Joseph Valtellini has a scar running down his left forearm that looks like a stretched arrowhead, with an series of dots surrounding it almost decoratively. Those stitch marks somehow hallow it, center its focus, like the aura that enshrines Our Lady of Guadalupe. He got it making a tackle while playing football at the University of Toronto. The radius bone in his arm snapped in half. The first thought he had, other than the shooting pain, was what happens to his fighting career?
At that time Valtellini was already zeroing in on becoming a professional fighter. This was six years before Glory 17, which he’ll compete at on Saturday in Los Angeles. This was two decades after he broke his first board with a karate chop in his basement, in the little makeshift dojo his father made for him when he was seven years old. It was right at a moment when the leap to a pro career was close to becoming a graspable reality.
"The first thing I asked the surgeon was, ‘am I going to fight again?’" Valtellini remembers. "He was telling me, ‘no, you’re not.’ I was in tears for three days in the hospital waiting for surgery. I kept thinking, there goes my dream. I wanted to be a world champion kickboxer, and here I am in a hospital bed with the doctor telling me I may never fight again."
Of course, you know how stories like these go. Doctor says no way, kid gets determined to prove him wrong, and uses it as motivation to do just that. In retrospect, they are tidy stories to provide some depth of character to a fighter as he comes into the spotlight. "There were many ups and downs with the healing process," he says. "A lot of frustration from the pain and being upset with the slow progress of how it was feeling. But I came back, and I won the provincial title, and here I am six years later."
There’s something about Valtellini that transcends ordinary notions, though, even if you don’t marvel at him defying a doctor’s doubtful verdicts. He was a blackbelt in tae kwon do at 10 years old, and by 14 had earned his second-degree black belt. From there it was a brief foray into jiu-jitsu, and then kickboxing -- which has been his passion ever since.
Now 29 years old, "Bazooka Joe" is not only fighting, but he’s going for a world title against the Belgian champion Marc de Bonte at the Forum in LA. He throws that left hand with the same fury he does his vicious leg kicks or anything else. There’s an apt reason for the "bazooka" moniker; he’s explosive.
And he’s not an ordinary challenger, either. Valtellini holds down a full-time job at Sir William Osler High School in Scarborough, Ontario, working as a physical education teacher for kids with special needs.
"I was teaching before Glory came along, and I’ve come from parents who were hard-working immigrants from Sicily, and they really instilled in me the value of hard work," he says. "For me it’s good to give back and it gives me that balance in life, to be able to do my dream and my passion of kickboxing as well helping people and being a role model, especially for kids who don’t have people in their lives that are influential."
Valtellini has gone on record saying he’d like to be considered the Georges St-Pierre of kickboxing, an ambassador for the sport who happens to be, by dint of his nature, a role model for kids. Though his legs are weapons of destruction -- he blows more people up with low kicks than anybody in the game -- he just does random good deeds just to do random good deeds. When Glory’s own Mark Miller went into renal failure earlier this year, and was in dire need of financial help to offset medical costs, Valtellini -- who had never met Miller, but always looked up to him -- auctioned off his walkout shirt from his bout at Glory 13 in Toyko.
He raised nearly $2,000 for the "Fight Shark" Miller without prompting, because that’s the kind of guy he is. It’s that sort of camaraderie he feels for his fellow prizefighters, and for the game itself, that sets him apart.
Then again, his fighting style is no small wonder, either.
Heading into Saturday night’s title fight with de Bonte, Valtellini has knocked out or TKO’d his opponent in every victory except one (Murat Direkci had the mettle to survive to hear the scorecards the last time he fought in Los Angeles, back in 2012). All his other wins have come via balletic violence.
Even in defeat -- and he’s only been defeated twice --Valtellini goes down on his shield.
That was best evidenced his last fight against Nieky Holzken in Toyko at Glory 13. In that bout, he and the Dutch fighter were swinging for the fences late, and in closing moments, right in the heat of the roulette, Valtellini got dropped with a right hook. It was a classic fight.
"The tournament was my opportunity to fulfill my dream of being that No. 1 kickboxer," he says. "No matter what, I was going to leave it all out there. A lot of people that I could have been winning two rounds going into the third, but I trusted my corner, and my corner at the end of the second round said it’s one round apiece, so go out there and win this round. Knowing that, I left it all out there. With 10 seconds left it’s either you go for it or lose what you’ve worked so hard for it. It’s a sport, right? I could have caught him and dropped him in the last 10 seconds, but it just so happened it went the other way. You know what, though? I didn’t lose any fans."
No he didn’t. If anything, it showed people the kind of fighter he is and gained him more attention. And these six months later Valtellini says he can look back on the whole thing through his own Valtellini rose-colored lens.
"The experience was amazing," he says. "My coach, Paul Minhas from Ultimate Martial Arts, was the coach of Gary Goodridge through Pride and K-1, so hearing those stories of how amazing Japan is, and how the people and culture and venues. Being in Japan alone was an amazing experience."
When "Bazooka Joe" steps in to fight de Bonte on Saturday night’s Glory 17 pay-per-view, it’ll be for not only the title but a little bit of liberation, too. Professional kickboxing is still illegal in Toronto, an antiquated fact on par with MMA still being outlawed in New York (where kickboxing is legal, and Valtellini has competed many times).
"It’s legislation, I guess," he says, "but it took awhile for the UFC to get in, too." When it did, his fellow Canadian St-Pierre -- the fighter he likens himself to -- headlined the biggest event in UFC history at UFC 129, drawing more than 55,000 people to the Rogers Centre in 2011. That’s another cause that Valtellini is championing. One of his many. There’s a lot to admire in what he represents.
He’s trying to leave his mark in not only the fight game, but in people’s lives, just as deep as that scar on his arm. "Every time I look at it, it motivates me more for that title," he says, looking at the scar.
There are a lot of good stories about perseverance in the fight world, but when a guy like Joe Valtellini says something like that, you just sort of believe him.