The California Fight Syndicate returned with a bang Saturday Evening at the Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara. Actually, make that a couple devastating bangs and a few bloodied faces with a dose of “armbar” submissions.
The “Return”, organized by the California Fight Syndicate (CFS), featured twelve fights and showcased some of the best amateur MMA fighters that Southern California has to offer. And although it was an amateur event, there was nothing recreational about the presentation or atmosphere surrounding the fights.
“It was very well organized, good promotion with all the lights and walk-up music,” professional UFC fighter Tony “El Cucuy” Ferguson said. “Especially for an amateur event, it’s good for these fighters to experience all that and obviously the atmosphere was great.”
Even to a professional MMA fighter as seasoned as Tony Ferguson, there was nothing amateur about the fights.
“The fights were incredible. Before on the amateur circuit, they used to stop the fights a lot sooner so that no one could get seriously hurt,” he said. “But today, it seemed like the judges let them fight and that made it a lot more exciting. Anthony Arria (CEO of CFS) did a great job, the fighters matched up real well.”
Four of the evening’s bouts involved fighters native to Santa Barbara and it was evident as the hometown crowd made their presence and support felt throughout the night. Not only did the local fighters put on a show for their city, they did so in dominating fashion: two TKO’s and one tapout due to a successful Guillotine choke.
Although the first local fighter, Justing Stehno, tapped out to Tim Ugarte by armbar in the first round, the next three locals took little time asserting their dominance in the ring. Their opponents never made it past the second round.
In the 5th fight of the night, Emilio Sanchez and Mike Loos exchanged haymakers for about 52 seconds. That’s how long it took for Sanchez, product of Vahallan Elite Training Center in Santa Barbara, to TKO Loos by strikes and it had clearly been the best fight by far up to that point.
Next to step into the ring, Bren O’Neal, product of nearby San Marcos High School, got the home crowd going with both his confident manner and his antics. With his hands by his side rather than protecting his face, it almost seemed as if O’Neal was inviting his opponent, Marcos Bonilla, to take uncontested shots at him.
At one point, he even put his hands up in the air and spit in the direction of his opponent. Little did Bonilla know it was a booby trap. As soon as Bonilla attempted an offensive move, O’Neal maintained leverage and successfully executed the first double leg slam of the night. He then locked Bonilla in a rear naked choke that would’ve ended the bout had he not ran out of time. Regardless, O’Neal finished the bout in style as he forced Bonilla to tap out by a Guillotine Choke 83 seconds into Round 2 for his first MMA victory.
“I just want them to respect me,” O’Neal said. “I had a couple tough fights before but this was an easy win. As soon as I stepped in, I knew he didn’t want to be there.”
The last local fighter, Robert Becerra, outclassed Goreal Hudson who had both a size and reach advantage. He managed to get on top of Hudson and started unleashing blows before the judge determined Hudson couldn’t defend himself. Becerra TKO’d Hudson 1 minute and 49 seconds into the 1st round.
But as entertaining as the local fights were, the best bout of the evening belonged to John Hackleman Jr. and Jonathan Greene. It also happened to be the shortest and only lasted a whole 36 seconds.
Both fighters came out swinging in a furious sequence of powerful punches before Hackleman landed a devastating punch on Greene – knocking him out cold. It was the only knockout of the night, but it probably should’ve counted as two considering how forceful it was. I was sitting in one of the back rows and not only did I hear it, I felt it. It was one of those punches that leave had the crowd saying “ohhh” in unison and then leaving them completely silent and shocked after. It’d be fair to mention that Hackleman’s father was the former trainer for MMA legend Chuck Liddell.
Although Hackleman isn’t originally from the Santa Barbara area, it was clear he was familiar with the surroundings and completely dedicated to improving.
“This is my third fight in Santa Barbara and I haven’t lost here,” said Hackleman Jr. “I’m not even going out tonight and I already forgot about that fight. I’m going to go home and have a cheeseburger – that’s how I’m going to celebrate.”
The unmistakable Makani Sarellano was also one of the star performers of the evening. Apparently, the CFS had to find a last-minute replacement because fighters kept backing out of the match. It’s easy to see why. Sarellano is a giant of a man – the kind you either see in movies or on the offensive line of your favorite football team.
But he also seems extremely kind-hearted and this is evident in the way he treats his opponents and fans. After overpowering Adrian Heredia by TKO – who happened to be making his MMA debut – he made sure to commend his opponent for having “the balls” to step into the ring with him. Poor Heredia had no chance but he gave a valiant effort.
Last but not least, the main event featured undefeated David Tubbs and an up and coming Ruben Perez. Unlike the previous nine fights, the main event went the distance as both fighters kept fighting extremely hard to the very end. Perez landed a crippling punch on Tubbs in the beginning of Round 1 that left Tubbs with a bloody and swollen eye for the rest of the fight.
“Not only could I not see, I was seeing cross-eyed,” said Tubbs after the fight.
Although he was fighting pretty much with one eye, Tubbs regrouped nicely for the next two rounds and landed some crippling blows of his own, leaving the judges with an extremely difficult decision. Perez wasn’t as deadly in the last two rounds as he was in the first, but still did enough to leave the crowd anxiously awaiting the results.
In a split decision (28-28, 28.5-29, 28.5-29), the judges ruled in favor of Perez and awarded him the title belt. An ecstatic Perez hastily left with his entourage to celebrate the big victory while Tubbs stuck around in the waiting room to get his eye treated and also to mull over the first defeat of his young career.
“I’m upset with my performance. I give [Perez] his props, he fought extremely hard,” said the previously undefeated Tubbs. “When I leave it to the judges that’s what I get. But if I need anything, I need to learn how to lose and come back.”
And if anything separates these fighters from the rest of us, it’s exactly this. These fighters, who go through hours and hours of punishing training, have an inherent ability to get back up after they’ve been knocked down. They not only do this in the ring after a devastating blow to the head, but they do is in life after they’ve been dealt a devastating loss. All the fighters Saturday evening, even the ones that lost, are mentally and physically preparing for their next fight as we speak.
It’s a demanding and exhausting lifestyle but if we know anything, it’s that these fighters will get back up. And as Tubbs experienced, for those that won or are still undefeated, the next loss might just be around the corner.