It’s Valentine’s Day. Tell me what’s more romantic than two men in a cage trying to end a fight with an arm bar, a guillotine or a rear naked choke.
Bellator, the No. 2 mixed martial arts organization in the U.S. behind the Ultimate Fighting Championship, will put on a 10-fight show Thursday night at Bojangles’ Coliseum.
Is your girlfriend going?
“She has to,” says Joe Pacheco.
That’s love right there. Pacheco will be in the cage. He’ll fight Kyle Bolt, who has a record of 6-2. Pacheco is 4-0 as a professional.
Pacheco, 27, was born in Germany, grew up in the Bronx and moved to Gastonia when he was in middle school. He’s an athlete. He won two N.C. wrestling championships at 189 pounds for East Gaston High – “The best school in Gaston County,” he says – and as a nose tackle twice made all-conference in football.
When high school ended, Pacheco stopped collecting trophies and started to collect pounds. He went to work as a route salesman for Pepsi Bottling Group. For eight years he refrained from training. His weight jumped to at least 260 pounds, maybe 280. He’s 5-foot-10.
A friend who competed in mixed martial arts invited Pacheco, now living in Charlotte, to work with him on wrestling technique. A year and a half ago Pacheco walked into Renegade Fighting Systems.
Before we go further, let me tell you how cool Renegade Fighting Systems is. They don’t want their address printed. They don’t want to attract spectators or hangers-on. The gym is in Charlotte and, even if you know where it is it’s tough to find.
Inside are two large rooms. Pacheco is in the second. It is showroom clean.
There’s a boxing ring and a cage. There’s an Olympic wrestling mat (Olympic wrestling?), four heavy bags, a wrecking ball bag, a digital timer and the famous picture of Muhammad Ali training in water.
There’s a mirror, and above the mirror a message: THIS IS WHAT A FIGHTER LOOKS LIKE.
Pacheco, 185 pounds, is good looking, courteous and charismatic. Also, he looks like a fighter.
“As soon as you walk in here there’s an aura about it,” he says.
When he lived in the Bronx he watched fights with his grandfather, who had a focus bag and speed bag hanging from the ceiling in his apartment. Working with coach Phil Wills, Pacheco has made enormous progress as a boxer.
“I love learning now to actually punch correctly and hit somebody in the face without being arrested,” says Pacheco. “It’s a great stress reliever.”
The theory is to leave it in the gym. Renegade participated in an anti-bullying campaign in Cabarrus schools this week.
Headlining the Bojangles card tonight will be the bantamweight title fight between Eduardo Dantas and Marcos Galvao.
The card will be televised at 10 p.m. by Spike TV. Pacheco’s fight won’t make TV.
But to be selected for this event, after four professional fights, is an opportunity.
“Probably the biggest opportunity for any MMA athlete in the Carolinas,” says Michael Allen, Renegade’s jiu-jitsu instructor and, in his spare time, an outstanding MMA commentator.
Watch Pacheco work. His first step, a step he developed at East Gaston, is NFL quick.
“Joe possibly is the most talented guy in the gym and he has the least amount of time fighting,” says veteran MMA and Renegade fighter Joseph “El Dingo Loco” Carroll. “And he’s getting one of the biggest opportunities in the world.”
Pacheco will return to Bojangles for the first time since he won the second of his two high-school wrestling championships.
“It will be a homecoming for me,” he says. “My hair will be standing on edge. Friends and family will call my name out. If I could put it in one word, it would be electrifying.”
That sounds like a Valentine’s Day to me.