The Fighting Arts Academy is a large, blank building nestled in a suburb of Springfield, MA. It’s the type of place you would never find if you weren’t already looking, and its simplicity defines its beauty. A side garage door opens up to heavy bags, puzzle mats, a cage and a ring. It’s simple, and it serves as the perfect message of a sport with such a raw, primal nature at its core.
“Here are the basics. Now go create.”
As fighters navigate through the maze of heavy bags, a train passes along the tracks directly behind the building, drowning out the heavy air of alpha male persona.
Close to 100 fighters will be here today, some flying from as far as Alaska and California, all trying to realize a dream only a select few will get to taste.
John Prisco has been running the XFC open fighter tryouts for a few years now. They are a rarity among regional promotions, but have yielded tremendous results thus far. His tournament and tryout winners have a combined 41-12 record in the Florida-based promotion. 26 of those fights have been televised on HDNet. Just about every event now will have one, or multiple fighters who earned their stripes in these grueling, one day competitions.
Most notable of the lot is Nick Newell, a one-armed fighter who meteorically rose to fame last year after compiling a 7-0 record against extremely reputable talent. Newell’s career has taken off in leaps and bounds, and it was sparked by his success at the tryouts.
This year’s crop of fighters is vast. Both men and women. Some have fought professionally. Some have been on television. Others have yet to step in the cage. The mood is jovial, if somewhat reserved. The friendly atmosphere does little to mask the nerves and the sizing up going on behind the scenes. It is a refreshing environment because even the more experienced fighters seem to embody a purity eventual fame can tarnish in so many cases. Young and hungry. Ready for their opportunity.
“By the end of the day, we have a really good idea who the top guys are,” Prisco tells me, eyes continually scanning the growing number of bodies.
And he is absolutely right. The nonverbal cues already have me quietly judging and analyzing. After a full day of drills in kickboxing, wrestling, Jiu Jitsu, and finally live sparring, the people who leave here with contracts will have earned them, and rightfully so.
Two people who immediately stick out are Daniel Vizcaya, a monstrous middleweight bruiser who competed for Russian promotion M-1 Global, and Leslie Smith, a female bantamweight who started out cleaning mats at the famed Cesar Gracie camp before joining up with the likes of Nick and Nate Diaz, Gilbert Melendez, and Jake Shields for a proper education in fisticuffs. It says a lot about her resolve to fly all the way out from California on her own dollar at a time when nobody knows if the world of women’s MMA will ever gain foothold as a legitimate way to earn a living.
A young, baby faced New Mexican with red Thai shorts catches my eye during the pad work. I will later learn this is Albuquerque’s own Joby Sanchez, the eventual tryout winner and a fighter beaming with potential. He looks the part of a kickboxer. Long, lean and muscular. Shoulders wide and slightly hunched in as if ready to lock on a Thai Plum at any given moment. Even when not doing a drill, his feet never stop moving. Constantly shuffling, turning, pacing, practicing footwork. I envision him walking down his hometown streets this way, stopping every five feet to stutter and switch stance.
Sanchez sticks out for another reason though. Most fighters here display a tremendous amount of skill, but he gives off a vibe many of the great mixed martial artists of our time seem to share. Quiet, confident and humble. He knows he belongs. He doesn’t need to tell anyone.
At 20 years old, Sanchez has already competed in over 30 kickboxing, boxing or MMA fights. Training out of the Chavez Dojo, he finished high school just three years ago, and it seems he was born to do this.
Later on watching Sanchez’ sparring session against 3-0 pro Emil Jeff Haddad it was clear to me, as well as everyone in attendance, the Land of Enchantment had just spit out another future star. There was no question he was the guy worth holding on to, and without saying more than a few words he proved it to everyone.
At the end of the day when Sanchez was awarded a five fight contract I was taken back to Prisco’s words from earlier. “By the end of the day, we have a really good idea who the top guys are.” He was right. Not just the judges, but everyone in the building could agree. In a matter of one day, the XFC just may have found its next star.
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