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Wright: Dana White’s influence benefited boxer Leo, MMA’s Holm in 2020

Albuquerque native Angelo Leo, right, lands a right hand to the head of Tramaine Williams during a WBO super bantamweight fight in Connecticut in August. Leo won by unanimous decision. (Amanda Wescott/Showtime)

Dana White is arrogant and obnoxious, and he works at it. No, labors at it. White, the president and the face of the UFC, the most powerful entity in the world of combat sports, probably wouldn’t even disagree with that assessment.

But White definitely would agree with this: he’s a visionary who makes things happen and refuses to be told he can’t.The above might strike you as a curious way to begin a New Mexico combat-sports year-end column. To link the names of White and Angelo Leo in that regard might seem even more curious.

And yet …

Leo, an Albuquerque native, on Aug. 1 became the sixth New Mexican to win a boxing world title. He was the only one who landed punches on Tramaine Williams that night in Uncasville, Connecticut, the only one who took punches in return, and above all he has himself to thank for his talent, skill and hours in the gym.

As well, though, there’s Miguel Leo, his son’s head trainer; Albuquerque’s Luis Chavez, his co-trainer; Mayweather Promotions, which had the good sense to sign him to a contract in 2017; and others.

Among those others, there’s White.

It was White, after all, who made combat sports a reality during the COVID-19 pandemic. Following his lead, boxing and other MMA promotions also returned – creating opportunities for New Mexico fighters like Leo.

Otherwise, there’d have been almost no combat-sports year to write about – at least after mid-March, when the last pre-pandemic events were staged.

One thing White and the other major promoters could not do, however, was get local promoters back in business. Without ticket sales, and without the TV and streaming revenue that propped up the UFCs, Bellators and Top Ranks of the world, New Mexico promoters Jordan and Aaron Perez, Pat Holmes, Ricky Kottenstette and Lenny Fresquez/Mike Winkeljohn were left out of the COVID-era comeback.

Kottenstette, doing business as Southwest MMA Series, last promoted on Jan. 11 at Buffalo Thunder in Pojoaque. Holmes last promoted on Feb. 8 at the Marriott Pyramid. Fresquez staged a boxing card at Isleta on March 7.

The Perez brothers, operating as Legacy Promotions, last staged a card at Expo New Mexico in November 2019. A card they’d planned for March 28 was postponed twice before it became obvious it could not happen.

New Mexico fighters under contract to major promoters got to fight during the pandemic, and we’ll discuss the year they’ve had. But those who depended on local cards for their continued development, not to mention a little cash, were deprived.

Among the fighters who fought, none had a better year than Leo. He fought only once in 2020, but that one fight and that one victory catapulted him into the exclusive company of Bob Foster, Johnny Tapia, Danny Romero, Holly Holm and Austin Trout: world boxing champions from New Mexico.

Leo (20-0, nine knockouts) was to have fought Philadelphia’s Stephen Fulton for the WBO super bantamweight title. After Fulton tested positive for COVID – combat sports during the pandemic was by no means without its blemishes – Williams stepped in.

And Leo stepped up. After a couple of feeling-out rounds that Leo lost on the scorecards, he spent the bout’s final 10 rounds on Williams’ chest, leaving no doubt about the outcome: Leo by unanimous decision.

Leo’s own COVID infection (only mild symptoms) caused his Dec. 19 defense against Fulton to be postponed. They’re now scheduled to meet at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut on Jan. 23.

Three other New Mexico boxers, featherweight Jason Sanchez and welterweights Brian Mendoza and Josh Torres, managed to get into the ring during the pandemic.

Mendoza (19-1, 13 KOs) defeated Thomas LaManna by unanimous decision on Aug. 8. Sanchez (15-2, eight KOs) lost by unanimous decision to Christopher Diaz on June 23. Torres (22-7-2, 13 KOs) lost by unanimous decision to Cody Crowley on Sept. 6.

As for MMA, the cards staged by the UFC, Bellator and LFA were too plentiful to support a full account of New Mexico results here.

But it was a nice year for Holm, Albuquerque’s most celebrated fighter.

Raquel Pennington, left, hits Holly Holm during a UFC 246 women’s bantamweight mixed martial arts bout Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020, in Las Vegas, Nevada. It was a good year for Holm, who won this fight and another — and re-emerged as a title contender. (AP Photo/John Locher)

To say Holm (14-5) needed a comeback might be unfair since, despite her five career losses, she has never been far from the forefront of UFC women’s competition. Still, her two unanimous-decision victories in 2020 – over Raquel Pennington pre-pandemic, then over Irene Aldana on White’s “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi – have burnished the former UFC bantamweight champion’s chances for another title shot.

Absent from the Octagon during the pandemic, but definitely not from the news cycle, was Albuquerque resident Jon “Bones” Jones.

After winning by unanimous though shaky decision over Dominick Reyes in February, Jones vacated the UFC light heavyweight title and announced he’ll campaign at heavyweight. No fight has been announced.

Meanwhile, Jones continued to make news, good, bad, or open to interpretation, outside the Octagon.

In April, Jones pled guilty to DWI after being pulled over in downtown Albuquerque. In June, he was back downtown – this time helping to board windows and discouraging would-be rioters and vandals during protests stemming from George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.

For those actions, Jones was both praised and pilloried.

Meanwhile, Jones, through his C.A.R.E. Foundation, continued his contributions to his adopted hometown. Most recently, he announced he would award a $500 shopping spree to each of 50 area families.

Though the coronavirus could not completely stop New Mexico combat sports, it certainly tried. Leo, UFC flyweight Jordan Espinosa (Luttrell-Yee) and free-agent MMA welterweight Chris Brown (Jackson-Wink) had scheduled fights postponed after testing positive.

It was a successful year for Jackson-Wink; New Mexico’s predominant MMA gym announced in late November that it had an 82-percent winning percentage in 2020. That percentage dropped a bit thereafter, due to year-ending losses by J-W fighters Devin Clark and Maurice Jackson.

As 2021 approaches, COVID-19 is not the only thing UFC fighters must fear. White has said he intends to cut some 60 fighters from the roster in coming days.

Given that White already has expressed concern for their well-being, due to the punishment they’ve absorbed, veterans Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone (36-15), age 37, of Edgewood, and Diego Sanchez (30-13), 38, of Albuquerque, might well find themselves on the chopping block.

Whoops, almost forgot. It was less than 11 months ago, but somehow feels like eons ago, that the UFC came to the Albuquerque area for the first time since 2014.

The Feb. 15 card at the then-Santa Ana Star Center was a competitive success but was not as well attended as the 2014 card at Tingley Coliseum.

Will it be another six years, or more, before the UFC returns?

One hopes, at least, that, whenever it happens, if it happens, COVID-19 will be in our rear-view mirror by then.

ELSEWHERE: FIT-NHB and Moriarty welterweight Tim Means (31-12-1) rallied from a tough loss in Rio Rancho with two impressive victories, earning a new UFC contract … veteran Jackson-Wink welterweight Carlos Condit (31-13) ended a five-fight losing streak and a five 1/2-year victory drought with a win by unanimous decision over Court McGee in Abu Dhabi … Jackson-Wink featherweight Aaron Pico (7-3) went an impressive 3-0 in 2020, justifying the decision Bellator made to sign the former wrestling star and California transplant with no MMA experience.

… Two prominent Albuquerque MMA fighters, John Dodson and Ray Borg, got their walking papers from the UFC. Both had fought in the past for the UFC flyweight title. … Popular Jackson-Wink strawweight Michelle Waterson (18-8) lost a split decision in a fight she believed she’d won and won a split in a fight many observers thought she’d lost.

… Boxer Claressa Shields, an Olympic gold medalist and professional world champion, came to Jackson-Wink to train in preparation for an eventual entry into MMA. Last week, she announced plans to move to Albuquerque.

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