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A year worth remembering in New Mexico sports

On Friday, tennis superstar Serena Williams was named The Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year. No surprise there, no argument here.

But here’s the surprise, and here’s the argument. Among the AP’s top three candidates was MMA fighter Ronda Rousey.

Really, AP? Were you thinking the year ended on Nov. 13?

On Nov. 14 – Nov. 15 on site in Melbourne, Australia – Albuquerque’s Holly Holm turned the MMA world upside down, inside out and backward with a second-round knockout of the seemingly invincible Rousey in the main event of UFC 193.

If the world was shocked, imagine how Rousey felt.

The instant Holm’s left foot connected with Rousey’s face and neck at Etihad Stadium, Holm’s world changed with the speed and force of that decisive kick.

Before, she’d been a local celebrity with a relatively small following outside her hometown among fans of women’s boxing. As a relative newcomer to MMA, even newer to the UFC, her worthiness as a challenger to the mighty Rousey was questioned – even mocked by some – right up until fight time in Melbourne.

And now?

Live with Kelly & Michael. Rolling Stone. ESPN. Larry King. Dan Patrick. Rich Eisen. Seth Myers. GQ. The New York Times. That’s the short list.

After her media tour of both coasts, Holm came home to an Albuquerque welcome both joyful and triumphant. On Dec. 6, fans lined Central, 6th Street and Tijeras as her parade procession made its way toward Civic Plaza. On the plaza, thousands stood together and cheered as she gratefully – sometimes tearfully; she can’t help it – addressed them.

Thus, as Team Holm plots its course for 2016, “The Preacher’s Daughter” reigns not only as the UFC women’s bantamweight champion but as New Mexico’s No. 1 sports story for 2015. On this point, there is no room for argument.

If the world didn’t see Holm’s ascendance coming, Lenny Fresquez did.

In 2004, Fresquez had the foresight to sign Holm – then a 22-year-old boxer, nine fights into her career – to a promotional contract. The team formed that year, Holm, Fresquez and principal trainer Mike Winkeljohn, is still together and still winning.

Fresquez didn’t anticipate Holm moving from boxing to MMA when he signed her, but he did foresee her success in whatever endeavor she undertook.

“I’m just very happy for Holly, and for the team,” Fresquez said in a phone interview last week. “We’ve worked so hard.

“I’ve always believed Holly was the best. Mike and I have always, always known Holly was at this level. I’m glad the rest of the world finally caught up to what we’ve known all the time.”

Not everyone reading this column, it’s understood, will be happy with the choice – as obvious as it was – of Holm and her conquest of Rousey as the top New Mexico sports story of the year. We have heard from those who object to what they term the glorification of a violent sport (if a sport is what it is) and glowing words of admiration for someone who beats people up for a living.

The only reasonable response is this: MMA is here to stay, Albuquerque is one of its capitals, and Holm, a Duke City native, is its reigning queen.

If New Mexico sports had never before had a story like Holm’s, nor had it experienced a night like that of Nov. 14.

Oh, what a night

In Boise, Idaho, as Holm prepared to step into the Octagon against Rousey, the University of New Mexico football team was battling an equally fearsome foe: the Boise State Broncos, who had won 96 of their previous 100 home games on their fabled blue turf.

In the aftermath of UNM’s 31-24 upset of the Broncos, it has been said that word of Holm’s victory filtered down to the field during the game and provided the Lobos with added inspiration. Let’s say it’s true, because it makes a great story even better.

Did Holm’s victory in Melbourne overshadow the Lobos’ triumph in Boise? In some ways, yes. Had it not been for Holm, the Lobos certainly would have gotten more than one-fourth of the Journal sports section’s front page the next morning.

Yet, thanks to Holm, the Lobos got an enthusiastic shout-out from those thousands during Holm’s victory celebration at Civic Plaza. It’s clear the townsfolk were still reveling in having two of their sports entities slay a giant on the same day.

After the Boise State victory, the UNM football team went on to finish 7-5 in the regular season. The Lobos then played Arizona to the hilt before losing 45-37 in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl. Both the bowl bid and the winning record were the program’s first in eight years.

Lobo football, then, is our story No. 3.

Whoa. What happened to story No. 2? From Holm to UNM football was a natural següe, but let us not forget the Lobo women’s cross-country team’s epic performance in Louisville, Ky., on Nov. 21.

The University of New Mexico women's cross-country team won the national championship in dominating fashion. (Mike Mulcahy/UNM Athletics)

The University of New Mexico women’s cross-country team won the national championship in dominating fashion. (Mike Mulcahy/UNM Athletics)

The Lobos didn’t simply win UNM’s second-ever NCAA team title; they won it in a rout of ridiculous proportions.

In the reverse-scoring world of cross-country – low number wins – the Lobos beat runner-up Colorado, 49-129. Among 254 runners who finished the 6-kilometer race, five competitors in Lobo turqoise (Courtney Frerichs, Alice Wright, Rhona Auckland, Calli Thackery, Molly Renfer) finished in the top 25.

“I think we knew there was a chance we could do that well and go down in the history books,” Frerichs said. “But it feels amazing. … This team is so special and our bond is so incredible.”

Joe Franklin, who has constructed a cross-country powerhouse at UNM, was named NCAA women’s Coach of the Year. No surprise, definitely no argument.

For story No. 4, we go with another Albuquerque native who made big news on the big stage: Alex Bregman.

Do you feel a draft?

On June 8, Bregman, the former Albuquerque Academy and LSU baseball shortstop, was selected by the Houston Astros with the second overall pick in the Major League Baseball Draft. No other New Mexican had ever been drafted so high.

Alex Bregman, Albuquerque Academy alumnus, talks with reporters after he was selected with the second overall pick in the 2015 MLB First Year Player Draft in June. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Alex Bregman, Albuquerque Academy alumnus, talks with reporters after he was selected with the second overall pick in the 2015 MLB First Year Player Draft in June. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

“It’s ridiculous; it’s pretty crazy,” Bregman told the Journal that afternoon. “I dreamed about it since I was 5 years old. My dad and I would play catch in the backyard, and my mom would throw me batting practice. I’ve been dreaming about this since then. It’s a dream come true. If you work hard enough, anything can happen.”

Assigned to Quad Cities, the Astros’ Class A farm team based in Davenport, Iowa, Bregman struggled at first – hitting just .259 in 29 games. But, promoted to Houston’s advanced Class A team in Lancaster, Calif., he rewarded the Astros’ faith by hitting .319 with an .839 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage).

“This is just the beginning,” he told MLB.com. “I’ve got a long way to go and I’ve got a lot to learn and a lot more games to be played. I’m just excited that this season has been a good start.”

OK, so much for good tidings of great joy. As my No. 5 sports story for 2015, I’m going with the trials and travails of Jon “Bones” Jones.

Jon Jones, right, kicks Daniel Cormier during their light heavyweight title mixed martial arts bout at UFC 182 on Jan. 3, 2015. But it was a troubled hear for the Jackson-Wink MMA fighter.

Jon Jones, right, kicks Daniel Cormier during their light heavyweight title mixed martial arts bout at UFC 182 on Jan. 3, 2015. But it was a troubled hear for the Jackson-Wink MMA fighter.

In terms of its longevity and national profile, this story should rate much higher than No. 5. Frankly, I just didn’t want it to – going with the feel-good stuff instead (insert smiley-face emoticon here).

Like Holm and Bregman, Jones, the former UFC light-heavyweight champion and Holm’s teammate at Albuquerque’s Jackson-Wink MMA, made news on the big stage this year – but almost all of it the wrong kind.

In January, just days after defeating Daniel Cormier in what would be his only fight of 2015, Jones entered rehab after having tested positive for the main metabolite of cocaine. In April, Jones ran a red light, collided in his rental car with the vehicle of a pregnant woman and fled the scene. Days later, he was suspended and stripped of his title by the UFC.

In September, Jones reached a plea deal in state District Court. He was reinstated, but without his title, by the UFC. No fight has been scheduled.

In an extended interview with Ariel Helwani of mmafighting.com in November, Jones expressed regret for the car crash and his marijuana use – his cocaine use was a one-time thing, he said – and called himself a changed man.

Needless to say, but we’ll say it anyway, Jones has a lot of convincing to do.

What’s that, you say? How can UNM men’s basketball not be in the top five?

Hey, listen; Lobo hoops, good or bad, could be the No. 1 story every year.

As of this writing, things are not good.

After a 15-16 season in 2014-15, with nine losses in the final 10 games, far better things were expected in 2015-16. A 7-2 start, with a sweep of New Mexico State and an impressive win over giant-killer Northern Iowa, seemed to presage still better things to come.

And now? After a hideous four-game losing streak – the last two losses coming by a total of 53 points – this is a team in free fall.

Yet, there’s talent and potential on this roster. Folks, the season is not over and is not lost. Stay tuned.

Calendar countdown

Other milestones, achievements and newsmakers (Note that the year in prep sports is being left in the more-than-capable hands of Journal colleague James Yodice):

⋄  January – Heather Dyche is hired to guide a troubled UNM women’s soccer program; former Lobo Glover Quin makes the Pro Bowl.

⋄  February – Former Albuquerque Academy player James Borrego gets his shot as interim head coach of the Orlando Magic; coach Yvonne Sanchez’s UNM women’s basketball team is amid an eight-game winning streak; Holm defeats Raquel Pennington by split decision in her UFC debut.

University of New Mexico women's basketball coach Yvonne Sanchez was the Mountain West Conference coach of the year for 2014-15. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal.)

University of New Mexico women’s basketball coach Yvonne Sanchez was the Mountain West Conference coach of the year for 2014-15. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal.)

⋄  March – Hugh Greenwood, among the most popular UNM basketball players ever, completes a sterling four-year career; Sanchez is named Mountain West Conference women’s Coach of the Year; the New Mexico State Aggies are Western Athletic Conference men’s basketball champions and make the NCAA Tournament for the fourth year in a row.

⋄  April – The Albuquerque Isotopes begin their first season as the Colorado Rockies’ Triple-A farm team. The ‘Topes bombed on the field, going 62-82, but still ranked 12th in all of minor league baseball with an average attendance of 8,007.

⋄  May – Albuquerque MMA fighter Carlos Condit returns from a 14-month layoff due to an ACL injury and defeats Brazil’s Thiago Alves by second-round TKO. Condit will usher in the New Year with a UFC welterweight title shot Saturday against champion Robbie Lawler.

⋄  June – Lobos offensive lineman Garrett Adcock is named the fifth-smartest college football player in the nation by nfl.com; longtime Academy swim coach Dave Barney becomes the eighth New Mexican to be inducted into the National Federation of State High School Associations Hall of Fame; a UNM men’s basketball alumni game draws a crowd of almost 9,500 at the Pit.

⋄  July – UNM athletic director Paul Krebs gets a four-year contract extension; Holm goes 2-0 in UFC competition, 9-0 overall, beating Marion Reneau by unanimous decision; the media pick the Lobo football team to finish sixth and last in the Mountain West’s Mountain Division.

⋄  August – Rousey KOs Brazil’s Bethe Correia in 34 seconds; Lobo football signs to play at Notre Dame in 2019 for a $1.1 million guarantee; the Holm-Rousey match is scheduled for January in Las Vegas, Nev., then a week later moved up to Nov. 14 in Melbourne.

⋄  September – The UNM football team loses 40-21 at home to Tulsa, casting doubt on its chances to get the six wins necessary for bowl eligibility.

⋄  October – the Lobos beat New Mexico State in football for the fourth straight year; Rousey says in an interview that Holm would be better off losing the fight because she couldn’t handle the pressure of being the UFC champion; the Aggies end a 17-game losing streak, the longest in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, by beating Idaho 55-48 in overtime; Jackson-Wink MMA formally opens its spacious new digs at Broadway and Martin Luther King.

⋄  November – One of the most eventful months in Albuquerque sports history; see above.

⋄  December – Holm returns home to her triumphal parade and reception; the Lobos lose to Arizona in an exciting New Mexico Bowl; the NMSU women’s basketball team completes its first two-game sweep of UNM since 1995-96; UNM men’s basketball ticket sales lag, even before that four-game losing streak.

As for 2016, only one thing is guaranteed: a whole lot of moola for Holm. The offers are coming in, Fresquez says, faster than Team Holm can respond to them.

A book deal, he said, has been signed and executed.

“So many opportunities in front of her, it’s incredible,” Fresquez said. “It’s a big blessing not only for Holly, but for the state of New Mexico.”

As for the Octagon, UFC President Dana White is adamant that Holm should stay idle until a scheduled rematch against Rousey in July. Fresquez, on Holm’s behalf, continues to lobby for a fight in the interim as contract renegotiations continue.

Despite White’s typical and vocal intransigence, Fresquez said, “Things are going well. There’s nothing I can say definite, but we look forward to a very prosperous and exciting 2016.”

If 2016 turns out to be more exciting than 2015, from a Holm-centric point of view, we’re all going to need a sedative.

 

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