By Brandon Martin
Former Magna Vista High School wrestling standout Tony Gravely may be a big time UFC star now, but he hasn’t forgotten his roots.
On a trip home to visit his mother for her birthday, Gravely carved out some time to take part in a wrestling clinic at Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC).
For the next generation of wrestlers gathered at William F. Stone Hall, it was a chance to meet a local legend. But for Gravely, it was a chance to impart life lessons which he learned from the wrestling mats right here in Henry County.
“There’s just so many life lessons that I’ve learned from wrestling,” Gravely said. “The sport is a grind in itself, so taking that lesson that everything isn’t going to be easy and embracing that has helped me in pretty much every other area of my life.”
Gravely said his cousin, Nate McKenzie, initially pitched the idea of participating in the Saturday clinic. McKenzie is one of the assistant wrestling coaches at PHCC.
“Honestly, I didn’t know that there was an opportunity to do this,” Gravely said. “I found out that PHCC has a wrestling team now, which is cool because they didn’t have one when I was younger. My cousin asked me to come over and it was initially supposed to be a small thing. The word kind of spread and it became bigger, which is great.”
Even though the event was a special event for youngsters, it also provided a great deal of gratification for Gravely.
“It’s awesome being able to give back in this way. I’ve gotten so much from wrestling,” he said. “Pretty much everything in my life has come from wrestling. If I didn’t wrestle, then I probably wouldn’t have gone to college. I got into a lot of trouble when I was a kid, but when I started wrestling, I got a new direction and it made me more disciplined. It helped guide me and get me to where I am now in my career.”
The direction that wrestling guided Gravely in was further forward than even he initially thought possible.
Gravely won two state championships at Magna Vista and he added two more conference championships at the collegiate level during his time at Appalachian State University.
A UFC fighter since 2019, and now with a professional mixed martial arts (MMA) record of 21-6, Gravely said he’s still that “same ole Tony.
“To be able to come back and share with everyone what it has done for me and what it can do for them is really cool,” he said. “They think it’s cool that I’m in the UFC, and the kids kind of get a kick out of looking at me like I’m some celebrity or something. I’m just the same old person that I was and I’m glad I was able to come back and be part of something like this.”
A current resident of Florida, Gravely said he doesn’t get many opportunities to return home.
“I think I’ve only been able to come home twice in the past year,” he said. “With traveling and my competition schedule, I don’t get to come back as much as I would like, so this was a great opportunity.”
Gravely currently practices with the prolific MMA camp American Top Team, which has been responsible for grooming former UFC champions like Tyron Woodley, Dustin Poirer, Robbie Lawler and current women’s Bantamweight and Featherweight Champion Amanda Nunes.
“It’s surreal practicing with American Top Team,” Gravely said. “If you grew up watching fighting, you’d always hear about them and other big gyms. Now that I’m a part of it, it’s a crazy feeling. I remember the first time I walked in. Since I watch pretty much all the fights, I knew who all the fighters at the camp were. So, meeting them in person for the first time was really cool.”
Having now made the journey to the UFC himself, Gravely’s idols have become friendly rivals.
“The more you are there, you become friends with them, and they are your practice partners,” he said. “People that I used to watch when I started fighting about six years ago are now my teammates, and I’m keeping up with them as we all try to out-do each other.”
One reason that Gravely is able to keep pace in a sport that combines boxing, kickboxing, Jiu Jitsu, Muay Thai (Thai boxing) and wrestling, is because his experience is in the latter.
“I’m a little biased because I wrestled, but I think it is the best base for fighting, even just self-defense,” Gravely said. “If you can control where a fight takes place, then it makes all of the difference. A lot of the Jiu Jitsu guys think their skills are the best, but their takedowns aren’t the best. If you are a really good grappler, but you can’t get people to the ground, then it’s kind of an issue. Wrestling kind of bridges that gap.”
As Gravely attempted to explain the importance of wrestling to the students gathered for the camp, a couple of familiar faces in the stands beamed with pride in who he had become.
The first was his father, Harold Gravely.
“I used to travel around to see him compete all the time,” Harold Gravely said. “I’d never missed any of his matches up until his last two. COVID stopped me from seeing those.”
Harold Gravely said it’s only natural that his son would end up in the pros given the work he has put into his craft.
“He’s always been determined, never liked to lose at anything,” Harold Gravely said. “He feels like he can outwork anybody, so he’s got the right mentality to compete with the pros.”
With his son competing on that level, Harold Gravely said that he is touched by the response from the community.
“I’ve got to admit that people here in Martinsville and Henry County have really supported him,” he added. “He has a fan club. I think it is a good deal. To me, it’s a really big deal. It makes me grateful. He’s done a good job.”
The second familiar face for Tony Gravely was that of his former wrestling coach, Zeak Ca’Stle.
“Tony was an excellent student. He always did his work, and I never had any trouble with him staying eligible to compete. That’s the main thing that coaches always worry about, but he was never a problem,” Ca’Stle said. “I credit his success to his work ethic. The days he wasn’t with me, he would be running outside around the football field until their practice was over. He never missed a practice. The only one he did miss was when I sent him home when he was ill.”
Much like Harold Gravely, the sight of Tony Gravely on a wrestling mat in Henry County again gave Ca’Stle a strong sense of pride in what he helped nurture.
“I’m overjoyed to see how far he has come from the wrestling room to the UFC cage,” Ca’Stle said. “It’s unbelievable, him coming back here and doing these clinics. I’m ecstatic. I heard he was coming to town and I wouldn’t miss this for the world. He’s made me really proud, and he has made his parents really proud. I’m his number one fan after his dad.”
Having Tony Gravely come to do the clinic was beneficial for the wrestling program at PHCC, according to head coach Justin Smith.
“This event today is an awesome recruiting tool,” he said. “It’s really just marketing and trying to get the name out to the team. When COVID hit, a lot of the schools around here weren’t allowed to compete. They could practice but that was really it.”
In addition to some lessons for some of his own student athletes, Smith said the event attracted local talent as well as middle and high school students from Cave Springs and Staunton River.
“Right now, we have five students on the team. There are 10 weight classes,” Smith said. “We have the state runner up from Powhatan that is coming here. He’s a stud and we can’t wait to have him. He’s going to come here and then go to Averett. It’s just an awesome way that you can use the NJCAA as a platform to get some more mat time. If you want to go to Ferrum, you can. If you want to go to Averett, you can. Or if you want to try Virginia Tech, you can too.”
Like Tony Gravely, Smith hopes wrestling will open the doors to something better for the students in his program.
Those in Martinsville and Henry County who weren’t able to see Tony Gravely at PHCC will have the chance to see him compete on television in the fall. He said his next scheduled fight is Sept. 18.