“I spent my last night in the Mafia in Toronto in stripper heaven,” Kenny “Kenji” Gallo says. “I was escorting porn stars Dayton Rains and Kendra Jade to an appearance, acting as muscle, manager, and all-purpose ‘ho wrangler.’ My cell phone was blowing up; I knew the guys in Brooklyn were desperately trying to find out where I was staying in Canada to kill me. I had just gotten high on Xanax and Vicodin and told the boss of the Colombo Mafia Family’s construction rackets to go fuck himself.
“Big deal. Who cares? I was burned out. Live or die – whatever. It didn’t matter. I was a lost soul. Then everything changed — the FBI maybe saved my life, and mixed martial arts definitely saved my soul.”
Kenny Gallo lost himself at the age of 14, when he stopped caring about his grades in high school and began moonlighting as a cocaine smuggler and stick-up kid. He became a legend among the preppies, frat boys, and Asian-American nerds of Orange County, California — the ultraviolent Japanese teenager known only as Kenji who used his unassuming Harold and Kumar looks to smuggle hundreds of kilos for drug bosses like Pablo Escobar’s California viceroy Michael “Big Mike” Marvich.
Dressed in the best Miami Vice fluorescent fashion and Colombian drug dealer gold jewelry, Gallo lived the life of a cocaine cowboy at night and a straight-A Asian-American prep school student by day.
“I’d call in sick to school, fly across the country to deliver ten kilos, fly back, and meet my girlfriend for a date that night with $50,000 cash in my backpack. She never suspected that I had even left the house!” Besides his lovably dim girlfriend, everyone knew Kenji’s reputation as a criminal prodigy: before he could legally drink, Gallo had graduated from running coke to become a dance club owner, porn producer, and hardened felon with arrests for the murder of his best friend, running over a kid with a car outside of Carl’s Jr., and possessing AK-47s and sawed-off shotguns.
“What can I say?” the lean, muscular Gallo says today with an indifferent shrug and a blank, black, pitbull stare. “I was a bad guy. First it was cocaine, then it was the club, then it was porn, and the porn put me in touch with this Jewish gangster named Jerry Zimmerman who vouched for me with his boss, legendary Colombo Family wiseguy John ‘Sonny’ Franzese, and that was it. That’s how good Zimmerman’s word was; overnight, I was a 20-year-old Japanese kid on the record with the Franzese crew as a bona fide New York Mafia associate.
“It was like playing in the big leagues,” Gallo says with a smile that betrays a hint of pride. “I was still a criminal in California, but now I was no longer on my own. I was on the New York Yankees of organized crime.”
At the turn of the millennium, as Gallo entered his thirties, he was called up to Brooklyn to work for the Colombo Family on its home turf. “They wanted someone with the connections in porn — I was a producer with people like Peter North for years and had married porn icon Tabitha Stevens — to muscle in and manage the New York City escort rackets. In reality, my skills as a criminal were almost secondary; those guys saw the porn girls I’d walk around with, and they had to have me around. They saw big fake boobs and couldn’t think.
“They played right into my hands,” Gallo says with a bright, laidback surfer laugh. “I had gotten sick of being a bad guy and volunteered to become an undercover operative for the FBI to take down the horrible people I was working with. Thanks to the porno girls, the Colombo Family introduced a Japanese-American double-agent from Orange County right into the heart of their rackets.
“Never in a million years was a Orange County ricer like me supposed to get close to people like [Colombo Family heir and reported street boss] Teddy Persico. But I did.”
By late 2004, Gallo had spent over eight years wearing a wire against some of the most dangerous criminals in the United States, and he was tired of the Life and all of its bullshit. Gradually, his frustration with “hanging around with inbred Brooklyn idiots, goombahs, and sick fucks 24/7, taking shit from morons to get good tape” showed up in his work. He started mouthing off, making enemies, and purposely provoking his Mafia superiors.
“I was looking for a way out … either the FBI would set me free, and I’d go out in a body bag. I was just done.”
Finally, after Gallo survived both being deputized on the aborted Mafia hit of another Colombo Family gangster and a botched attempt at his own life, the FBI decided to give him the chance at a new life he had been waiting for.
“After I woke up in that hotel room in Toronto after a night of pill-popping and partying, the FBI got me right on the phone. They told me I was done. I was moved to a different hotel with my two bags of luggage and told that I had no choice but to stay put. They took all of my credit cards, identification, passport, everything — I was not allowed to contact the outside world or leave the neighborhood of my hotel in Toronto.
“I thought I was headed to a new life, but I had blundered into some sort of weird limbo or purgatory. George W. Bush was president, and the FBI had put me into some scary, bizarre alternate universe where I no longer existed. It was like It’s a Wonderful Life — I could watch the world but not participate.
“If the Canadian authorities interviewed me, I had nothing to say to them besides the truth: I was a middle-aged gangster who technically no longer existed, and, due to Mafia contracts on my head, I was being detained on foreign soil by the FBI. I almost wish they had interrogated me, just to see what their reaction would have been!”
Eventually, Gallo was flown to Washington to be debriefed by his handlers and then shipped off again to a safe house that had once been occupied by Goodfellas drug addict Henry Hill. “The feds hated Henry; they told me he had trashed the safe house like a rock band on tour.”
For almost an entire year while his appeal for a new federally-assigned identity worked its way through the Washington bureaucracy, Gallo was deposited in the safe house for “his own safety.” He was told that, since he currently did not exist, it was best for him not to talk to anyone he met in the neighborhood since it could only lead to trouble. “I was given a tiny weekly stipend and told that I was not allowed to do anything but fuck around on the Internet, watch TV and DVDs, and occasionally visit the movie theater as long as I kept my eyes down and didn’t talk to anyone.
“Worst of all,” Gallo says as he slowly shakes his head, “after a lifetime as a coke dealer and porn producer, I was told I couldn’t pick up women or get laid. I was a gangster celibate!
“To be honest, I was already depressed as hell in Brooklyn, but now it was even worst. I was a prisoner of the government being held in solitary, only my jail cell was the world. I had to watch everyone living their own life right in front of me, had to see hot girls waiting to be picked up and fun waiting to be had, but I couldn’t join in. It was a yearlong cocktease.
“It was Hell. I swear I did nothing but lay in bed and watch Dawsons Creek, Third Watch, and Law and Order DVDs repeatedly all day long. Occasionally, I took a walk, but it was a torture since I couldn’t do anything. Who knows what I would have done to myself if I didn’t discover MMA?”
Kenji’s life changed when he happened across a gym in the neighborhood that taught him mixed-martial arts. “I couldn’t believe it! I had studied Jeet Kune Do, wrestling, and boxing as a young man from different teachers, but here was a gym that taught everything in one spot. I didn’t give a shit if the FBI got mad; I had to do something. I was a danger junkie, and now I could get my fix getting my face bashed in all day long.”
Paying in cash, Gallo became a 9-to-6 regular at the gym. Soon, the 37-year-old, 5’8″, 155-pound criminal was regularly beating all of the college-age mixed martial artists. “I had nothing do besides train and train and train and get better. I had a rap sheet a mile long and was technically in FBI custody, but those guys had me teaching female defense classes and children’s jiu jitsu,” says the deceptively mild-mannered and quiet Gallo. “They would have never guessed who I really was.”
When the FBI finally gave Kenji his new identity and freedom to move about the country, he returned to Orange County. “My first thought when I returned to the OC was to find a new MMA team. I had refused to go into the Witness Protection Program partially because I didn’t want to get sent to Utah or somewhere without a good MMA gym. So, when I returned to OC, I got referred to a guy named Mike ‘Joker’ Guymon who had the best reputation around.
“I walked into his gym and immediately knew it was the place for me: no matter how tough I had been in my former gym, Joker [who has just been signed by UFC] kicked my ass 100 times out of 100. He could beat the shit out of me at will; I couldn’t even touch him. I was hooked. The first time I did full-on MMA, Joker put me with UFC star Justin Levens — who he had no idea was a former underworld associate of mine who did muscle work for gangsters and crazy stickup kid shit. Clearly, Joker’s Wild Gym was a place where guys with dark pasts could work to better themselves.”
Gallo claims that MMA is the only reason he could accustom himself to life as a law-abiding civilian.”Without that danger, that violence fix, that ability to exhaust my aggression and frustration, I’d be back in jail. If I didn’t have people like [UFC’s] Tim McKenzie showing me the way, I don’t know what I would have done.
“MMA helped to teach a reckless sociopath discipline, self-control, and self-respect. It helped a stunted adolescent age gracefully. I may be in my forties, but I am a fortysomething 155-pound Asian dude who can hold his own in full-contact sparring with gigantic MMA superstars like Joker, Renato ‘Babalu’ Sobral, Muhammad ‘King Mo’ Lawal, Jason ‘Mayhem’ Miller, Josh Barnett, and Mark Munoz.”
Not everyone finds redemption at Joker’s Wild. Gallo’s longtime buddy and training partner, Justin Levens, eventually turned back to the dark side after years of MMA stardom. In late 2008, Levens murdered his wife Sarah before killing himself. “Justin was a good friend, but a troubled guy,” says Kenji. “We all miss him, but there were warning signs. His whole story has not come out yet.
“Everyday when I spar, I look at the photos of Justin at the gym and remind myself how important it is to keep my life on track. Every day when I train, I’m doing it to keep myself grounded, centered, and healthy.”
“Fighting as long as I have,” said Mike “Joker” Guymon in a 2008 interview, “you meet all these people that talk all this stuff and say you know, they could do this, or they’ve done that, and they’re tough, and they can beat you up. Kenji’s one of those guys, man, you look at him, and he doesn’t look like much. He’s not big, not padded, not the scariest looking guy, his ears aren’t all jacked up like mine — but he’s a bad boy. He can throw; he can wrestle; he can take you to the ground. He’s definitely someone you want on your side.”
With the August 2009 release of his memoir Breakshot: A Life in the 21st Century American Mafia (co-written by myself) and the debut of his blog BreakshotBlog.com, Gallo has decided to go public with his MMA career.”I’m looking to debut soon,” says Gallo. “I’ll fight anyone, anywhere. I’ll go to Tokyo and fight Bob Sapp, and I’ll go to Brooklyn and fight any goombah they have out there. I spar daily with guys who weigh fifty or sixty pounds more than me like King Mo or Babalu, and no one I can fight will be worse than that!
“Hey, someone send this story to Dana White!” Kenji says, laughing. “They should do a 155-pound Ultimate Fighter and let me be the Kimbo Slice. I’m ten times the fighter, and I’ve got a hell of a better story than some backyard street fighter. I’m a real redemption story, and I owe it all to MMA. I can be the poster child, or I can be the villain. It doesn’t matter; I’m both at the same time. I’m just myself.”
You can find out more story about Kenny Gallo’s memoir BREAKSHOT: A LIFE IN THE 21ST CENTURY AMERICAN MAFIA co-written by Matthew Randazzo V at BreakshotBook.com and BreakshotBlog.com You can read more about Matthew Randazzo V’s books at MRVBOOKS.com