Almost 22 years ago, Ronald Mann had held a pistol to his temple, a 23-year-old no longer capable of enduring what had been a month of mental anguish.
As a former U.S. Army medic who enlisted at age 18 and served as an Army reservist in South Korea, Mann had once considered himself virtually invulnerable after winning an Army-wide Tae Kwon Do Championship.
But in early July 1995, Mann was mentally shattered sitting at a table in his home in Lansing, Mich., 30 days removed from the motorcycle accident which cost him the bottom half of his left leg.
“I was released to my family with no insurance, no rehabbing or physical therapy after seven days and wasn’t allowed to reenlist,” said Mann, who twice flat-lined during a helicopter medevac transport to the hospital.
“The pain of getting up at night, trying to take a step and falling right to the floor, and the futility of just being alive -- my whole world was destroyed. I had the pistol up to my temple and was going to pull the trigger…but God stopped me.”
More than two decades later, Mann is still alive and thriving.
Thanks to his tremendous faith, work ethic and support from family and friends, the 45-year-old transitioned two months ago from his Lansing home to Maryland, where he trains with a prosthetic limb in Brazilian Jiu Jitzu at the Rockville-based Yamasaki Academy belonging to guru and proprietor Fernando Yamasaki.
“When Ron arrived three months ago, I saw a lot of people rolling their eyes and wondering how we should proceed. But I have a passion for working with people who have disabilities, and I truly love the challenge,” said Yamasaki.
“So I stopped the class, and I said ‘Everyone has to treat him like a normal person, or I’m going to kick your butts.’ We’ve made a lot of progress, working to modify and adapt to his game, and we’ve been successful at doing that.”
And on April 16 in Abu Dhabi, Mann will be the lone American among 65 competitors in the World Para Jiu-Jitsu Festival, representing the first-ever major international event involving athletes with a range of disabilities.
“We’ll be bracketed the day before the tournament without regard to weight, belt or age. I think we’ll probably fight five or six times,” said Mann. “But if they have an unlimited class, maybe even more than that. I continue to fight because I have a responsibility to myself and others, able-bodied and disabled, to be the best person and competitor I can be every day of my life.”
Although he's engaged in various forms of martial arts against able-bodied opponents, Mann had been involved in Jiu-Jitsu for only six months in January under Matthew Linsemier and Mike Mahaffey when selected.
“Ronald’s hardcore. He motivates me because nothing stops that guy,” said Matt Castanera, Mann’s training partner at Yamasaki. “I’ve had three back surgeries, a pinched nerve in my neck and a broken left toe, but when I have nagging injuries, I look at him and I know I have no excuses.”
“The Peaceful Warrior” won four of five bouts and the gold medal during a March 11 Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competition at the Capitol Sportsplex in Glenn Dale, earning three of his four victories by submission.
“That was my first fight in para Jiu-Jitsu and without using my prosthetic limb, and I won it against able-bodied opposition,” said Mann, who works out around his day job with Support Services for Veterans’ Families (SSVF), which involves securing housing for homeless veterans. “I was once homeless and in need of a hand getting back to life. We have a saying, ‘Veterans take care of veterans,’ and I’m honored to serve…”
Mann’s altruism was apparent as a spectator for an April 8 mixed martial arts event entitled Shogun Fights at Baltimore’s Royal Farms arena, where his fans included the Rodriquez siblings, Amina, 8, Amir, 7, and Asa, 3.
Mann even removed his prosthesis – called his “Robo-Leg” by Amina – allowing 3-year-old Asa Rodriquez to hold it and touch his stump of a lower left leg. “He treated me like he was a hero,” said Amir Rodriquez, “because that’s what he is.”
“One day, he was riding on a motorcycle and he got into an accident. He got hurt so bad that the doctors had to remove his leg, so he had to get it amputated. That’s a big deal, getting your leg amputated,” said Amina Rodriquez.
“Mr. Mann was sad and crying because that’s a very important part of your body, but I think he was brave about it, too. Mr. Mann is determined, strong, kind and smart, and he doesn’t really give up. He’s an amazing man who has done a good job fighting his battle.”
But “Mr. Mann” was admittedly “a crazy stunt rider” on June 6, 1995, zooming along a Northern Michigan highway on his Kawasaki Ninja 750 along with partner-in-mischief Dougie Husset of Detroit and others.
“We were 92 days released from active duty after being stationed together overseas. We were those jackasses riding by people on the highway pulling wheelies,” said Mann.
“At one point, my bike topped out at 164 miles an hour. We were untouchable. You couldn’t hurt us. Couldn’t kill us. We’d been doing this stuff forever.”
This time, however, something went terribly wrong.
“I was supposed to pop my back tire up for a stoppie [tilting the bike forward on its front tire,]” said Mann. “Doug was going to pull a wheelie going by me, but I came too far forward and Dougie rolled into it going 80 miles per hour.”
Mann was thrown straight up before crashing against the pavement.
“Most of my calf was gone. Disintegrated. It was almost a complete amputation on the scene. My entire world just burst,” said Mann, recalling his “howling” in distress.
“Doug and I were medics, so he ran up and put a tourniquet on. They had to medevac me by helicopter. It was almost an hour from the time of the accident to the time I got to the hospital. Dougie saved my life.”
But Mann wasn’t quite out of the woods.
“I flat-lined twice on the chopper ride, and I remember going out both times. Machines are going off all around you and you can hear the helicopter rotors, but your vision goes, you get tunnel vision and everything goes silent,” said Mann.
“But just before I went down, I saw the nurse yelling, slapping me and looking me in the face, saying, ‘Come back, Ronald, you gotta fight.’ I remember both times hearing the nurse fading away, but she was able to bring me back.”
Mann’s parents, Robert and Joan, met him at the hospital, the latter imploring him to focus on a photo of his favorite animal, a chimpanzee.
“The last thing I told the doctor was ‘if you can’t save my leg, don’t save me.’ He told me the same thing I had told patients. ‘We’ll do the best we can.’ Even under sedation, I remember floating above and looking down,” said Mann.
“As they prepared for my surgery, a nurse made a joke. The next day, I asked her ‘What was so funny?’ They couldn’t understand how I knew. I never believed in God, a higher power or out-of-body experiences before that.”
Mann’s suicidal thoughts faded, thanks to supporters who transported him to local gym workouts. He took his first steps after being fitted with an artificial limb by local prosthetist Larry Lloyd, enabling him to stand during a buddy’s wedding in August 1995.
Lloyd also “built my first training leg and padded it for safety. I began searching for martial arts gyms to return to,” said Mann, who was prohibited from organized competition in Michigan.
“I was turned down because no one had ever seen an amputee train and I’ve also been turned down for jobs. I’ve learned as a person of disability, you’re a universal minority. The veil of discrimination has been lifted.”
Mann later met Jan Stokosa, a specialist who constructed prosthetics geared more toward athletic safety. He finally gained entry with Loredo’s Cross Trainers in Lansing, whose owner, Julian Loredo “allowed me to train only if could do whatever everyone else on the team did.”
“We trained for two years before he found a kickboxing tournament in Chicago in 1997, but I had to sneak into my first professional fight,” said Mann.
“We told no one I had a disability. My teammates made a big circle around me. I wore long pants and foot shells as I walked into the ring, so it looked like I had a full leg.”
Using his left leg as a decoy, Mann smashed a right hand to the temple for a second-round knockout.
“I went back to my corner, they pulled the gloves off, and I pulled my leg off and raised it above my head,” said Mann.
“I remember there were about 5,000 people in the arena and they were completely silent – like this deafening roar of quietness. Once they understood what was happening, the entire arena erupted into cheers.”
A year later, Mann traveled to Iowa, where he is believed to become the first amputee to fight in a cage, placing second. Mann improved on that effort on January 24, 2015, when his come-from-behind submission of Jimmy Milton earned the 170-pound state title.
“One of his first strikes was an elbow that opened a huge cut and chipped my left eye socket. He was strong and threw me around,” said Mann, who eventually broke Milton's right arm. “He was lifting at the same time I was pulling with both hands. His arm snapped over my thigh and he collapsed. I was the first amputee to fight as well as win an MMA title. I like the feeling, and I want to experience that again.”