drago said of his dad. “I wanted to have that respect and all that stuff that young kids idolize.”
His father was a tough guy, so Drago aimed to be one as well. And with that attitude, you can get humbled quickly.
In his early teenage years, he lost fights quickly, and got beaten up pretty badly. Eventually, his newfound passion for hand-to-hand combat led him to the underground fighting scene. To say this was a big risk would be an understatement.
“People were condemning me for it; they were like ‘are you out of your freakin’ mind?'” Drago recalls, reflecting on his decision to enter into some of the most dangerous fights in New York.
But after succeeding at this level, the underground reputation was a moot point. The next step was to a legit MMA gym.
“I didn’t have much to lean on back then. But I met this guy named Tommy, an older fella who encouraged me to check out Animals MMA gym.”
Although he was immediately tested in sparring sessions, Drago was not overwhelmed. Instead, he gradually found a tunnel toward a brighter future, in a sport that is much easier to quit than continue.
“If we’re going to pursue this, we’re going to do it.”
Willing to take on any fight – any opportunity – that he could get his hands on, Drago trained by himself every day. He ran stairs at the Kensico Dam at all hours of the day, in temperatures of over 100 degrees. He ran sprints on the track alone, and spend time in the sauna cutting weight.
“I learned the independency the fight games teaches you,” he says. “Fighting is an extremely lonely sport.”
Nervous and on edge, he took a kickboxing fight because it was his only opportunity at the time. He was scared. He literally had no idea what to expect. In fact, he almost didn’t even show up.
In the end, Drago won the fight. And within the following two weeks, he relocated from New Jersey to New York to dive head first into his new career as a professional mixed martial arts fighter.
Outside of the octagon, Drago’s training has tested him in both the mental and physical. To limits he’d never pushed to before.
Oftentimes, months of training are needed to prepare for a fight – a bout that may last no more than five minutes.
But away from his fight-specific training – grueling in its own right – Drago’s full-time job has tested him in the same ways that fighting has.
He’s an ironworker in the Local 40 union in New York. While the craft differs, the grind remains the same. He’s had to cut dozens of pounds of weight while climbing steel in intense heat. And then, he gets back on the track, running twenty 100-meter sprints.
MMA training is unlike any other sport. It’s a test of the highest levels of endurance and conditioning.
“I haven’t picked up a weight in years,” says Drago. “When the holidays come around, birthdays, Thanksgiving…I can’t eat because I’m cutting weight. Life is happening yet I’m enjoying it from the sidelines.”
With that, Drago realizes a sobering reality of the sport he’s devoted so much time to. He’s felt loneliness, whether in training or fights or driving back-and-forth from apprenticeship classes.
But, at the end of the day, who does he walk into the cage with? Nobody but himself.
“When I heard that, a light bulb went off in my head,” says Drago, who shed a tear when he first heard that motivational quote from his close friend.
With a lifestyle often confined to himself and his own internal thoughts, motivation is tough to come by other than finding through his own consciousness.
When others doubt him, it stings. But that hurt – that raw pain – has only served to fuel his greatness even further.
Shortly after Drago moved to New Jersey, he was told straight to his face that he wasn’t good enough to partake in the Golden Gloves, one of the largest amateur fighting competitions in the country.
That was in 2016. Motivated by the words of his roommate Mike, Jimmy Drago refused to back down.
Two kickboxing fights turned into his first MMA bout in 2017. Then, in 2018, he won his first title and subsequently defended it three more times. In 2019, Drago turned professional in the sport.
“That’s classic underdog mentality,” says Drago.
“We’re gonna keep working hard. We’re gonna keep working to inspire others. And we’re gonna enjoy the journey along the way.”
Jimmy Drago currently holds an 11-1 record as a fighter, including three wins at the professional rank. He is a top 300 fighter out of more than 900 names across the country.
Despite his immense success in recent years, one thing certainly remains the same. He’ll always be an underdog, and he’s very proud of that.
“I’ll never stop overcoming obstacles.”
Curious about where Jimmy Drago is now? Check out our most recent interview with the up-and-coming MMA star.