Este viernes 7 #CopaCombate desde Fresno, CA. !No se la pierdan! 8 Guerreros en busca de la súper copa y los 100k...si el ganador lee esto, please invítame al “after party” !QUE VIVA COMBATE! pic.twitter.com/PwaHE4IYf7— ANDRÉS E BERMÚDEZ (@andres_bermudez) December 6, 2018
The Combate Americas organization has experienced encouraging growth since it was founded in 2011. In catering to a Spanish-speaking audience, it has nurtured an underappreciated fan base and reaped the rewards. Jose Alberto Rodriguez -- the man known in professional wrestling circles as Alberto Del Rio and Alberto El Patron -- is familiar with both fans and the sport of mixed martial arts, making him a clever choice as a brand ambassador. He has begun to spread the gospel of Combate Americas, including its one-night Copa Combate Tournament on Friday at the Save Mart Center in Fresno, California.
“When I started in pro wrestling,” the former World Wrestling Entertainment champion said, “it was an awakening to see that money doesn’t come that easily.”
Rodriguez, 41, was a talented Greco-Roman wrestler who had dreams of competing for Mexico at the 2000 Summer Olympics. When those hopes failed to come to fruition, he had no qualms about following his grandfather and father into the world of professional wrestling. He had loved the business since he was a child. Yet after taking 12-hour bus rides to different towns and making anywhere from $50 to $75 per night, he was unsure about his future in the industry. That was when mixed martial arts entered his life.
“This Japanese promoter, Mr. [Shigeru] Saeki, contacted me and offered me a fight,” Rodriguez said. “He called me and he said, ‘Would you fight the [Deep] champion for $20,000?’ I was making 50 bucks at the time, so I immediately said, ‘If you give me $20,000, I will go to Japan in a boat. I will go across the ocean and fight your champion and beat the crap out of [him] for 20,000 bucks.’”
Rodriguez faced Kengo Watanabe in March 2002 and defeated him by first-round technical knockout, breaking the Japanese veteran’s arm in several places. He competed a total 14 times over the next eight years, often winning fights while wearing a luchador mask and going under his lucha libre pseudonym Dos Caras Jr. He even took on Mirko Filipovic under the Pride Fighting Championships banner and found out why the Croatian’s kicks are so feared. Rodriguez’s run in the sport also generated a higher level of interest for him in professional wrestling, aiding his eventual rise to international stardom. His win over Watanabe marked the beginning of a second passion for him, and it has now become his No. 1 priority.
“I was married to pro wrestling for many years,” Rodriguez said. “I still love pro wrestling, but let’s put it this way: I got divorced from wrestling, and in MMA, I found my new wife.”
The courtship took place during the eight years Rodriguez spent fighting in Japan, Mexico and Spain. The engagement, if you will, took place at the same time as Combate Americas first event, as the organization’s founder and CEO Campbell McLaren made Rodriguez an unexpected offer.
“He wanted me to fight,” Rodriguez said. “That’s how we started.”
Although interested, Rodriguez was unsure if he truly desired a return to MMA. After training for a few weeks to see if his heart was still in it, the answer became clear.
“I remember doing sparring with a boxer -- a young kid in his twenties,” he said. “I think it was Round 4 or 5 [and] we were trading punches, and out of nowhere, I was just like Roberto Duran [in his second bout with Sugar Ray Leonard]: ‘No mas.’”
The former pro wrestling champion did not have the same hunger to fight that he had as a younger man. He had reached great heights, satisfying his competitive fire. Despite Rodriguez not being able to fulfill the opportunity McLaren had envisioned for him, it was not long before the Scotland-born business man called on him again. Eventually, Rodriguez filled multiple roles for Combate Americas. He currently serves as an on-air color commentator and analyst, as well as a brand ambassador. It has been a perfect marriage, as it has allowed Rodriguez to become immersed in MMA once again while aiding a company that has designs on growing the sport in Latin countries.
The largely Hispanic roster has entertained fans, as it has become the highest-rated MMA promotion in Mexico and Spain. On Mexico’s Azteca7 network, live events have reached as high as four million viewers. Cards air all over Latin America on ESPN and on Univision and Univision Deportes in the United States, with a reach of 125 million homes. Rodriguez believes many American MMA promotions have undervalued the Latin American market, and Combate Americas has taken advantage of it.
“We are taking advantage of what we know,” he said. “We knew the level of MMA in Latin America is high.”
It was not always easy for the promotion to bring in high-level talent. However, the situation changed once the brand started to catch on.
“I remember the days when we used to call fighters and pretty much beg for them to come fight for us,” Rodriguez said. “[Now] we have fighters from other organizations wanting to come to Combate Americas.”
As the company reach extended, so did the chance to mine gifted but unknown fighters from Central and South America, giving them a chance to change their fortunes and represent their countries.
“They have nothing in their countries,” Rodriguez said, “and we are giving them, finally, a place where they can showcase their talents [and] show the world what they have to offer.”
Having made strong inroads in many Spanish-speaking countries, Combate Americas has begun looking to extend its reach into the English-speaking market. The company kicked off its campaign in September, when it signed a multi-year deal with streaming service DAZN.
“The business language, the money language, is English,” Rodriguez said. “We cannot deny that. If we want to continue to make serious money, we have to approach all the markets, because we know we have an amazing product, full with action and passion.”
The Copa Combate competition figures to stir further interest. The event pays homage to the unique history of the sport, as the promotion unleashes its eight best featherweights in a one-night tournament. The winner will walk away with a $100,000 purse.
The tournament -- the first ever eight-man draw in California’s history -- will see fighters compete in one five-minute round in the quarterfinals. The semifinals and final will increase to three five-minute rounds each. The final will be the only round where knee and elbow strikes are allowed. The lack of knees and elbows in two rounds will not take away from the action, according to Rodriguez, who believes the fighters in Combate Americas have a passion different from other promotions. They want to prove something to themselves, their family and their country.
“All the fighters in this company have something to prove. That’s why I invest so much time with them,” Rodriguez said. “I see them not just as athletes or as fighters. I spend time with these guys to get to know them and see where they are coming from, where they want to go in their life.”
Fighters from the United States, Mexico, Peru, Columbia, Spain, Argentina, Chile and Puerto Rico are entered in the tournament. Although every fighter in the Copa Combate has a chance to win it all, Rodriguez does see a couple of fighters as favorites entering the competition, one of them being American fighter Andres Quintana.
“To me he is one of the best fighters in the world,” Rodriguez said. “He’s amazing. His ground game is amazing. He has heavy hands, [and] he’s fast.”
Rodriguez also views Peru’s Marlon Gonzales as an entrant with a serious chance to win three fights and leave the arena with the six-figure prize.
“When we did those tryouts in South America, we were really impressed by this guy. He’s a machine. He’s a well-rounded fighter,” Rodriguez said. “His girlfriend died earlier this year, and he’s dedicating this fight to her. When you have someone like that, who is fighting with his head and fighting with his heart, you know he is going to be a dangerous man.”
Rodriguez was also willing to suggest a dark horse: Columbian export John Bedoya.
“Yeah, he is the No. 1 fighter in Columbia, but he has never fought outside of Columbia,” Rodriguez said. Bedoya has his respect, because he wants to test himself away from home against the best Combate Americas has to offer. “When you have that in a fighter, [it means] he has nothing to lose and he’s going to bring it.”
Rodriguez believes Combate Americas is showcasing MMA role models for young Hispanic fans and those living under difficult conditions in Latin American nations.
“We are showing this young generation that dreams come true, that if you work hard, your dreams will come to life. They will not just be dreams; they will be a reality,” he said. “If you have the talent, you have a spot in this company.”
His passion for the sport rekindled, Rodriguez has readied himself to scratch his competitive itch. The Pride veteran plans to fight once again, with a bout in March or April likely.
“The best way to give back something to the sport, to my family, to my company,” he said, “will be by jumping in the cage.”