For the first time in nearly 15 years, the Kenai Peninsula is home to an Alaska Fighting Champion.
When Soldotna’s own Victor Rodriguez climbed to the top of the cage after his TKO win over Jared Mazurek for the bantamweight title on Feb. 26 at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, he announced to the state what he and his supporters already knew. He is a champion. He was bloodied, but victorious.
After a physical first round in the main event title fight in AFC 157, it didn’t look like it would be Rodriguez’s night. But due to a midfight adjustment, Rodriguez, 27, was able to overcome the odds stacked against him thanks to his preparation and relentless determination.
Mazurek, 33, of Anchorage, grew up in Nikiski. He was the No. 1 bantamweight fighter in the state and is a brown belt in jiu-jitsu. Mazurek, who trains at Legacy Jiu-Jitsu, went into the main event bout with an 8-1 record. He was the heavy favorite in the bout with 93 percent (90 out of 96 users) on Tapology.com predicting he would beat Rodriguez.
With about 30 seconds left in the opening round, Rodriguez was hit with a jab by Mazurek that opened up a cut above Rodriguez’s left eye. When the bell rang, blood was pouring down his face and he risked having blurry vision if any blood got in his eye. The referee went over to his corner and told his coach Seth Stacey of AK-49 Martial Arts that if he didn’t stop the bleeding, he would stop the fight.
Stacey wiped away the blood and applied pressure with an ice compress over his left eye.
“We knew he had to step up his intensity or he wouldn’t get another round,” Stacey said. “For (Rodriguez) to make an adjustment in real time with everything on the line is championship stuff.”
At the start of the second round Rodriguez went to work. He started countering Mazurek’s punches and feinting him to find an opening. Despite being right-handed, Rodriguez used a southpaw stance to avoid being susceptible to a grappling takedown move by his opponent.
He also moved around the ring well and avoided getting cornered against the cage and stayed up on his opponent with his hand out in front to protect his position. Rodriguez caught Mazurek with an uppercut that signaled a pivotal swing in momentum.
“In my mind I knew I had to turn it up,” Rodriguez said. “Once I started countering he didn’t like that. He didn’t want to strike no more.”
When he watched video on his opponent, Rodriguez said he noticed he’d go on his back for a break. Midway through the second round, Mazurek looked tired and went for a takedown. Rodriguez said he felt confident the fight was his and he went to his ground-and-pound attack.
Rodriguez then landed 22 straight punches to the face and recorded a knockout at 3:33 of the second round.
“That was borderline criminal,” said Bill Baker, a friend of Rodriguez’s who drove to the event with a contingent of AK-49 supporters. “He is at his nastiest with the ground and pound.”
The last fighter from the peninsula to win an AFC title was Charlie Karron in 2007, when he beat Clyde Jenkins in the first round of AFC 33.
The main event title win in AFC 157 is an exclamation point on Rodriguez’s rising MMA career. His official professional record stands at 6-2, but Rodriguez protests that he’s 9-2 in organized bouts.
His latest result is validation for the three months of rigorous training he spent in his preparation for the title shot. While MMA is an individual sport, he said he never would’ve made it to this point without the support of the team at AK-49 Martial Arts, located in the Peninsula Center Mall.
Rodriguez credited his coaches and sparring partners Jason Chavarria, Matt Parker, Chris Trefon and “Nasty” Nate Grinnell, who beat him up in practice to get him ready for the fight.
“He is one of the hardest working individuals I know,” Stacey said of Rodriguez. “He’s a super aggressive athlete. I believe he can compete at the highest level.”
To prepare for the title fight, Stacey said he put Rodriguez through a fight camp, where they practiced five, five-minute rounds with 45 seconds rest twice a week. Then he made him come to kickboxing and jiu-jitsu classes twice a week.
Rodriguez also went to strength and conditioning classes at Crossfit Certitude and worked with coaches Nikki Russell and Kyle McNally on his mobility. On top of that, he also works full-time in construction.
“He would be out in minus 10 degree weather some days then after work would come to the gym,” Stacey said. “If he was able to get sponsored to where he doesn’t have to work to pay his rent and can train all time, then he could get the proper strength volume training.”
In addition to the physical training, Stacey stressed the importance of positive mental affirmation and visualization to get Rodriguez to believe he is the best. He showed him a video on YouTube called, “I am a champion – the greatest speech ever” which shows a football coach firing up his team and they respond to each verse with a powerful voice saying, “I am a champion!”
Stacey said he would text Rodriguez every day and ask him, who are you and his response would be, “I am a champion.”
“Some days I would be tired, beat up or had a bad day at work and I would respond with low energy,” Rodriguez said. “Then he’d ask me again and I would change my mind-set and self-talk and put a smile on my face.”
While the fight against Mazurek was the biggest in his career, it wasn’t the toughest, Rodriguez said.
In 2014, a then 20-year-old Rodriguez matched up against Jeff Bailey, who at the time was one of the top bantamweight fighters in the state with eight wins. That fight was his last loss, both coming that year. He said he wasn’t prepared for that fight and had the wrong people in his corner that didn’t take the time to properly train him.
“I didn’t understand the game at the time,” Rodriguez said. “They just tossed me to the wolves.”
After that fight, it was not long before Rodriguez hooked up with Stacey. He started working out in his garage before he opened AK-49 in the mall about four years ago. With regular attendance at MMA classes, Stacey took the time and effort into developing him as a fighter. He said his aggressive athleticism and fearless mentality is one of his biggest attributes. In the ring, his nickname is Vicious.
“He’s not afraid to die,” Stacey said. “As a fighter you can’t. It’s OK to be scared, but you have to put the fear aside and compete. He’s only going to get better from here.”
In addition to fighting, Rodriguez plays rugby in the summer with the Kenai River Wolfpack Rugby Club. He’s played in the last five Dipnet Fest tournaments held in Kenai in July. Despite his 5-foot-5, 135-pound frame, he has garnered respect from larger rugby players who notice his aggressive and fearless style of play.
Rodriguez said like all fighters or competitors, he feels the anxiety and nerves before a fight or game. He admitted to puking a little prior to the Mazurek fight. But when he steps into the cage, he switches to a focused intensity.
“I always try to be cool, calm and collected,” he said. “I used to pretend I wasn’t anxious, but now that I’m older I know a positive mentality plays a big part. I look forward to those feelings and run toward them.”
After his victory, Rodriguez jumped into the spotlight and soaked in the roar of the crowd from his fans that traveled up from the peninsula. He had his moment but then quickly jumped down and paid respect to Mazurek to give him the opportunity. Stacey said honor, respect and discipline are three pillars he emphasizes at AK-49 and Rodriguez was grateful for his chance.
In the moment Rodriguez looked over at Stacey and mouthed the words, “I am a champion.”
The championship belt is on display at the gym as a reminder to all those that take the weekly kickboxing and jiu-jitsu classes of what the reward can be for all the hard work put in. Recognition as the best in his craft.
By DAN BALMER
For the Clarion