ATLANTIC CITY - As the new president and co-owner of Cage Fury Fighting Championships, Vineland native Rob Haydak knows his limitations.
Instead of trying to compete with the UFC - a mistake made by the CFFC and other organizations in recent years - he intends to focus on staging entertaining, competitive mixed martial arts cards featuring top local and regional fighters.
So far, so good.
A capacity crowd of 1,500 filled Resorts Hotel Casino's Superstar Theater last Saturday. Fans watched former high school wrestlers such as Anthony Dagostino (Vineland) and Trevor Suter (Paulsboro) compete with highly regarded MMA fighters such as Victor O'Donnell and Mike Winters during CFFC's first show in more than three years.
"Our goal is to put on good local shows in an intimate setting," said Haydak, who wrestled for Vineland and coached Sacred Heart's Scott Kelley to a second-place finish in the state championships in 2008. "We want to bring in some of the top up-and-coming fighters and also give some local guys a chance to develop their skills."
Haydak and his brother, CFFC vice president and co-promoter Joe Stant, took over the organization from Vineland native Felix Martinez and his wife, Amy.
The Martinezes were once on the verge of becoming major players in the MMA market. On June 23, 2007, a roaring crowd of 7,286 saw Internet sensation Kimbo Slice make his unofficial MMA debut with a first-round submission victory over former heavyweight boxing champion Ray Mercer at Boardwalk Hall.
Four months later, they were forced to cancel a scheduled fight between Slice and MMA legend Tank Abbott and subsequently folded the company when one of CFFC's major investors, an unidentified construction developer in Virginia, suddenly withdrew his $800,000 pledge just a week before the bout.
Haydak, 40, bought the CFFC name from Martinez about three months ago. The two were wrestling teammates at Vineland in the late 1980s and remain very close friends, though Martinez is no longer affliliated with the CFFC.
"I've always had a passion for the sport and when I decided to do this, I immediately reached out to Felix," said Haydak, who did some marketing work for the CFFC when Martinez owned it. "Felix and Amy had very good intentions at first, but I think the mistake they made was trying to grow Cage Fury too quickly. They always ran first-class shows, but trying to compete with the UFC is very tough to do. A lot of people have tried it and come up short."
Instead, Haydak, Stant and CFFC matchmaker Arias Garcia have focused on eventually challenging New York-based Ring of Combat and other East Coast organizations for Atlantic City's MMA audience.
Last Saturday's show was the first of eight cards CFFC is scheduled to hold at Resorts this year. In the main event, O'Donnell (10-2), a former ROC champion, handed Andrew Riddles (5-1) his first pro loss via second-round submission. Winters (4-0), who is considered a top prospect, earned a third-round TKO over Michael Rideout (2-1).
Some of the loudest cheers were reserved for Dagostino, who wrestled for Vineland in the early 1980s and served as an assistant coach there before moving to Largo, Fla., in 2000.
The 46-year-old married father of five owns "The Hut," a bar/restaurant in Largo, and also serves as an assistant wrestling coach at Seminole High School. At the urging of some friends, he started training in MMA about three years ago.
"I went to one of the UFC camps and just fell in love with the sport," said Dagostino, who lost his debut Saturday via second-round submission to fellow MMA pro rookie Jared Gordon. "My plan now is to fight until I'm about 60. As long as I stay in shape and don't suffer any major injuries, why can't I fight for another 10 years or so? I just love it."
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