John Dodson smirks as he dances. It’s close to the end of the second round, and most of the fight between the happy-go-lucky New Mexico native and challenger John Moraga has been a feeling-out process between the two fighters. Dodson, a short 5 feet 3 inches, speeds around the cage like a hedgehog.
But bloodthirsty fans inside the Tingley Coliseum are starting to boo both fighters for the so far uneventful match, something that would have seemed unheard of just minutes ago when hometown boy entered the ring to a deafening roar.
Dodson turns it up with a flurry of punches. Moraga blocks most of them, but he’s pushed to the edge by Dodson’s thrust.
Cornered at the fence, Moraga ducks and makes the mistake of exposing his upper body. Dodson’s left knee smashes into Moraga’s face, knocks him to the ground and hammers the side of his head over and over again with his left fist. The horn sounds and the round ends. A doctor rushes to examine Moraga. Broken nose. Fight over.
Dodson, wanting one more round, lies on his stomach with a frustrated look on his face.
New Mexico, meet your match.
For almost a decade, the Land of Enchantment has been known as an international hub for mixed martial arts, as some of the world’s best cage fighters train in Albuquerque at Greg Jackson’s MMA gym. Regional fights often occur at casino venues around Albuquerque and Santa Fe, but it took years for the biggest show, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, to bring an event here.
That finally changed June 7 as the UFC hosted Fight Night 42 at Expo New Mexico. Local fighters—veteran Diego Sanchez (pictured here) and up-and-comer Dodson—headlined two of the six main card fights, which were televised nationally on Fox Sports 1.
For a state lacking high profile professional sports, the event couldn’t be bigger. Or could it? UFC bypassed The Pit, which can seat more than 15,000, and instead opted for a more mid-level event at Tingley Coliseum (officials say The Pit’s roof can’t support the needed lighting structure).
Still, an estimated 8,775 showed up (just a few hundred shy of the venue’s capacity), which surpassed attendance for recent similarly sized UFC cards in major international cities like Berlin and Abu Dhabi. The event was successful enough for UFC spokesman Dave Sholler to declare that the league will “definitely” return to New Mexico, though when is up in the air.
The event has significance for the growing mixed martial arts scene in the region. Santa Fe is home to two high-profile MMA gyms in Gracie Barra Santa Fe and Undisputed Fitness, the latter of which is owned by former The Ultimate Fighter reality TV show alumnus Tait Fletcher.
“Before, the closest you could go to see UFC is, what, Dallas or Phoenix or Denver?” says Nate Harris, who teaches at Undisputed Fitness. “But to have it in your backyard, of course, that’s huge. It’s like, ‘Hey, cool, they acknowledge u
Sanchez, 32, described fighting on the New Mexico UFC card as “more important to me than fighting for a title.”
"We want to send a strong message that New Mexico welcomes MMA."
“This is my dream,” says Sanchez, who hadn’t fought in front of a hometown crowd since being catapulted to national fame. “This is the last time I’ll get to fight in front of my 160 family members.”
A fan favorite who put New Mexico’s fight scene on the map after wining the title in the first season of The Ultimate Fighter in 2005, Sanchez has fought some of the more fast-paced, violent big-name fights over the years. Yet this time, against Ross Pearson, he stuck to a more technical kickboxing game that featured minimal explosions and often had him on the defensive. He still came out of the cage with a controversial split-decision win that some are already going as far as to call the worst decision in MMA history.
But that doesn’t matter so much. UFC’s biggest asset is its own brand, exceeding the popularity of its fight cards and even its fighters. The league operates on a business model to reach far and conquer all. Over the past decade, UFC’s parent company bought four major competing cage-fighting leagues, inherited several hundred fighters and greatly expanded the number of fight cards it hosts. In 2004, the league put on five events, all in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. This year, UFC is on pace to host nearly 50 events in more than a dozen countries.
Oversaturation? Many fans seem to think so. But compared to the country-club tendencies of its elder pro-league colleagues, UFC is the 21-year-old kid who got rich quick and is still enjoying the novelty of his newfound wealth. More saturation also provides more opportunities and exposure for New Mexico.
The sport made its way to the Roundhouse last year when state House Majority Whip Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Bernalillo, carried a bill that would have updated language in the state’s sport event guidelines to include MMA-friendly provisions. The bill got stalled in committee, but Maestas says he’s planning to reintroduce it next year. He argues that it would help bring more fight cards to the state, which in turn could help New Mexico economically.
“We want to send a strong message that New Mexico welcomes MMA,” Maestas says. “It’s a natural fit.”
The UFC event brought a fair number of national sports reporters, many of whom started out as MMA geek bloggers, who flew in to cover the event last weekend.
Take John Morgan, who’s living the dream of a 12-year-old boy obsessed with the likes of Bruce Lee, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris. Morgan writes for MMAJunkie.com, which USA Today purchased three years ago. On media day, he paces around the room with the husk of a competitive beer drinker and the voice of a shock jock. Morgan’s asking the most detailed questions from the fighters, who are on display on raised platforms behind black velvet rope lines.
“Should a champion have a say in who they fight if there’s preference?” Morgan asks Benson Henderson, a top-ranked lightweight who fought in the night’s main event. Henderson, who has periodically been criticized in the MMA press for winning on controversial decisions and not finishing his fights with submissions or TKOs, couldn’t hold back his contempt for media coverage Saturday night after his win against Rustam Khabilov.
"Don’t doubt. We’re fighters, but we’re smart guys too. We’re not all, you know, Neanderthals."
The underdog Khabilov, a native of Dagestan, Russia, was sent to New Mexico by his manager to train with Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn, who run Jackson’s MMA. In total, four fighters who train at Jackson’s fought on the card. Not all were as successful as Dodson and Sanchez.
Khabilov went down in the fourth round after suffering a one-two punch followed by a rear naked chokehold from Henderson. Elated, Henderson stormed to the media side of the cage and shouted, “What do you say now?” at the top of his lungs. He followed it up by walking past the press tables with his hand to his ear and a wide-eyed expression that read, “Say that to my face.”
“I’m on to your guys’ tricks,” Henderson told reporters later that night at the postgame press conference. “Don’t—don’t doubt. We’re fighters, but we’re smart guys too. We’re not all, you know, Neanderthals.”
The difference between reporters like Morgan and fighters like Henderson could not be greater. All week, UFC fed the media as much food as it could. On media day, they served limitless portions of salad and steamed broccoli, grilled chicken, grilled beef and heavy pasta tossed with Thousand Island dressing.
Contrast this with the diet of the fighters, who must make weight the night before the fight or could otherwise be disqualified. Even after weigh-ins, they must be cautious. Sanchez learned that lesson the hard way in March.
That time, Sanchez ate tartare and a raw quail egg that he says made him throw up all day before his loss against up-and-comer Myles Jury.
“Never eat raw meat before a fight,” he says. “Never splurge on your post weigh-in meals and just stick to what you’re eating in the camp.”
But more cynical observers view his declining performances as a sign of a once dangerous fighter edging past his prime. Dodson, 29, is a fresher face to the scene, as he’s been competing in UFC for just three years now (though he has been professional for more than a decade). Sanchez may be more well-known, but Dodson’s entrance to the cage generated a louder and more jubilant response from the audience. His future as a fighter, like the promised future of UFC in New Mexico, simply offers more opportunities than Sanchez.
But outside the cage, Dodson embodies that walking contradiction that Henderson dwelled upon in the post-game press conference. Dodson likes to play video games, read manga and attend comic cons. His only obvious fighter characteristic is his puffy cauliflower ears, a trait that many of his colleagues treat as a badge of honor.
“I have better hearing than the majority of my friends,” he says. “The only thing is that, when they swell up it’s like a giant bruise, and it feels