Jo Thomas, aka Big Jo, stands at a towering 6'8" and tips the scales with 270 lbs of lean muscle. He's a fitness guru with a diverse training background that spans everything from Division 1 college football to MMA. He's even trained in Krav Maga, a self-defense and striking system originally developed for the Israeli Special Forces, now embraced by both the FBI and SWAT teams alike. He's the definition of Plant-Based Gangster and chances are he can kick your ass.
Before getting into the MMA and boxing scene Jo played football at Northern Illinois University. He was a 300+ pound defensive end that you certainly didn't want hunting you down. He first got interested in MMA in 2006 then spent almost a decade living in Miami and training with legends such as Dino Spencer at the famous 5th Street Gym. The same gym that a certain Muhammad Ali called his home.
Jo takes his training career very seriously and would never speak on a subject he didn't have personal experience with. The plant-based diet caught his eye and he became curious how he'd respond to it, so he took the plunge. That was in November of 2017 and he hasn't looked back.
We were scheduled to chat right after he was leading a group training session so he invited us to come early and join in. We had the first hint we were going to have our asses handed to us when, after an intense warm-up, he had us jumping rope and planking to rest.
BLOK: What first got you interested in MMA?
Jo: After school I moved downtown and my first roommate was a professional fighter. He was fighting down in Costa Rica as the main event and I went with. Two days before the event he tore his knee and they asked me fill in.
BLOK: Did you have any background in fighting?
Jo: I grew up fighting but no background in any specialty. They thought I was his sparring partner so that's how I got the ticket.
BLOK: How did that fight turn out?
Jo: Hopped in the ring and won pretty quick in the first round. When I got back to Chicago I was offered an MMA contract.
BLOK: WOW! So you were into MMA before boxing?
Jo: Yeah I boxed to stay in shape for MMA. That was the thing back then. Actually ended up finishing second in the Golden Gloves in 2008.
BLOK: Impressive! That's a fascinating way to have gotten into the sport. That was 10 years ago, what have you been up to in the since then?
Jo: I moved back from Miami a couple years ago. My trainer at the time had bought Ali's old gym and I was training guys out of there. Spent about 10 years down there then had to come back suddenly a few years ago and started training Alex Samoylovich, who developed the FLATS. There's about 18 properties in the portfolio and we're building out a gym in each one.
BLOK: They're all going to be Legit Training branded?
Jo: Yep. Memberships will be open to the public, not just FLATS residents. We'll be doing group classes and having trainers come for specialty classes for everything from pilates, yoga, kickboxing, and whatever else you might want.
BLOK: What does an average week of working out look like for you personally?
Jo: I like to mix it up. I was working long days training others and not putting enough focus on myself. Promised myself this year that I'd train an hour a day for 6 days a week. Actually 45 min, I just don't have any more time.
BLOK: If you had more free time would you work out more?
Jo: No. I've seen now that you can get just as much, if not more, accomplished in a short time as opposed to destroying your body for hours in the gym. Plus who's got that time? I design these workouts to be as streamlined, efficient and effective in as little time as possible.
BLOK: What's the worst fitness/workout advice you hear supposed experts constantly repeating?
Jo: You'll see results quickly. It's a slow process, you have to give it enough time and be consistent. You're not going to drop 10 pounds in a month. Focus on small victories that add up to big gains.
BLOK: How did you get interested in being plant-based?
Jo: I had kind of hit a plateau. This is my job and I wasn't happy with the way I was performing. More than anything I wanted to educate myself. I had a couple of good friends trying it and they swore by it so I figured I'd give it a shot. But as I said before, you have to be consistent, so I wasn't going to just do it for a week or a month. It's been five months now and I've been really happy with the results. I wanted to see where I could push myself to. Was I really dependent on meat? Also just knowing my body better and how it would respond. I'm in this profession and I'm telling people how to live, how to eat, how to take care of themselves better and I couldn't talk about it without having tried it firsthand. I wanted to see what I could dial myself into.
BLOK: What changes have you noticed in the past 5 months of being plant-based? Lost any mass?
Jo: Haven't lost any mass. I was 270 when I started, dropped to 260 and have been maintaining around 265-270 now. I grew up trying to get as big as possible. When playing football in college I got up to 320 pounds with 10% body fat and I was eating everything. Meat, fried food...complete garbage food. It was the most damage I've ever done to my body. I wanted to prove, not only to myself but to everyone that comes to me for advice and coaching, I could still maintain my size and strength with a plant-based diet. You don't need all this red meat and protein to sustain your mass.
BLOK: Sounds like so far, so good.
Jo: Yeah I'm very happy. I've gotten leaner and feel like I have less inflammation and retaining less water.
BLOK: If you could travel back in time to give your younger self some health advice, what would it be?
Jo: Don't take the easy route, things take time. Educate yourself and do things the right way. Like I was saying before, dramatic changes aren't healthy. Patience. Consistency.
After spending an afternoon getting humbled in the gym and uncovering Big Jo's inspiring background, we've learned this Plant-Based Gangster is far from your average Joe.
Disclaimer: This is an editorial piece. It does not imply that the person or persons mentioned in this story have any affiliation with BLOK. We're just showing love to our favorite plant enthusiasts across the globe.
Photographer: Rorie Raimondi