A large contingent from Greenwich are headed to Bridgeport this weekend to watch Greenwich native Kastriot Xhema fight at the Webster Bank Arena.
Mr. Xhema, who goes by “Kas,” said he’s always been a fighter, but it wasn’t until he was arrested for crimes including assault and wound up in prison that he began his journey to becoming a professional Bellator MMA fighter.
Focused and driven in his fighting career, Xhema’s gentle disposition belies his past. He would have graduated with the Greenwich High School Class of 2010 if he hadn’t wound up behind bars.
On Wednesday Xhema worked out at Revolution Training in Stamford where he said he started training at 14.
“The courts put me in here as the part of the anger management program,” he said, giving credit to the owner of Revolution, Ahmad Mickens, who took him in and started teaching him how to box.
“I’ve always been athletic and grew up playing soccer and basketball,” he said. “But I also just liked fighting.”
“Growing up I used to fight everybody. I was constantly getting arrested – multiple times a day. I’d get out and come back in,” he recalled, adding that he didn’t know where the anger originated from. “I have a wonderful family.”
Xhema, who served sentences in Connecticut and New York, regained his freedom in 2014 and turned his life around.
Cutting ties with friends he described as having a negative vibe and energy, he earned a GED and channeled his energy into fighting in the ring.
“One of my best friends Ambrogio Castellana is a personal trainer at the Greenwich Water Club. He was always telling me on the phone when I was in jail to come to his gym,” Xhema recalled. “‘You’re in jail for fighting, at least get paid for it,’ he said.”
Xhema finally took his friend’s advice.
“Violence is everybody’s DNA,” he said. “If someone fights you’re going to fight them off, right?”
The difference, Xhema explained, is never to fight in anger.
Since starting mixed martial arts, Xhema said he is humbled. “I don’t feel like beating people up if they cut me off driving. I don’t feel like smacking someone at the gas station if they disrespect me,” he said. “It seems everyone is always in a bad mood. I just laugh now.”
Xhema said as a professional fighter he gets his aggression out in the ring or by hitting a punching bag.
“I come from an amazing family who have always supported me,” he said, adding that his parents immigrated from Albania about 30 years ago and rented in Byram before buying a house in central Greenwich. He has two brothers and a sister.
“I also have great coaches who do more for me than just in the gym,” he said.
As for Saturday’s fight, Xhema said he’s prepared. He’s shed 30 pounds and is down to his fighting weight of 165 lbs.
“Kale and chopped salad are my best friends,” he joked.
Asked if he gets nervous before a fight, he shook his head.
“It’s just another day,” he said matter-of-factly. “The difference between me and most fighters is that growing up, all day this is what I did. A fight is just a fight. A lot of people get nervous. I don’t even get butterflies, except when my teammates fight.”
Teammates? Xhema explained that although MMA is a one-on-one sport, there is the essence of a team.
“I train at Law-MMA in Garden City, on Long Island, and we have a lot of fighters in different weight classes who fight for different organizations, but we’re all like a team, with the coaches and sparring partners.”
While Saturday may be just another day of work, Xhema is excited about the fight because mixed martial arts fighting was only recently sanctioned by the state of Connecticut.
“I found out that the legislature finally passed it,” he said. “This is the first MMA fight show in Bridgeport.”
In addition to furthering his professional fighting career, one of Xhema’s goals is to connect with Greenwich youth.
“My past is what made me who I am. I’m the one that young kids are going to relate to. There’s nothing a young kid can tell me that I wouldn’t understand.”
Beyond his professional MMA career, Xhema said he will soon open a fitness and MMA gym in Greenwich for adults and children, where there will be group classes and one-on-one lessons. Through his gym he hopes to develop local partnerships to connect with youth to keep them on the right track.
“I’ve seen it all, and been through it all,” he said.
Stay tuned for news on the opening of Xema’s gym.
Follow Kastriot Xhema on Twitter @k_xhema