Simply put, there have been better years for New Mexico combat sports. A lot better. Lots of them.
Even so, 2021 did give us a few nice things.
Albuquerque’s Holly Holm was selected for induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame – an honor more than justified by her résumé in the ring before moving on to MMA.
Holm’s Jackson-Wink teammate Aaron Pico (9-3) went 2-0 this year and, riding a five-fight winning streak, continues his climb up the Bellator featherweight rankings. Jackson-Wink’s Davion Franklin (4-0), who had no amateur experience, scored two sensational victories and minted himself as a Bellator heavyweight contender.
Las Cruces amateur boxer Joscelyn Olayo-Muñoz won yet another USA national title – actually two, since both 2020 and 2021 USA Boxing nationals were conducted this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Albuquerque amateur Sharahya Moreu won silver at 2021 nationals, earning a spot on the U.S. national elite team and an opportunity to compete for a spot at the world championships.
Las Cruces’ Ariana Carrasco won a 2020 national title.
As always, New Mexico fighters won some and lost some. From a win-percentage standpoint, it was a banner year for Jackson-Wink MMA, with a win rate close to 90% – maintaining and perhaps enhancing its standing as one of the world’s premier MMA gyms.
Out of the cage/ring, though, 2021 was a brutal year.
Former UFC light heavyweight Jon Jones had no fights in 2021, unless it’s the one he’s alleged to have had in a Las Vegas, Nevada, hotel room in September.
Jones, an Albuquerque resident since 2009, was arrested Sept. 24 and charged with domestic violence after his fiancée was found, according to a police report, with blood on her face and clothes. When apprehended on the Las Vegas Strip, police said, he head-butted a patrol car.
In the aftermath, Jones was barred from Jackson-Wink, his longtime training home, by J-W co-owner and co-founder Mike Winkeljohn. The ban wasn’t intended to be permanent, but Jones has said he has no intention of returning.
Earlier this month, Jones agreed to a plea deal, pleading no contest to a charge of damaging a vehicle. The domestic-violence charge was dropped. Jones, meanwhile, continued efforts through his C.A.R.E. Project to help the less fortunate in his adopted hometown.
It was a difficult year, as well, for MMA fighter and former New Mexico resident Nicco Montaño.
In August, Montaño was cut by the UFC when she failed to make weight for a scheduled fight against Yanan Wu. In November, Montaño told Austin, Texas, police she’d been beaten by a man at an Austin hotel.
Montaño also was the subject of an award-winning documentary, “Warrior Spirit,” originally themed around her emergence as the first Native American UFC champion. Documentarian Landon Dyksterhouse expanded the project to reflect a horrendous weight cut in 2018 that resulted in the UFC stripping her of the title.
Montaño took an exception to a scene in the documentary that showed her naked reflection in a mirror. Dyksterhouse agreed to blur her image in that scene.
COVID-19 had a significant impact on New Mexico combat sports in 2021.
Albuquerque MMA fighter Ray Borg (14-5) won a comeback fight in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates – his first fight in 13 months after being released by the UFC – but had a second UAE Warriors fight canceled when he caught COVID. Recovered, the Jackson’s Acoma bantamweight is scheduled to face Cody Gibson on an Eagle Fighting Championship card in Miami on Jan. 28.
Diego Sanchez (31-13), Borg’s former Jackson-Wink teammate, is also scheduled to fight on EFC 44 in Miami – this after a bout with COVID that put him in the hospital for an extended period.
Sanchez, 39, has been fighting professionally since 2002. He has lost three of his last four, the lone victory coming via disqualification in a fight he was losing badly.
Albuquerque’s Carlos Condit (32-14) announced his retirement after a splendid career that lacked only a UFC title – though it can be argued that a questionable decision in his welterweight title fight against Robbie Lawler in 2016 robbed him of that distinction.
For Holm, a medical condition and a knee injury have kept her out of the Octagon all year. She remains the UFC’s No. 2 challenger in the bantamweight division but, at age 40, needs current champion Julianna Peña to again defeat former champion Amanda Nunes to have a realistic chance of getting a title shot before 2022 is out.
It was a quiet year in professional boxing, with high-profile losses outweighing a handful of victories.
In January, Albuquerque native Angelo Leo (21-1, nine KOs) lost his WBO super bantamweight title to Stephen Fulton by unanimous decision. Leo then defeated Aaron Alameda by majority decision in June, maintaining a presence in the 122-pound title picture.
Rio Rancho welterweight Brian Mendoza and Albuquerque’s Sanchez brothers, Jason and José Luís, took high-risk, high-reward fights and were turned back.
Mendoza (19-2, 13 KOs) lost to Jesús Alejandro Ramos by unanimous decision. Jason Sanchez (15-3, six KOs) lost by majority decision to Adam Lopez in an NABF featherweight title fight that could have gone Sanchez’s way on the scorecards but did not.
José Luís Sanchez (11-2-1, four KOs) fought to a draw with veteran Adrian Granados in May, then lost by unanimous decision to Top Rank, Inc., prospect Xander Zayas in September.
Haltingly, live boxing returned to New Mexico.
Teresa Tapia promoted two cards at the Inn of the Mountain Gods in Mescalero, the second featuring an exhibition bout between retired world champions Marco Antonio Barrera and Daniel Ponce de Leon. Isidro Castillo staged two shows in his hometown of Hobbs.
Popular Albuquerque welterweight Josh Torres (23-7-1, 14 KOs) won his fight on Tapia’s first card, but a fractured ankle injury sidelined him the rest of the year.
Pro boxing returned to Albuquerque after a 18-month hiatus when Legacy Promotions staged a card at the Albuquerque Convention Center. In the main event, Albuquerque featherweight Aaron Angel Perez (10-1-1, six KOs) tasted defeat for the first time as a pro – losing by unanimous decision to California’s Diego Elizondo.
Abraham Perez, Aaron Angel’s younger brother and a 2020 Olympic Trials champion, launched his pro career in successful but frustrating fashion. His debut opponent, Matthew Melton, quit after one round; his second opponent, Kenneth Jamerson, lasted barely a minute-and-a-half.
Las Cruces’ Austin Trout (34-5-1, 18 KOs), a former world champion, made managerial and promotional changes. He won bouts in Mexico and Dubai, UAE, but at age 36 is not ranked in the top 10 by any of the four major sanctioning bodies at either weight (154 and 147 pounds) at which he has fought.
Unbeaten super flyweight Matt Griego (11-0, eight KOs), without a fight since March 2020, has followed the course mapped by Leo and Mendoza and moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, in pursuit of more and greater opportunities.
What lies ahead in 2022? The omicron variant, no doubt, will have something to say about that.
What the new normal will look like, we’ll have to see.