Antonio Banuelos had “something like $30” to his name when he made his mixed martial arts debut, using most of it on gas to drive to Chino for a $500 paycheck.
The 5-foot-3, 135-pound Arroyo Grande resident and former Cal Poly wrestler has certainly come a long way since then.
Nearly 10 years later, Banuelos looks back fondly on his early struggles in the sport as he prepares for the highest-profile fight of his career.
Banuelos will contest World Extreme Cagefighting’s first fight on its first pay-per-view card tonight when he fights Scott Jorgensen for the second time at Arco Arena in Sacramento.
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The winner will assuredly put himself on a very short list of contenders for the WEC bantamweight championship.
A world title was likely the furthest thing from Banuelos’ mind when he met MMA icon Chuck Liddell just a few months prior to that first fight in Chino.
Banuelos was working with fighters at Liddell’s gym to help them improve on their wrestling skills ahead of their next fight.But he didn’t initially have aspirations of becoming a fighter himself.
“When I got into the gym I just started picking up little things,” Banuelos recalled. “Chuck noticed that I was getting better and told me I should think about fighting. So I took a striking class and two months later I had my first fight.”
Liddell offered Banuelos a job as his personal assistant, doing things like keeping his house in order and cooking healthy dinners in exchange for some spending money and a free place to live.
Living and training with Liddell, Banuelos was able to take on fighting full time.
Eventually Banuelos impressed the founders of the TapouT clothing line and earned a spot in the second episode of their reality show, which saw them sponsor up-and-coming fighters.
“The show was great for me,” Banuelos said. “The TapouT guys have huge exposure everywhere. People still recognize me from them.”
These days, Banuelos is more known for his trademark mustache and a rough and rugged fighting style that saw his first fight with Jorgensen, a narrow split-decision victory, earn Fight of the Night honors and was also named a candidate for Fight of the Year in 2009.
“I fight at a pretty high pace with lots of energy,” Banuelos said. “I’ll go out and strike with anyone and if I’m not liking that, I’ll hit the takedown and pound you out.”
Banuelos (17-5, 8-4 WEC) isn’t the only former Cal Poly wrestler to fight in WEC’s inaugural pay-per-view offering.
Chad Mendes (6-0, 1-0 WEC), a former NCAA runner-up and 2008 Cal Poly Athlete of the Year, will fight Anthony Morrison in a featherweight preliminary bout.
Preliminary bouts are televised if the main card fights end quickly to ensure the entire show is filled with fights.
Immediately upon leaving San Luis Obispo, Mendes relocated to Sacramento to train with WEC headliner Urijah Faber.
Mendes steps into this fight as a late replacement after fighting just more than a month ago. It’s a rarity to have a fighter step into the cage twice in such a short span.
“This is a huge opportunity for me,” Mendes said. “Back-to-back fights is a good thing to get that paycheck and the exposure of fighting on the card with the Faber, (Jose) Aldo fight. That’s the biggest fight in WEC history.”
Mendes is still relatively new to the fight game. Like Banuelos, he had little training outside of his wrestling background and didn’t take courses on how to punch until after he left San Luis Obispo.
“The whole striking thing was foreign to me,” Mendes said. “I feel pretty confident that I’m picking it up well. If it’s exciting and I want to do it, I’ll usually pick it up pretty quick.”
While Mendes has been away from Cal Poly for two years now, he says he gets back to the Central Coast often to see former wrestling coaches and teammates like Chase Pami, who himself had a runner-up finish at the NCAA Championships.
“I still love it out there,” Mendes said. “I take my vacation time away from training there to go out and see old coaches. I tried to talk to Chase to keep him motivated throughout the year but didn’t see him much. But anytime I thought about the guy I’d shoot him a text.”
Spike will air several preliminary bouts for free starting at 6 p.m. before the pay-per-view main card airs an hour later.