A Pursuit of Passion: Lou Neglia
In the late 1960s, there was tremendous interest in the Martial Arts, creating an audience to watch skilled practitioners hold demonstrations displaying their abilities and the effectiveness of their art form. Aaron Banks was well known for organizing such demonstrations, hosting many in and around his hometown of the Bronx, NY. They were billed as "Karate versus Kung Fu," attracting a stream of curious fans to witness the action. One day there was a young man in attendance whose life would be forever changed after witnessing the abilities of these Martial Artists.
Lou Neglia grew up in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, NY, a tough neighborhood by any standard. Lou was already someone who could handle himself on the streets, but nevertheless that day unexpectedly started a lifelong passion for the Martial Arts that still runs strong today.
"I considered myself a tough guy from street fights I'd been in, but after seeing how these Martial Artists moved, I knew it was something I had to learn."
In his teens Neglia would start training in American Karate under Warren Siciliano, who was already known for training the legendary heavyweight boxing champ Rocky Marciano. Here, Neglia would begin to learn of the ancient traditions associated with Martial Arts, and he would go on to receive his first black belt years later in American Karate. Despite excelling in Karate, Neglia desired to continue his Martial Arts education by learning other art forms as well. The rise of Full Contact Kickboxing intrigued the young Brooklyn native, and after seeing one of his idols, Kickboxing World Champion Joe Lewis, he focused on learning the art of kickboxing.
"I looked up to Joe Lewis, he was the first heavyweight kickboxing champion. He started as a Karate point tournament fighter but when kickboxing came about, he went to kickboxing to test himself, so I
respected Joe Lewis. He was a champion who had great hands and feet techniques, and he would set up his opponent scientifically with great strategy."
This journey into kickboxing lead Neglia to make a bold life decision. He was going to become a professional fighter.
Coming from a family of college-educated siblings already in white collar jobs, Neglia expected his father to call him crazy when he told him of his plans to become a fighter. He was right. Neglia's father thought he was crazy, but said he would support him, and in fact would go on to become his son's biggest fan.
With his goals now set, Lou Neglia began to seek out instruction from new teachers and learn new art forms. As a black belt in American Karate at the time he was welcomed with open arms at different gyms, which allowed him to accumulate a wide range of knowledge from different styles.
"It was a time where not everyone was open to new people in their dojo, but since I was a black belt already, they recognized that and would extend that respect to me and allow me to train in their dojo, which I appreciated very much."
After helping a friend by teaching some classes at his dojo, Neglia realized his classes were growing and he was in high demand, so he decided to open his own school. In 1972 he founded Neglia Karate Academy on Avenue U in Brooklyn, NY. Neglia would continue his journey as a fighter while training in kickboxing under Ray Skrica. He taught, trained, and continued to improve as a fighter, eventually winning a World Kickboxing Championship in Madison Square Garden in 1980. Neglia would also continue to expand on his knowledge as a Martial Artist, training in Japanese Goju under Chuck Merriman, American Goju under Peter Urban, Ju Jitsu under Moses Powell, Muay Thai/Wing Chun under Dan Ahn, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Peter Serra. Neglia eventually retired from competition in 1985 with a career record of 34 wins and only 2 losses. He was named fighter of the year
in 1984. He has since been inducted into the Karate Hall of Fame and starred in multiple feature films.
"... you can't match that feeling. You couldn't pay me all the money in the world to replace that moment inside the ring at MSG after winning my first championship."
After retiring as a fighter, Lou Neglia continued teaching and helping others to change their lives through Martial Arts, just as he had changed his own life. When asked how teaching and interacting with his students has impacted him over the years, Mr. Neglia described the experience from both sides of the coin.
"On one side, I've been able to help people with their problems through my experiences in fighting and as a Martial Artist. I can help them to see the best in themselves, I will always push them to try harder and do better. I once had an ex-student reach out to me saying he was having thoughts of committing suicide. This was once a champion kickboxer who trained under me, that had run into some rough times. I reminded him of how great he can be and how tough he is. All that training, all the blood, sweat, and tears. I showed him pictures of him winning in the ring and said that was still him, he just needed to come back and start training again. I'm happy to say that's exactly what he did, and he continues to be one of my students to this day."
But being a teacher is a two-way street – the teacher does not just teach his students. The students impact the teacher just as much, sometimes more. He went on to discuss this side.
"... they've all done more for me than I can do for them though. I have grown students who are now doctors, lawyers, and successful in whatever they do, they tell me how the training all those years ago helped them become who they are. I believe a good teacher tries to be a positive influence on his students and creates a history that will stay with them the rest of their lives.... But it's also helped me. I've trained many disabled children over the years, and there's one specific time that sticks out. I'd just finished a session when the child's mom came
over to thank me. She began telling me all the ways I had helped her son and changed his life, but I stopped her and told her how it was really the other way around. Her son had helped me more than I could express to her and forever changed my outlook on life. We all have bad days and want to complain or think life is against us, but then you meet these children with all the odds against them and they are there smiling and learning Martial Arts in spite of it all. It gives you a whole new sense of gratitude and appreciation."
As much as he loved teaching, this would not end up being Neglia's only way to give back after retiring as a fighter. Neglia would go on to become one of the biggest and most successful fight promoters in New York and New Jersey by creating one of the pioneer promotions in Mixed Martial Arts, Ring of Combat. Starting with kickboxing, Lou Neglia started holding events in New York and Atlantic City.
"I wanted to give fighters the platform they needed to develop and perform in front of family and friends."
Through his years of training in different disciplines, Neglia recognized that the UFC and this emerging sport of NHB (short for "no holds barred" and eventually called MMA) was something that had staying power, even though it would still take another decade before it would become more widely accepted. In the summer of 2000, during one of his kickboxing shows Neglia held the first sanctioned MMA fight in New Jersey, which was the first state to legalize the sport. In order to get the fight sanctioned, he worked closely with New Jersey's Athletic Commissioner Larry Hazzard and his Deputy Commissioner Nick Lembo to help create the first sanctioned MMA rule set in the country. Neglia's MMA promotion, Ring of Combat, has gone on to hold over 70 events and has sent well over 150 fighters to the UFC, Bellator, and other top tier MMA promotions.
Through all his success as a Martial Artist, fighter, teacher, and promoter, Lou Neglia credits the traditions he has learned through Martial Arts, as well as his focus on maintaining his connections with family and friends.
"After a year like 2020 it's more evident than ever what's most important, and that's our love for our family and friends. They're the ones who will always be there for you. I knew a long time ago how important it was to maintain that connection with my kids. I purposely put my desk in my living room so even if I had to work long hours writing out a lesson plan or preparing for an upcoming show, I would also be there present with my kids, who would be watching TV, doing their homework or just hanging out."
After all these years, Neglia's passion for the Martial Arts is still strong and he is still as active as he has ever been. Whether working at his desk to prepare for a new ROC show, or teaching at his school which is still there on Avenue U in Brooklyn, you can find Grandmaster Louis Neglia guiding the future generations of Martial Artist down the same path that changed his life. As he likes to say, "pursuing your passion is one of life's greatest pleasures," and Lou Neglia has done exactly that.