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2014 in Review: New Mexico searches for a top draw to bring back the spark in local MMA

There has been plenty debates between mixed martial arts fans and those who don’t find much interest in combat sports discussing the legitimacy of the sport that is MMA. While one side argues that the sport is definitely main stream the other group then builds their rebuttal upon the premise that MMA promotions outside of the UFC are rarely given significant attention on major media platforms like ESPN. During these discussions, one theme is prevalent and that focal point is this: Is MMA’s classification solely categorized as a sport or does it fall into the category of sports-entertainment?

Sport? Sports-entertainment? Grey area alert!

Boxing is considered by most as a legitimate sport. Professional Wrestling organization World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) offers a product that is categorized as sports-entertainment. What side does MMA fall or is MMA located somewhere in the middle?

Bellator 91 was arguably the biggest event in recent memory to happen on New Mexico soil but the show failed to propel a local into the spotlight of a regional "Star".

Bellator 91 was arguably the biggest event in recent memory to happen on New Mexico soil but the show failed to propel a local into the spotlight of a regional “Star”.

While a concrete answer does not exist and instead, a plethora of opinions ring out from both sides of the argument, one thing is certain and that is that MMA is still sky rocketing in popularity and continues to be the freshest aspect of combat sports. MMA now reaches audiences in the millions during major events and the outreach has expanded to countries all over the world.

As the local fight fans know, New Mexico has been a staple of combat sports for decades upon decades. The heritage goes back much further but the buzz in the area may have seen a peak when iconic Boxer Johnny Tapia was selling out arenas and making an impact on the National level. That popularity continues on to present time where the State is a hot spot for regional MMA and boasts dozens of elite athletes training out of gyms from Las Cruces to Santa Fe, with Albuquerque in the middle containing the most activity in the wave of mainstream MMA.

Despite all the success of New Mexico born and trained fighters and the progression of the sport’s popularity, one aspect is on a continual decline for our State.

The state lacks the popular named fighters to sell out arenas and spark the excitement into local shows.

In 2012, Carlos Condit fought for a World Title and several of the State’s premier athletes fought in top contender fights featured on a highly-viewed pay- per-views and network television events. The problem with that was the events were in other parts of the country and world; the fights were held at such great distances that fans supporting locals could only show their support in TV viewership.

In 2013 and 2014, the trend continued with fighters such as Ray Borg and Joby Sanchez making it to the pinnacle of the sport. Mainstays like Donald Cerrone, Tim Means, and John Dodson all made their mark in their respective UFC divisions. However, the local scene still lacked the type of buzz these fighters were providing the national market.

Once popular events like the Jackson’s MMA Series didn’t seem to sell out the venue like it once did and local promotions like Evolution Combat Sports failed to remain consistent with promoting shows. The Triple-A-MMA promotion seemed to have solid ideas but failed to capitalize on them when they failed to generate considerable buzz through their fight promotions. King of the Cage did consistent numbers at the gate for ticket sales but they too were unable to provide the same type of buzz they once did when several of the local fighters held their World Titles.

The Jackson's MMA Series was once a premier promotion for fighters to announce their presence in the local fight scene but recently the promotion has failed to attract significant audiences to the once popular show.

The Jackson’s MMA Series was once a premier promotion for fighters to announce their presence in the local fight scene but recently the promotion has failed to attract significant audiences to the once popular show.

The lack of buzz comes from the lack of excitement sparked by these shows. You can chalk it up to poor fight promotion or maybe it is the promoters dropping the ball with proper usage of media, or just simply people don’t know who most of the fighters are or they lack the sort of emotional investment in the fighter that would require them to spend their money to attend the show.

Simply stated, New Mexico lacks a “star” that would really drive interest into the common fan.

The constant draw in the State had long been Boxing Champion Holly Holm who successfully made the transition to MMA and brought in huge crowds for her MMA bouts under the Fresquez and Legacy FC banners. Most successful local fighters have been signed to the big show and former top draws have either come to the end of their careers or stopped being able to put people in the seats due to an array of other reasons.

The problem lays two-fold; the region develops stars that leave to the top promotions and the region fails to consistently build popular fighters who will stick around selling out venues.

Flash back to 2010 and most specifically two shows that occurred in that year. First, King of the Cage “Honor”, a show that may be one of the most significant events to ever occur on New Mexico soil. The event featured Donald Sanchez, Angelo Sanchez, Abel Cullum, and Joshua Montoya, all of whom were considered big draws in their respective markets and with the exception of Montoya, held promotional titles. The show also featured eventual UFC fighters Tim Means and Quinn Mulhern, Strikeforce and WSOF standout Mike Kyle, TUF contestant Darril Schoonover, KOTC three division Champion Tony Lopez and other notables such as the up-and-coming Tyler East. Simply stated, the show was a big deal.

Fast forward several months, the Jackson’s MMA Series III was the promotion’s best show to date. The fight card featured once top-ranked 145er Frank Gomez and eventual UFC fighter Johnny Bedford. WMMA Icon and now Invicta FC match-maker Julie Kedzie took on the co-headline billing and the show featured UFC fighter Diego Brandao and TUF contestant Frank Lester as well as the talented Lionel Lanham and up-and-coming Clint Roberts. The show was of such high-profile that Bedford with the win would head to the UFC’s Ultimate Fighter reality show and Brandao and Kedzie would need one more fight to move on to the Ultimate Fighter and Strikeforce respectively.

The King of the Cage promotion may be the owner of the richest history in the New Mexico combat sport's world and despite keeping consistent on ticket sales, the promotion has lacked the premier "Star" that would typically emerge from their ranks.

The King of the Cage promotion may be the owner of the richest history in the New Mexico combat sport’s world and despite keeping consistent on ticket sales, the promotion has lacked the premier “Star” that would typically emerge from their ranks.

We haven’t had a show like the aforementioned events in quite a long while. Bellator 91 came very close with their inclusion of several local marquee match-ups but that has been as close as fight fans have received in terms of legitimately significant fight cards that have local “stars” highlighting the events.

Our fight community is lacking the emotional investment it once had. Fight fans would not only come out for the fun and excitement of fighting but for the emotion that came with watching local fighters touch gloves and fight. What we are often left with is poorly matched fights that heavily favor the local talent or the talent affiliated with the respective promoter or we watch our top local fighters leave the State to compete in competitive match ups that New Mexico fight fans will never be able to see.

Before I go on, some fight fans may scream out that their favorite fighter is a star and think I am wrong in stating that New Mexico is lacking a bona fide star. With that in mind, why not take a look at some of the fighters who may be on the cusp of earning that title.

Luttrell’s MMA has a young fighter who just may be the next big thing to emerge from our regional circuit. Andres Quintana is 8-1 with eight straight victories all coming by way of TKO. His last two bouts have been either headlining or co-headlining acts for Triple-A-MMA’s 5th and 10th show and he has earned wins in impressive fashion in both outings. Arguably one of, if not the most talented “prospect” in New Mexico, Roswell’s Quintana has all the physical gifts and talents one would expect a bona fide star to possess.

So why isn’t he the Star of New Mexico MMA?

Both of the aforementioned shows failed to draw considerable fans to the venue and the buzz around Quintana is much quieter than it should be for such an outstanding talent. Was he not promoted correctly in the two aforementioned events? Sure, that could be a reason but it may also play into the idea that Quintana is a quiet individual and while he possess the talents of a top prospect he may lack the charisma or the outgoing personality to make fight fans outside of his support circle pay attention. Outside of his own personal following and that of his gym, Quintana remains a hidden gem when he should be leading the new wave of talents of this new generation of mixed martial arts all the way to the national level.

Lutrell's MMA standout Andres Quintana may be the next "Star" of New Mexico MMA. Before that happens, his exposure level will need to continue to increase each and every fight.

Luttrell’s MMA standout Andres Quintana may be the next “Star” of New Mexico MMA. Before that happens, his exposure level will need to continue to increase each and every fight.

Judgement MMA had two potential stars that could really generate the buzz for an event, however, a setback and a very unfortunate injury may have put the halt on both fighters becoming that “it” fighter in the State. John Rozema earned a reputation for being a knockout artist through his amateur campaign where it seemed that if he touched an opponent that opponent would soon hit the mat. That is what fans want to see, they want to know that when they attend a show they will be fulfilled in their desire to see MMA action at its finest. However, a loss in his 3rd professional outing may have taken away some of that aura he held when he stepped into the cage. It will be seen in 2015 if he can recapture that momentum as he was one of a few fighters who continued to bring in large and loud crowds to watch him fight in each of his outings.

Rozema’s teammate, Adrian Cruz, arguably the second biggest draw the last couple of years behind Holly Holm, was on the comeback trail after enduring two outings without a victory (one loss, one draw) when he suffered a gruesome leg break in his RFA debut. Cruz possesses a very warm personality and a marketable image that propelled him to be one of the few fighters in New Mexico who could make a huge difference in ticket sales. Currently rehabbing the injury, 2015 will an interesting year for “Killa” if he decides to make another run towards the top.

The injury bug bit Jackson-Wink amateur fighter Ricky Esquibel who has long been one of the most popular amateur fighters in the State but before the injury a one-sided loss to fellow amateur Jerome Rivera temporarily halted that momentum. Instead of Rivera stealing that momentum and becoming one of the more hyped prospects in the area, he was buried in the Triple-A-MMA promotion where Rivera was not billed as he should have been. Now undefeated as a professional, Rivera should be trail-blazing the regional circuit but Rivera suffers from the same issue teammate Quintana suffers from as he is very quiet and not well-groomed to be in front of a camera. Instead, Rivera is a special talent in the cage that people should be excited to watch but aren’t informed enough to become invested.

The guard has passed the fighters who once carried the torch of being a “Star” in New Mexico. Angelo Sanchez announced his retirement this past year after a victory over Brian Castillo; Sanchez was once the top Northern New Mexico draw in all of MMA. Donald Sanchez, the rival of Angelo for many years has also lost his buzz. Still the talented fighter, Sanchez hasn’t fought frequently in New Mexico like he once did and again due to poor exposure has drifted away from the former King of the Cage Champion. Once a top draw, Sanchez is now a grizzled veteran fighting in other markets making the push to get signed to the UFC. Sanchez headlines the New Mexico group of fighters on the cusp between regional and national circuit fighters.

Promotions in New Mexico are struggling to sell out the seats in every venue in the State. Which fighter will standout from the rest to help become the new big draw in our storied MMA history?

Promotions in New Mexico are struggling to sell out the seats in every venue in the State. Which fighter will standout from the rest to help become the new big draw in our storied MMA history?

Who is the next star of the fight scene in New Mexico? Is it Quintana? Is it Rozema, Cruz or Rivera? That will remain to be seen in 2015 and beyond but the fight game needs a star to flourish. Without Holly Holm, even the most successful local show in terms of ticket sales, Fresquez/Legacy has felt the pinch without a top drawing star. They have pushed Cody East and Damacio Page to lead the way but it remains to be seen if those two talents can shoulder the load or whether they will be the next fighters to leave the regional scene.

The model exists. Why were past “Stars” able to achieve the success they once did? Angelo had the support of the whole Northern side of New Mexico. Donald used his outside of the cage charisma to compliment his aggressive and exciting style of fighting. Ray Borg transcended from a wild and crazy amateur fighter who threw strikes as if someone was controlling him with an Xbox controller to a well-polished and well-spoken athlete who was able to make the correct moves in a young career to become a top prospect on the sport’s biggest stage, the UFC. The blueprint exists. Have success inside the cage, be interesting out of the cage, and make smart life decisions – it is really that simple.

Do our local fighters need to focus on the charisma aspect of themselves as professional athletes? Do they need to command a presence on a mic or in an interview to get people to pay attention and most important, pay for the product they are featured on? Yes, they all need that. Do promoters need to remember that their job is to promote and not turn that responsibility to their fighters of whom they force to sell tickets for the show? Yes, promoters need to promoter better and work with their local media to maximize exposure. These are factual issues occurring right now in the fight game that definitely need fixing.

Regardless of any method, theory, or opinion the fight scene just needs a fighter to step up and take the vacant crown of “Star” of New Mexico MMA.  Here we find ourselves in 2015, MMA is still buzzing worldwide but the “Mecca” of MMA, the label once given to Albuquerque is struggling to find a draw to keep the popularity progressive in this region. Will we find a fighter to step up to the plate to bring back the excitement to regional MMA? Will we get the big fights that put people in the seats again and will the year prove to be one of resurgence for New Mexico?

We will soon find out fight fans and SWFight.com will be here to provide the coverage of all the local combat sports events and news.

About Phillip Lujan

Phillip Lujan is one of the lead contributors and a featured writer for SWFight.com. Specializing in MMA breakdowns and analysis, Phillip is considered the MMA aficionado on staff. With nearly ten years of experience in combat sports, gazing through the eyes perceptively as a fan and a cornerman and from fight manager to analyst. He can be reached on twitter at @KingStark24 or through email at marcello.lujan@gmail.com.