Interview conducted by John Neiderer III & Jaime Chesney
Article written by John Neiderer III
Sometimes an ending gives us our best beginning. As our hour-plus interview with The Mat Factory co-founder Isaac Greeley winded down, he asked me politely but firmly, “Don’t make it about me. Make it about those guys.”
It was August of 2013, and Jaime and I made the scenic, 45 minute drive from Pittsburgh’s North Side to Lower Burrell to introduce ourselves to Isaac, and be introduced to The Mat Factory. I had never met Isaac, I didn’t even know what he looked like. I knew very little of The Mat Factory, only that I already considered it a hot bed for MMA fighters. It was the home gym of Chris Dempsey and Dominic ‘The Honey Badger’ Mazzotta, both Gladiators of The Cage Champion Belt-holders. Anyone who knew anything about MMA would easily include the two in their list of top 5 fighters in the region. I knew it wasn’t a coincidence that such great talent came from the same gym. But I did want to know why. What was going on in The Mat Factory? What was the secret to success that had these two young fighters primed to make a run to the UFC someday soon?
“3-2-1…IN YA FACE!!!” That was the enthusiastic and awesome greeting we received as wrestling class for the next generation of Burrell athletes ended. About 15 or 20 young boys, who looked to be from the ages of 5 to 15, screamed out our welcome. The scene was a little chaotic as the sweaty youngsters made dashes to grab wrestling bags and reunite with waiting parents in the small lobby. Then one of the coaches, with a boyish face himself, slipped through the chaos and extended his hand. It was Coach Isaac Greeley. Although he would later tell me he grew up in the small town of Roulette, PA, (A town of chance and God’s country) he looked to me as though he could have just as easily grown up in Northern California catching waves and making a career as an actor. I liked him immediately. “I just have to do a little work on a few of the kids,” Isaac informed us. “Please go have a seat next door and make yourselves comfortable.” The little work was, of course, chiropractic. And next door, which I wanted to walk outside to get to, is a branch of The Rehab Centres. But to get next door from The Mat Factory to The Rehab Centre, you don’t need to walk outside. Why? Because there is a most convenient glass door connecting them! That was the first time, I feel very safe writing, that I realized there is no other place in the world quite like The Mat Factory.
So through the connecting door went Jaime and I into the classy, clean, and modern lobby of The Rehab Centre, Lower Burrell. We had a seat and a guy who looked to be in his early to mid 30’s chatted us up while we waited for the co-founder of the most unique facility. “I don’t know how to explain it, I just did it,” Isaac would later tell us on the creation of the space. The Rehab Centre is on the left if you are facing the building, and The Mat Factory is on the right. The space seems to have been split right down the middle, although I could be wrong. The Mat Factory side starts with a small lobby that leads into the main gym. The space is a bit narrow for a wrestling and MMA gym, but it by no means feels cramped or uncomfortable. At the end of the main gym area are various weights, ropes, and some cardio equipment. Lastly, a locker room, a few bathrooms and a shower finish off The Mat Factory side. The Rehab Centre’s lobby seems a little bigger than it’s counterpart’s. Walking down another narrow hallway, three or four chiropractic rooms line the left side of the building. Everything looks brand new, expensive, and of the highest quality. Towards the very back of the space and to the left lies Isaac’s office. Like the rest of the building, it is impressive, classy and comfortable. There is a large bookshelf that houses more pictures than I can count. I’m sure Isaac’s mom and dad are in more than one of them. One of the first things Isaac tells me is, “how influential my mom and dad were, and continue to be in my life. They really molded me into the person I am today.” Almost all of the rest of the pictures on the bookshelf are of Isaac’s beloved sport of wrestling. There are many from his All-American career at The University of Pittsburgh Johnstown, where he finished 2nd in the entire nation in 1998 and 3rd in 1999. The place where the teams he wrestled for won two NCAA Championships. Going to UPJ, “was the best decision I ever made in my life, next to getting married and becoming a father,” Isaac confides to me. There are pictures of Pat Pecora, the legendary UPJ coach who is now in the NCAA Hall of Fame. “He’s like a father to me,” Isaac tells me. “He’s the reason I love the sport of wrestling so much.” Isaac was also an academic All-American, young readers and wrestlers, take note.
There are also many pictures of the now legendary Burrell High School Wrestling team, who in 11 years since Coach Greeley has been involved have won a couple of PIAA State Championships, and an amazing eight WPIALS in a row! Isaac admits Burrell wrestling, “became a machine, a train that kept on going.” But before we can really get into the nuts and bolts of The Mat Factory, we entertain a steady flow of visitors to Isaac’s office.
A young man named Jason Nolf is the first to pop in and say hello. He is already a two-time PIAA State Champion and has just committed to Penn State. “Jason is the best high school wrestler in the nation,” Isaac confidently tells us.
Refreshingly, he is very polite and also humble. “Here’s the co-founder of The Mat Factory,” Isaac alerts us. Coach Chris Como, not just Mat Factory co-founder, but former PIAA Coach of The Year, is our next visitor to Isaac’s office.
For all his many successes, Coach Como is very unassuming and friendly. This is the first time I realize that this is The Mat Factory way. I haven’t seen one ego displayed, one “tough guy” give me a sideways look. Everyone seems to take on Isaac’s near zen-like calmness. Jordan Shields is our last visitor, he is yet another PIAA State Champion. He also happens to be their first State Champion, and Isaac is more than proud of him. They are starting to be as commonplace as the wrestling mats here! Jordan remembers me as a dealer from Rivers Casino and wants to help Jaime become a great wrestler.
As Jordan exits and says his goodbyes, we are finally the last three left in the only Chiropractic office/Wrestling/MMA gym in the world. Jaime leads off the interview and wants to know how The Mat Factory got started. Isaac starts to explain in a philosophical, stream of consciousness type way that would turn our interview into a deep and profound conversation not just about wrestling and MMA, but about how martial arts can make us into better people. “I’m not from here originally, I’m from Potter County. When I graduated from Chiropractic school, I moved down here to start a business with a couple of friends from school in Vandergrift. I was close friends with Chris Como who was the head wrestling coach at Burrell and he asked me to be his assistant coach. It was 2002-03 season when I started. At the same time I started working with Eddie Vincent. I had never been exposed to Jiu-Jitsu before, just pure wrestling. I fell in love with it. No one around here at the time knew Jiu-Jitsu. I just did it because I loved it. It’s hard for wrestlers to learn Jiu-Jitsu because it’s a gentle art. Wrestling is explosive. It took me a couple of years to really get used to it. From there, we’ve had a lot of wrestling success at Burrell over the last 11 years. We’ve won a couple of State Championships, we’ve won the last 8 WPIALS in a row and now have a record streak going. We’ve really built a system. We got to the point that we were a machine, like a train that kept on going. We kept teaching the kids the same system and it was working. From winning the two National Championships at UPJ, we knew that if you could get a good chemistry, get the parents on board, the kids, the coaches all together, we would build a chemistry that’s really hard to stop. But then once we had it going, we started getting married, having kids. That’s when I decided to take a step back. My dream was always to have a wrestling club, a place for kids that really wanted to be there. Kind of like we had here earlier tonight. I don’t really care where they are from or what their story is, as long as they be here and want to learn. I wanted to have another Chiropractic office. I already had three, but I figured what the heck, I’ll build another. I hired a former high school wrestler who graduated Chiropractic school to help me run it. My dream was always to get done with work like I did today, change my clothes, and go over and work out. That was dream from the beginning. I really loved chiropractic and healthy living, but I also really wanted to help kids. Plus, it’s an excuse for me to tell my wife that I’m working out! That is how the whole concept started. Also, I had tons of help from a lot of different people. The parents and kids came in the beginning and cleaned and painted all the time. There was a lot of beer! We’d be here until 11 at night all the time. MMA was never on my radar. How it started really was three or four years ago, we used to work out at USA Fitness down the road. And that’s when Dom (Mazzotta) came in.”
I knew at some point that our conversation would turn to Dempsey and Mazzotta, and about 20 minutes in, it did. Isaac is a little too young to be Dom’s father, and little too old to be his older brother. It seems that their relationship lies somewhere in between also. Isaac calls Dom, “the total package” and that he possesses “everything you need to make it as a fighter.” Isaac led a pilgrimage a few years ago to Brazil, a mecca of Jiu-Jitsu and MMA. Isaac estimates that he “rolled with 30 to 50 black belts” while in Brazil. The young Mazzotta also had his turn to roll with several black belts, and also Bellator veterans. “He was right there, tooth and nail with them,” Isaac recalls. It was something that he was happy to see, “and also needed to see.” Although a top tourist destination for its sunny beaches, the trip for Dom and the few other young men that made it was anything but a vacation. “I got up at 6:30 every morning and swam in the ocean. I only let the guys go to the beach once during the trip, and it happened to be the only day it rained.” Chalk it up to Mr. Murphy. “Mr. Murphy” is a term coined by Isaac, and based on Murphy’s Law. Wikipedia tells us that Murphy’s Law is, “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” It has become a saying used in The Mat Factory to help accept adversity. But long before Dom couldn’t go for a swim in the Atlantic, he was, in Isaac’s words, “just a tough Italian kid who came off the streets.” Flashback to USA Fitness several years ago. Isaac describes, “a young kid who came in wanting to be an MMA fighter.” Dom said to Isaac, “I wanna roll with you.” Isaac tells how he, “handled and beat Dom up pretty good,” during their rolling session. Although defeated, Dom was undeterred. “I want to learn everything you just did,” Dom told Isaac. And learn he did. Isaac told Dom that it would take him at least a year to learn wrestling, because he had never done it. He also expected Dom at The Mat Factory almost every morning, often times as early as 7 am. Isaac tells of bringing legendary coaches in such as Phillip Ameris, Paul Peterson, and “a gentle soul” and “the most modest, chill, under the radar guy I have ever met,” Eddie Vincent. Isaac talks in glowing terms of Eddie. “I’ve never rolled with anyone more talented,” says Isaac of Eddie.” “He can totally dismantle you without even trying.” It is evident that he is another father type figure to Isaac, just like UPJ coach and mentor Pat Pecora. With these new coaches now training Dom at The Mat Factory, Isaac remarks, “all of a sudden we had an MMA gym going. A little later, Jeff Contraguero, Tommy Costa, Brandon Newill, and Josh and Jordan Shields joined us and rounded out our coaching staff. “ As for ‘The Honey Badger’, he continues to fight out of The Mat Factory and after seeing his two most recent fights, Isaac’s project has indeed become, “the total package.”
We next naturally segway to the topic of one Chris Dempsey. Isaac declares that the, “hard-nosed kid from Ambridge,” is his next project. Dempsey follows closely in Isaac’s footsteps, as he himself was a star wrestler at UPJ who also placed highly in the NCAA National Finals. “Chris has an internal toughness that you can’t teach,” Isaac explains. Dempsey has also won his last several bouts and is a rising star.
Our more than one hour conversation starts to wind down, and Isaac offers Jaime and I a few cold Pepsi’s. We gladly accept. Isaac, Jaime, and I agree that martial arts is not just something that you do, “but a force that can change your life for the better. Something that can hone your soul.” But I still want to know the impetus that motivates Isaac to be a mentor, to change so many lives, and to also, “put everything I make monetarily from The Mat Factory right back in it.” Isaac tells us a tale of an early summer evening, just after high school had let out and after he had returned from the West Coast from a wrestling tournament. His parents left him and his brother at home to go out to dinner with friends. The friends also left something at The Greeleys’ residence, an expensive Saab. Even the keys were left behind in the luxury vehicle. The temptation proved too much for the brothers. Isaac brother alerts him that they are left home alone with the Saab. Isaac first wants to know, “what’s a Saab?” He quickly finds out, “it’s a funny looking car.” The boys get the car started, and start up a narrow dirt road. All of a sudden, another car makes too close of a pass. “We scraped the whole side of the car,” Isaac confesses. The boys headed back home. Not too long later, the Greeley parents and the owners of the Saab also get home from their dinner. Isaac says that his mom tells him that, “his summer is done.” She informs him that to do penance for his damage to the Saab, he will volunteer at a nursing home 40 hours a week. “First, I’m just a miserable 15 year-old,” Isaac says of his early experience taking care of the elderly. “Then, I ended up falling in love with the people.” As Isaac closes in on 40, he reminisces that, “I’m 37 years old. It’s not going to be about me much longer. It’s going to be about helping kids and changing their futures.” My Pepsi finished, I can’t help but marvel at what Isaac has built, with the help of the members of the Burrell wrestling family and the local community. The Mat Factory seems now to be less of a gym, although one of the best anywhere. It seems like more of a way of life. Like steel sharpening steel, and one generation molding the next for the better. As Jaime and I head for the exit and our commute back to the ‘Burgh, Isaac asks me politely but firmly, “Don’t make it about me. Make it about those guys.” What I don’t tell him but what I already know, what everyone at The Mat Factory and Burrell wrestling knows is that, you already have Coach Greeley. You already have.
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