Nate Russell: Former Dropout, Now Three Times Champion

nate russell

The best teachers lead by example. The example that Nathan Russel sets for his students at Riverside Academy is rather remarkable. Being a physical education teacher, he is also a mixed martial arts champion. He recently won his 3rd belt at Cage Titans 49, one of the biggest MMA promotions in New England and has 2 other championship belts from other promotions. He is the number one ranked amateur fighter in his weight class in the northeast. We met with Nate in his office at Riverside, and here is his story.

N. R. I grew up in Hartford in a very poor family. We were moving every three months, living in abandoned houses sometimes, sometimes with no heat, hot water, and electricity. My father died of AIDS and my mom was heavily addicted to crack. As a result, I was kicked out of eighth grade for drinking and smoking. Luckily, I was able to enroll in the alternative school at the Boys and Girls Club in Hartford and got involved in sports. I ended up receiving a scholarship and was able to go to college, graduate school, and to become a teacher.

L. G. What a fascinating story! Obviously, these changes did not happen overnight.

N. R. It took time and patience. I set up goals, and I was slowly but steadily moving towards them. Although there were many good times, I often spent days and months in misery before I started seeing positive changes. I had a very good PE teacher who helped me to turn my life around. He talked to me every day. He believed in me and wanted me to have a better life. 

L. G. For how long have you been a school teacher?

N. R. This is my fifth year. I started in the summer camps, then I was subbing for a long time before I became a full-time PE teacher.

L. G. You came to NHPS two years ago. What are your impressions of Riverside Academy?

N. R. This is the same type of alternative school I went to. And these are the same type of kids I grew up around. What is considered a norm for the students in the regular schools, could be quite challenging for kids here. But I have been through these challenges, and I can tell them that they don’t have to do drugs, don’t have to be involved in crime, that they can do better, that they have a choice.

Today, for example, I had a health education class, and we spoke about crime and a felony, specifically for what type of things a person can be charged with a felony. A lot of kids don’t think about it when they are driving in a stolen car. They have no idea how it's going to impact their life, what kind of job or apartment they would be able to find after having a felony… 

I am planning to continue these conversations with my students, and I'm going to relate them back to my life as I grew up. My brothers got felony charges, my friends had to go through that also, and a lot of them are not where they want to be in life because of their past.

L. G. Tell me how you got into mixed martial arts.

N. R. I've always wanted to do it. I remember it came out when I was in high school, I was like, yeah, I want to get into that, that'd be cool. Back then I wrestled, and wrestling is a really big foundation of mixed martial arts. At that time MMA was more like a backyard thing. It wasn't really structured, well organized. I was at a Springfield college when MMA really started to pick up. I started doing jiu jitsu, and then I found a gym where I could do kickboxing being enrolled in Fighting Arts Academy in Springfield, MA. 

L. G. I heard about mixed martial arts, but I don't know what it is. Please educate me.

N. R. It's a combat sport. Two people go into a cage and fight. The rules are as follows: you can punch, kick, elbow, knee… Any type of striking is allowed, except for headbutts and kicks and knees in the face when a person is on the ground. You can take them down, twist their limbs, choke them until they're unconscious. The opponent can tap out when he feels he cannot continue any longer. 

L. G. It’s painful.

N. R. It can be. Football can be painful too!

L. G. Why did you choose MMA, not football or track and field? 

N. R. I really loved boxing but it’s hard to get into it. In MMA all my skills in wrestling, kickboxing, jujitsu came along. Everything was molded together.

L. G. So you're enjoying it. 

N. R. I love it!

L. G. You just added the third champion belt to your existing collection. How hard is it to be a MMA champion?

N. R. This last time it was a hard fought fight. It was really good. I came in prepared. I had a great coach and teammates with me. They got me ready for the fight. 

Becoming a champion takes a lot of work. You have to be very well conditioned, putting a lot of hours into your training. I started training around 2010, and I didn't get my first flight until 2013. And I had a background in wrestling and basic understanding of boxing. In order to succeed you also need to understand your body and its mechanics.

L. G. What are the categories in MMA? Are there age or weight categories?

N. R. Only weight categories. No age. The youngest fighters are 18, the oldest are over 40. At my age (38) MMA fighters start to retire, but I am not looking forward to that. I am planning to hold onto it as long as possible.

L. G. I think the Riverside kids are very fortunate to have you as a teacher. It seems that you have a wealth of life experience and skills to share with them.

N. R. Hopefully - if they listen, if they stay interested and adopt the rules. For problem kids a lot of rules imposed by the school are pretty pointless. They are asked not to wear a hat or headphones in school but all their thoughts are about the fact they have nothing to eat, no place to stay warm and safe. It can be hard to follow simple rules when you're more focused on basic necessities.

L. G. Nate, I firmly believe you will have a positive impact and make a difference in these kids' lives. I am wishing you all the best in your endeavours! 

Martial arts are not allowed in school for safety reasons. But Nate found a creative way to incorporate some of its elements in his lessons. They aim to develop movement coordination, rhythm, and to improve muscular strength. The students in his class are very excited about learning these techniques. Watch it:


Interview by Liliya Garipova.