Puerto Rico has a colossal fight culture. But it is primarily focused on the sport of boxing. With fighting legends such as Tito Trinidad, Miguel Cotto, and “Macho” Camacho calling the island home, it is pretty surprising there is not much of an MMA scene there as well.
Mexico and Puerto Rico have been rivals in boxing since the mid-1970s, but Mexico has far surpassed Puerto Rico in the sport of MMA. Mexico’s very own Brandon Moreno, the number 1 ranked Flyweight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, trains straight out of Tijuana.
So why isn’t there a star from Puerto Rico yet? A little history lesson might shed some light on the topic.
After the United States invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War on July 25th, 1898, Spain ceded Puerto Rico along with Guam and the Philippines. Puerto Rico became a commonwealth of the United States in 1898, but the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917 allowed Puerto Ricans to become United States citizens if they were born on or after April 25th, 1898.
Ten years the sport of boxing was legalized in 1927. Since then, the island has produced over a dozen champions, starting with Wilfred Benitez in 1982, who became the youngest champion in the sport’s history.
I moved to Puerto Rico from Georgia in 2004, when my father was about to retire from the military. I was only eleven years old at the time, and I could already tell the difference between the culture and the economy.
My parents were raised on the island. They were from a small town called Jayuya (which has a population of 13,891 as of July 1, 2019). I wanted to get into the sport of wrestling, but there weren’t any programs that I could find near me in the town of Aguadilla.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was pretty much unheard of over there. Puerto Ricans thought of the sport of MMA as another form of Pro-Wrestling, which is also pretty huge there. So, all you could find were Karate, Kung-Fu, and other traditional martial arts.
Machismo and homophobia in the culture have also always frowned upon using kicks or grappling to fight. “Kicking is for girls!” is what I heard a lot growing up, and wrestling is the last sports program to get funded, so it was almost nonexistent in the commonwealth.
In 2006, I started watching “The Ultimate Fighter 3”. It aired after “TNA: Impact,” and I was a die-hard wrestling fan. I thought it was just another pro wrestling show. Ken Shamrock was one of my favorite pro wrestlers growing up, and I saw that he was a coach, so I immediately fell in love with the sport. MMA was new but seeing how they implemented every aspect of fighting I never knew existed was intriguing.
The sport was banned in 1996 after they held UFC 8 due to the violence, but little by little, small garage gyms were opening up, and the sport of MMA was becoming popular with martial artists on the island.
I started training MMA in 2012 on a basketball court taught by a coach with martial arts experience in the art of Kung-Fu, and he mainly trained us in kickboxing. The gym was mainly a striking gym but taught us wrestling defense to keep us on our feet. So, I was secretly training jiu-jitsu in another town because I have always wanted to learn more techniques on the ground, and when my MMA coach found out, I got banned. He has told me, “I am like God, and God gets jealous when his followers follow another God.”, and of course, I was relieved that I got banned because that was a huge red flag.
It is not surprising, but the pride that Puerto Ricans have in themselves can be their downfall. There is a lot of tribalism, just like everywhere else, but it is so behind that the community doesn’t work together to be bigger than it is.
Corruption is not a stranger to Puerto Rico when it comes to politics and its citizens, and the athletic commission in Puerto Rico also has a reputation for being corrupt. It’s almost impossible to have your own promotion there without the commission trying to get in the way.
I had a friend who wanted to highlight Puerto Rico fighters because the only MMA promotion we had was inconsistent. They would book fighters from the US or Mexico that had terrible records or just making their pro debuts without an amateur record so their fighters could look good. So, my friend did his best to start a fair promotion, but the athletic commission quickly shot him down.
It is a relatively new sport on the island, but things are looking up. Gordon Ryan and “The Danaher Death Squad” moved their camp to Puerto Rico this year and could help the sport of jiu-jitsu there to a great extent. Female boxer and mixed martial artist Amanda Serrano, who has a boxing record of 40-1-1, has been making waves lately and bringing attention to female boxing and MMA in Puerto Rico. I have faith that Puerto Rico is not only going to be a vacation spot but also a tropical Valhalla to those who want to learn and fight. All we can do is wait and enjoy the progress of the sport all over the world.
Gian Carlo is a 10th Planet Blue Belt and a comedian from Puerto Rico. He currently resides in Albuquerque where he trains under “Nasty” Nate Harris, and hosts 2 podcasts (Unemployed Commentators & The Shoot)