Meet John Cholish: One Part Gordon Gekko, One Part Georges St-Pierre

December 18, 2010

John Cholish

John Cholish

Gordon Gekko meets Georges St-Pierre.

Who can forget Michael Douglas’ classic portrayal of tycoon Gordon Gekko and his “greed is good” speech in the film “Wall Street”? Now imagine Gekko developing a slick jiu-jitsu game and a vicious right hand.

It might be the easiest way to describe Team Renzo Gracie fighter John Cholish, a former Cornell wrestling standout who now holds a 5-1 record as a pro MMA fighter while holding down a day job as a stockbroker on Wall Street.

It’s not every day that a graduate from an Ivy League school is jumping into the cage to start fighting, but when his wrestling career was over and the high paced world of buying and selling stocks still left something in his competitive engine, Cholish looked for another outlet.

“I’ve pretty much been wrestling since I was four, ever since I was a little tyke. My uncle was a state champ, grandpa wrestled, dad wrestled in New Jersey and wrestled all the way through college. After I graduated college, I started working at Morgan Stanley in midtown (Manhattan), which conveniently happened to be a block away from where Renzo (Gracie’s) was, so I was just looking for a place to work out, that was the closest place.

“I figured jiu-jitsu was a close turn off from wrestling, so I went in there one day and started training no-gi and then had the gi on in a month or two and had John Danaher give me my blue belt within about two or three months and just got hooked onto it,” Cholish told

From the outside looking in, it might be hard to find the comparisons between mixed martial arts and the financial world, but digging deeper the similarities are definitely there. A fast paced world where careers can be made or broken on a dime, and mental toughness are a crucial part of the game.

It’s his own competitive nature that led Cholish to being a stockbroker and a mixed martial artist.

“I always knew I wanted to compete,” said Cholish. “I’m very competitive and I think that’s why I like the financial world. Since I started, I was at Morgan Stanley and then I went to Merrill Lynch on the retail side, I’m actually now brokering energy over at the desk at Intercontinental Exchange.”

During his time with Merrill Lynch, Cholish actually had Renzo Gracie as a client, but now he’s just a mentor. Cholish trains primarily under jiu-jitsu guru John Danaher, who many fans met during the 12th season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” as he helped coach Georges St-Pierre’s team on the show.

With a PhD from Columbia University and being a former professor himself, Danaher relates well to Cholish on both the mental and the physical side of MMA, and it’s his mentoring that has led the former Cornell wrestler down his current path.

“The ability for him to kind of translate jiu-jitsu to make it a sport that is taught, developing the sport each week, coming up with new moves and new positions, really trying to evolve the sport,” Cholish said about Danaher. “That’s what really makes the differences.”

Cholish loves his day job as much as he loves competing in MMA, and has no desire to walk away from either one. Of course images of Cholish walking back into work after a fight with a black eye or a broken nose conjures images of the film “Fight Club” when Edward Norton strolled through a white-collar world with blood dripping down his face.

That scene couldn’t be further from the truth in Cholish’s office. Tim Kelly, Cholish’s boss, hired him partially because he knew the competitive nature he possessed as a mixed martial artist, and he encouraged that same behavior in working with the stock market. Kelly even took a helicopter full of clients down to Atlantic City to see Cholish’s recent title defense as the Ring of Combat lightweight champion.

Before working together, Kelly trained with Cholish under former IFL lightweight and Renzo Gracie black belt Erik Owings in New York, and that led them to the working situation they now have at the Intercontinental Exchange.

“What I saw in John training with him and just spending time with him, and especially training him in an incredibly stressful environment, is that he had the dedication, the work ethic, the competitiveness, and mental toughness that I look for when I hire young guys,” Kelly told

“Johnny’s gone out with his Wall Street career the same kind of enthusiasm and passion that he has for his MMA career.”

Cholish explains that as soon as he walked in the door at his new job, Kelly relayed back to the young executive exactly what he was walking into with terms that made perfect sense.

“It’s a very aggressive business. On my first day of work, (my boss said) I don’t know what color your belt is in jiu-jitsu or what your experience is over there, and he said under John Danaher maybe you’re a black belt in jiu-jitsu, but right now you’re a white belt in this business and I’m the black belt and I’m going to have to teach everything to you,” said Cholish.

“So it’s the same thing, it’s steep, it’s fast paced, it challenges you much more on a mental level in the office and much more on a physical level, but being able to put those both together definitely is an advantage.”

Cholish is passionate about the work he does as a stockbroker and as an MMA pro, and while many fighters hang up their day jobs at the first chance they get when a promotion like the UFC or Strikeforce come calling, he has no intention of walking away.

As a matter of fact, Cholish believes leaving his day job is the last thing he plans on doing.

“In all actuality, when I wrestled up at Cornell, we had a full roster schedule as far as classes went, and I would do better during wrestling season with my grades when you’re more organized. I don’t think you need to train six or sevenhours a day. If you dedicate and organize your training schedule appropriately, you can train six days a week, two hours a day, and cover all your disciplines, and still compete in this sport,” Cholish explained.

“I think that’s one of the biggest things people make the mistake is they kind of quit their full-time job as soon as they get an offer from the UFC, where they’re getting paid $8,000 and $8,000 plus whatever bonuses and whatever sponsors they get, but at the same time that’s not just for a month of work, that’s for months and months of training. I truly believe when I get to the next level, which is obviously my goal, I could still work a full-time schedule.”

While calls continue to flood in to Cholish while he’s doing the interview, he never skips a beat and bangs out work while talking MMA at the same time. Brains and brawn, Cholish doesn’t want to slow down just to focus on either his career in the financial world or in the fighting world.

“I’m only 26 and I think I can burn the candle at both ends, at least for a couple more years. I don’t think there’s any reason to be lazy about it,” Cholish said. “As long as I can be successful here, keep doing my job, and then train at night, I think I can keep both things going.”

He credits his work ethic to his parents John and Joan, who made sacrifices to drive him to wrestling tournaments every single weekend so he could compete and then make his way to Cornell. He credits John Danaher for helping him succeed to the point where he’s at in the fight world. Now he’s ready to prove his own worth with the road leading to a shot in the UFC.

“My end goal of course is to fight in the UFC, I think that’s everyone’s goal,” said Cholish. “I’ve had five wins in a row and the last two guys I had, had pretty substantial records and over the past year and a half to two years, I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to train with Georges St-Pierre, Kenny Florian, Frankie Edgar, and they’re all very good friends that I’ve helped train for their fights and they’ve returned the favor.”

Cholish will continue to blast through calls every day like he’s Giovanni Ribisi in the film “Boiler Room,” but at night he’ll head over to Renzo Gracie’s Manhattan academy or to Erik Owings Mushin MMA to make sure he’s getting his fight training in. There doesn’t seem to be an obstacle that Cholish isn’t ready to tackle, and if the wall seems too high to climb, he’s likely to be the one to figure out how to go through it instead.

Cholish will next compete in January when he defends either his Ring of Combat or UCC lightweight title.