Jeff Lentz celebrated his new mixed martial arts title last weekend by raising his padded fists in the air while straddled atop the 6-foot-high cage.
The sellout crowd at Tropicana Casino and Resort’s Showroom cheered.
Minutes later, the 25-year-old Mays Landing resident limped barefoot down the metal stairs leading to the sparse dressing rooms.
He tossed the Ring of Combat lightweight championship belt on the table, gingerly rubbed the bruises forming on his shins and began to sob.
“The belt doesn’t mean that much to me,” Lentz said as tears rolled down his cheeks. “It’s really just another piece of hardware. I have a stack of them that I keep under a bench in my office. The win means much more. I had lost my last two fights and was beginning to feel like things were slipping away, like I was sinking in quicksand. I really needed this because it puts me one step closer to where I want to be.”
Lentz, like every aspiring mixed martial arts fighter, wants to be in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
The Las Vegas-based organization is considered MMA’s version of the major leagues. Lentz is among a few area fighters trying to earn a promotion to that organization, along with Atlantic City welterweight Cesar Balmaceda, Millville lightweight Bobby Fabrizi and Millville middleweight Tim Williams.
Aside from Balmaceda, who is an amateur — not paid — fighter, the others are competing in regional MMA outfits such as Ring of Combat and Vineland-based Cage Fury Fighting Championships, which stages most of its cards at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa.
In baseball parlance, they are Triple A-level organizations. Both Ring of Combat and Cage Fury are home to some of the country’s top prospects and contenders. They act as a farm system for both the UFC and Bellator Fighting Championships and have developed outstanding reputations within the industry.
Combined, they have sent more than 130 fighters to the UFC, including current stars such as former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar, of Toms River, and North Jersey-based brothers Dan and Jim Miller.
Both Ring of Combat and Cage Fury regularly draw capacity crowds to their respective venues.
Unless they reach the top level, however, fighters cannot make a career out of throwing punches and executing guillotine choke holds.
Ring of Combat does not pay purses to fighters. Instead, they are guaranteed a percentage of ticket sales, usually 30 percent to 40 percent. Cage Fury typically pays undercard fighters $500 to show and an extra $500 for a victory. The range for main event competitors goes from $1,000 to $3,000. They also get a percentage of ticket sales.
As a means of comparison, UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones earned $500,000 for his win over Daniel Cormier at UFC 182 in early January. Cormier got $90,000. Also on that card, lightweight contender Donald Cerrone earned $140,000 — $70,000 to show and $70,000 to win — by beating Myles Jury.
“Guys who fight for us can’t make a living at it,” Cage Fury President Rob Haydak said. “They are all at the stage where they are trying to balance real life with MMA.”
Real life for Lentz is much different than the perception held by some of his critics.
When he appeared on the popular television show “The Ultimate Fighter” a few years ago, Lentz was eliminated from the competition in his second fight. But he was required to remain in the Las Vegas house he shared with the other fighters for the duration of the show.
“I was the first one in the gym and the last one to leave every day, even after I had lost,” Lentz said. “But all they showed was me standing in the backyard smoking a cigarette and drinking Jack (Daniels), and that’s all anyone remembers. The truth is, I work harder than anyone.”
They did not show the sacrifices he has made away from the cage.
After getting eliminated from the MMA reality show, he returned to his boyhood home in Lacey Township. He trained at night and spent the day caring for his late grandmother Lucille, who died three years ago from complications from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Now, he works two jobs while competing in mixed martial arts and professional boxing.
Lentz, 25, said he made about $2,700 for his Ring of Combat title fight at Tropicana last Friday night. He explained that under the terms of his contract, he was permitted to keep the first $1,000 from ticket sales, plus 50 percent of future sales. He said his biggest career payday was $12,000 for a fight for Cage Fury last year.
Which is why instead of partying with his friends after his victory, Lentz went back to the Mays Landing condo he shares with his fiancee, Nicole Sweeney.
Less than 12 hours later, he was sparring and conducting classes at All Angles Martial Arts, Fitness and Self-Defense, a gym he opened on Fire Road in Egg Harbor Township. When the weather gets warmer, he’ll go back to working with his father and uncle, Jeff and David Lentz, at Lentz Construction.
“There’s no way I can make a living at fighting,” Lentz said. “At least not yet.”
Fabrizi and Williams are in similar situations.
Fabrizi, who is good friends with American League Most Valuable Player and fellow Millville native Mike Trout, got married in June to a former ring card girl for Cage Fury. Fabrizi even proposed to her inside the cage after one of his fights.
When he’s not training or fighting, the 25-year-old does masonry work at the Woodbine Developmental Center.
“It’s been tough for me lately,” Fabrizi said. “Two fights ago, I dislocated my thumb and had to have a pin put in. And now I’m dealing with a sports hernia. I’ve missed work because of it.
“I’ve got four more fights with Cage Fury, and after that I have to make a decision about my MMA career. I love it, but I won’t keep doing it if I don’t have a chance to get to the next level. There’s too much wear and tear on my body, and it’s too dangerous to keep doing it for nothing.”
Bloodied Tim Williams of Millville (right) fights on his way to a win over Dervin Lopez. Saturday August 9 2014 Cape Fury Fighting Championshi…
Williams (10-1), 28, is the Cage Fury middleweight champion and is scheduled to defend his belt Feb. 28 at Harrah’s Chester in Pennsylvania. Between fights, he builds scaffolding as a union carpenter in Philadelphia.
He’s hoping a victory in his next fight will catapult him to the UFC. That would help ease the disappointment of a lost opportunity two weeks ago. The UFC was looking for a fighter to take on Uriah Hall in Boston as part of UFC Fight Night on Jan. 18 and called Williams at the last minute.
After Williams turned them down, Hall fought and beat Ronald Stallings, who Williams had beaten on a Cage Fury card Nov. 14.
“It would have been a great opportunity, but they only gave me five days’ notice,” Williams said. “I had put on a little weight over the holidays and would have had to lose 30 pounds in five days. Even if I had made the weight, I wouldn’t have been able to fight up to my potential, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself.”
Both Lentz and Williams are close to reaching the big time. Balmaceda, 19, has the longest road to travel. The former Atlantic City High School wrestler is still an amateur fighter who does not receive any money from promoters, save for the $5 he is permitted to keep from each ticket he sells to his fights.
Money is tight, and sacrifices have to be made. When he is not training with coach Cardo Urso at Tilton Fitness, Balmaceda works as a security guard overseeing weekend parties at The Pool at Harrah’s Resort.
Balmaceda was raised by his paternal grandmother, Ligia Hiraki, and various relatives in Atlantic City after his mother died of breast cancer when Cesar was just 3 months old. When he was 6, his father was deported to Nicaragua after a series of drug and legal troubles.
He was living with his grandmother when Hurricane Sandy hit the area. She was able to find an apartment, but it was too small for Cesar to join her. He now lives with his girlfriend, Adrianne Rodriguez, and her grandmother in the Back Maryland section of the city.
“It’s not the best neighborhood,” Balmaceda said. “Sometimes I hear gunshots, and I found a bullet on my front lawn. My motorcycle got stolen two or three weeks ago. But we make do.
Rodriguez, who attends Atlantic Cape Community College, is his biggest supporter. The two have been dating since they were 13. But Balmaceda’s grandmother isn’t far behind.
Hiraki has never seen her grandson fight, but that’s probably a good thing.
“She always makes a joke that she’ll come into (the cage) with a frying pan and hit the other guy,” Balmaceda said with a laugh.
Working at Harrah’s helps pay the bills for now, but he’s got bigger goals in mind, both in and out of the cage.
“Someday I’d like to become a police officer, but MMA is my passion,” he said. “My dream is to be the UFC champion, and I won’t stop until I get there.”
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The belt doesn’t mean that much to me. It’s really just another piece of hardware. I have a stack of them that I keep under a bench in my office. The win means much more.
Someday I’d like to become a police officer, but MMA is my passion. My goal is to be the UFC champion and I won’t stop until I get there.
I’ve got four more fights with Cage Fury, and after that I have to make a decision about my MMA career. I love it, but I won’t keep doing it if I don’t have a chance to get to the next level.
Guys who fight for us can’t make a living at it. They are all at the stage where they are trying to balance real life with MMA.