The South Jersey native overcame a difficult upbringing. Now he’s a ranked, 24-year-old MMA fighter with a 7-2 professional record.
Story by Lindsey Moppert
“Taekwondo Joe Pyfer,” the new kid from a scrappy small school in South Jersey, paced back and forth in a quiet corner of the Penncrest High School gym. He silently waited for the exhibition match against the hot shot of the school to start.
“I’m walking back and forth,” Pyfer recalled, “and I’m like, ‘Man, I see everybody’s parents supporting their children and that just really bothered me because I was like I don’t have my mom, my dad or anybody supporting me.’”
No one beats Liam Frank, and definitely not his ego. Pyfer glanced around the room looking for anyone willing to bet on him. A stranger and new coach at the time but soon-to-be best friend, Will Harmon, stuck out his hand and gave Pyfer the spark he needed.
“I look at Joe standing by himself,” Harmon recalled, “and I’m just like, ‘You got this Joe! You got it. Go get it.’ And that was it.”
“That was all I needed. That was a life changing moment for me,” Pyfer recounted.
That was the day Pyfer established his name at Penncrest High School for something more than just “the new kid.” He went on to beat Liam in the wrestle-off and garnered a second look from his new school.
“Holy crap, this kid’s the real deal,” Harmon said.
Flash forward eight years, and Joseph Pyfer is currently a 24-year old professional MMA fighter with an overall career 7-2-0 record. He has competed in 14 fights in just 3 years.
“They call me ‘bodybagz’ because I put people away in the first round,” Pyfer said with a confidence that seemed like a far cry from the character he described in that scene eight years ago in the Penncrest High School gym.
Pyfer is the third-ranked of 20 active New Jersey Pro Middleweights, the 10th-ranked of 68 active US Northeast Pro Middleweights, and the 43rd-ranked of 612 active United States Pro Middleweights.
While his career has certainly come a long way, Pyfer currently finds himself in the midst of another bout with adversity.
In his most recent fight, back in August of 2020, Pyfer competed against 29-year old Dustin Stoltzfus, who elevated Pyfer in the ring.
As they both landed, Pyfer’s right arm bent at a very disturbing angle.
He broke the radial head in his forearm and tore ligaments off his elbow on top of tearing his forearm muscle in half.
“This has been the strongest battle I’ve had mentally that I’ve ever had in my career. My arm will never be straight,” Pyfer said.
But Pyfer’s strength and resilience from all of his life experiences have allowed him to keep pushing forward but also listen to his body and trust the recovery process.
“My mind never left,” he said “Those five months I didn’t train, my mind never left the sport. I’d watch it. Think about it. I’d bet on it. I’m obsessed with it. I want to be one of the best to do it.”
Pyfer’s initial surgery was on Aug. 17, followed by five straight months of physical therapy. Currently, he is taking all of the correct steps in order to return to the ring soon. However, even with all of the right strides to full recovery, he is only approximately 60% back to where he used to be.
“I felt like my arm was falling off,” Pyfer recalled.
Pyfer is hopeful that his comeback match will be close to the middle or end of the summer months in 2021.
On just about all levels of play, whether that be in high school, college, the minor leagues or professional leagues, athletes have a driving factor for why they do what they do. For some, it’s the love for the game.
For Pyfer, it’s a love for the game with a bit of a twist.
“I love the sport because you don’t need anyone else’s approval to do it,” he said.
Pyfer spends hours getting kicked in his calves and beat up every single day in order to train to do it all over again in the ring. He’s a competitor and loves the sport for the fact that his success and failures is completely reliant on himself.
“I’m always scared,” he said.“That’s why I do this. And when I say scared, it’s not scared of the person. I’m scared of the failure, scared to get knocked out, scared to get injured, and what happened to my arm is what I feared the most.”
Fear, however, doesn’t push confidence out of the way for Pyfer.
“Nobody beats me until you beat me. I truly believe that,” he said. “I just believe that I can be the best in the world.”
Some of his previous coaches have even referred to Pyfer as “The rose that grows out of the sidewalk.” A unique nickname for sure, but one that undoubtedly matches his heart and will.
Pyfer’s story started with his father, whose expectations were unmatchable due to the fact that he is an ex-UFC World Champion.
“My dad was a boxing guy growing up,” Pyfer said, “ a hood rat from Kensington. I basically had no choice. He forced me into it, it didn’t matter if I liked it or not. I hated it as a kid.”
But he eventually grew to like it because he had control of his own success.
“The why I do it,” Pyfer said. “There is absolutely nobody else to blame but me.”
At the age of 13, Pyfer started competing against grown men and was surprisingly holding up well with some of these guys.
Although his fighting career might have looked like a smooth path to success to someone who wouldn’t know otherwise, Pyfer’s upbringing certainly wasn’t ideal.
He was homeschooled in Pittsgrove, New Jersey by his mother until the 7th grade and then found his way to Media following an “ugly divorce and a very scary at-home situation.” This all caused him to run away at the age of 16 and forced him to live out of a very socially uncomfortable and physically disgusting house.
“My parents didn’t believe in me, my father definitely didn’t believe in me. He didn’t want me to pass him,” Pyfer said.
To this day, Pyfer focuses on having the mindset of a champion and inviting all who choose and support him to be a part of his journey.
“If you really lose people that don’t support you,” he said, “then you didn’t really lose anyone important anyway.”
Tough times can leave physical scars and mentally break people down. For Pyfer, it’s been depression and suicidal thoughts.
“I’m just thankful to be alive,” he said. “I’m thankful that I have a beating heart and an able mind. I’m excited for my future because my journey still hasn’t even gotten started and my potential in my fights hasn’t even gone to the potential that I’m capable of.”
“My story shows a resilient person because I never had skill, but I had work ethic,” he said. “I was never liked, but I didn’t care.”
“Everytime I go out there, I’m just a kid from nowhere,” he added.
When Pyfer arrived at Penncrest High School at the start of his journey, it was Will Harmon who took him under his wing and had a significant part in putting him on the mental road to success.
“Every once in a while as a teacher, you run into kids and you know that your interaction with them is going to be more than just teacher and student,” Harmon said.
Harmon knew Pyfer needed someone to believe in him. Someone to take a chance on his potential and that is exactly what he did for him. He was also an outlet for Pyfer to let his true emotions about his life be heard.
“Joe’s been burned many times and he’s let people in and he’s been hurt by that,” Harmon said. “I never asked questions. I always let him tell me what he wanted to tell me.”
In fact, the coach and student relationship between the two of them quickly turned into a genuine friendship where they cared for each other’s well-being.
“I used to eat lunch with Harmon every day and he would give me half of his sandwich because of my situation,” Pyfer said, “and I would play chess with him every day.”
For Harmon, taking a chance on Pyfer meant getting to see his capacity for having a caring heart.
“I went to get a Starbucks in Media,” Harmon recalled, “and there was a homeless man outside. Joe went in and bought the dude a cup of hot chocolate and a warm cookie and gave it to the guy,” Harmon recalled. “I was like, ‘That was very nice of you.’ Joe’s response was as simple as this: ‘At some point, I just wanted somebody to give me a hot cookie. I like that. That makes me happy and I thought it would make him happy too.”
In Pyfer’s lengthy journey filled with a lot of ups and downs, Harmon has been the rock in his life and has actually traveled to every single one of Pyfer’s professional fights.
“When he stepped out on that mat, he believed he was going to win. In life, he believes he is going to win. So I always believed in Joe,” Harmon said. “And I always will believe in Joe. I believe that he will be a champion. I do. He’s got what it takes and he’s gonna do it.”
Even with Pyfer’s lack of support from his family during his childhood, he is able to pick out his loyal companions to have by his side and help him through anything.
Like, Ray Torres, who befriended Pyfer due to their common love for cars back in October of 2017. All it took for the two of them to form their life-long friendship was being present at the same place and time.
In the eyes of Torres, Pyfer’s been like the little brother that he never had. Torres has been able to see and help Pyfer transform from his immature and more difficult days into his successful mindset now.
“What I initially saw in Joe was a very angry young boy,” Torres said. “I’ve never seen the guy make such big changes in such a short period of time and then being able to just trust somebody.”
Along with Harmon, Torres is one of Pyfer’s biggest fans and believers when it comes to his success story and work ethic.
“The unobtainable, I don’t put it past him,” Torres said. “His will is just ungodly. It’s crazy.”
As the new kid in town, it’s never easy to make a name for yourself right off the bat, and “Taekwondo Joe” wasn’t exactly what Joe Pyfer had in mind eight years ago.
He still has a long way to go and an injury to mend, but he’s no longer the anxiously-pacing kid in the Penncrest High School gym.
He’s a ranked UFC fighter now.