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All timestamps reflect Texas Standard Time.
5:20 p.m.: Good evening, weirdoes! It’s been a little while since I brought you into the MBM space, but tonight is the perfect event for the return of your favorite column, and much like our summer jaunt to UFC San Antonio, we’re going on a field trip. Tonight we’re at Payne Arena in Hidalgo, Texas, for Combate Americas: Tito vs. Alberto.
Pictured: Face the Payne
5:25 p.m.: Before anything else, a word about Hidalgo. This is the Rio Grande Valley, and Hidalgo is nestled right up against the namesake river and beyond it, Mexico. How close? Close enough that when I went to book lodgings for this event, four of the 10 closest hotels to the venue were in Mexico. This place, the whole McAllen, Texas area, is awesome -- and a bit of a different world even for most Texans, myself included.
5:28 p.m.: It’s also the perfect location for a fight card that Combate Americas has stacked with USA vs. Latin America bouts, and to which they have attached the tag line “What Side Are You On?” The editor in me is screaming that it should really be “which,” not “what,” but nitpicking of pronouns aside, it’s a phrase with some nifty, layered meaning. The main event features a MAGA-hat-wearing American of partial Hispanic descent, taking on a proudly Mexican second-generation luchador. Whose side are you on? Or, if you prefer, there’s an actual national border 1000 yards from the venue, a boundary that looms larger than ever in our political and cultural dialogue these last few years. With which side of that invisible line do you identify more strongly? For a promotion that explicitly markets itself to the Spanish-speaking MMA audience inside and outside the US -- Combate’s next two shows are in Stockton, California, and Lima, Peru -- they’re provocative questions.
5:35 p.m.: There’s a lot on the line for Combate tonight. First and most obviously, this is the promotion’s first foray into pay-per-view. To put it bluntly, no MMA promotion other than the Ultimate Fighting Championship has yet succeeded in making pay-per-view work in the long term -- and even the industry kingpin endures yearly proclamations that the PPV model is “dead” -- but that doesn’t stop others from trying, usually right before they go under. Why Combate chose to launch this with Ortiz, who is barely a year removed from headlining Golden Boy MMA’s debut PPV, which was such a colossal failure that it ended up killing the promotion, is a question for someone smarter than me.
Pictured: Never forget.
5:42 p.m.: In more optimistic news, Combate is set to crown its inaugural women’s strawweight champion -- and its first female champ, period -- this evening, as Melissa Martinez takes on Desiree Yanez. I’m old enough in this sport to remember when many fans, and some experts, espoused the belief that MMA would never catch on in the Hispanic market because “Mexicans love boxing, and their culture has this thing called machismo, which means they will never embrace the grappling aspects of no-holds-barred fighting.” (Hint: Perhaps the problem wasn’t some bullsh*t overgeneralization about machismo, but the fact that the UFC was trying to break into that market with Ortiz, who is as Mexican as a box of frozen churros from Costco.) In any event, it does me good to see that 15 years later, not only is the sport exploding in Latin America, but a Spanish-speaking MMA promotion is having a women’s title fight featuring a homegrown Mexican star.
6:00 p.m.: Tonight’s main event is utter nonsense. Can we just agree on that and move on, or must I spell out the reasons it’s a complete farce from a sporting standpoint? (Yes, more so than Tito vs. Chuck 3. Easily.) We can agree? Great. The thing is, I don’t really care that it’s nonsense; it will be something to see for however long it lasts, I’m sure. Plenty of promotions, most notably Bellator MMA, use spectacle fights as a kind of Trojan horse to get actual prospects and contenders in front of as many eyes as possible. Opinions can differ on whether it’s the best strategy, but it isn’t insane.
6:08 p.m.: The real question is what’s inside the Trojan horse, and tonight it’s a pretty good handful of up-and-comers. The aforementioned strawweight title fight features the 4-1 Yanez, a Legacy Fighting Alliance alum who is a solid prospect in her own right, but “Super Melly” Martinez might have the highest upside of anyone on the card. She’s 6-0, only 21, and while she isn’t nearly on their level at this point, has displayed a mix of athleticism, aggression and good instincts that reminds me a bit of Aspen Ladd or Maycee Barber.
6:11 p.m.: There’s also Victor Martinez, whom I’m a bit surprised to even see on this bill. He won the Fury Fighting Championship 155-pound title in September in Corpus Christi, and while the stoppage in that fight was iffy, Martinez himself is the real deal. On a five-fight win streak, and already a regular presence at UFC events as a primary training partner and corner second for lightweight contender Diego Ferreira, I half expected Dana White's Contender Series or even the UFC itself to have snatched him up, especially with the promotion coming to Houston in February.
6:16 p.m.: Outside of those, the bill features quite a few… well, “squash matches” is a pretty loaded term, so let’s say “fights where a particular prospect is being given a chance to develop in an environment of partially managed risk.” I’m sure I sound snarky, but I actually think it’s a fine idea and one of the few areas in which I wish MMA would emulate boxing more closely.
6:18 p.m.: In completely unrelated news, our first fight of the night features 4-1 middleweight Elias Urbina, an alum of both the Contender Series and Season 23 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” in a 190-pound catchweight fight against Mike Tovar. Tovar is making his professional debut tonight, but did go 1-1 in amateur fights. In Colombia. At featherweight. God bless Texas, but there’s a nonzero chance that Nevada or California would have refused to sanction this fight.
6:22 p.m.: Urbina stalks and snipes at Tovar for about three minutes before lancing him with a head kick and follow-up punches for the expected knockout. The crowd gives it up for Urbina, who lives and trains in the Valley.
6:48 p.m.: The Combate booth features regulars Max Breto and Julianna Pena as well as special guest Jorge Masvidal. As a comfortably bilingual Cuban-American and the sport’s breakout star of 2019 -- which feels odd to say about a guy who’s been a favorite of the hardcores for a decade -- “Gamebred” is clearly living his best life right now.
6:57 p.m.: Unfortunately, I can’t see Masvidal right now, much less hear anything he says. The media accommodations are a bit strange this evening, to say the least. There are 15-20 of us, seated at long tables in front of an upper bowl balcony. It’s tough to see what’s happening in detail -- particularly, it’s impossible to hear anything the referees say -- and it’s a five-minute walk through the packed concourse to get backstage, which will make post-fight interviews a challenge. There’s also no place really set apart for said interviews, no green room or media area, so it’s “Find any place you like in a dark, extremely loud backstage area with people in lucha masks barreling through.” I’m marveling more than complaining, but even if I were complaining, it’s not as if I’m going on about the food or how comfy the chairs are. I’m here to work. Just give me a bottle of water and the wi-fi password and I’m right as rain.
Literally eye to eye with the top of the lighting truss.
7:35 p.m.: I mentioned squash matches before. Martinez vs. Anselmo Luis Luna Jr. is not one of them, as Luna is a tough veteran who beat UFC vet Jerrod Sanders in his last outing.
7:43 p.m.: It doesn’t matter, as Martinez blows Luna up in 90 seconds with a flurry of punches. The referee jumps in for the TKO stoppage while Luna was still standing, but I have no problem with it, as Luna looked like a zombie with a speed bag for a head, getting knocked back and forth as he stumbled against the fence.
You are correct. Congratulations Vic the brick— Sayif Saud (@sayif_saud) December 8, 2019
8:00 p.m.: Wanting to talk to Martinez, I make my way down to the backstage area. It’s simply too crowded and loud there, so we head out to the parking lot. This is one of the more ghetto things I’ve done in a live event coverage situation, but it still lags behind LFA 63, where I had to run out of the loading docks every time I needed to send a tweet because nobody from LFA knew the wi-fi password. (You thought I was joking when I mentioned that as a bare necessity?)
”Here with your winner…”
8:08 p.m.: We talk about how great it feels to fight in front of the hometown fans -- he’s from neighboring Pharr -- and the possibility of taking his career to the next level soon. The first time I interviewed Martinez, he said that the reason he fights is so that his mom might one day be able to stop working two jobs, as she has done for years to support her family. I found such a humble goal -- “I want my mom to only have to work one job” -- endearing as well as emblematic of the realities of professional MMA. I ask him if his mom was here tonight. He says, “No, she’s never seen me fight. She goes to my aunt’s house and they pray for me when I fight.” Vic “The Brick” Martinez: good fighter, good dude. Look for him in an eight-sided cage near you sometime soon, maybe.
8:43 p.m.: Next up will be the second career MMA fight of Dulce Garcia, better known as “Sexy Star” in professional wrestling circles. For now, though, a live mariachi band is keeping the crowd entertained.
8:53 p.m.: Garcia’s opponent is Anali Lopez Hernandez, who is 0-0 in mixed martial arts but is introduced as a “kickboxing black belt.” Something about a no-holds-barred rookie being identified by their TMA credentials puts me in mind of the single-digit UFC, proto-MMA era. That fits nicely, considering that Combate Americas is the third combat sports venture to spring from the fertile mind of UFC co-founder Campbell McLaren. The second venture, of course, was 2008 BET reality series “Iron Ring,” which featured an array of rappers managing teams of MMA fighters in a TUF-esque format. If you haven’t seen it, you need to close this tab and go meet your new favorite show. If you have seen it, and simply decided that your life didn’t need Juelz Santana giving corner advice to aspiring fighters coached by Charles Bennett, I don’t know what the hell to tell you.
9:01 p.m.: In what is becoming a trend for the favorites tonight, it takes Garcia barely half a round to finish a carefully chosen foe. In the case of “Sexy,” she got the better of a sloppy slugfest before snatching a tight guillotine for a standing tap. Going forward, I’m not sure what Combate can do with Garcia other than “more of this.” She’s clearly popular with the crowd. Though she has boxing experience and appears to be in fantastic physical condition -- I ran into her backstage and I don’t think it comes across on TV just how muscled she is -- she’s 37, so the window to develop a well-rounded skill set and turn her into a conventional contender is pretty narrow. Maybe just keep finding women for her to fight, hopefully beat, and thrill the crowd? It wouldn’t be the worst thing.
10:18 p.m.: The co-main event is up next, and it’s hard to believe that with all the professional wrestlers on the card, a match between people nicknamed “Super Melly” and “Dirty Dez” features zero of them. It would be nice for Combate if Martinez won here. One hallmark of a healthy MMA promotion is the ability to find prospects, develop them and then keep at least some of them from being hoovered up by the UFC, and with four of her five career fights coming in Combate, Martinez is about as homegrown as they come. Having said that, Combate is playing it honest here, and even a bit risky, as Yanez is a very legitimate strawweight whom I would not be surprised to see in the UFC or Invicta FC at some point.
10:39 p.m.: Well, Martinez wins -- officially. She picks up a baffling split decision in a fight where she appeared to lose the first round, and may have dropped the second 10-8, as Yanez spent half the round in mount, pelting her with punches. Martinez came back to win the third decisively, though not as decisively as she lost the second, but I simply can’t make the math happen for her to win. Bad, bad decision. However, it doesn’t change the takeaways for Martinez, both positive and negative. On the negative side, she got bullied around by Yanez, who appeared physically stronger. Since her strength and athleticism have carried her up until this point, she needs to go back to the drawing board. On the positive side, she won the third round handily after losing the first two. If the fight had been five rounds -- I never heard a definitive reason for this championship fight being only three -- the momentum was going her way. In any event, “Super Melly” is your new, and first, Combate Americas strawweight champion.
10:39 p.m.: It’s the moment we’re all waiting for. I’m waiting. You’re waiting. The crowd is waiting. Tito and Alberto are waiting. Two attractive young women, chosen as avatars of cultural and ethnic conflict, are waiting. (I know this whole event was supposed to be about choosing sides, but these two seemed pretty friendly with each other. Is it a kayfabe thing?)
10:54 p.m.: But we wait no longer! “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” walks out to… bah gawd, that’s Terry Gene Bollea’s music! This place is electric. For all my snark tonight, I actually got a chill just now. Ortiz's charisma is as blunt and forceful as his haircut. I wish I'd seen him fight in his prime, in person.
11:03 p.m.: If you’re Alberto, the good news is that the chants of “Tito!” are being drowned out. The bad news is that they’re being drowned out by shouts of “USA,” so those people want you to lose too.
11:04 p.m.: And “El Patron” gives them what they want, as Ortiz ragdolls him and slaps on a rear-naked choke for the finish, in a fight that makes last November’s trilogy match with Liddell look like Lawler vs. MacDonald 2.
That’s your ballgame, folks. Good night from lovely Hidalgo, Texas, and I’ll leave you with this bit of congratulations from one SEG-era UFC proponent to another: