MMA: World Series of Fighting

Spong blessed with great athleticism

August, 9, 2013
8/09/13
5:45
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Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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Tyrone SpongDave Mandel/Sherdog.comTyrone Spong has excelled in kickboxing and his goal is to do the same in MMA.

BURBANK, Calif. -- Tyrone Spong stands with a presence. He fights with one, too.

A legit 6-foot-2, Spong's height is aided by good posture. The well-proportioned 27-year-old Surinamese-Dutchman has made good use of his frame, and is reputed to be among kickboxing’s best athletes and technically superior combatants.

Spong is well aware of how he's viewed, and is comfortable saying so.

This is why he was driven to YouTube to search for videos of Bo Jackson after media comparisons caught his attention. He hadn't heard of Jackson, though it didn't take more than a few clips for Spong to understand why the iconic hybrid is universally lauded among the dominant athletes of his generation.

"It's not to sound cocky, never, because I'm a real humble guy," the light heavyweight said this week during a media lunch promoting a World Series of Fighting card Aug. 10 in Ontario, Calif. "But some guys are blessed with that ability. And I'm blessed even more."

The "King of the Ring" has lived kickboxing since he was 13 and randomly stumbled into master trainer Lucien Carbin's gym in Amsterdam. Carbin is old-school. Water breaks during an hour and a half of hard training didn’t happen. The gym was kept stifling, like a wet sauna. Condensation poured off mirrors and walls. If there wasn't enough steam in the atmosphere, Carbin would dial up the temperature and intensity.

Looking back on it, Spong says this style of training is "not right."

"But," he said, "for me as a young kid at 13 years old, starting like that in a gym, it gave me a mentality like I don't care what situation I'm in, I'm always going to work hard."

Spong split from Carbin a few years ago and now lives in Boca Raton, Fla., where he teamed up with the Blackzilians. Yet the mental fortitude forged at Carbin's remains deeply ingrained in who he is and how he conducts business.

Since he's gifted with the ability to copycat technique, Spong said his progression in MMA and boxing has come quickly.

"Sometimes," he said, "it goes automatically and I surprise myself. I pick it up so good I can probably teach it to somebody, too. That's not the hard part. You have to be able to apply it in that moment, under the pressure, and that's the hardest part."

Spong's focus this week is MMA.

For the second time as a pro, he'll enter a cage this Saturday against Californian Angel DeAnda in the main event of World Series of Fighting 4 (NBC Sports Network, 10:30 p.m. ET). Ali Abdel-Aziz, the upstart promotion's matchmaker (among other things), made Spong the headliner because it reflects his potential and the kickboxing convert is "the biggest draw on the card."

[+] EnlargeAngel DeAnda vs. Anthony Ruiz
Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog.comAngel DeAnda's experience in MMA could be an advantage against newbie Tyrone Spong.
"Right now this is a step up for me already," Spong said. "[DeAnda] is 11-2; that's not a bad record. For me, I'm 1-0 in MMA. Let's not forget I'm a kickboxer, but I don't want to be labeled just a kickboxer. I'm building my legacy. I want to be an all-around combat sports athlete. I want to be the Bo Jackson of martial arts."

Splitting time between boxing and MMA, Spong has not abandoned kickboxing, though it's less of a priority, he said, because it's as natural as breathing -- all he needs to do is show up in shape. His next contest on Oct. 12, promoted by Glory, is a rematch against Nathan Corbett in Chicago.

"I've been doing it for so many years," he said. "At the same time you need something new to bring a spark. I found that in MMA and boxing."

Spong's commitment included, not inconsequentially, transplanting a life in Holland, where he and two sisters were raised by his mother in a tiny apartment, for Florida. With the chiseled fighter came his three children, six dogs and 15 finches (known for their aggressive tendencies, singing ability and difficulty to breed). Rashad Evans, Vitor Belfort, Thiago Silva, Alistair Overeem and others have helped Spong on the MMA side. For boxing, trainer Pedro Diaz took the reins.

Spong should be used to Diaz's M.O. because it's similar to Carbin's -- ritualistic 5 a.m. training sessions replaced hotter-than-hell gyms. Known for his work with Miguel Cotto, Diaz is a perfectionist. Spong is fine with this, and his first attempt at pro boxing could come later this year.

Spong envisions opportunity and enrichment in his chosen trifecta of combat sports.

"For all the sports it comes down to the athlete," he said. "Who are you? How marketable are you? How good are you? So it depends. In all of the sports you can make good money. You see even in all these sports the guys really making the money are the best guys."

World Series of Fighting signed Spong to a nonexclusive deal that allows him the freedom to pursue other things. Abdel-Aziz said because of the light heavyweight’s fighting prowess, WSOF "didn't have the right to ask Spong [72-6-1 in kickboxing] to focus only on MMA." Perhaps it wasn't the best business decision, the promoter conceded, but it's how WSOF intends to operate. But, more to the point, Spong will have space to develop his MMA game, which mostly means getting his grappling right.

"Sometimes I ask myself what do the fans want? They want me to fight Jon Jones tomorrow? Is that fair? If Jon 'Bones' was 1-0 in kickboxing, would he fight me?" Spong pondered. "I guess not. I'm the champion. So give me some time. I'm working on it."

Grant is the midyear fighter of the year

June, 25, 2013
6/25/13
7:49
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Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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A year ago at this time, TJ Grant had just earned a yeoman’s decision over Carlo Prater, to the attention of almost nobody. He was 2-0 since moving down to the lightweight division, but there was a colony of contenders well ahead of him in what had become the UFC’s most competitive weight class.

That’s when the pride of Nova Scotia began crashing through all the obstacles in his way.
[+] EnlargeGray Maynard
Al Powers for ESPN.comTJ Grant, right, has had a year to write home about following a devastating knockout win over Gray Maynard.

Grant, a perennial undercard name to this point, surprised many by beating the brakes off of Evan Dunham at UFC 152 for three rounds. That performance was good enough for fight of the night honors, and set him up for a confrontation with the surging Matt Wiman. This was a bout of classic matchmaking: It was two heads of momentum coming together on national television, with an unspoken understanding that top ten status was on the line. Entering the fight, Wiman had won five of six, and had just derailed Paul Sass a couple of months earlier in Nottingham.

Once again, most didn’t see Grant coming. And once again, Grant forced our eyes open with his poised no-nonsense dominance, this time finishing Wiman in the first round by letting his hands (and elbows) go. It was the first time Wiman had been finished since catching that famous flying knee from Spencer Fisher at UFC 60 in his promotional debut.

Grant, the soft-spoken redhead from the remote northeastern town of Cole Harbour, had arrived. That TKO was how he kicked off 2013.

The thing is, Grant’s encore at UFC 160 in May was better still, even if the stakes were sliding. When he battled Gray Maynard in Las Vegas, the promise was that the winner would get the next crack at Benson Henderson’s title. However, this promise was somewhat qualified, aimed more directly at Maynard, who had hovered as the No. 1 contender since defeating Clay Guida. Maynard was guaranteed a shot with a win. For the lesser-known Grant, Dana White later admitted, he needed to win and do it emphatically to get his chance at the gold.

So what did Grant do? He won. Emphatically. He came in and knocked the bluster from Maynard early, before pursuing him around the cage and delivering power shot after power shot until Maynard slipped to the floor for good. A little more than two minutes into the biggest fight of his career, Grant emerged as the No. 1 contender in a weight class that hadn’t exactly budgeted for woodwork contenders. If his approach seemed quiet, it’s because we weren’t listening. Grant pulled the trick of dawning on everybody slowly and all at once.

His impressive victories over Wiman and Maynard at the halfway point of 2013 is good enough to stick him at the top of this list. Now 5-0 since moving from welterweight to 155 pounds, Grant has earned his shot at Henderson and presents himself as a more than capable challenge.

You know what that means? He’s a win away from becoming fighter of the year.


No. 2: Vitor Belfort. What can you say about Belfort, who at 36 years old has become one of the game’s more divisive figures, yet keeps drawing X’s over guys' eyes? To close out 2012, he jarred Jon Jones’ arm off its moorings in an otherwise one-sided fight. That was what it was. In 2013, though, he kept Michael Bisping from getting a title shot by headkicking him senseless, and then followed that up with a spinning-heel kick KO of Luke Rockhold. With the new mohawk as his warrior’s mane, the old lion roars on.

No. 3: Josh Burkman. In some ways, the World Series of Fighting couldn’t have asked for a better outcome. Jon Fitch, who was ranked No. 8 on ESPN.com’s welterweight rankings heading into his fight with Burkman, was a unique sort of UFC castoff who was supposed to rule his new terrain. That would have only served to show the depth of the UFC, that an expendable piece could be king elsewhere. Instead, it took Burkman 41 seconds to make a case that the face of the WSOF promotion was there all along. And how impressive was that choke?

No. 4: Pat Curran. Speaking of faces of their given promotion, Pat Curran -- together with Michael Chandler -- has become exactly that for Bellator. Curran hasn’t looked back since his 2011 loss to Eddie Alvarez for the lightweight belt. As a natural featherweight, he’s gone 6-0 and now sits among the best in the world at that weight class. So far in 2013 he’s held court, too: a hard-fought victory over Patricio Freire, followed by a first-round submission of Shahbulat Shamhalaev. At 25, he’s only getting better.

No. 5: Glover Teixeira. Teixeira has won what feels like 85 fights in a row (19 to be exact), and is 4-0 in the UFC. This would have most people in his position calling for an imminent title shot. Teixeira, on the other hand, is happy to just keep knocking the guy in front of him down. Adding Quinton Jackson and James Te-Huna this year to his long casualty list is enough to inflate the imagination as to what challenges he could present Jon Jones. By the end of 2013, we might just be in the shotgun seat to find out.

Burkman finishes Fitch in 41 seconds

June, 15, 2013
6/15/13
1:30
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Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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Business is picking up for World Series of Fighting, and the promotion's third event, Friday evening at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, provided a glimpse at the future of the company.

Jon Fitch, the highest-profile WSOF signee since it began promoting late last year, proved to his dismay that time and space can matter when matched against Josh Burkman. Seven years ago, the pair met in the Octagonal confines of the UFC and Fitch won by rear-naked choke. Friday, it was WSOF's decagon, and in just 41 seconds Burkman did to Fitch what B.J. Penn, Demian Maia and a host of other dangerous submission artists could not.

After scoring a pair of hooks that wobbled the longtime UFC welterweight contender, Burkman pounced on Fitch's neck. Despite a reputation for stellar defense, Fitch disregarded the threat and went for a lift. He said afterward that he was "a little overconfident with my choke defense and was going to try and slam [Burkman]. But he locked it in too tight. Mistake on my part. I should have fought the choke right away."

Burkman went to half-guard after feeling the strangle tighten.

"I didn't want to go for the choke, but I felt it was tight," he said. "So I stood up with him to get him to stand, and I felt it get really tight. I locked it when he grabbed that leg."

Referee Steve Mazzagatti didn't seem to notice that Fitch went limp, so Burkman released the hold and politely scooted away.

This marked Burkman's third appearance for the promotion, and to this point, the 10-year veteran said, WSOF had "done everything they said they were going to do."

For an upstart fight promotion company, that's about as good as it gets.

Credibility comes with delivery. "Showing more than talking," Burkman put it as he drove to Las Vegas on Tuesday from Salt Lake City, where he trains at The Pit Elevated.

With WSOF signing a three-year TV deal with the NBC Sports Network, building relationships with major venues across the U.S. and signing known commodities such as Fitch to go with talented kids such as Justin Gaethje -- an unbeaten lightweight who won by technical knockout Friday -- Burkman's optimism is genuine.

"They've done everything they said they were going to do and some," Burkman said. "They treated me really well anytime I had an issue or wanted to negotiate anything, they were more than happy and open to talking about it. As long as they treat their fighters like that, they'll continue to grow and do well."

The 32-year-old welterweight washed out of the UFC in 2008 after losing four of his last five fights in the Octagon. He said WSOF has given him a chance to fight quality opponents on a visible stage, and for that he is grateful.

"The difference is the UFC has so many guys coming in and out, wanting to be in their show, fighting for less money, that the UFC can get away with treating their undercard fighters however they want," said Burkman, who praised Zuffa as the "major league of this sport."

"I think with the WSOF, I'm in a different position," he said. "It's a small organization with less fighters. It's kind of being a bigger fish in a small pond. I can get to the top of that heap and help the organization and help myself. I think that's a unique opportunity with the WSOF that I wouldn't have necessarily had with the UFC."

Berkman, a participant of the second season of "The Ultimate Fighter," isn't alone in that regard. The current WSOF fighter roster sits at 80, according to Ali Abdel-Aziz, WSOF executive vice president and matchmaker, and will remain in that area through the end of year. The company wants to give fighters an opportunity to compete, allowing prospects such as 24-year-old Gaethje a chance to shine and grow, and veterans such as Burkman a chance at a new lease on a fighting life.

Abdel-Aziz said winning is important, but "not putting pressure on fighters benefits them and benefits us." This is all designed with fun MMA in mind, yet that's hardly a guarantee, just ask Jacob Volkmann who wrestled his way to a win over Lyle Beerbohm on the undercard.

Burkman appeared on the first three WSOF cards, winning each bout, and recently re-signed for four more contests. He said he offered suggestions from the start, and, to his delight, WSOF executives have been receptive. Championship bouts weren't a consideration in WSOF until Burkman chimed up about it earlier this year. After dropping the rematch, Fitch said he's open to a rubber match, preferably five rounds for the inaugural WSOF title. If it happens, he owes Burkman a beer.

"I think I asked the right questions in that first show and they had to give me answers," Burkman said after winning his fifth straight contest. "I was just asking them so they had an easier road with other fighters. It helped them treat fighters like they needed to be treated."

Abdel-Aziz and Burkman both suggested WSOF president Ray Sefo, a fighter turned promoter who announced he's fighting Dave Huckaba in California at WSOF 4 in August, has been instrumental in relationship building with the athletes. Sefo “gets people to listen,” Abdel-Aziz said.

The company’s vision is always focused down the road, according to Abdel-Aziz, who managed Frankie Edgar and others before joining WSOF.

Currently, their intention is to flesh out weight divisions, which at 170 pounds requires bringing in names like Fitch when they’re available -- despite knowing they could lose badly in 41 seconds -- and convincing prospects like Gaethje sign with them as opposed to UFC or Bellator.

"It's kind of cool to be part of an organization from the beginning," Burkman said. "I'll definitely take some pride in that. I'll also take a little pride in the fact that the better the fighters do, the better the organization does.”

Johnson excited for heavyweight debut

March, 21, 2013
3/21/13
7:41
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McNeil By Franklin McNeil
ESPN.com
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TBDDave Mandel/www.sherdog.comNo stranger to moving up in weight, Anthony Johnson will make his heavyweight debut at WSOF 2.
It sometimes seems like decades ago when Anthony Johnson was one or two wins shy of a UFC welterweight title shot. But it's been just a year and a half since he last tipped the scale at 170 pounds.

Johnson knocked out Charlie Brenneman in the first round of a UFC event on Oct. 1, 2011. It would be his final appearance at welterweight.

Departing the weight class in which he found much success, however, did not come as a surprise. Johnson struggled on several occasions to make the required weight limit.

As his body continued to mature, Johnson often walked around at 220 pounds -- sometimes heavier. Attempts to shed more than 50 pounds for a welterweight bout began taking a toll on his body and Johnson pulled out of at least two 170-pound fights with knee injuries.

His body was developing so rapidly that Johnson couldn't even make weight for a nontitle middleweight showdown in Januray against Vitor Belfort and tipped the scale at a whopping 197 pounds. The nontitle middleweight limit is 186 pounds.

A sluggish Johnson lost to Belfort by first-round submission and was released by UFC shortly thereafter. But what could have been a dismal period in his professional fighting life proved to be a blessing.

With the welterweight and middleweight divisions no longer an option, the Dublin, Ga., native, now 29, found comfort at light heavyweight.

There was never a reason to knock Johnson's ability inside the cage -- he's a highly skilled wrestler with above-average punching power and speed. And since moving up in weight, Johnson has proven to be a beast inside the cage by winning all four of his post-UFC bouts, including three knockout victories at light heavyweight -- a division he has proven he clearly belongs.

But one area in which a yellow flag could be raised is Johnson's unwavering desire to fight anyone, at any weight, at any time. Whenever Johnson is offered a fight, he eagerly accepts and concerns himself with making weight later.

On Saturday night at Revel Casino in Atlantic City, N.J., Johnson will again venture into difficult territory when he meets hard-hitting Andrei Arlovski in the main-event at World Series of Fighting 2.

It will be Johnson's first foray into the heavyweight ranks and despite being an underdog, he isn't worried. Arlovski is a difficult opponent, but with a solid training camp behind him, Johnson is confident an upset is in order.

"No matter what, I feel I always get the most out of my training," Johnson said Tuesday during a media call to promote the bout. "So, I can fight at light heavyweight or heavyweight and do what I have to do to win. It doesn't really matter to me."

Johnson expects to enter the cage on fight night weighing somewhere in the neighborhood of 235 pounds. It will represent, by far, the most weight he's ever carried on his 6-foot-2 frame for a fight.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Johnson
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesFor the first time in his MMA career, Anthony Johnson will not have to worry about issues making weight when he faces Andrei Arlovski on Saturday.
Conventional wisdom says the additional weight will result in Johnson relinquishing speed, power and elusiveness. But he begs to differ.

"Everything is still there -- the speed and the power," Johnson said. "I'm still an athlete. I don't feel I'm sacrificing anything, except height. I believe Andrei is bigger than me and a little heavier than me. But that's it."

After a two-year period that saw him suffer through four straight losses, the 6-4, 245-pound Arlovski has regained his form. The former UFC heavyweight champion has defeated four of his five most recent opponents, with the lone blemish being a no contest against Tim Sylvia at ONE FC 5 in Aug. 2012.

If ever there was a time not to fight Arlovski, it's right now. His confidence is at an all-time high due to the training he's received under Albuquerque, N.M.-based trainer Greg Jackson.

"Greg Jackson gave me hope after four losses," Arlovski said. "Some people told me I lost it, but he told me to come to Albuquerque and he gave me hope."

Lack of confidence is never an issue for Johnson. He steps into the cage Saturday with no doubts or reservations. Besides, Johnson knows he's in a no-lose situation.

He doesn't turn down fights, which is exactly why he's here. WSOF president Ray Sefo and senior executive vice president Ali Abdel-Aziz asked him to move up in weight for the good of the card and he agreed.

"Unless my man Ray Sefo and Ali ask me to take another fight at heavyweight, this is probably my one and only fight at heavyweight right now," Johnson said. "[Light heavyweight] is still where I want to be -- it's still my home. We'll see. Hopefully this is a good show. But for me and Andrei Arlovski, maybe win, lose or draw they might want to see a rematch and I might have to fight at heavyweight again."

One thing is for certain, Johnson's days of struggling to cut to 170 and 185 pounds are in the past. He will not drop that low again. And as a result, he is a better fighter who might just raise a few heavyweight eyebrows on Saturday.

Live gate released for WSOF debut card

November, 9, 2012
11/09/12
3:50
PM ET
McNeil By Franklin McNeil
ESPN.com
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World Series of Fighting officials gave away far more tickets than they sold Nov. 3 for the promotion's inaugural event, which took place at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.

According to information released Friday by Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Keith Kizer, WSOF sold 1,499 tickets for a gate total of $82,608.22.

The promotion handed out 4,076 complimentary tickets.

Former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski defeated Devin Cole by first-round TKO in the main event.

Light heavyweight Anthony Johnson registered a first-round knockout D.J. Linderman in the co-feature bout.

And former WEC bantamweight champion Miguel Torres came out on the short end of a split decision against Marlon Moraes.

WSOF officials have not yet announced a date for their next event.

WSOF taking it one step at a time

October, 23, 2012
10/23/12
11:45
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Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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Andrei ArlovskiSherdog.comAndrei Arlovski is just one of several well-known fighters participating in WSOF's debut event.
On Nov. 3, the date originally slated to be Daniel Cormier’s big Oklahoma homecoming in Strikeforce against Frank Mir, the World Series of Fighting will host its inaugural show in Las Vegas. Strikeforce was canceled in the wake of injuries. That leaves WSOF, which will appear on NBC Sports Network, as MMA’s Saturday night showcase.

A bit of serendipity, right?

It certainly can’t hurt.

The WSOF is a fledging promotion that 41-year-old kickboxer/MMA fighter Ray Sefo is presiding over. You might be familiar with some of the names Sefo & Co. have been gathering to fill up its roster. UFC retreads, mostly -- but retreads with some miles left on them.

There’s former WEC champion Miguel Torres, who was cut abruptly for mysterious disciplinary reasons. There’s the no-longer-shrinkable Anthony Johnson fighting at 205 pounds. There’s the fanged Andrei Arlovski, a requisite Gracie (Gregor) and upstarts like Tyrone Spong. On the undercard? Gerald Harris, Josh Burkman and JZ Cavalcante. Even Waylon Lowe will be in the building come Nov. 3.

Not a bad first roll, really.

“The goal for us is to provide another stage,” Sefo, who was doing a media tour through New York, told ESPN.com. “There’s so much talent, so many fighters out there who don’t have a stage to go to. Obviously the mecca of MMA is the UFC. Our goal is to start slowly and then hopefully be as good or as big as the UFC. Obviously that takes a lot of time and you have to crawl before you walk.”

If it looks like a lot of eggs in one basket, it is. WSOF is loading the first card to gauge things. Having spoken to people within the company, they’re already blueprinting a January card, and there’s a tentative goal of doing 10 cards. By card three? That’s when they’ll start talking title fights, Sefo says. But that’s just projection, and in this racket, projection can barely raise an eyebrow.

The New Zealander Sefo knows that, and the idea is to take things slow, build up, and get better along the way. That’s why, in a way, the WSOF will launch itself happily as a “fallback” option for guys trickling out of the UFC. They will begin as security.

But this isn’t Affliction. They aren’t trying to go head-to-head with the UFC. In fact, Sefo and the WSOF backers are fantastic admirers of what Zuffa has done over the years. It’s to be an alternative. And it was created, in part, on fighter empathy.

... our goal is to make sure that the fighters are looked after. When the fighters are happy where they're at, they're going to come back every single time.

-- WSOF president Ray Sefo, on the treatment of his fighters

“This is a rough sport we’re in, and it takes a lot of discipline, a lot of dedication, a lot of time away from families,” Sefo said. “So being a fighter -- and I have experienced this myself with K-1 owing me so much money, as well as seeing it with other fighters -- our goal is to make sure that the fighters are looked after. When the fighters are happy where they’re at, they’re going to come back every single time.”

Sefo could be a spokesman for fighters being taken advantage of. In fact, by spearheading WSOF, he sort of already is. Sefo recently told MMAFighting that he was owed $800,000 of back pay by K-1. How’s that for a catalyst to action? In fact, some might say that WSOF is being overly generous with its pay. Gerald Harris, for instance, will make more in his first appearance with the promotion than he did in any of his UFC fights. And each fighter is signed to three- or four-fight deals.

As for the production of the event? Sefo says that here he takes his cues from the UFC, which operates as a well-oiled machine come fight night.

“I don’t think there’s much difference at all,” he says. “Everything they do, they do it right and they do it big. They are an inspiration for us, to make sure we take the right steps, one step at a time and we do things right.

“But I don’t think there’s much difference at all [in terms of production]. Being a new company, for us, the next two to three shows is a learning process.”

The first one will take place at Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino, and will be a cheap ticket for locals looking to catch the vibe live. “With the economy the way it is these days, we want to put a ticket out there that everyone can afford -- and everybody can afford a $20 ticket,” Sefo says.

Beyond that, the feeling with WSOF is “let’s see how the first one goes and not get too far ahead of ourselves.” Not that there isn’t optimism.

“Everybody that we’ve got on the card is excited,” Sefo says. “I’m really excited to see everybody come out and perform. It’s such a good card that there’s no one particular fight that stands out as a favorite. We’re very blessed with the card that we have.

“It’s baby steps. Take one step at a time and see where it goes.”

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