When meeting Jesse James Kosakowski, it is easy to mistake him for a typically polite member of Gen Z. He is late for the interview and offers a profoundly sincere apology for his tardiness. His overall look — aviator eyeglasses and a hoodie-and-jeans outfit — give the impression of a student just arrived from a university lecture hall.
But put him within the caged ring of a mixed martial arts (MMA) tournament and things are turned around. Student is now teacher, giving powerful lessons to his opponents in the ring; the absence of eyeglasses unleashing a warrior’s gaze.
Jesse first stepped into the MMA ring in November 2015 and has amassed a 5-0 amateur record and a 4-0 professional record, coupled with an increasingly predictable habit of pulverizing his opponents into submission during the first of the three-round MMA bouts.
“It takes a special type of person to do this stuff,” Jesse says. “I’m not going to lie. When I am getting my hands wrapped, I’m like, ‘Why am I doing this stuff?’ But then I say to myself, ‘Snap out of it. You know what you’re here for.’ After you get the win and you celebrate with your team, you remember why you are doing it and what that goal is.”
Jesse turns 23 this month, but his road to the MMA tournaments was a long time happening. He began training around 5 focusing on the Jeet Kune Do school of martial arts popularized by Bruce Lee.
The first to acknowledge his possibilities was his father, Ron Kosakowski, who has run Practical Self Defense Training Center in Waterbury since 1988 and gave his son his earliest lessons. Ron studied various martial arts techniques during his career and also participated in MMA bouts in the 1980s when the sport was an underground affair — including a match inside a ring set up in the back of a Waterbury bar. He was also an original investor in the United Fighting Championship (UFC) league in the early 1990s. But in his work as a martial arts instructor, he realized his son’s distinctive athletic talents.
“When he was around 10, we had a lot of people fighting for us at the time at the tournaments,” Ron says. “We all saw his potential. He was winning all of the tournaments he entered. He also started doing adult classes when he was 10. This is why when you see all of these giants fighting him today, it really doesn’t matter, because he is so used to it.”
As Jesse’s initial instructor, Ron marveled at how quickly his son learned different fight styles. “It comes natural to him,” he says. “I have some people that if I tell them to move the right hand, they move the left foot. Nothing against them, but they’re not going to be in a cage soon.”
The MMA world consists of several leagues, most notably UFC, Bellator and CES MMA. Jesse is currently an independent agent who goes between the leagues for matches. But word of his brutal prowess in the ring has created an interesting dilemma.
“Sometimes, people don’t want to fight you,” he says. “In my amateur years, I couldn’t get fights. So, I decided to go pro. But now with the pro leagues, it’s the same thing.”
Nonetheless, Jesse has devoted himself to a highly rigorous training regimen that keeps him in fighting form.
“As an MMA fighter, your training has to be very, very diverse,” Jesse says. “You have to be able to kick, grapple, trap and, on top of that, you have to have great strength conditioning. Swimming and running are among the things that I do, along with sparring, pad work and bag work. It is a big toll on the body. I would say the training camp is harder than the fight. You are more likely to get injured during camp than at the fight. The recovery is a big aspect of the game. I take ice baths, Epsom salt baths. I get massages and chiropractic treatment. It is a pain in the ass to drive from here to there to everywhere to take care of your body.”
In pursuit of his sport, Jesse laments that his current financial rewards are not what many people might assume would be a professional athlete’s income.
“You don’t make a whole lot right now,” he says. “It’s sort of like, ‘Damn, I am barely getting paid for this and I am putting my life on the line.’ But I am working my way up to it, and that drives me.”
“Sponsorship is where all sports people make money,” Ron says, adding that a number of smaller Waterbury-area businesses are backing his son’s efforts. “Right now, it is just to take care of a few odds-and-ends, but some sponsors can buy a car or a home for the athlete they back.”
Still, Jesse perseveres, supplementing his income by training clients while keeping his own goals firmly in sight, with his next MMA bout scheduled for September. And, sometimes, he is surprised to be reminded that people are aware of what he has to offer.
“I had a fight in Bellator,” he says. “I was on top of the guy and punching him when I heard the announcer Big John McCarthy saying ‘Jesse James Kosakowski’ and talking about all of my stuff. And I’m just like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute! Is that Big John McCarthy talking about me?’ And then I was like, ‘Snap out of it!’”
And he did — scoring another first-round win, which leaves MMA fans with something more to talk about.