From 23 stone to BJJ black belt and international commentator - Josh Palmer’s remarkable story
- Credit: Archant
“Mixed martial arts and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu saved my life.” When Josh Palmer tells you that, you can’t help but sit up and take notice.
12 years ago, Palmer weighed 23 stone aged just 23. He'd embarked on a good career as an architect, but years of no exercise and poor diet left him dangerously overweight.
The Bury St Edmunds boy, now one of the best-known voices in mixed martial arts, knew he had to make a change.
"I got into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) in 2007 and before that point I'd come out of university and gone into work and I was just getting really out of shape and overweight," he explained.
"I'd got very overweight and obese at university and now I was sitting behind a desk all day and I really wasn't doing anything, no exercise, and I was eating pretty badly.
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"I basically got into BJJ and it flipped everything on the head for me, and, long story short, I ended up losing around ten stone in the course of seven years - but obviously there's a lot of other aspects that something like jiu-jitsu builds in. It helps you be more outgoing, it helps you face challenges and problems better, you get used to being uncomfortable.
"Basically everything else in life which might stress you out gets the volume turned right down because nothing's as bad as having a 240-pound man lie on top of you and try to rip your arm off!"
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While many folks who want to shift weight take up a new exercise regime, BJJ is perhaps not the obvious first choice - often called the most-effective martial art in the world, it's a grappling-based system boasting a huge range of painful holds, chokes and locks which MMA fighters use to force opponents to submit.
So what, as a 23-stone man, made Palmer decide to dive headfirst into such a challenging sport?
"The same as a lot of people, I saw some of the very early UFCs and one of the commentators made a quip about how BJJ was for smart, smaller, weaker people so that they coud beat bigger, stronger people," the 34-year-old said.
"If you were smart about it, it was a technical fighting art. I'd been bullied quite badly as a kid for being overweight and that's something you carry around for a very long time, so it seemed like a good thing to have a go at and, lo and behold, I did.
"I was very concerned about being too big to do it at first, which I now know is ridiculous - if you're thinking of doing jiu-jitsu just go - so I basically spent the first year before I even did it reading about jiu-jitsu and watching jiu-jitsu videos.
"That meant that when I went to go and train I was really immersed in it."
He added: "From a health and lifestyle perspective, obviously the weight loss is great, but when you get into competing in jiu-jitsu your diet cleans up, your sleep gets better and you make sure you're drinking enough water.
"And the social aspect is for me something which is really overlooked. If you want to get into working out, running on a treadmill is boring - but if you go to a BJJ class and you're working on technique, you're working out for an hour and a half, with really friendly people, without even realising that you're exercising.
"It also helps you interact and get used to meeting a lot of people from a lot of different walks of life. I have a lot of close friends through jiu-jitsu who grew up nothing like me, who are perhaps politically polar opposites from me or idealistically different.
"It doesn't matter, we're all friends on the jiu-jitsu mat and ultimately I can have a lot more empathy for their opinions and points of view because I spend that time with them.
"There's not really a single aspect of my life that jiu-jitsu hasn't had a postive impact on."
Another aspect of his BJJ training which changed his life is the reason Palmer - now a black belt in the sport - is so well-known in the MMA community.
He's the colour commentator on Cage Warriors, Europe's leading MMA promotion, which comes to Colchester tomorrow night, and the host and commentator for Polaris, an international grappling event shown around the world on UFC Fight Pass.
Without BJJ, Palmer would never have been afforded the opportunity. "I started out judging MMA fights - I've probably judged or six or seven hundred fights," he explained.
"I got very lucky in that one of the small town promoters back in the day needed some judges and he'd heard that I knew a little bit about the rules and that's how it started.
"I ended up judging and one day I was at an event where a mutual friend of one of my training partners was commentating but didn't have anyone to commentate with.
"He said 'Oh Josh knows a bit about it, why don't you do it?' So I did that event for free, a small event nine or ten years ago in Southend, and then I e-mailed the promoter and said 'hey I had a really good time, can I come and do it again, for free?
"Of course, he's not going to say no. So I did a couple of those, then he started paying me - here's £30 or £40 for gas money - and then it just so happened to be that guy was hooked up with a couple of the bigger shows and it just snowballed from there.
"Just putting the work in and right place, right time, it's grown to the stage where I get to do some of the bigger shows with the bigger broadcasts, it's just a lot of time in the seat at this point."
That journey culminated when Palmer, along with Cage Warriors commentary partner Brad Wharton, called the action live on BBC Radio Five when the world's leading MMA promotion, the UFC, put on the biggest event in UK history at UFC London in March - a groundbreaking moment for the sport, and for Josh, who admitted he was a little emotional during that show.
And his journey comes almost full circle - geographically at least - in Colchester tomorrow night, when he'll take his seat alongside Wharton for what will be the biggest MMA event ever held in this region, Cage Warriors 105.
He said: "It's crazy isn't it? I think generally speaking we were always going to get a show at some point but when you think back to when a lot of the shows in this area started, the smaller domestic events, it does seem to have come an awful long way.
"That's pretty much just due to the growth of the sport in general. These shows don't work without the people who are going to come and watch them - there's only so many shows that you can sustain 'you've got to sell tickets to your mates to come and watch'.
"You need that little bit broader appeal and I'm very pleased that Cage Warriors are able to do that and able to come to East Anglia so we don't get left out of the overall national growth of the sport.
"It's going to be a fantastic event. Charter Hall sells out for local shows so it's pretty much a guarantee that Cage Warriors 105 will sell out."
Of course, everything that Palmer has achieved in the sport - first as someone just looking to lose weight, then as a competitor and now as a respected voice - can be tracked back to that decision to do something about his lifestyle all those years ago.
So what would he say now to someone in the same situation as he was?
"I would say just pick something and have I go," he enthused. "Doesn't have to be jiu-jitsu - I'm always going to tell you try jiu-jitsu because that's what worked for me and I honestly think it works for 90% of people - but go and pick something that gets you outside, that has a skill aspect to it and, if you can, pick something that has a team aspect too.
"Doesn't have to be that you compete as a team, you can compete individually - jiu-jitsu you compete individually - but you train as a team and having that social aspect really helps.
"If you can find a sport that has those three things, I honestly think it's very hard to fail."