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Padilla hopeful fight fans flock to Tingley

12-fight Jackson’s MMA card on tap

Conrad Padilla knows Albuquerque is a fight town.

The 35-year-old Highland High graduate, barbershop owner and Army veteran has seen his hometown’s passion for combat sports spread into the world of mixed martial arts.

As the main-event headliner of tonight’s Jackson’s MMA Series XI event in Tingley Coliseum, Padilla hopes that passionate fan base continues to grow.

“I’d like to set an attendance record,” said Padilla (4-0), who fights Nick Rhoads (5-2) of Tucson in the main event. “The most-attended (Jackson’s) event was 2,600. I’m looking forward to fighting in front of a big crowd. I want to one day get that Johnny Tapia-type crowd. He used to sell this place out – sell out the Pit. That’s huge. I want to get these shows to that level.”

Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA general manager Ricky Kottenstette said Padilla’s comments aren’t just wishful thinking. By this past Monday the event had already outsold December’s Jackson’s X event, and with tonight’s walk-up sales organizers are confident there will be a new attendance record.

The 12-fight card, which Kottenstette says features “realistically four or five guys that will be in the UFC in the near future,” will have six professional and six amateur bouts, including well-known locals such as Eric Dodson (2-0), the younger brother of UFC flyweight John Dodson, and Rio Rancho High’s former four-time state wrestling champion Vince Varela, who will make his amateur debut.

“This is the start of what I hope is a career in MMA,” said Varela, whose last fight in the Albuquerque area was when his arm was raised as the state’s 135-pound large-school wrestling champion in 2007, capping a perfect 45-0 senior season.

“I wouldn’t be doing this if I thought it was just a hobby,” Varela said. “You don’t get involved as much as I have at a place like Jackson’s and go up in practice every day against the best in the world if you don’t want to go all the way.”

Varela will fight in the second match of the card that starts at 7 p.m.

“I’ve worked on my entire game and will keep working on it,” Varela said. “I hope people I fight just assume all I can do is wrestle.”

As for Padilla, he didn’t start MMA training until he was 27 when a client of his barbershop, retired state cop Greg Richardson, suggested he take a few classes to defend himself if anything ever happened in his shop.

“No background or anything, really,” Padilla said. “I was 215 pounds when I started (he weighed 143.8 pounds at Friday’s weigh-ins) and have made this a big part of my life. Now I’m here as a main event. Pretty cool, huh?”

Padilla, like most of tonight’s 24 fighters, have high hopes of an MMA chance beyond the Jackson’s Series. But unlike some of the younger fighters, Padilla is also content with where he is.

“I’m just happy being in the sport,” Padilla said. “If I get called up to the big leagues, I’m cool with it of course. But I’m happy doing local events like this in my hometown, too. I’m doing this to stay in shape and to stay young.”

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