Kiwi MMA fighter Jay-Jay Wilson's world rocked by family tragedy hours before victory

Warning: This article discusses suicide

Jay-Jay Wilson had no intention of answering the ringing phone that interrupted his slumber that Californian night in late June.

Not that he was really sleeping.

It was the eve of the biggest opportunity of his life. Wilson, a 20-year-old Brazilian jiu-jitsu prodigy from Papatoetoe, was just hours away from his professional debut, set to fight in North America's second-largest MMA promotion – Bellator.

Potentially, this was an enormous step towards realising his dream.

Wilson tossed and turned, as he battled with the crippling effects of his weight cut, after an intensive final few days of training camp.

It's the bane of any combat athlete's existence - the 11th hour draining of the body to ensure they meet the threshold of their chosen weight class. Only a fighter really understands the depth of misery it can inspire.

"I'm lying in my bed, trying to sleep, but I'm so hungry and dehydrated that I can't," Wilson recalled.

"I saw it was my sister [Danielle] and I didn’t want to answer, so I hung up and threw it away. I didn’t want to talk to anyone."

The process became even more difficult for Wilson, after he'd succumbed to a stray bowl of pasta the day before, which meant banishing himself to a sauna and going to torturous lengths in a bid to get his 77kg frame down to the 66kg required for the flyweight division.

The phone rang, then it rang again. He eventually gave in and picked up - he immediately wished he hadn't.

His other sister Jamie, just a year older than him, had taken her own life.

"I was like 'what, are you messing with me right now?'

"I got really angry at first. 'Don't lie to me. I'm in the middle of my weight cut, I have the biggest fight of my life tomorrow and you're going to call me with this?'"

"She said 'no, I'm serious. I'm here right now with the police. She's gone'. Then I just broke down in the bathroom."

Wilson was sharing a room with his coach and host in the US, world-renowned Brazilian jiu-jitsu master Johnny Faria.

Wilson with sister, Jamie.
Wilson with sister, Jamie. Photo credit: Instagram/@Jayjay_mma

Faria is the head trainer at the famed Alliance Academy in San Diego, where Wilson had graduated as part of a high performance partnership with his home gym, Oliver MMA, in Auckland. He considers Faria a father.

"I didn't know what to do. I woke my coach up and told him, and he didn’t know what to do either."

Eventually, Faria addressed the elephant in the room.

"Of course I still want to fight tomorrow," Wilson replied. It was never in doubt.

"The thought of pulling out never crossed my mind, not once. She never would've wanted me to pull out, so I wasn’t going to."

The rest of that morning was a haze.

"I didn’t get any sleep. I was just crying hysterically, basically all night."

Two hours before the pre-fight weigh-ins, gym-mates and coaches began streaming into the room. Wilson put on his bravest face.

"I didn’t want anyone to know, so I cleaned myself up and pretended like nothing had happened.

"I had to go down to weigh-ins, and do the face-off and everything, and I was just trying to act normal, because I didn’t want anyone to know and feel sorry for me."

It's the kind of resilience that's bred on the streets of South Auckland, which the self-confessed 'problem child' called home for a few months, after being kicked out of home at the age of 13.

He was shuffled from household to household, before landing with his aunty and uncle, and nine other cousins and half-siblings, of which he was the youngest.

Jamie was his only full-blooded sister and his closest ally in an environment where it was every man for himself. Fighting was commonplace, almost a rite of passage.

"Growing up, she would really look after me. She did a lot for me.

"There were a lot of times I had no food and she'd travel to give me some. She would lie for me whenever I got in trouble and take the blame.

“We got into a lot of fights together, she'd jump in."

And his sister was with Wilson that day in Temecula, even if he wasn't quite there himself.

"When I was warming up, I was thinking that she was with me.

"Me? I was there, but I wasn't.

“I don’t know how to describe the feeling. I was just flat."

"I didn’t feel any emotion. All I was thinking was that I had to finish this guy, then I had to get back - that was it."

Opponent David Conte never really stood a chance. Still awash with shock, Wilson was operating on pure combat instinct.  

"Usually, I have nerves, but when I stood in there, I didn't feel any. It was like I was emotionless, because I felt so much pain the night before.

"When I went in, I was just focused. I had no nerves or feeling or anything - I was just empty.

"Then I went in and got the job done."

It took less than a minute for him to wrap his arm around Conte's neck and apply the choke that led to his arm being raised in victory.

Wilson at weigh-ins the morning of his fight.
Wilson at weigh-ins the morning of his fight. Photo credit: Instagram@JayJay_MMA

Wilson afforded himself a brief moment to soak up what he'd just achieved, before his mind turned back to his whanau thousands of kilometres away. He had at least 100 supporters in the crowd, who mobbed him as he left the cage, showering him with congratulations.

All he could think about was getting home.

"They're all coming up to me, congratulating me, and I had to just put on a fake smile and pretend. I didn't tell anyone, I just left."

A few days later, he was back at Otahwhiwhi marae in Waihi to celebrate his sister's life and bid her farewell.

"That was probably the hardest bit, you know, walking onto the marae and seeing her. That was the worst thing that anyone could go through. I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through it."

It's an experience that drastically altered Wilson's perspective on life and brought home some of the harsh realities of his own journey.

By his own admission, Wilson had been spiraling towards a fate that had befallen so many young and talented Maori kids before him. He seemed destined to become another faceless statistic.

"When I was a kid, I was a really angry. I'm still trying to figure out why.

"I was going down a bad track of my life, getting in trouble with police.

"I've been through a lot of terrible things in my life. I was a street kid and a lot of my friends back then are now in jail."

Then one day, out of sheer curiosity, Wilson wandered into Oliver MMA in Glen Eden and his first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class.

Brought to prominence by the Gracie family in the early days of the UFC, jiu-jitsu has become one of the world's most popular martial arts. It's a ground-based, grappling-focused form of combat that utilises a series of choke holds, a controlled chaos of limbs akin to chess on a mat.

"Once I started training, I realised I didn’t have to go out and get angry and fight people - I could just go to the gym.

"I always left the gym feeling a lot happier than when I walked in. I could be having the worst day, do a hard-as session - I walk out and it's like 'Ah, nothing's worse than that'.

"After that I was hooked, I knew that this was what I wanted to do."

Gym founder Steve Oliver, himself is a former BJJ world champion, was there that day. An NZ combat sports pioneer, Oliver has worked with the cream of Kiwi martial artists and was the man at the forefront of heavyweight Mark Hunt's UFC renaissance in 2011.

Wilson following his victory.
Wilson following his victory. Photo credit: Instagram/@Jayjay_MMA

At first glance, Wilson was just another of the many shy, introverted kids who crossed Oliver's doorstep. He soon learned he had something exceptional on his hands.

"He had a lot of potential and we just encouraged him to compete," says Oliver. "He started winning and doing well, and it just progressed for him."

Wilson submerged himself in training and competition, alternating disciplines on a near-weekly basis. Two weeks after he entered the gym, he won his first jiu-jitsu tournament.

Two months later, he had his first mixed martial arts bout and won in 30 seconds. He was a 17-year-old boy fighting against men.

A couple of national championship wins later, Wilson was winging his way to San Diego to link with Faria at the famed Alliance MMA academy, breeding ground for several UFC champions, to begin his tertiary education in a city that has become a global hotbed for the sport.

Oliver has seen the growth in his pupil first-hand, a growth that goes far beyond the gym.

"He's really matured," said Oliver. "He's thrived in the high performance environment over there.

"He has the head for it. A lot of people don't, they go overseas and they fade, but he didn’t.

"He really just loved it and he's absolutely thrived."

Oliver grew up in a gym and nurturing quality human beings has always gone hand-in-hand with any class he teaches.

"We're trying to get them to be well rounded. We have a great family culture here and we've really worked hard to preserve that, as far as keeping people respectful of each other, on and off the mat.

"We're supportive of each other. If someone's down, we try to bring them back up.

"They come and learn to become better people. It's been a blessing for me, so I've tried to create that in West Auckland - it's a safe place for these kids."

Oliver was the first person to enter the hotel room that June morning in Los Angeles.

"When you're cutting weight, and starving and thirsty, that's the worst time to get bad news," he said, reminded of Wilson's state. "You feel like you're dying.

"It was a real test of character, but he came through it with shining colours."

Stranded on the other side of the planet, Wilson may not have had any blood family to lean on, but he had two father figures on hand in Oliver and Faria.

"Everyone in my gym, I consider my family," says Wilson. "I consider Steve as my dad and his wife, Chrissy, as my mum.

"Same thing over in San Diego, with Johnny and his wife, Michelle."

It's a community that has been a saviour for Wilson - and he knows it.

"This sport basically saved my life," Wilson insists, without a hint of exaggeration. "It gave me everything I have today."

Wilson sinks in the choke that lead to his first-minute win.
Wilson sinks in the choke that lead to his first-minute win. Photo credit: Instagram/@Jayjay_mma

He now carries his sister's memory as a constant source of motivation. The wounds are fresh and he admits the events of the past two months, during which he's journeyed from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other, seem surreal.

"I still haven't come to terms with what's happened. I don’t think I ever will, just because of the way it happened. I'm just trying to understand, at the moment, why she went there.

"My sister was really proud. She never really wanted people to know she was in a dark place, so she wouldn’t tell anyone. She just kept it to herself."

Before his return to the US, Wilson spent his final week in in Aotearoa seeking solitude in his training and his family, in particular his nephew - the three-year-old son Jamie left behind. 

"I'm trying to step by step, but it’s a long process. I'm just throwing myself back into training, the fight scene – get back to normal.

"I just want to keep my mind and body active, turn that negative energy into positive energy.

"When I'm training, everything goes away... all of the problems."

Now armed with a five-year athlete visa, one of his first ports of order will be to negotiate a multiple-fight contract with Bellator, a burgeoning promotion that’s starting to poach some of MMA's elite talent from the UFC.

Wilson has become a role model to the students at Oliver MMA.
Wilson has become a role model to the students at Oliver MMA. Photo credit: Newshub.

It's difficult to imagine the old, off-the-rails version of Jay-Jay Wilson when you see him patrolling the mats at Oliver's BJJ high performance camp in New Lynn. With Oliver nearby, observing with pride, Wilson is a relentless source of energy and encouragement - a charismatic, bona fide leader. A role model.

He may be in his infancy as a professional fighter, but Oliver sees no ceiling to what he's capable of accomplishing.

"He has massive potential and not just physically. He learns quickly, he's super strong and he just never gives up.

"That's the thing - he'll never give up."

Wilson talks of his goal to one day, when his fighting days are done, return to New Zealand and start his own gym. To be the kind of mentor who's helped redirect his own life.

The most telling loss of Wilson's life has changed his outlook completely, bringing into perspective the lifeline that the sport has provided him.

"She was one year older than me," he says, shaking his head. "If I live one more year, that's the same amount of life that my sister had.

"It's changed me a lot. If you have a dream or goal, just chase it.

"Don’t wait. Don't listen to people telling you that you can't do it, just do it - that's what I've done.

"Eventually, I want to be in the UFC. I told her I was going be a UFC world champion, so now I have to do it."

Where to find help and support:

Need to Talk? - Call or text 1737

Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland

Youthline - 0800 376 633, text 234, email talk@youthline.co.nz or online chat

Samaritans - 0800 726 666

Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757

Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Newshub.

Contact Newshub with your story tips:
news@newshub.co.nz