A former heavyweight boxing champ's mission to revive a struggling MMA promotion

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john-ruiz.jpgDarren Mima did exactly what he said he’d do.

The New York-based flyweight showed up to the American Fighting Organization’s “Summer Brawl 3? event in Boxborough, Mass., on June 29 and knocked out Billy Giovanella in the first round, improving his professional record to 3-1 and winning his second consecutive fight under the AFO banner. Afterward, he was handed a check by AFO promoter Pete DiLorenzo.

Everything seemed fine. At least until he tried to cash it.

“That’s when I found out it was a bad check,” Mima told MMAJunkie.com.

In the big picture, maybe it’s not such a huge deal. It wasn’t even all that much money, according to DiLorenzo, who admitted that he bounced checks to two fighters after the event “and combined, it was under $3,000.”

Still, it felt like a big deal to Mima, who’d put in his work and wanted his money. Days and then weeks went by and he kept waiting, wondering if he’d ever get paid. Then he got a call from his manager saying John Ruiz wanted to meet him.

As in, former heavyweight boxing champion John Ruiz. He owns a gym in Medford, Mass., not far from Boxborough. According to Mima’s manager, Ruiz wanted to talk about the check that didn’t clear after his AFO fight.

“He said he wanted to make it right,” Mima said.

What Mima didn’t realize at the time was, Ruiz had aspirations beyond just helping out a small-time fighter stiffed on the local scene. Ruiz wanted to become the local scene, and this was just one step in the process. After cutting Mima a check (one that actually cleared), and wiping out some other debts incurred by DiLorenzo’s promotion, Ruiz and his partners took over the AFO, which they plan to operate under Ruiz’s company, Quietman Sports.

Just like that, the former boxing champ became an MMA promoter.

The question to ask, for a lot of different reasons, is why. Why would the 41-year-old Ruiz want to become a fight promoter? Why would a former boxing champ want to promote local MMA events in New England? And, having decided that he did want to promote such events, why would he assume ownership of a struggling organization that couldn’t pay its bills rather than creating one of his own without the baggage or the debt?

“That’s the question we were asking in the beginning,” Ruiz said. “We were thinking of creating our own company, and then this kind of fell in our laps in a way. For me, I think it’s better to take an organization that’s been there and try to revive it. The AFO has been in New England for quite a while. It’s been around, so why not keep it around?”

That sounded fine to DiLorenzo. After nearly five years in the fight business, he’d had enough. The regulatory environment in Massachusetts had become stifling, he said, and his return on investments in local events saw a “rapid decline.”

“The game changed when the [Massachusetts State Athletic] Commission came in,” DiLorenzo said. “… The last time [UFC President] Dana White was in Boston, he said it. It’s a beautiful place to come have dinner, but it’s a horrible place to run shows. And that’s on the highest level possible.”

It wasn’t just the commission making things tough on him, DiLorenzo said. On the night of one of his events, he had his car broken into and vandalized to such an extent that his insurance company declared it totaled. “And that was in the parking lot at the venue,” he said.

After word got out that he’d bounced checks to fighters, DiLorenzo said, he knew AFO’s reputation was in trouble. Though he insisted it was an issue concerning “very small money” that “would have been taken care of with or without [Ruiz],” he also knew how the stain of something like that could linger.

“Unfortunately in this game, the good gets forgotten and the bad will always be remembered,” DiLorenzo said.

So when Ruiz offered to pay off AFO’s debts and assume operations under its name, DiLorenzo said, it was an easy decision. It was also something of a surprising offer, coming from a former boxing champ who admits that he doesn’t know a lot about MMA.

To hear Ruiz tell it, most of his exposure to MMA comes from his gym, Quietman Sports. It started as a boxing gym, but MMA slowly crept in, and now just about every form of combat is represented within its walls.

“We even do a little sword-fighting, also, in that gym,” Ruiz said. “It’s a mix of everything.”

His sister Jackie is an MMA fan who encouraged him to check out more events, Ruiz said, and once he did he found that he liked what he saw. He also started to wonder if it wouldn’t be possible to promote boxing and MMA under the same banner, especially if he could acquire an organization like the AFO, which he knew had been struggling of late.

“I don’t want to say it was bad management, but it was a company that had been there for a while,” Ruiz said. “Sometimes you win in this business and sometimes you lose, but it seemed like they were losing more than they were winning. I’m trying to turn it around.”

A major part of the appeal of the AFO, Ruiz said, was its name. For someone who hopes to promote MMA and boxing both separately and, perhaps eventually, on the same card, any organization that gets too specific with references to cages or fighting styles in its name is hindrance.

“The AFO is the American Fighting Organization,” Ruiz said. “It doesn’t really say that it’s MMA or that it’s boxing. It’s just the American Fighting Organization. That name I think lets us diversify more.”

Keeping the AFO brand alive also lets DiLorenzo walk away without feeling like his work was all for nothing. He may have spent the last couple years “just holding on,” he said, but “the AFO has been the most active promoter in New England that I know of. We were doing seven shows a year. When they came to me, it was a way to step out and keep the name going, which I was glad for. Right now I’m happy to watch from the sidelines and be a fan again.”

And Mima? He’s just happy he finally got paid. Now that Ruiz is involved, he said, he’ll consider fighting for AFO again, something he swore he’d never do after his last check bounced.

First though, Mima will fight for the Cage Titans 125-pound title Oct. 19. The promoters there may have to forgive him if he looks at his fight-night paycheck a little suspiciously this time around.

“In the fight world, you’ve just got to take it day-by-day,” Mima said.

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