Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The grind continues

Going into your opponent’s backyard in the hopes of securing a victory is difficult enough. The New England Patriots are virtually unbeatable at home. Very few teams step on to the Golden State Warriors’ home court and walk off it with a win.

Depending on who you talk to, it’s also difficult to go into your opponent’s hometown in mixed martial arts and come away with a win if you don’t score a finish. For two consecutive fights, Rob Sullivan traveled to Pennsylvania to face Scott Heckman for the Maverick MMA featherweight title. Both times, Sullivan and Heckman, the Pennsylvania native, waged a hard-fought battle that went the distance and brought the crowd to its feet. But both times, Sullivan came up on the short end of a split decision.

Sullivan was convinced that his rematch with Heckman at Maverick MMA 3 in September of last year should have resulted in him winning the promotion’s featherweight title.

“I thought I won rounds one and three handily,” Sullivan said. “The only thing he landed was leg kicks and they didn’t do much damage. I’ve tried to suppress that night, actually, but I can’t see how that fight was scored for him. But I guess you really have to beat the champ when you fight in his hometown.

“I feel like things are just now starting to click for me and I’m putting things together,” Sullivan said. “I thought it was my best performance and a lot of stars lined up for me to be the best I can be. But if you think you’re going into a guy’s hometown and squeeze out win, it won’t happen.”

Despite his disappointment, it’s full speed ahead for Sullivan. He returns for a third fight with Maverick MMA 5 on Saturday, Feb. 17, in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Sullivan will compete in a 150-pound catchweight bout against Thad Frick, with designs on winning and receiving a third fight with Heckman.

“I want to fight as much as possible this year,” Sullivan said. “I told them to match me up with someone who draws, and [Frick] said he wanted to fight at 150 pounds. This is the kind of fight I wanted. He’s a good wrestler, maybe better than Heckman. [Frick] is like me a few years ago, but I’m a better striker.”

Sullivan isn’t looking past Frick, but he’s confident that a third fight with Heckman is exactly what Maverick MMA is looking for.

“We’re two wrestlers who want to punch each other in the face,” Sullivan said. “We’re around the same age, and we’re not super-young and not doing anything too crazy. It’s fun; I want every fight to be like that. There are no crazy goals for me now. I just want to be entertaining. But if the right door opens for me and one of the big organizations need someone on short notice? Fuck it.”

Until then, Sullivan is quite happy fighting for promotions like Maverick and Shogun Fights in Baltimore, where he has plans to compete on its next card in April. Sullivan’s battles with Heckman have also won him over with fans in Pennsylvania.

“The first time I was being booed, but there were cheers by third round,” he said. “I had a lot of local fans with me the second time, but there were more cheers for respect – there was less disdain.”

Sullivan is motivated to fight multiple times this year not only to entertain fans, but also to help pay for his upcoming wedding. He proposed to his girlfriend last year and credits her with helping to keep him motivated to step into the cage.

“She’s incredibly supportive,” Sullivan said. “We both have busy lives and our own goals, but we want the same thing and the same outcomes. We both walk in large circles, and you want your closest friends there for your wedding. Stability is good.”

Thursday, November 30, 2017

A dream denied, for now

I stopped watching the UFC’s reality series The Ultimate Fighter a long time ago. I feel the show peaked in its 10th season, when it featured heavyweight fighters and introduced (or reintroduced) us to guys like Kimbo Slice, Roy Nelson, Brendan Schaub and Matt Mitrione. With the exception of one or two seasons since then, I feel the show has largely outlived its usefulness.

But it was interesting for me to learn that the most recent season of The Ultimate Fighter featured a Maryland fighter, Sijara Eubanks, who was competing to be the UFC’s first female flyweight champion. I was also surprised to learn that Eubanks made it all the way to finals and was supposed to fight for the title during the show’s finale on Friday, Dec. 1.

Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen now. Eubanks had to drop out of the fight after being hospitalized with kidney failure, which was the result of her trying to make the 125-pound limit for the fight. Apparently Eubanks struggled to make weight for her fights throughout the show, even though she was able to accomplish it each time.

But one of the head coaches on the show, UFC lightweight Justin Gaethje, said that Eubanks began her time on The Ultimate Fighter weighing 155 pounds – well over the flyweight limit. To her credit, Eubanks acknowledged what happened in an Instagram post and didn’t make any excuses.

Eubanks was a 12-seed in the field of 16 flyweight fighters on The Ultimate Fighter, and it seemed to be extraordinary that she was able to defeat and finish more experienced flyweight competitors like Maia Stevenson, DeAnna Bennett and Roxanne Modafferi. When I learned Eubanks was going to be on the show, I hoped to talk to her about her experience. I contacted her directly on Twitter but she referred me to the UFC, which denied my request. I guess you have to be employed by one of the very few mixed martial arts websites that the UFC deems “worthy” of talking to its fighters.

But I did interview Eubanks when she was competing with Invicta FC. She mentioned then that weight cutting was difficult for her and that she felt better competing at 135 pounds. You have to wonder why she made the decision to fight at flyweight if she previously said she felt better competing at 135 pounds. Hopefully I’ll get to ask her that question sometime soon.

Unfortunately, Eubanks’ situation is symptomatic of the increasing epidemic of fighters either missing weight or falling ill during their weight cuts. What’s the answer? More weight classes? More leeway in how fighters are allowed to cut weight? No one really knows for sure. But there’s no question that this is an issue that needs to be addressed, before something tragic happens again.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Going back to his roots

It’s a cliché that’s as tried and true as any in professional sports. An athlete makes the decision to go back to his or her “roots.” They go on a journey to rediscover what made them fall in love with their sport of choice in the first place.

Jon Delbrugge’s journey into mixed martial arts began with wrestling while he was in high school before a detour to football took him to West Liberty University in West Virginia. But it was there where he found the type of competition for him – Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Delbrugge dropped out of school and moved back to Maryland to pursue the sport full-time. He joined Crazy 88 MMA in Elkridge and also trains with Team Lloyd Irvin in Camp Springs.

“I’m a crazy motherfucker,” Delbrugge told me recently. “My coach told me I had to develop a specialty, and I told him I want to be a jiu-jitsu specialist. So I traveled the world for six or seven years and gained my purple and blue belt. I went against some UFC guys in competitions and when I started in MMA in 2010-11, I had won a bronze medal in jiu-jitsu but focused on MMA after that.”

Delbrugge has amassed a 9-4 record in MMA, but is coming off back-to-back losses for the first time in his career. His last loss at Shogun Fights 15 last year is what helped Delbrugge decide to take a step back and reassess his career.

“The one loss wasn’t the worst thing, but I was close to signing with the UFC and I really wanted to win that fight,” Delbrugge said. “But I didn’t feel good and didn’t feel like myself. As soon as it was over, I was upset and it didn’t feel fun anymore.”

While Delbrugge has outside interests that he focuses on as well, he decided to revisit his passion for jiu-jitsu and has competed and won in a recent competition in Washington, D.C., and plans to compete in future jiu-jitsu tournaments in New York and California.

“If I couldn’t go to practice and have good sessions, it might be the end of my career,” Delbrugge said. “But I feel great – I feel like an animal. My focus is on winning a world title in Gi and NoGi competitions. I may fight in MMA again next year, if there are more weight classes available.”

But before Delbrugge embarks on jiu-jitsu tournaments in other states, he is slated to compete at the Fight To Win jiu-jitsu tournament on Friday, Nov. 3, at the Frederick Indoor Sports Center. Delbrugge will begin the tournament in the 175-pound brown belt NoGi division against Josh Weinstock. The tournament, owned and promoted by Seth Daniels, features UFC lightweight Gilbert Burns. He will compete in the tournament’s main event for the 185-pound black belt NoGi middleweight title.

“It’s like a MMA event with just jiu-jitsu superfights,” Delbrugge said of Fight To Win. “Some of these guys are among the best black belts in all of jiu-jitsu – they’re high-level grapplers, and it’s a showcase exhibition that’s held all over the United States.”

While you would think that training for a jiu-jitsu tournament would mean focusing exclusively on grappling, you would be wrong. Delbrugge maintains the same schedule as his previous MMA training and still works on his striking and wrestling, in addition to his grappling.

“It’s less structured and more of a way of life for me now,” Delbrugge said. “I’m not breaking down a million hours of film. It’s more about longevity and stability. I’m getting older, and this is just more of my lifestyle now. But nothing is really different. I feel really sharp right now, and my MMA style isn’t that much different from my jiu-jitsu style. I’m really into the small details, so there aren’t really any ‘a-ha’ moments. I get to go out and not really worry about the consequences, because wins and losses don’t matter as much in jiu-jitsu. So it’s a little more stress-free.”

While the entirety of Delbrugge’s focus is currently on rekindling his love with jiu-jitsu, a return to MMA still hasn’t left his thoughts.

“I will make another run at it,” he said. “MMA is a lifestyle sport – it’s not seasonal. I’m 31 years old, and I’m not taking any training camp damage right now. I’m getting healthier, stronger and sharper, like how I was before I started the MMA grind. The clock isn’t ticking for me yet, and when I come back I’ll pick up right where I left off.”

Tickets to Fight To Win on Friday, Nov. 3, are available at cagetix.com

Friday, June 23, 2017

Rob Sullivan’s toughest fight? Himself

Do you remember playing the first Mortal Kombat on Super Nintendo? Remember how one of the fights you had to win in order to win the tournament was literally against yourself? Well, that’s how Rob Sullivan feels about his next fight.

“I feel like I’m kind of facing myself a little,” Sullivan said of his next fight on Saturday, July 1. Sullivan will face Scott Heckman (22-8) at Maverick MMA 2 in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, for the organization’s featherweight title. Besides the fact both guys are the same height (they both stand 5 feet 6 inches tall), both Sullivan and Heckman have the same base. But that’s basically where their similarities end, according to Sullivan.

“We both look to wrestle,” he said. “We both look for takedowns, and we have the same build. This is a very good matchup, so this fight made a lot of sense for me. He’s been around for a long time, but I’ve made a lot of advancements during this camp and made a lot of improvements on things he still does.”

Sullivan noted his 100 percent takedown defense, and added that although Heckman has many submission victories on his resume, “they’re in areas that I don’t go,” Sullivan said. “I always stay pretty active in wrestling and I’ve never stopped that mentality, even while I’m doing jiu-jitsu.”

Sullivan (7-6) is coming off a split decision victory at Shogun Fights 16 in Baltimore in April. Sullivan thought he won all three rounds in his win over Chris Rollins, and believed his fight wasn’t the only one on that card that was subject to iffy scoring.

“The other fights were a joke with the scoring,” Sullivan said. “The judges don’t do enough work with watching MMA, and hopefully if they get enough complaints the athletic commission will look into it. There were plenty of guys who were not happy with the judging, and the athletic commission in general has grievances among the fighters. It’s likely they’re comparing MMA to boxing, but you can’t blame them too much because most of their examples come from boxing. I boxed as an amateur, so I know where they’re coming from.”

Sullivan is well-known among Shogun Fights fans in his native Maryland, but he isn’t intimidated about fighting Heckman on his turf on July 1.

“You need a certain number of fights to fight a guy like that, and I was six weeks out when I was offered the fight, so it was easy for me to turn the switch back into fight mode,” Sullivan said. “Every fight is dangerous, but it’s different when a guy has 20 knockouts or always puts people to sleep. He’s won many titles, but there’s no pressure on me going into his hometown.”

Sullivan mentioned that he took on a “financial gamble” to help bring people to his fight with Heckman – one of the many obstacles fighters like him encounter when getting ready to compete. However, Sullivan is facing Heckman at 145 pounds instead of 135, which Sullivan has competed at before. He credits his girlfriend with keeping his weight on track and managing his diet using new ideas during his last two fights.

“Usually when it’s a week-and-half out from the fight, I ask myself what the fuck am I doing,” Sullivan said. “But that happens when you’re dieting and staring at food all the time. Cutting weight really sucks and when you travel up to the fight the day before weigh-ins, you’re fasting during the trip and you have no energy for cardio, even though you should still do it.

“I always feel I’m getting better in my boxing,” Sullivan said. “I’m dangerous in the pocket, and no one wants to stand with me. I feel really complete right now. There’s very little risk in taking this fight. I know they want him to win, but I still want to bring something to the show. The promoter told me the fight is going to sellout because of him. But it’s been way worse for me, because I’ve fought in my sold-out hometown in front of 3,000-5,000 people. I don’t want to piss off the crowd, but they won’t know how to react when I win the belt.”

Friday, November 4, 2016

History (the bad kind) repeats itself

You can’t blame Rob Sullivan if he’s felt a bit of déjà vu lately.

After all, he found himself in a familiar situation in his last fight on Oct. 15. It was Shogun Fights 15 in Baltimore. Sullivan had an arena full of fans cheering for him, as it seemed rather obvious to everyone in attendance that he grinded out another victory over Shaun Spath. But something unexpected happened to Sullivan, for the second time in a row.

Sullivan lost to Spath via split decision – the second consecutive Shogun Fights bout Sullivan lost in that fashion. He lost to Myron Baker at Shogun Fights 14 last year in the same fashion, and when Spath’s hand was raised in front of an arena full of shocked and unhappy fans, Sullivan’s reaction wasn’t that different from everyone in attendance that night.

“Hands down, I won that fight,” Sullivan said. “It was a massive disappointment and I was astonished. I was like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’”

Sullivan had the understandable reaction of a fighter who felt he was clearly robbed of a victory; he left the cage immediately and went straight to the back of the arena, where he still had to go through the post-fight process while still trying to process his defeat.

“I didn’t want to talk to anyone,” Sullivan said. “I saw the doctor after the fight and he had that look on his face like he thought I won the fight and he knew I was mad. He brought me my paperwork in the hallway, and I had to see Shaun again. It rubbed me the wrong way, like rubbing salt in the wound.”

While Sullivan described his fight with Baker at Shogun Fights 14 as a “close fight that could have gone either way,” he didn’t feel that way about his performance against Spath.

“I watched it again, and he didn’t do anything,” Sullivan said. “His shots didn’t land or didn’t hurt. I did all my scoring with takedowns and strikes and he turned his back and ran from me, which I thought was disrespectful and should have been scored negatively. I think he was doing it because he was tired and didn’t want to fight, and I felt like the groin shot is what lost me the second round. As if the judges forgot what was going on during the other 3-plus minutes of the round.”

While Sullivan felt better going into his fight with Spath than he had in previous fights – he had no nagging injuries and said he felt “very confident” – his bout with Spath did not turn out how he expected, even before the judges’ scorecards were announced.

“I was thrown off a little because he was the aggressor in his other fights, but not this one,” Sullivan said. “I walked him down a lot because he ran from me. I also have a tendency to control myself too much or get too relaxed. I don’t worry enough.”

So why has Sullivan been on the wrong end of the scorecards for two consecutive fights? If you ask him, it’s a problem that other fighters have expressed across mixed martial arts: The judges don’t understand basic grappling or when a fighter is defending and attacking.

“I always reacted, and [Spath] didn’t,” Sullivan said. “The judges don’t understand dominant position. I hate the comparison that MMA is like street fighting, and they don’t understand grappling and control. Hitting and running or just running is not the same as trying to score points. That’s not a fight.”

Sullivan added that he’d like to see judges participate in jiu-jitsu and grappling to gain a great understanding of what goes into a MMA fight.

“A lot of these guys are boxing judges who watch MMA, but don’t understand the sport,” Sullivan said. “Some boxing judges may see the kicks and think those are harder than punches.”

While Sullivan makes it clear he wants to keep fighting, he will take some time to address lingering injuries and rehabilitate his body. Sullivan plans to fight again in the spring – he’s just not sure it will be for Shogun Fights, unless he receives a rematch with Spath.

“But it has nothing to do with Shogun Fights – they’re great,” Sullivan said. “Shaun knows he lost that fight. The judges Maryland hires are inept. I saw the scorecards and it reinforce what I’ve said; only one judge checked all the right boxes.”

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Shogun Fights: From The Fighters’ Perspective

Note: An edited version of this article also appears on Combat Press.

Before John Rallo helped to sanction mixed martial arts in the state of Maryland in 2009, any fighter who called the Free State home had to travel far and wide to apply his or her wares in the fight game. But Rallo did much more than just help to sanction events; he created one of his own. The first Shogun Fights card took place in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2009 and it has called “Charm City” home ever since.

As Rallo prepares to present the 15th edition of Shogun Fights on Saturday, Oct. 15, Maryland-based fighters Dan Root, Jon Delbrugge, James “Binky” Jones, Micah Terrill, Rob Sullivan and Francisco Isata shared some thoughts on their experiences with the only Maryland-based MMA organization.

When did you first hear about Shogun Fights? What was your reaction?

Dan Root: “I heard it through my former coach. I had a lot of mutual friends with John Rallo, but I had not started training at Ground Control [Baltimore, where Rallo is head trainer] yet. I talked to him, and he put me on the first card. I thought it was great that it was happening – I always traveled to fight before.”

James “Binky” Jones: “I’ve been with John [Rallo] most of my career. We were in Russia in 2009 and it was late at night, and John was typing away at his computer. I asked him what he was doing and he said ‘I’m trying to legalize MMA in Maryland.’ I was excited about it – I’ve fought all over the place but thought that this was the perfect opportunity.”

Micah Terrill: “I heard it through the grapevine. I’m excited that it started, and I bought a scalped ticket to an event and people asked when I would fight on it. I’m not sure it was my dream to fight for Shogun, but it’s beyond anything I ever dreamed.”

Rob Sullivan: “I heard before I started fighting that the bill to legalize it was passed. I knew John was involved, but I was pretty preoccupied with my band and training jiu-jitsu at the time. But I had it in my head that it was happening that I would fight on there.”

Francisco Isata: “I was around on the amateur circuit and I cornered someone at Shogun Fights before, so I saw how big the stage was, so I had a better understanding of it when I fought on it for the first time.”

Describe the atmosphere at your first Shogun Fights card. How was it?

Root: “The best thing about it is the production value – it’s so good and second only to the UFC, in my opinion. Everything goes smoothly and it’s the best I’ve seen. But it was odd for me to see close to 6,000 people – I was used to fighting in front of a few hundred people. But I was so nervous the first time I fought for Shogun that when I walked down the ramp, I grabbed a box and puked in it and thought “Holy fuck, there are a lot of people.” I was one of the first to be a part of something and part of pro MMA in Maryland, so that was pretty cool.”

Jon Delbrugge: “I was super impressed by the first show I fought on. It’s amazing just to be there, and to see a lot of guys who fight on the card being able to make it their career.”

Jones: “I was a little nervous. I was ready to rock in the back, and I was carrying the Maryland flag when I walked out and the place just exploded. I just froze; I never had that feeling before. I went back to being a little kid and watching LL Cool J perform in that same arena. People thought I was just taking a picture, but I zoned in on my opponent in the cage and we had an awesome fight. It was an amazing, awesome feeling.”

Terrill: “It was nerve-racking, but it was also awesome. The hair was standing up on the back of my neck. It was definitely a pretty big deal to be in front of thousands of people.”

Sullivan: “The one thing I remember is missing weight by half-a-pound. I took off my underwear and the scale said I was one pound off because it was a piece of shit; but they changed the scale because I complained. It was a little intimidating stepping into that cage for the first time, because it’s a white canvas and a large arena, all you see is the referee and the person you’re fighting. You don’t pay attention to what’s around you. It’s a little different than fighting in a small casino or a 1,000-person hall, and I was super green, so my wrestling just took over.

I also remember one year, there was going to be a Disney on Ice event the following weekend. The arena floor was already iced, and they put planks of wood over it and you had to walk across the plywood to get to the cage. It was cold as shit, and I remember having to stand there for 15 minutes and I was freezing.”

Isata: “Coming from amateur fights in Virginia, this show was a lot bigger and there were cameras and interviews. I had so many emotions and it was my first weight cut to 145 pounds, and I had a tough opponent for my first fight. So I was more focused than anything else on just fighting.”

How have you seen Shogun Fights evolve over its first 15 cards?

Root: “The talent. People have fought on big shows or gone to big shows. Adding championships was genius, and it’s been built up correctly. We have an educated fan base too; you never hear people boo when the fight goes to the ground, unlike in the UFC. They create videos of the guys who fight and you develop a personal attachment to them. I’ve been on other shows that are a complete clusterfuck, but Shogun has built up championship contenders like me, Micah [Terrill], Rob Watley, Cole Presley. Fans have seen us for years and can develop a personal attachment and grow with us. People can build their career here.”

Delbrugge: “Shogun is the best venue I’ve ever competed in and my favorite to fight for. It’s most like the UFC that I’ve ever seen and the only show I fight on that takes place in an arena. Shogun looks like the UFC with its production; it’s fantastic and it’s good to do it twice a year. It doesn’t water down the talent, and it definitely gets you ready for the UFC. If you can fight in Shogun Fights’ atmosphere, that’s exactly how it is in the UFC.”

Jones: “The Sheffield Institute continue to improve with the production. It’s just the beginning; they do an amazing job doing what they love. John Rallo and his staff treat you like pros, and other shows don’t have that. Each card has amazing fights and the competition goes uphill, not downhill.”

Sullivan: “There’s definitely more promotion now. It’s definitely gotten bigger with the titles, and the guys at the top of the card are getting closer to the UFC. Shogun is making a nice, steady progression with a lot more television promos. I’m getting texts from people saying that I’m in it, and that they see it on Comedy Central and HGTV.”

Isata: “The production is getting better, and the promotion, posters and ads are a lot better. I’ve fought for World Series of Fighting before, and Shogun Fights is actually a little better. They make fans feel like they’re watching a legit card.”

What do you enjoy most about Shogun Fights?


Root: “I enjoy the fans the most. There’s no greater feeling than several thousand people chanting your name. For them to cheer for you, you’ll never have that feeling anywhere else, ever. It’s like a drug – I’m hooked on it. Baltimore has adopted me as one of their own, and the fan support, love and appreciation is one of the best feelings you’ll ever have.”

Delbrugge: “Everyone knows Shogun. People ask me if I fight there, and when I go to the doctor, people ask if I fight MMA. Radio stations call me about it, and when I’m old, this will definitely be a milestone in my career. It really means a lot and if I can be a champion, it’s cool that it resonates with everyone.”

Jones: “I enjoy sharing my journey with everyone and reaching out to the kids in Maryland. They walk out to the cage with me, and I’m happy to share my dream with them and watch them do boxing or jiu-jitsu. Hearing the fans say my name and give me respect whether I win or lose and never stop showing me love? I just love the fans, and Shogun Fights always has legends of the sport come to an event, like Matt Serra and Cowboy Cerrone.”

Terrill: “I really enjoyed my fight with Cole Presley, and my win against Jeremy Carper and knocking him out with a knee. Getting your hand raised? You can’t beat that feeling.”

Sullivan: “Just getting that respect from everyone in Baltimore, and it’s good to be in the locker room with a bunch of your friends and having that camaraderie. It’s pretty fun, and I’m pretty excited to be on this next card.”

Isata: “I’ve fought everyone tough in Shogun Fights and I feel like it legitimizes me to have pretty dope competition. I’ve fought in New Jersey, Texas, Pennsylvania and Virginia, but now I get to have 100-150 fans at Shogun Fights to support me. They don’t have to travel to see me.”

Monday, October 10, 2016

Shogun Fights’ John Rallo takes nothing for granted

Note: A version of this interview also appears on the website Combat Press.

John Rallo was confident that when he helped to sanction mixed martial arts events in Maryland in 2009 and then put on the first-ever MMA event in the state, that he would make it to 15 editions of his biannual fight card, Shogun Fights. He just wasn’t always sure of the location.

“I didn’t think the arena would work, because it was too big,” said Rallo, the founder of the Baltimore-based promotion. The fight cards take place at Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore, which can hold up to 14,000 people.

“I turned them down three or four times, but the general manager of the arena just made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Rallo told me recently. “They modified the arena for us, and no other regional show pulls the number of fans that we do.”

Shogun Fights averages about 5,000 fans at its shows, which includes accounting for comp tickets. Rallo would like to see that number increase to 6-7,000 fans, but notes that the fan base is growing, which he attributes to the passion of the fans and the following of its mainly Maryland-based fighters who compete at the event.

“The casual fan doesn’t come out for a regional show,” Rallo said. “I have other promoters ask me about putting on the type of show that we do, and the Shogun Fights guys are starting to become household names. We have guys with a following who bring in fans and family members, and I tell them ‘I’ll bust my ass for you, so you have to hustle for me.’”

Rallo compares Shogun Fights to other regional promotions who put on shows in the mid-Atlantic, including Ring of Combat and Cage Fury Fighting Championships. “Other promoters visit my show and tell me it’s better than their show,” Rallo said. “I take that as a compliment.”

But putting on a fight card twice a year doesn’t come without its challenges, including one that many promoters deal with – injuries. Shogun Fights 15, which takes place on Saturday, Oct. 15, features a super heavyweight bout with Maryland fighter Ryan McGowan, who’s currently on his fourth different opponent for the event.

“It’s not like the UFC, when one guy gets hurt and it makes headlines,” Rallo said. “When late changes happen, I can’t sell those tickets for that fighter and I’m losing money and sponsorships.”

However, Shogun Fights is also taped and televised on local sports channels in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. area, which can help fighters on the card land bigger sponsors. It can also help fighters gain exposure that they can’t get at other regional shows.

“Guys tell me that other cards have half the number of fans that we do,” Rallo said. He added that some fighters who have previously competed on Shogun Fights cards have appeared in the UFC, including Jimy Hettes, Dustin Pague and Zach Davis, who appeared on season 13 of The Ultimate Fighter. The two fighters competing for the Shogun Fights lightweight title on the Oct. 15 card, Rob Watley and Cole Presley, are also getting a lot of attention from larger organizations, according to Rallo.

“The longer we’re around, the more opportunities there will be,” Rallo said. “I’m doing my best to find fighters from the DMV and develop our guys and our talent. Ring of Combat has sent more than 100 guys to the UFC, and I want to be a consistent feeder to them as well.”

Rallo added, “It takes time to develop talent, and other guys come to our show and tell me they want to join up. I want to help these guys by giving them opportunities that I never had.”

A black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Rallo started competing in the sport after an ankle injury ended his athletic career in baseball and football. Rallo described getting MMA events sanctioned in Maryland as a “challenge,” but also said working with the state of Maryland has been “great.”

“I’m the first person they call when they need input on putting on cards and they’re willing to learn,” Rallo said. “Pat [Pannella, executive director of the Maryland State Athletic Commission] doesn’t act like a know-it-all and has an open mind. If we disagree on something, then we talk it out and he hears another opinion.”

Going forward, Rallo plans to work to boost Shogun Fights attendance by offering more prize giveaways and bringing in more “special guests” that are familiar to MMA fans. Previous Shogun Fights events boasted special guest stars like current and former UFC fighters Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, James Vick, Dennis Bermudez, Leonard Garcia, Matt Serra and Renzo Gracie.

“I’m always looking to make the fan experience better with our visuals and HD technology,” Rallo said. “Our production crew is always looking to improve, and we also welcome other companies like Harley Davidson. I want every card to be an event, not just a fight. I’m all about everyone coming and having fun and making it an entire event.”

Rallo also plans to introduce title belts for the flyweight and bantamweight classes, joining titles that already exist at Shogun Fights for featherweight, lightweight and welterweight. Rallo was hoping to put on three to five Shogun Fights cards when he started this endeavor in 2009 and said he’s hopeful that when the event is more established, he can explore holding events in other locations beyond Baltimore.

“I take nothing for granted,” Rallo said. “I keep plugging along and keep it business as usual, while always looking to make it bigger and better as our fan base grows and I try to keep bringing in bigger names. I believe we put out a great product and I don’t stress as much about paying the bills. I worry more about the health of our fighters.”