There were two hours in 2016 Nicholas Zarrillo sat inside a doctor’s office. Alone. Afraid. Needing answers. He couldn’t remember lines during auditions and began to see white spots. First in the left eye and then in his right. All of it led to this day.
When the doctor arrived, the answers came, but there was no comfort in those words.
“He finally came in and told me, your MRI is showing lesions and scarring that’s consistent with Multiple Sclerosis,” said Zarrillo, a native of Toms River, New Jersey, who lives in Miami. “I just kind of sat there silent in the doctor’s office. And he says, ‘You’re taking this better than I would.’ I’m not really sure why I took it that easy. Maybe because I didn’t know much about the disease. I didn’t know how progressively it gets worse.”
Multiple Sclerosis is a central nervous system disease that essentially stops the flow of information between the brain and the body. A person can experience multiple symptoms, including vision problems, paralysis, and numbness. How the disease affects a person is unpredictable. According to the National MS Society, there are nearly 1 million people in the United States (913,925) living with MS. The organization says more women than men receive an MS diagnosis and it generally happens between the ages of 20 and 50.
Unfortunately, a cure has not been found.
I felt almost like it was an extreme confidence boost.
Being diagnosed with MS ignited a passion within Zarrillo. He’s always loved boxing, but his desire to become further immersed in the sport ramped up after that day in 2016. Zarrillo, who has never had an amateur fight, is on a mission to step in the ring as a professional and has enlisted some big names to help him get to that point.
The project, a documentary known as The Fight: A Real Life ROCKY Story, received it’s spark a couple months after that MS diagnosis. Zarrillo returned to the doctor’s office for a follow up and as he sat in the patient waiting area, he found his motivation. It had nothing to do with anything said by a medical professional or even a person in that same office. He happened upon a magazine article about former Soprano’s actress Jamie Lynn Sigler. In that article, Sigler revealed publicly her long battle with MS.
Before that moment, Zarrillo was becoming enveloped with the depression often associated with the diagnosis.
“If you're someone who looks into the future all the time, which I have that habit of always looking into the future, I'm always aware that there’s almost an inevitable downfall in the quality of life,” he said. “I was depressed about that at some point.”
As he read the article on Sigler, several parallels began to show themselves. First, The Sopranos was based on his home state of New Jersey. Then there is the Italian heritage from his father’s side. Additionally, the fact that he and Sigler shared the same profession added another layer of connection for Zarrillo.
“Just having those similarities with her and for her to be courageous enough to come out about this disease as opposed to just not letting the world know, something in that just clicked with me,” he said. “I felt almost like it was an extreme confidence boost. The depression, I don’t want to say miraculously, but it was just so powerful that moment of finding the similarities with her coming out and telling the world. From that moment, I was thinking how can I make this my mission? How can I help people have that similar rebirth to get out of a dark place?”
At that moment he began to formulate the groundwork for the journey he is now on. Zarrillo has decided to put his filming and acting background to work in this documentary. He’s the main character and unflinching at the notion he will be at his most vulnerable while on camera.
He took his story to 5th Street Gym in Miami, the namesake of the original gym opened by Chris Dundee and made famous by a slew of legendary boxers and trainers, including the duo of Muhammad Ali and Angelo Dundee.
Zarrillo, part of the San Diego Comic-Con Award Winning film team Big F Pictures, talked about his story with 5th Street Gym co-owner Dino Spencer and trainer Guy Laieta. He also discussed plans for the documentary. During that visit, former champion boxer and current CBS and Showtime boxing analyst Paulie Malignaggi agreed to spar with Zarrillo.
“You can imagine that being quite jarring,” Zarrillo said. “Surprisingly, the first two rounds, I felt really relaxed. Like, normally as a result from the MS, I have very high levels of anxiety … but when I got in the ring with him, I was very relaxed and calm. It felt like maybe I’m supposed to do this.”
When Round 3 commenced, Malignaggi turned up the heat and gave Zarrillo a lesson in the Sweet Science.
“Then the third round came,” Zarrillo said. “Looking back at it now, I see what he was doing for the first two rounds. He was getting me to move a lot, getting me to react to his feints, react to his punches and by the third round, I was completely gassed out. For the first time ever I just had this feeling, almost like I was really drowning. I’m not in the water right now, but I’m really drowning right now. He was coming at me, throwing punches. ... Being walked down by Paulie Malignaggi felt like drowning.”
Having something to hold on to like boxing, it just helps build your confidence. I owe that to boxing.
Since that moment several professional boxers and mixed martial artists have been willing to share their knowledge with Zarrillo. From the likes of Chris Algieri, a boxing and kickboxing champion, to mixed martial artists “Platinum” Mike Perry, Corey “Overtime” Anderson, Frankie Edgar, and Marlon Morales, among others.
According to Zarrillo, Perry’s role in the documentary is similar to that of the character Apollo Creed. Perry plans to be Zarrillo’s opponent in his debut. And just as Creed passed on knowledge in an effort to help Rocky accomplish something great, Perry is doing the same for Zarrillo.
The goal is for the documentary to transcend the fight world and helping that happen is a recent meeting with former N.Y. Yankee and current Mets third baseman Todd Frazier. He’ll also be included in the final cut of the film. Just like Zarrillo, Frazier as well as Frankie Edgar is a native of Toms River.
The goal of the documentary has been I always envisioned to take the documentaries’ awareness outside of the fight world and made the first leap by adding former NY Yankee and Current NY Met Todd Frazier. Like Frankie Edgar and myself, all natives to Toms River, NJ.
Boxing has been known to hold a transformative power over it’s participants. The same can be said for what Zarrillo has experienced. Boxing has essentially served as a savior.
That technology was just meant for me.
“To me, being in my situation, it's definitely a way of challenging myself and really building up the self worth in yourself. That's one of the reasons I do boxing,” he said. “Really to keep my confidence going. Having MS it can actually be something that zaps your confidence and it has and it probably will again. But having something to hold on to like boxing, it just helps build your confidence. I owe that to boxing.”
During this journey, Zarrillo has trusted his hands and safety to Hayabusa’s boxing gloves and headgear. The innovation built into the gloves have suited his need for hand and wrist protection.
“Really what put me on to the Hayabusa gear is I’ve always had weak wrists and the double closure system on the glove just enabled me to not worry about breaking my wrist,” he said. “That technology was just meant for me.”
No matter what stage in life you’re in or what your physical condition may be, Zarrillo is convinced boxing, whether for fitness, self defense or with the goal of stepping into the ring across from an opponent, should be incorporated into your lifestyle.
“Really if you’re not doing anything like boxing on a scheduled basis that can actually hurt you in the long run,” he said. “You’re not advancing yourself, you’re not improving your fitness, you’re not improving your mentality. I think all these things are all benefits from the sport of boxing. There’s a lot of thought that go into it. There’s a lot of things that go into it to help your coordination.
“Immediately following one of my relapses, coordination was one of the things that was a little shaky. But doing boxing for a couple months, the more the coordination got better. People who don’t train would say I have great coordination. They wouldn’t be able to tell that I have any problems. I owe that to boxing.”
His fighting spirit? That’s all his.
For more information on Multiple Sclerosis, visit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Help fund the documentary here.
Keep up with Nicholas’ journey on Instagram.