Danny Sabatello eyes the Titan FC bantamweight championship belt, as he takes on Irwin Rivera on Friday night at Titan FC 58 in Fort Lauderdale, yet one of his most memorable moments remains winning back-to-back Illinois 3A Wrestling Championships at Stevenson High School.
“When I won my first state title, probably until this day, the best day of my life. I poured so much energy and time,” Sabatello said. “Wrestling has been my life, I think about winning those state titles all the time. If I didn’t get a state championship, I would’ve thought about that every day as well.”
“It’s almost indescribable, inhuman – you can’t really describe it to people because I never had a similar feeling to that. It’s out of this world. When you work for a goal for so long, something you cried over it, you bled over, you spent countless nights, you sacrificed so much and when you finally get it – oh.. the greatest feeling in the world.”
Sabatello grew up in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, inheriting the competitive wrestling nature in Long Grove, where many of his childhood friends ended up going D-1 for wrestling.
There’s a pedigree of wrestling amongst the Sabatello family. Uncles, cousins and brothers all wrestled. Danny, the youngest, learned the wrestling matt nuances from his brothers Joe and Vince, while getting the full support from his parents Greg and Nancy.
“Both of my parents went to every single wrestling match that I had in my life – high school, middle school, elementary school, college,” Sabatello said. “They never missed a match.”
The Illinois native started wrestling at age 5, as it was a natural thing coming from a wrestling family. State championships are moments that wrestlers think of since they were little kids, just wrestling around with friends and say, “this is for the state championship” and when you’re finally there it’s exciting, he added.
Sabatello soaked every single minute in his state championship matches.
“The feeling of satisfaction of getting my hand raised and hugging my parents. A real emotional time that we thought about, we dreamt about,” Sabatello said. “It’s something that will stick with me forever.”
Sabatello became the first state champion in Steveson’s school history. He went 41-0 in his senior year, ranked No. 12 nationally on InterMat’s 125-pounder list. The two-time state champion scored 729 total points as a senior, third all-time in Illinois High School Association history.
The Bantamweight went on to wrestle for Purdue and qualified three times in the NCAA Championships and placed twice in the Big Ten Championship at 141 pounds. He left a wrestling legacy at Stevenson, maintaining the wrestling tradition and standard at his hometown high school.
“After I won those state titles and after I graduated, I can see these kids’ eyes, who were in the wrestling program that were younger than me,” Sabatello said. “When someone within the program wins it, that makes it more realistic. I was happy that I could pass down the winning mentality and those good spirits to the classes under me.”
In his senior year at Purdue, Sabatello competed in the NCAA Championships at Madison Square Garden. Although he had “a terrible tournament,” being inside of MSG with all the rich history made it a trip that he will never forget.
“I want to right that wrong. I went to that building and I lost,” he said. “It would be so much special if I can go to MSG and win further this MMA career.”
Sabatello true passion was in fighting, despite his accolades in wrestling. Whether in the playground or watching WEC or PRIDE, the nature of combat caught the wrestler’s attention.
“I always had a passion to be the sh-t out of guys. With all these team sports, you can kind of have an excuse. Someone didn’t make a block, or you can blame it on someone else,” Sabatello said. “When you’re in that cage fighting another guy, there’s nothing like it in the world.”
Once Sabatello finished college he moved back to Chicago, and he sought that there wasn’t many good MMA gyms. He looked at himself in the mirror and realized if he wants to accomplish his goals, he would need to make a major change.
“One morning after being hungover as sh-t. ‘You know what, I want to be a UFC champion I got to do something big, so why not go to the best gym in the world,” Sabatello said. “I didn’t know anybody at American Top Team. I took a huge risk and just showed up at their doorstep.”