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Ariel Sexton’s long and winding road to ONE Championship success

Costa Rican grappler details his international journey to the ONE Championship cage

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If Ariel Sexton’s mother had her way, he’d be a rock star today.

Amazingly, that was her career advice to a young Sexton, who returns to action at ONE: QUEST FOR GOLD on 23 February looking to earn himself a shot at the ONE Lightweight World Title.

“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,” he explained in an interview with ONE Championship.

“I have been through a lot of stuff in my life, so they just want me to be healthy and happy. But once they realised 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 route to the ONE Championship cage was via a long and winding path that took him from Vancouver, Canada to Costa Rica to New York City.

“I remember seeing a Muay Thai bout in Thailand, and I was like, ‘That is the best, I love it,’” he said.

“I was always watching martial arts movies with Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Bruce Lee.”

His initial contact with martial arts saw him sparring with friends on the streets and in his parents’ living room, where he and his friends would put socks on their hands as mock boxing gloves, then spar in the middle of the room.

That practice soon prompted Sexton’s mother to encourage him to join a local martial arts school, where he trained both karate and kickboxing. He later discovered a Japanese jiu-jitsu school, where his love for grappling began in earnest.

“I got into Japanese jiu-jitsu when I was about 18 years old in Vancouver, but it was not as evolved as Brazilian jiu-jitsu,” he explained.

“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.

“I ended up doing Japanese jiu-jitsu, 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.”

His jiu-jitsu journey developed in Costa Rica, but opportunities for elite coaching or competition were few and far between.

“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,” he explained.

“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.

“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.’”

Sexton won his bout and went on to win a one-night tournament in Costa Rica, defeating three opponents in one night to kick off his martial arts career in winning fashion.

“From there, the snowball just started to grow, and I could not get out of it even if I wanted to after that,” he laughed. 

“The rest is history.”

Now Sexton stands on the brink of a shot at the ONE Lightweight World Title. On 23 February he faces former title challenger Ev Ting in the co-main attraction at ONE: QUEST FOR GOLD, where one impressive win could potentially set him up for a tilt at the title.

He may not be a rock star, but he’s not a million miles away from becoming a world champion. Mrs Sexton would certainly approve.

Interview by ONE Championship. Story by Simon Head.

Freelance sports writer and MMA reporter with 19 years’ experience in the UK's national media covering major sporting events including UFC world title fights, Olympic Games, FIFA World Cup, UEFA European Championships, Grand National and the FA Cup Final.

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