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Ring of Fire returned to the 1stBank Center in Broomfield, Colo., on Saturday night for Ring of Fire 41: Bragging Rights, and some bragging rights were earned.

Brandon Thatch finishes Chidi Njokuani at Ring of Fire 41

Brandon Thatch finishes Chidi Njokuani

Brandon “Ruckus” Thatch and Chidi Njokuani squared off in the night’s main event in a battle between two top welterweight prospects trying to earn a shot at the big leagues.

Thatch is known for his quick strike ability, and it showed on Saturday night. He caught Njokuani with a staggering punch in the opening moments of the fight. Thatch moved in and threw Njokuani to the mat, landed in half guard, and immediately rained down punch after punch after punch. Njokuani covered up, but after a few moments, the referee determined he wasn’t intelligently defending himself and called a halt to the fight 53 seconds in.

Njokuani immediately popped to his feet after the stoppage. He and his corner protested the stoppage, but the fight was over.

The victory marked Thatch’s fourth out of five professional wins that came inside of the opening minute of the fight. His professional record currently sits at 5-1.

“I respected him as a fighter; this was by far the most important fight of my career,” said Thatch after the fight, knowing the victory is likely going to earn him a long hard look from the likes of the UFC.

The fight was supposed to have been for the Ring of Fire welterweight championship, but Njokuani came in two pounds over weight for the fight, so it became a three-round feature fight instead.

“I’m a professional. I take this very seriously. I’m a welterweight fighter. I’ll hit the mark every time,” added Thatch, taking a thinly veiled shot at his opponent.

Tyler Toner driving the knee into JR Sims at Ring of Fire 41

Tyler Toner driving the knee into JR Sims

Ring of Fire mainstay, Tyler Toner, trying to fight his way back to the UFC, couldn’t have looked further off course as his fight with J.R. Sims progressed.

Sims sent Toner to the canvas early in the opening round, then fended off a few submission attempts on the mat, before finishing the round with a strong mix of elbows and heavy punches on the ground.

Round two was another solid effort from Sims, who caught one of Toner’s kicks and forced him to the mat once again. Sims kept up a steady attack of ground and pound for the remainder of the stanza.

In the third round, however, Toner finally found his mojo. From out of nowhere, Toner unleashed a high knee to Sims’ face, sending him staggering backwards. From there, the fire raged and Toner poured on a vast array of punches, kicks, and a variety knees, driving Sims into the fence. Sims covered up and turned away from the onslaught, causing the referee to step in and stop the fight.

It was nothing less than a stunning comeback, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

After the fight, Toner could only hope that his former employer would take notice.

“Hopefully UFC will bring me back for the Denver card (UFC 135 in September). I’d love to rematch Diego Nunes,” Toner said to a cheering hometown crowd.

Serbian import Bojan Velickovic, who made his way to the United States via “The Road to Ring of Fire” in Europe, showed that earning his shot in America was no fluke. He handed local standout Jason Lee the first defeat of his career, and in stunning fashion.

Velickovic cracked Lee with a right hook that sent him crashing to the canvas. He followed up with several more punches until the referee stepped in to stop the fight.

Lee, after the fight, christened Velickovic the “Serbian Dump Truck,” proclaiming, “He hits hard!”

Ryan Martinez choking out Brandon Endriss at Ring of Fire 41

Ryan Martinez choking out Brandon Endriss

One of the more promising heavyweight prospects on the Colorado scene is Ryan Martinez. He lived up to billing, putting opponent Brandon Endriss on the mat, pounding on him for a bit, then sinking in a deep guillotine choke that put Endriss to sleep.

“From what I understand, I’m not too far away,” Martinez answered when asked how far away he was from stepping into the national spotlight, before adding, “but I can’t look at it like that. I gotta take it one fight at a time.”

Jarred Mercado and Brian Wood fought a close back-and-forth affair for three full rounds, but it was Mercado that walked away with a split decision victory.

Following an undefeated amateur career, Colorado favorite Justin Gaethje got the crowd going with a quick win over late replacement Kevin Croom. Gaethje scooped Croom up and slammed him down, knocking him out with furious punches to his downed opponent.

Linsay Jones and Shannon Culpepper at Ring of Fire 41

Shannon Culpepper rocks Lindsay Jones

If there were an award for the fighter with the most heart on Saturday night, it had to go to Lindsay Jones. Although she lost a unanimous decision to Shannon Culpepper, she left her heart in the cage. Culpepper took Jones to task for the full three rounds, clearly out-striking her and keeping the fight primarily where she wanted it, but despite a huge gash over her left eye early in the fight, Jones fought bell to bell.

Co-comeback of the night had to be Trial MMA’s Kris Hocum in the night’s opening bout. Kirk Piatt dropped Hocum in the opening moments of the bout and nearly pounded him out. Piatt grabbed hold of the cage, however, so the referee restarted them standing, which served as Hocum’s saving grace.

Hocum fought back in the second round and in a scramble latched onto Piatt’s arm, securing the armbar for the finish.

Sven Bean and Dr. Alex Constantinides at Ring of Fire 41

Sven Bean and Doc Alex

One of the more poignant moments of the night, both for the crowd in attendance and for me personally, was when promoter Sven Bean asked many of us in the Colorado mixed martial arts community – journalists, fighters, coaches, promotion staff, and others – to step into the cage for an emotional presentation to Dr. Alex Constantinides.

Many might remember “Doc Alex” – who has long served as a ringside physician in Colorado and neighboring states – was involved in a tragic car accident in July. His van and family were washed away in a flash flood during a camping trip in Wyoming. Doc Alex lost his wife and three daughters in the flood, but even after they were washed away, he saved a rescue worker that had plunged into the same overflowing river that took his family.

Bean and the Colorado MMA community presented Alex with a banner that read “You Are Not Alone.” The banner had been signed by members of the MMA community at a recent Fight to Win event that also served as a platform to help raise more than $12,000 for the Constantinides family.

I can only say that it never ceases to amaze me how strong one person can be when family and friends rally their support. Doc Alex has an unwavering strength amidst the most unspeakable of tragedies that we can only hope to never have to endure.

Bless you and your family Doc Alex.

Ring of Fire 41 Official Results:

Main Bouts:
Brandon Thatch def. Chidi Njokuani by TKO (Strikes) at 0:53, R1
Tyler Toner def. J.R. Sims by TKO (Strikes) at 3:49, R3
Bojan Velickovic def. Jason Lee by TKO (Strikes) at 1:39, R1
Ryan Martinez def. Brandon Endriss by Technical Submission (Guillotine Choke) at 3:45, R1
Jarred Mercado def. Brian Wood by Split Decision (30-27, 28-29, 29-28), R3
Santana Martinez def. Vinnie Lopez by Submission (Guillotine Choke) at 2:01, R1
Justin Gaethje def. Kevin Croom by KO at 1:01, R1

Preliminary Bouts:
Shannon Culpepper def. Lindsay Jones by Unanimous Decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27), R3
Adam Gonzalez def. Cody Mumma by Submission (Rear Naked Choke) at 2:29, R1
Tito Solis def. David Treanor by Unanimous Decision (29-28, 30-27, 30-27), R3
Kris Hocum def. Kirk Piatt by Submission (Armbar) at 1:09, R2

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