It is not every day when a parent suggests becoming a rock star as a career, but that is exactly what Ariel “Tarzan” Sexton‘s mother wanted for him.
That may sound slightly peculiar considering most kids are encouraged to go to college or pursue a job with a little more financial stability. Still, the New York-based Costa Rican claims his mother and father were only concerned with one key factor regarding his future, which ended up in direct conflict with his ultimate career path.
“My mom wanted me to be a rock star. She wanted me to play guitar, or be an actor. But obviously, my mom and dad just wanted me to be safe,” the 36-year-old says ahead of his promotional return on Friday, 23 February, at ONE: QUEST FOR GOLD in Yangon, Myanmar.
“I have been through a lot of stuff in my life, so they just want me to be healthy and happy. But once they realized what I do inspires people — and I have taught Brazilian jiu-jitsu for the last 10 years, and I get to work with kids, adults, and doctors — they see how much it changes peoples’ lives.
“They see that this is not a brutal sport. They see how good it is.”
Sexton’s path to discovering his future in martial arts is not all that different from many other athlete’s, but the direction he traveled was definitely unique.
“Tarzan” was born in Vancouver, Canada, but he actually grew up all over the world thanks to his father’s importing business, which required the family to travel across the globe on a regular basis. In fact, the youngster spent the entire sixth grade living in Asia, and that was the first time he was exposed to martial arts.
It was that moment when Sexton suddenly stopped being interested in becoming a rock star, because another passion grabbed his attention.
“I remember seeing a Muay Thai bout in Thailand, and I was like, ‘That is the best, I love it,’” he recollects. “I was always watching martial arts movies with Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Bruce Lee.”
Before long, Sexton was pursuing his love of martial arts by sparring with his friends in the neighborhood, including boxing matches, where they would wear socks on their hands to emulate gloves before trying the sport in the middle of his parents’ living room.
Sexton’s mother decided he needed a new outlet rather than battling his friends inside their house. That led him to his first martial school, where he studied karate and kickboxing. His love for martial arts continued to evolve when he discovered a Japanese jiujitsu school in Canada, and that was the foundation for what became his ultimate pursuit.
“I got into Japanese jiujitsu when I was about 18 years old in Vancouver, but it was not as evolved as Brazilian jiu-jitsu. My friends were all doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu, but it was way across town, and I did not want to be disloyal and leave my school,” Sexton explains.
“I ended up doing Japanese jiujitsu, aikido, and karate mixed together, and I did that for about two years. Then, I really wanted to try Brazilian jiu-jitsu. So when I moved to Costa Rica, I got into a Brazilian jiu-jitsu school, and it was perfect. Now I could do it. I had already trained a little bit, but it just clicked. I was able to do it right away.”
Because Sexton’s mother was from Costa Rica, he was able to move there and live in the Central American nation for several years, all while exploring his new love of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Costa Rica, however, did not have an elaborate group of gyms, or promotions, where athletes could compete professionally. In fact, “Tarzan” says it was more like the days of the Gracie Challenge, when members from the legendary family would go from gym to gym, and challenge the best students at each academy as a way to further expand their BJJ empire.
“We would do jiu-jitsu tournaments where you are allowed to kick and punch, but you have a gi on, and then you have 30 seconds on the ground. So we would be trying to knock each other out, get tossed on our head, and if we did not get a submission, we would have to stand back up,” he describes.
“The first time professional martial arts came around, one of my teammates had some experience, and I went to support him. Some other guy [on the card] had not shown up that night. The [matchmaker] asked me, ‘Do you want to compete?’ My coach was like, ‘let’s represent our academy, so I did not have time to train or anything.’”
“Tarzan” won, and then ended up competing in a one-night tournament in Costa Rica where he won three bouts in a row, which helped to launch his career. That was all it took, and Sexton’s journey into the world of caged competition was complete.
“From there, the snowball just started to grow, and I could not get out of it even if I wanted to after that,” he says with a laugh. “The rest is history.”
More than 15 years later, Sexton is still pursuing his love of martial arts with his career in ONE Championship, where he will look to achieve his ultimate goal in 2018 by becoming the ONE Lightweight World Champion.
The next step in his journey takes place at ONE: QUEST FOR GOLD, where Sexton will look for his fourth consecutive win, as he takes on Ev Ting in the co-headlining bout at the Thuwunna Indoor Stadium in Yangon.