By John Hartsock
Mixed martial arts is a fierce and spirited one-on-one competition that requires a splendid combination of skills for success.
Kickboxing, striking, wrestling, and Jiu-Jitsu — which focuses on close-contact grappling holds and techniques, as well as the application of chokes and joint-manipulations — are all disciplines that come into play in the mixed martial arts (MMA) cage that is known as an Octagon.
MMA fighters who have achieved the highest levels of skill can aspire to potentially lucrative careers in the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), or in a circuit like Bellator, which is one step down from the UFC but is almost equally as prestigious.
Altoona’s Gorilla House gymnasium has been providing training for its core MMA fight team of eight competitors for the past four years, under the direction of Gorilla House owner Ray Ross and fight instructor Darren Cassidy.
Ross provides instruction in Jiu-Jitsu and grappling, while Cassidy, who commutes to the gym for practices from his home in Bedford, trains the fighters in striking and wrestling.
“We’ve built one of the best teams on the East Coast,” Cassidy said. “The team members average three fight shows a year, and Ray and I work great together. It’s his gym, and he’s been very instrumental in all of this. Even at the fight shows, we coach the fighters in the separate nuances of the sport.
“It’s obviously a tough sport,” Cassidy added. “And we’re pretty strict about what we expect from the fighters before they fight. We stress hard work and the basics, because it’s doing the basics that wins fights.”
Ross — whose wife, Angela, helps the fighters from the Gorilla House team to prepare for their competitions by providing them with proper diet, nutrition, and conditioning regimens — said that he and Cassidy work in sync well together at the fight shows.
“Darren and I get along and we’re on the same page with everything,” Ross said. “Our coaching styles match up, and we keep things simple. When we corner a fight, he takes command of the coaching when the fight is standing and when the fight gets on the ground, I kind of take over.”
Fighters can advance to the professional level after putting together impressive resumes on the amateur level that includes winning championship belts and garnering a large number of successful amateur competitions.
“Darren and I always talk to the fighters when they want to turn pro,” said Ross, whose daughter, Sydney, is a member of the Gorilla House fight team and will make her professional debut this October. “Some fighters turn pro before they’re ready. We want to make sure that our fighters are seasoned and have experience at the amateur level before they turn pro.
“We want to give them time to figure things out and to develop when they’re amateurs,” Ray Ross said. “When they’re comfortable, and we feel comfortable with them, we let them go (pro).”
The Gorilla House fight team currently includes one professional level fighter, 2010 Juniata Valley High School graduate Ethan Goss, who has been competing in MMA for 10 years and won a 247 (western Pennsylvania region) championship in the 145-pound featherweight division by defeating an Arizona state champion this past April 16 at the Monroeville Convention Center.
Goss, 30, is working with a fight management team and will likely sign a contract to compete at the UFC level in 2023.
“Ethan has had about 25 fights,” Cassidy said of Goss. “He’s one of the most seasoned pros on the East Coast. He’s won at least three championship belts overall at both the amateur and professional levels combined, and he’s one of those new-age MMA guys who is good at every skill. He really doesn’t have a weakness.”
Goss appreciates all the help he has received from Cassidy and Ray Ross, as well as the access he has gained to the superb facilities at the Gorilla House gym.
“It’s amazing – we’re in the best atmosphere for an MMA fighter here,” Goss said of the Gorilla House. “We’ve got everything that you could ever want, from the gym floor to the mats, to the cage, to the rings, to the punching bags, to the barbell club, and the cardio-fitness. Everything that you could want is here.”
Goss has won his last three fights, including a 30-27 unanimous decision over the Arizona state champion Kevin Barbarena at the Monroeville Convention Center this past April.
“I’ve just been clicking on all cylinders these past two years,” said Goss, who competed in wrestling during his high school days at Juniata Valley. “I’m on a three-fight winning streak right now, and I will be trying to defend my featherweight title at Monroeville this October.”
Goss has come to a verbal agreement with a fight management promotion team to sign a UFC contract.
“I was told that if I get two more wins this year, there’s a good chance that I would get signed,” said Goss, who participated in one Bellator competition at Penn State University’s Bryce Jordan Center back in 2017.The management promotion team has a bunch of fighters who are in the UFC. I’ve verbally agreed to sign, so that if an opening pops up in either the UFC or in Bellator, the management promotion team will have the ability to get me into that opening.”
MMA popular among women
Sydney Ross, 22, a graduate of Hollidaysburg Area High School, grew up around mixed martial arts, and her father and Goss were both helpful in her development in the sport.
“My dad owns the gym, I’ve always done martial arts, and Ethan Goss persuaded me to get into MMA,” Sydney Ross said. “He’s been like a mentor to me.”
Sydney had her first amateur fight shortly after turning 18 years of age, and she’s currently ranked first among amateur women’s MMA fighters in the state of Pennsylvania and seventh among the nation’s amateurs overall in the 125-pound flyweight division.
Sydney said that MMA fighting has grown greatly among women in popularity in recent years.
“I see a lot more women who are interested, and a lot more women who are training now than they did in the past,” Sydney said. “The UFC is growing their divisions, and there are women in the UFC right now competing against each other in four separate weight classes.
“More women are starting to reach the level where they can fight professionally,” Sydney added.
Cassidy said that Sydney is a well-rounded fighter.
“Sydney is a new-age fighter who is good at every skill,” Cassidy said. “She’s an extremely gifted athlete who works out constantly and who possesses a lot of mental toughness.”
Other regular members of the Gorilla House fight team currently competing in MMA on the amateur level include former Altoona Area High School wrestlers Mante Barnes (185-pound middleweight division) and Jordan Wagner (125-pound straw weight), former Chestnut Ridge High School wrestler Dan Albright (heavyweight), Georgia native Sheldon Neighoff (who competes in the light heavyweight division at 205 pounds), and Pittsburgh native Cam Allgeier (a 135-pound bantamweight).
Cassidy’s son, Kaden, a PIAA Class 2A state wrestling champion at 138 pounds in 2020 at Bedford Area High School, has also participated in one fight as a member of the team, and may compete in others in the future. Kaden Cassidy is also a member of the NCAA George Mason University wrestling squad.
Ray Ross said that he and Darren Cassidy want the fighters to enjoy competing, whether they make it to the UFC or not.
“We’re the only gym in this area that has a fight team,’ Ray Ross said. “We have all the necessary programs in our gym to help get the fighters ready to compete, and it’s a process.
“If they have aspirations to reach the UFC or Bellator, we will try to do everything we can to help them get there, but it’s really up to them,” Ray Ross said. “We don’t push them one way or another.”
Albright, 28, is thrilled to be part of the Gorilla House team.
“It’s a great facility, and the coaches are amazing,” Albright said. “The coaches work great with my fighting style.
“They don’t try to change me,” Albright added. “They just continue to make me a better fighter by working with me on things that I already do well.”