The Fight for Wrestling lost one of its signature fights Saturday but still ended with a signature moment, and inside Mott Gym, the reaction to the first mixed martial arts event in San Luis Obispo was an overall positive one.
The marquee moment came when main-event winner Cruz Gomez mounted lightweight opponent Eddie Hoch in the center of the octagon and began to pound away.
Former Ultimate Fighting champion and Cal Poly Hall of Famer Chuck Liddell jumped out of his seat to cheer on his friend Gomez, and it seemed a good portion of the estimated 1,500 in attendance were cheering on Liddell’s animated antics as well as the fight.
Gomez won by decision after needing the third-round comeback to pull ahead in the last of seven professional bouts.
Eight were originally scheduled, but the professional debut of Cal Poly and San Luis Obispo High grad Casey Noland was canceled after her opponent, Jenny Trujillo, backed out with an injury just prior to Friday’s weigh-in.
“I didn’t want to be here in heels,” Noland told the crowd. “I wanted to be here with my gloves on punching somebody in the face very hard.”
Noland, whose father wrestled with the Cal Poly team in the 1970s, was a main draw for the charity event — meant to raise money for the Cal Poly wrestling team — because of her local ties.
Matt Monteiro, a former Paso Robles High standout and Cal Poly wrestler, won in his amateur debut, defeating Cory Morford by unanimous decision.
Aware that wrestling is a shrinking sport, specifically on the West Coast, Monteiro came out of semi-athletic retirement to fight. He hadn’t even wrestled in more than a year and spent just one month and 15 training sessions to learn MMA as best he could.
He only did it because of his concern that Cal Poly wrestling could become a budget casualty.
“We’re just getting back into wrestling with my 5-year-old boy traveling all over the place,” Monteiro said. “Every tournament we go to, they have hundreds and hundreds of kids, and to think that those kids won’t have the opportunity to wrestle and put themselves through school, it’s disheartening.”
The timing of Fight for Wrestling was significant as the Mustangs are in danger of losing two Pac-10 Conference foes to budget cuts for next season. UC Davis dropped wrestling and three other sports. Cal State Bakersfield did the same but has given the Roadrunners the chance to fund raise for their full budget.
With Stephen Neal — a former Cal State Bakersfield two-time NCAA heavyweight champion and current New England Patriots guard — helping the fundraising effort, the program reportedly raised more than $100,000 at a dinner auction last week.
Neal was at Mott Gym on Saturday — along with fellow celebrities Liddell, Lou Ferrigno and up-and-coming MMA star Urijah Faber — to support Cal Poly wrestling, and Neal believes the Roadrunners will be back.
“I wouldn’t have been fighting if I didn’t think we were going to get the program back,” Neal said. “I think we’re pretty close. The community stepped up and showed they want all four sports back at Cal State Bakersfield, and I hope the administration takes notice.”
It’s too early to tell how much money Cal Poly was able to raise with Fight for Wrestling. Organizers were optimistically hoping for $50,000 to $100,000. It could even be significantly lower, but Mustangs athletic director Alison Cone seemed encouraged.
“I think it’s been very successful,” Cone said. “It’s obviously one that has a lot of interest in the local community. The fans turned out. It’s been very professionally run, well-controlled. I think it will raise some money for our wrestling program, and it did a lot to raise awareness about our wrestling program.”
Fight promoter Scott Adams, a former Cal Poly wrestler and co-founder of World Extreme Cagefighting, put the event together with former Mustangs wrestling coach Lennis Cowell.
He said his group is already looking forward to bringing another MMA event to Mott Gym in the future.
“We really hit a home run tonight,” Adams said. “It was an excellent event. The show was great, we raised money for Cal Poly athletics, and everybody seemed really pleased.
“This was a great introduction that this is a great sport.”
Spectators got exposure to a wide spectrum of results.
In addition to the decisions, there were multiple tapouts, one chokeout and a technical knockout.
Making his pro debut after six amateur bouts, Cal Poly viticulture major Mike Gahan got a TKO over Bret Hypolite after dropping Hypolite with a head kick and pummeling him with face punches as he got back to his feet.
“I thought he was out when I kicked him because he fell head first,” said Gahan, whose legion of fans were easy to spot in chartreuse T-shirts scattered throughout the gym. “I saw him turning over, so I got one good punch in and he kind of scrambled back up to his feet and was wobbly.
“I thought this is the time to get him, so I just came in with as many punches as I could, and tried to put him down, but the ref stepped in before I could do that.”
Johnny Hackleman, the son of Liddell trainer John Hackleman, beat Aaron Hamilton in one of three amateur bouts.
Johnny Hackleman was unsatisfied that his finish wasn’t more decisive but was excited to take part in the first event of its kind in his hometown. Though he doesn’t have an amateur wrestling background, he acknowledged how integral the skills are to his sport.
“Wrestling’s the best sport at any college,” Hackleman said, “and I’m kind of bummed out that they’re trying to ax those programs before anything else. It felt good to help out and support that.”