Youngstown firefighter and mixed martial arts professional Kevin Zalac has always known injuries are a big part of the sport. A swift kick or punch, if landed correctly, could end a fighter’s promising career.
He never thought his career, however, would come to such a screeching halt.
“I always thought of myself as a ‘never was’ in high school, someone with an aloof attitude in sports and life and it cost me,” Zalac said. “When I got into MMA, I started to feel good in my ability to perform in a violent atmosphere. I had to see how hard I could push. The prospect of fighting is scary. You have to master this internally.”
As a wrestler at Canfield High, Zalac’s cavalier attitude cost him a shot at the state tournament, narrowly missing by a takedown his senior year.
He often replays in his mind what could have been had he just taken the sport a little more seriously.
His love for wrestling remained. When the opportunity arose to once again compete in a one-on-one atmosphere, this time in mixed martial arts, it became an intriguing proposition for the Canfield High and YSU alum.
“It was 2006 and I was attending Hocking College at the time,” he said. “I came home for spring break and was doing ride time at Station No. 1 with Joe Lantz. Joe was a former boxer and he told me that I had the look of a fighter. I had never fought before but was very interested in what he had to say.”
Lantz then introduced Zalac to jiu-jitsu instructor James Terlecki and for the next six months he trained at Club South on foldout mats in a racquetball court as he prepared for his amateur MMA debut.
Talk about humble beginnings.
His first amateur bout was against Eric Krepps of Franklin, Pa., on May 5, 2007 at the Eastwood Expo Center.
He won by TKO just 1:19 into the first round, an auspicious start to an 8-0-1 amateur career.
“That fight made me really feel really good, but the truth of the matter was that the whole prospect of fighting was terrifying to me,” he said. “I had something to prove so I just pushed on, yet remained grounded because I knew deep down that things wouldn’t always be this easy.”
Zalac turned pro in August, 2009 and despite the ordinary bumps and bruises that go with the sport, and a recurring knee issue, he readied himself for his first bout.
While preparing for that first match against Nicolas Boscarino, Zalac tore his fifth lumbar disc so his professional debut was put on hold.
When pronounced fit to go, he unloaded on Boscarino in the first-round, disposing of his opponent by TKO at 4:05 of the opening round.
He won four of his first six professional fights and made it as far as the Bellator promotion, then while training for his next fight last September he went up against several top-notch Division I wrestlers in order to get ready.
That’s when he suffered herniated C-5 and C-6 discs, causing secondary nerve damage down his left arm.
“I couldn’t hold a pot of tea, but was willing to fight despite being injured two weeks from the bout. One week away the promoter contacted me to let me know that my opponent withdrew from injury,” he said. “In the meantime I met with several chiropractic physicians and an M.D. about my condition. I had spinal stenosis and they told me it would only get worse so with a wife, two children and a demanding job as a firefighter, I decided to retire.”
Zalac decided not to leave the sport entirely. In February, he teamed with Terlecki to teach and train up-and-coming mixed martial arts hopefuls at Terlecki’s new gym in Austintown, Next Level Martial Arts, located at 5013 Mahoning Avenue.
“I usually teach and train two-to-four nights a week, depending on my schedule,” he said. “James [Terlecki] has an excellent facility and my transition from competitor to trainer and teacher has really been very smooth.”
One professional taking advantage of Zalac’s knowledge is Dennis Hernandez, a Miami native who recently moved to the area and is associated with American Top Team. Amateur Chris Trippi (7-0) is also on board.
For more information, call Next Level Martial Arts at 330-550-4324.