Bellator’s Danny Sabatello is MMA’s ‘Italian Gangster’

To friends and family growing up, Danny Sabatello was “The Italian Stallion.” No mystery there: His roots trace back to Palermo, Sicily, and he loves the “Rocky” movies. 

But that was then, back before the former Division I wrestler began to build his own fighting legacy — and not a fictional one like Sylvester Stallone’s iconic character. He needed a moniker all his own.

“I didn’t really want it to be ‘The Italian Stallion.’ That’s Rocky Balboa. It’s been done before,” Sabatello told The Post via Zoom this week. “I’m unique. I’m my own person, and I wanted my own f–king thing. So one of my boys at Purdue, one of my teammates, said ‘The Italian Gangster.’ We still don’t know who exactly said it. Of course, they all claimed that they came up with it. But I absolutely f–king loved it. It’s actually a great representation of myself.”

Now, “The Italian Gangster” forges his own path in mixed martial arts, one that has him two wins from a championship and three from the $1 million prize that comes with winning Bellator’s Bantamweight World Grand Prix. But first, Leandro Higo stands in the way in a tournament quarterfinal matchup Friday (9 p.m., Showtime) on the Bellator 282 main card at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.

The “Gangster” element is fitting for the 29-year-old Chicagoan of Italian-American descent, especially once the brash Sabatello utters a word. His voice is nearly a dead ringer for Joe Pesci straight out of “Goodfellas.” 

Danny Sabatello
Lucas Noonan

Comparisons to the legendary actor were unavoidable after a memorable post-fight interview after his dominant decision victory over Jornel Lugo in April. He can’t help but mix in F-bombs at a pace that would make the “Casino” star blush. But Sabatello embraces it and pretty much anything that’s said about him, both good and bad.

“They call me Joe Pesci; I f–king love it because I love Joe Pesci,” Sabatello says. “We’ll never have another Joe Pesci in our lifetime. He’s the s–t. But at the end of the day, people can call me whatever the f–k they want. They can call me insults. They can call me words of praise. Doesn’t f–king matter to me.”

It’s not just the voice. Sabatello’s in-your-face fighting style and propensity for lopsided beatdowns recalls Pesci taking it to Billy Batts in “Goodfellas.” The former collegiate wrestler relies heavily on relentless takedowns and advancing to dominant positions from which he rains down blows or looks for submissions. Across his first two Bellator bouts — a major upset of Brett Johns on short notice and beating Lugo in a grand prix wild card qualifier — he has yet to drop a round and secured a unanimous 10-8 round against Lugo.

Now officially part of the tournament, Sabatello draws former bantamweight title challenger Higo. The 33-year-old Brazilian has won three straight, including avenging his championship loss to Darrion Caldwell in his most recent outing last May. 

But Higo has had recent issues with making the 135-pound limit, struggles for which Sabatello won’t give him a pass even as both made weight Thursday. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t have much nice to say about Higo.

Warning: Profane language

“I don’t f–king like him at all. He’s a piece of s–t,” says Sabatello in typically colorful fashion. “… He’s missed weight his last two fights, and even before that he’s missed weight. So I feel like it’s my obligation and my duty to punish him for that.”

And Sabatello intends for prolonged punishment. With a six-fight win streak going, he’s made a habit of putting opponents through the wringer. For a win on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2020, the scorecards read 30-26, 30-25 and 30-24 — the third score being among the most rare one sees in MMA and a testament to the beatings he can throw down over the course of three rounds.

Friday’s bout is scheduled for five rounds, as all contests in the tournament are. The extra time could help Sabatello snap a four-fight streak in which he was unable to finish his opponents, after getting seven of his first eight opponents out of there inside the distance. Touting possession of “the best gas tank in MMA,” he figures 25 minutes will be plenty of time to prove he’s the better bantamweight.

“If it were up to me, this would be a 10-round fight so I could just f–king beat the s–t out of him and play with him for-f–king-ever,” Sabatello declares. “Five rounds is more suitable than my style anyways. Can take my time and just piece him up, and I’m never gonna f–king run out of gas. And that’s when I’m gonna put the pedal to the metal in those later rounds, those championship rounds. He’s just gonna be struggling to survive. He’s gonna want out of there. He’s gonna f–king be very desperate in there. 

“And I’m not gonna get him out of there when he wants me to. I’m just gonna torture him a little bit more, and then I’ll f–king get him out of there in those late rounds.”

And if Sabatello fulfills the prophecy, expect him to quickly turn his attention toward interim champion Raufeon Stots, who awaits the winner in the tournament semifinals. “The Italian Gangster” envisions their potential matchup as “the biggest Bellator bantamweight fight ever.”

“I’ll be chirping at [Stots],” Sabatello promises for after the Higo fight. “The good thing is that he talks trash. Some people think he’s got good trash talk. I think it’s pathetic.”