John Ortolani grew up in the Boston area, went to high school in Billerica, and graduated from Endicott College in Beverly. Being a Bostonian is in his blood. And as he ventures out into the real world at 23 to begin a career, he has no plans to leave the Hub.
Ortolani is making his presence known as a homegrown talent with the Boston Blazers, the local indoor lacrosse team representing Boston in the 11-team National Lacrosse League (NLL). Needless to say, he's loving every minute of it.
"It's great," he said. "Growing up watching the Bruins and Red Sox and Patriots, it's a great feeling being on a professional team in Boston after growing up watching them play my whole life."
But that's not all.
From December through April, lacrosse is Ortolani's life, his passion, his full-time job. The rest of the year, he gets his kicks — and punches — as a trained fighter in mixed martial arts.
"I just kind of fell into it," he said. "One of my friends had started fighting before I did. He was fighting against a decent wrestler that I had wrestled in high school, and he asked me to train with him. So I went down to train with him, and I fell in love with it. Then a promoter came and said that one of his fighters had gotten injured and he needed somebody for a fight in two days. So I went, and I did it, and I just fell in love with it. I told him, 'Sign me up for the next one.'"
Things progressed from there. His first fight, in early May of last year, was stopped early on and ruled no contest. He's stepped into the ring three times since then — a win in August, a win in September, a tough loss in late November — and each time, he's only grown to love it more. But then came December again, and it was back to lacrosse.
Ortolani was a standout player at Billerica High, where he won a Massachusetts state title his freshman year. He was a star at Endicott, being named All-New England in D-III three times and twice being named an all-star in the Commonwealth Coast Conference. He had a strong season last year for the Boston Cannons of Major League Lacrosse, playing the outdoor game.
Now he's reached the next level, and it's a whole new ballgame playing in the NLL.
"It's a lot faster," he said. "All the players are bigger, they're faster, they're stronger. The skill level is a lot different. That's the biggest thing — it's just a different style of play than I'm used to. The game's a lot faster, and it's taken time for me to get used to it."
Year-round, though, he works to maintain balance between his passion for lacrosse and his drive to improve his skills in the ring. He trains throughout the week for MMA, working out in the gym to get stronger, tougher and more adept as a fighter. On the weekends, he takes the field.
The Blazers currently sit in the middle of the pack in the NLL Eastern Division, at 4-4 at the season's midpoint. Ortolani and his teammates have two more months of lacrosse ahead of them, and these next two months will determine whether they can win a title, or whether they come home empty-handed.
"We'd like to try to win the championship this year," Ortolani said. "We have all the potential in the world, and when we put it all together we can go really far. If we stick to our game plan and stay focused all the way, we can bring a championship home to Boston."
After the grind of a long season, most of the Blazers will return home to their day jobs — as policemen, as firemen, as teachers. Ortolani, however, will return to the ring.
"I just have to keep trying to win," he said. "I want to keep getting bigger and stronger, and keep winning, and hopefully bigger organizations will notice me. My training partner is really high ranked in New England, and scouts have come to see him, and I've been at the same fights. So scouts have been there, but not to see me in particular. I just have to keep winning, and hopefully they'll come to see me."
Ortolani has big aspirations for himself in MMA. It's not just a side project — it's a career he takes very seriously, and he wants to keep improving.
"I'd like to try to take it as high as I can," he said. "All fighters would like to try to get on UFC and be a champ someday. But that's still a couple of years off for me. I've only been fighting a year, and I still have a lot to learn about the sport."
As his career moves forward, both on the field and in the ring, Ortolani is ambitious on both fronts but remains humble as well. He knows his place, and he knows the hard work it will take to move up in the world. Right now, he's focused on getting his name out there and making his presence known. But he's not trying to do anything too fast.
"I'm just going to take it as it goes," he said. "Both my lacrosse and fighting careers are just starting out, but I'm going to do them both for as long as I can."