Tom DeBlass: How MMA fighter overcame childhood abuse and father’s addiction to become a champion

Even as a three-year-old, Tom DeBlass noticed that his father sometimes looked different when he returned home.

He was too young at the time to truly understand that this was the result of alcohol addiction, but his family tried to explain it to him anyway, referring to those nights he would arrive home looking disheveled as “slip ups.”

On those occasions, DeBlass — a former MMA fighter who competed in UFC and Bellator — knew something wasn’t right.

“His hair would get flat when he was drunk,” DeBlass recalls to CNN Sport. “Usually, he would brush it back, [but] anytime he was drunk it would be flat and to the side. Right away, I knew today is not going to be a good day.

“Some days, he would be really, really awesome and just super sweet and kind, and some days, he just was not very kind. His voice would raise, and he wasn’t affectionate and then I realized there was something … not smooth.

“I really didn’t comprehend at that time what alcoholism was, but I understood something wasn’t normal.”

His father’s alcohol and drug addiction was a recurring theme throughout DeBlass’ childhood. On the day he was born, DeBlass says the police had to be called to his house to “rip me out of my father’s hands” because he was so drunk.

One week later, Tom Sr. overdosed in the New York district of Harlem, one of a number of times he would have to be admitted to the hospital.

DeBlass quickly discovered that physical activity helped him process the confusing emotions that were brought on by his troubled home life.

In his new autobiography, “How You Bear It: Triumph and Resilience in Life,” DeBlass describes sport during his youth as “a desperate escape” and despite eventually excelling in martial arts, initially found that release through soccer.

It was Brazilian jiu-jitsu, however, that ultimately gripped DeBlass and never let go.

Now 39 and retired from combat sports, he enjoyed a stellar career that saw him win multiple gold medals in ADCC competitions — the highest level of grappling and submission disciplines — and earn contracts in both UFC and Bellator, two of the world’s most prestigious MMA organizations.

Sexual abuse

Much of DeBlass’ book is centered around the car journeys he would take with his father when driving him to and from the clinic for treatment.

DeBlass would fill his father in on moments from his childhood that he was either absent for or had forgotten due to the effects of the alcohol and drugs.

But there was one moment that he could never bring himself to tell his father about. When he was seven years old, DeBlass says he was molested by an older child.

“I never resented the person,” he tells CNN. “I don’t know why, because I’m assuming that they were also in a terrible spot in their life and had witnessed some things.

“I always try to look deep within myself and say: ‘Why are you the way you are? What is okay and what is not okay?’ And I think I just started to understand that some of my flaws were because of that, and I never asked for that. That just happened to me.

“People say everything happens for a reason, I think that’s not true. I think that’s bulls**t. Not everything happens for a reason. Sometimes, terrible things just happen to good people, you know?”

Coming from a staunchly religious family made the emotions more confusing, DeBlass says, as he wrestled with personal feelings of guilt over the incident.

“When you’re a child, you’re very pure, you’re very innocent and I very much believed in Jesus and believed in God, and I still do,” he says. “And when that happened, I thought it was my fault.

“I thought it was all my fault and I felt I was going to hell. I remember I went downstairs, and I had a little goofy stuffed animal. I was crying, and I said I had a headache, but I was crying because I thought I was going to hell.

“For years, I had this guilt like it was my fault and that’s probably one of the things that changed me the most because in order to cope and deal with life, I had to like make myself kind of emotionless. I had to make myself not care, because if I cared, I was just crushed.”

The incident continued to affect DeBlass well into his adult life and impacted how he developed relationships with people as a young man at school.

The complicated emotions that arose from being molested took decades for him to process, and DeBlass believes he didn’t truly become at peace with what happened until he wrote the book.

DeBlasse is covered with scars and tattoos and looks every bit the battle-hardened fighter, with his hardman exterior punctuated by a deep, gruff voice.

In a world that oftentimes still expects men to remain outwardly tough and internalize their emotions, DeBlass hopes his opening up can help break that stigma for others.

“Because if I talk about it, how many other men is that helping, you know?” he says.

“You look at me … I’m a rough looking dude, man. Even if you don’t know I’m a fighter, I look like a guy that is a rough guy — and if I could go through it, anyone could go through it.

“So I think that’s [writing the book] really helped me. You know, I’m going to go back to what I said, ‘Not everything happens for a reason.’ Perhaps that did happen to me for a reason, you know, to help me understand and touch and help other people.”

Healing through sport

As he continued struggling to process his emotions, DeBlass writes in his book that he began contemplating suicide in his 20s.

During those dark moments, he says that jiu-jitsu saved him from depression, but sport was always something DeBlass found comfort in.

At the age of four, he got into soccer and then discovered his first martial art, taekwondo, when he was in second grade. Though he was too young to realize it at the time, with hindsight, DeBlass acknowledges what a pivotal role physical activity had on his mental health when he was a child.

“Sports is physical and it’s a proven fact that physical activity, you know, raises serotonin levels, releases endorphins … is just healthy and good for you.

“So I think probably most likely when I was doing it, it was just … getting out any kind of aggression or pent up resentment or anger that I had through physical activity.”

DeBlass fell out of love with taekwondo — which he says at that age was taught as non-contact — and then didn’t pursue martial arts for more than a decade.

In his early 20s, DeBlass began teaching special education kids after earning his teaching degree at college, but by this time he had discovered a new passion in martial arts.

It was while he was still at school that DeBlass first enrolled in a jiu-jitsu academy and despite moving onto a full-time job in teaching once he graduated, his training never relented.

Every night after work, he would drive an hour and a half to train for four hours, before driving back and getting up early ready to teach the next day.

Right from the beginning, there was something about jiu-jitsu that DeBlass was drawn to.

“You’re not punching or being like hit, it’s not like a blunt force to you,” he explains.

“Jiu-jitsu is more a push-pull type thing, it’s very complex and it’s just addicting. Every single day, you’re learning something that you didn’t think existed and even to this day, as a black belt for 13 years, I’m learning more and more.

“You really have to be in tune with your body for jiu-jitsu, you have to understand your body. You have to understand how to move. You have to understand your strengths, your weaknesses. You find out about yourself: you find out things you didn’t necessarily know before.

“I don’t believe other martial arts do that as much as jiu-jitsu. It’s a special thing and it’s just really like playing a board game every day. I always tell people with jiu-jitsu: ‘Don’t fight it, play it.’ Don’t think jiu-jitsu is a fight, think of jiu-jitsu as game. When you look at jiu-jitsu as a game, it’s much more fun.”

After a conversation with his teacher, DeBlass decided to dedicate himself full-time to the martial art and opened his own school in 2004: Ocean County Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in New Jersey.

“I had a handmade sign because I couldn’t afford a real sign,” he recalls with a smile. “It was all crooked — I’m not very artistic — and it was just history from there. I just was able to just keep growing and growing.”

Alongside owning his own school, DeBlass — who, incredibly, says he was always physically the weakest member of his family — progressed through the ranks and eventually earned his black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a belt he has now held for 13 years.

In his professional fighting career, he competed in the prestigious MMA championships of UFC and Bellator, before retiring in 2014 with a record of nine wins and two losses.

DeBlass can boast multiple gold medals in different events, disciplines and weight classes — not that he is the boasting type — and finds it difficult to pick out a single career highlight.

“Probably winning the ADCC North American trials three times, it’s like our Olympic trials,” he says. “Winning the Pan American Games … I don’t think there’s just one, ’cause I think each one meant something different to me.

“One of my most memorable ones is one of my losses — when I lost in Sweden, my first loss in MMA — because I realized that I was tougher than I thought I was. Because mentally I was able to come back, get up and push forward.”

Life lessons

DeBlass and his father, who passed away earlier this year after contracting Covid-19, went on to forge a strong relationship, one that he was able to lean on during his adult life.

Even during those troubled early years, there were glimpses of the father DeBlass Sr. would go on to become.

“When he didn’t have ‘slip ups,’ he was the best father in the world,” DeBlass recalls of his childhood.

From his father, DeBlass says learned to admit his own mistakes. From his mother, who DeBlass describes as the hardest working woman he has ever met, he learned his work ethic.

To this day, he remains in awe of the strength his mother showed during those years, remaining with his father throughout the lowest moments of his addictions.

“If my mother would have left my father, [he] would have died undoubtedly very, very soon, and I would have been left without a father,” he says. “You know, I would have been left without that male figure and it taught me unconditional love.”

Despite his difficult childhood, DeBlass says the characteristics he learned from his parents — combined with the lessons he learned as a schoolteacher — have molded him into a better jiu-jitsu teacher.

In the people that come to his school, he sees a lot of his old self.

“A lot of the kids who do it, it’ll help them … and maybe it’s not something they do forever, but some of the adults who find me, this is their last chance for some of them,” he says.

“They’re just fed up in life, they’re tired, they’re stressed, they’re lonely, they’re angry and I feel jiu-jitsu gives them an outlet that they never had before.

“So I’m just thankful overall to provide an environment where people from all walks of life — your color doesn’t matter, your religion doesn’t matter, your preference … nothing matters, man. Everyone’s equal. You just get on the mats and train.”

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