I wasn’t sure if I had the right address. Calle Cerra had the same look as most of the streets I’d seen in San Juan, Puerto Rico—colorful paint peeling off the sides of cement buildings and metal bars outside every window and door. These bars were there to protect the buildings from hurricanes, but they were also a looming reminder of Puerto Rico’s high crime rate and the fact that the sun was setting. I was no longer lying in the sand at the resort drinking another Cuba Libre.

I stepped out of the car to take a look around. So far there was no sign of a gym, and I was sure that Google Maps had led me to my demise. I thought about asking someone for directions, but then again, I didn’t speak any Spanish and the only people outside were a homeless man rummaging through a garbage can and a group of young men sitting on their motorcycles, each with the same Mohawk/rattail haircut that was all the rage. I cursed Google Maps again.

Then I saw it. There was a black sign with a skull and crossbones that read “Team Thunder Muay Thai.” I never thought I would be so happy to see something that resembled a pirate flag. The building’s red doors with black lightning bolts were wide open, and after opening the screen doors, I could smell that familiar, sweaty odor that is typical of any MMA gym. I heard the rhythmic thud of someone practicing low kicks on a heavy bag. It was a pretty small space.  The heavy bags and elevated boxing ring took up most the space, but if traveling had taught me anything, it was not to judge a book by its cover.  Maybe it was that good things come in small packages.  Either way, I was just excited to have found the place.

The owner of the gym, David “Thunder” Cummings, walked over and greeted me with a handshake. He was skinny and on the shorter side, but had a strong grip. He looked to be in his 50s, but he clearly was still in shape. His 22-year fight career and the gray stubble on his face definitely added several years to his complexion. In fact, Cummings had actually lost sight in one of his eyes from the years of fighting. Those battles hadn’t been for naught. After competing in 43 countries, Cummings retired in 2008 with a record of 145-44-2 and had won 13 world titles throughout his career.

I could see some of his belts hanging on the walls. Cummings had also trained with some of the best. While under the guidance of Bill Packer, he and Mike Winkeljohn were sparring partners for 10 years. Cummings told me about learning ground technique from Kazushi Sakuraba when he spent time in Japan. After retiring, the Colorado native decided that he liked the Carribean warmth and opened his gym in Puerto Rico.

I had scheduled the interview to ask Cummings about the local MMA scene. Combat sports are not a new phenomenon in the territory. Puerto Rico has a long list of boxing champions throughout the years, including Miguel Cotto, Felix Trinidad and Hector Camacho, just to name a few. Fighting is a sport that many Puerto Ricans believe is a God-given skill for their people, and they are proud of their fighters. There was even a statue of the first Puerto Rican world champion, Sixto Escobar, right outside my hotel.

The UFC, well aware of the fighting history the island possesses, appears to be making plans to hold an event there for the first time since 1996. Before UFC 145, Rashad Evans held an open workout in Puerto Rico where boxing champion Felix Trinidad also made an appearance. Trinidad said, “The truth is MMA and UFC is something that’s taking over the world and we love it in Puerto Rico. We are what they call ‘hot blooded’—we love fighting and love watching UFC event.”

Dana White has also shared his intentions of doing an event in Puerto Rico sometime in 2014. “We want to do a pay-per-view down there,” said White. “We know it’s a big market for us.”

Despite the UFC president’s interest, Cummings doesn’t see it happening any time soon.

“In my opinion, the UFC won’t come here until Puerto Rico gets it together and allows elbows. It won’t happen,” Cummings told me.

Sanctioned MMA fights in Puerto Rico only became legal again a couple years ago. Some may recall the controversy associated with the last time the UFC was there in 1996. UFC 8: David vs. Goliath, as it was called, was an event where smaller fighters were matched up with larger ones. It marked Don Frye’s MMA debut, where he beat a much bigger Gary Goodridge to win the eight-man tournament. Ken Shamrock also defeated Kimo Leopoldo in the Superfight Championship bout. However, the card almost didn’t happen, as the sport was banned two days before the event. The promoter, Richy Miranda-Cortese, had to go to federal court to argue his case, and fortunately was granted the right to hold the event. Nonetheless, this fiasco was the catalyst that started the whole anti-MMA movement where John McCain famously called the sport “human cockfighting.” While MMA may have recovered and is thriving in the rest of the United States, Puerto Rico is still feeling the effects.

“MMA in Puerto Rico is still in a very infant stage,” admitted Cummings. It makes sense. The sport had been banned for over a decade. According to Cummings, good training wasn’t available until a few years ago, and there really weren’t any fighters with a well-rounded skill set. He also attributed a lot of the blame to the new Puerto Rican promotions. “These promoters don’t build up their fighters long enough before giving them a title. If you don’t build them up, we’re never going to have a true champion.”

Once those fighters headed over to the continental U.S. to compete, they got slaughtered.

“You have guys that are pros that really should be amateurs,” said Cummings.

These promoters also left fight fans feeling jaded. Cummings filled me in on how some Puerto Rican organizations would promote their event like it contained UFC-caliber talent only to have amateurs competing on the card. Cummings recalled actually seeing a local promotion’s poster with the UFC logo on it and a picture of Brock Lesnar.

“[Puerto Ricans] were taken a little in the wrong direction in the beginning. They still have a bad taste in their mouth,” he said.

Perhaps a legitimate Puerto Rican champion, or at the very least a contender, is what the island needs to fully embrace the sport. There are successful MMA fighters of Puerto Rican descent, such as Eddie Alvarez and Jorge Rivera, but there hasn’t been a prominent fighter born and raised in the territory. We’ve seen fighters open up new markets before with Cain Velasquez, for example. The Mexican-American UFC heavyweight champion has warmed up many Mexicans’ hearts to MMA, whereas before Velasquez’s stardom, they were still stuck in the “Boxing vs. MMA” mentality. Velasquez has had such an effect that the UFC plans on having an event there and possibly having a season of The Ultimate Fighter in Mexico.

I pitched the idea to Cummings during our conversation. He shook his head.

“I don’t see a Puerto Rican fighter being in the UFC unless he’s from somewhere else. No homegrown guy.”

Cummings believed that the key to putting life into the sport for Puerto Rico was to have either legitimate talent that was built up in local organizations or to have an outside promotion like the UFC or Bellator hold an event.

It’s a tricky situation.  Growing local talent is difficult if there isn’t that much interest from the population, and the UFC could certainly be the spark that turns more Puerto Ricans to MMA, but if Cummings was correct, until elbows are allowed in fights, there’s no chance the UFC will show up if the promotion can’t play by its rules. It might be frustrating to deal with if you’re a Puerto Rican MMA fan or a promoter trying to tap into a new market, but it seems that time will be the answer to having a flourishing Puerto Rican MMA scene.

Cummings made it clear that despite whatever shortcomings the island has with the sport’s development, there has been substantial progress made.

“We’re starting to hold our own now,” he said, speaking about his fighters competing against gyms like Xtreme Couture or Renzo Gracie. “Whereas two and a half years ago, [it] wasn’t happening at all. It would be thirty seconds and it was over.”

Although Cummings is an American, he clearly wants to see Puerto Rico succeed in MMA. After all, the island is the place he now calls home, and he takes a lot of pride in coaching his students.

“Don’t get me wrong, we got some kids with drive, but to be at that level, it takes a special kind of human being,” he admitted.

By this time, more of his students began filing in for a nighttime training session. Cummings smiled.

“You never know when somebody’s going to walk through your door and be that right guy,” he said.

I found out after my visit to Puerto Rico that the gym is moving to a new location in San Juan with 4,250 square feet of space where they’ll be equipped with Olympic-size judo mats, a full-size boxing ring, double the amount of heavy bags and a half cage. Yes, the times are changing for Puerto Rican MMA. There will certainly be plenty of space for the right person that might happen to walk through the door, and he or she will take the Puerto Rican MMA scene by storm.

About The Author

Zach Miller
Staff Writer

Zach is a Boston native and has had a fascination with martial arts since playing Mortal Kombat at five years old. He was introduced to MMA after watching The Ultimate Fighter 5: Team Pulver vs. Team Penn. A recent graduate of the University of New Hampshire, Zach seeks to one day become a full-time MMA journalist. In addition to watching the sport, he has also trained in Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu, kickboxing, and tae kwon do. Zach has also written for NortheastMMA.

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  • Raúl Álzaga

    Hey Zach,
    Thanks for coming to Puerto Rico and showing interest in local MMA.
    However, your story only shows one side of the coin and only provides the insight given by David Cummings.
    Although Cummings does have a few nice fighters – mostly standup fighters – he is not the only gym in Puerto Rico that trains MMA fighters.
    There are others like Ichy Fighting Academy in Aguada and Training Zone in Guaynabo that are very good and have some solid fighters with UFC potential. One of them is Orlando ‘Tiky’ Sánchez (19-4), a veteran who has trained under Jackson MMA and who was about to be invited to a TUF program.
    Granted, there is a lot of work to be done, but there are some solid fighters being developed that could probably do well in a TUF Latin America show if given the chance.
    Aside from that, Puerto Rico has 10 fighters of Puerto Rican descent on UFC, including lightweight champ Eddie Álvarez, former lightweight champ Anthony Pettis and title contenders like Dennis Bermúdez (145), Tecia Torres (115), Jimmie Rivera (135), Sergio Pettis (125) and Dustin Ortiz (125). The other three are Lyman Good (170), Jim Alers (145) and Rob Font (135).
    On regards to the use of elbows, that has already been done. After Marc Ratner’s visit in 2014, the MMA regulations in Puerto Rico allowed the use of elbow starting on January 2015.
    Please contact me if you need more information.