PROVIDENCE, R.I. (June 23rd, 2014) — Knock out your opponents in a timely fashion, and you increase your chances of making it to the next level in mixed martial arts. Knock out Aaron Johnson, and you’re practically a shoo-in.
In what can be best described as a statistical anomaly, Johnson (12-8, 1 KO) has only been stopped by three fighters in his five-year career, and all three have gone on to fight for either Bellator or the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), a trend Providence’s Greg Rebello hopes to continue Friday night when he takes his shot at Johnson on the undercard of “CES MMA XXIV” at Twin River Casino in Lincoln, R.I.
Rebello, 32, is in the midst of his second, and perhaps final, run following a brief retirement last summer, while Johnson is looking to claw his way back into the spotlight after a smashing debut with Bellator in which he submitted middleweight tournament champion Brennan Ward in 15 seconds.
“My record shows I’m no slouch,” Johnson said.
Once considered the top light heavyweight prospect in New England, Rebello (16-5, 9 KOs) has had his taste of the limelight, too, fighting for Bellator twice in an 11-month span, but hasn’t gotten the call back since losing the second time to Dan Cramer in 2011.
Now he and Johnson will lock horns Friday, June 27th, 2014 at a 225-pound catch weight in what could be a career-defining bout for both sides. Rebello’s on the brink of another big payday while Johnson could use another quality win to inch his way back into the picture.
Tickets for “CES MMA XXIV” are on sale now at $40.00, $55.00, $100.00 and $125.00 (VIP) and can be purchased online at www.cesmma.com or www.twinriver.com or by phone at 401-724-2253/2254. All fights and fighters are subject to change.
“The kid is dangerous,” Rebello said, “and he’s one of the best grapplers in MMA, but every fight starts standing.
“At this point in my career, it’s not like I can pick and choose who I fight. I’m pretty close to fighting for a bigger company, so I’ve got to fight the best fighters available.”
Between 2006 and 2010, Rebello won 11 consecutive fights on the northeast circuit, among them a win over John Doyle at Bellator 17 in Boston, and was considered one of the region’s top prospects before the loss to Cramer. He bounced back with a bloody win over Cody Lightfoot at Twin River before suffering another setback five months later in a submission loss to Mike Stewart.
Within months, Rebello’s priorities shifted from fighting to family; his girlfriend, Nicole, gave birth to the couple’s first child just six days before his scheduled bout against Chris Guillen. Rebello won the fight, but fatherhood inevitably affected his training over the next two years.
“I wanted to be with her all the time,” Rebello says of his daughter, who’ll turn two in September. “I skipped out on training sessions I shouldn’t have missed. It showed when I fought.”
Rebello hit rock bottom last summer in a lifeless, split-decision loss to journeyman Lewis Rumsey, in which the former top-ranked contender looked sluggish for the majority of the fight. Afterward, he announced his retirement to a capacity crowd at Twin River, suggesting MMA was a “young man’s sport” and his time had passed, but the layoff ended just six months later when Rebello returned to the cage to stop John Doyle at “CES MMA XX.”
“For about a year and a half my fights were kind of lackluster. It wasn’t me,” Rebello said. “I’m the type of person where if I can’t be at the top, I don’t want to do it anymore.
“Now that my daughter is getting older, it’s a little easier for me. This camp has been one of the best I’ve ever had. I’ve gone everywhere to train — Lauzon’s, Tri-Force, Sityodtong. I’m definitely a better fighter than I was even four or five years ago. You’ll see it.”
Age was never really the issue for Rebello — “I have young legs for a guy who’s 32,” he said — and he’s surprisingly durable for someone with more than 20 fights under his belt.
“I grew up wrestling. I didn’t have that jiu-jitsu background, so I don’t have a ton of miles on me like the guys who’ve taken so much punishment through the years,” he said.
With a little luck, Rebello might wind up the fighter who peaks at the latter stage of his career. Even during his impressive 11-fight win streak, he only finished five of his opponents, which Rebello says is the reason he never got the call from the UFC. Since the loss to Cramer, his last four wins have come by stoppage (three knockouts and one submission), and another quick win Friday might be enough to push him over the top before his time truly does pass.
“I used to fight safe. I was fighting to not lose instead of fighting to win,” Rebello said. “The biggest thing I wanted to change was wanting to finish these fights.
“As a fighter, yes, you want to win, but you’ve got to know how to lose,” he continued. “When you go in there, you can’t worry about what the other guy is going to do. Whether it’s CES, UFC or Bellator, people want to see you finish fights.”
Johnson has never had that problem. He’s won 11 fights by submission — all in the first round — and one by knockout, which came in the second round against John Richard in 2011. He even made quick work of Ward, who went on to win the Bellator middleweight tournament when he replaced Andreas Spang. For whatever reason, Ward, not Johnson, got the call.
“I don’t know why,” Johnson said. “I’ve finished 11 fighters by submission in the first round. How many guys do you know who have done that? Bellator didn’t re-sign me. If they had, I probably would’ve had a chance to win the tournament.”
Instead, Johnson hopes to earn his trip back to Bellator the hard way by beating a reenergized, determined Rebello in his own backyard, while Rebello is aiming to join the likes of Matt Van Buren, Rodney Wallace and Clint Hester, all of whom knocked out Johnson and went on to bigger and better fights.
“He’s a very flat-footed, standup guy who likes to get his opponents to come in so he can counter with a kick to the head with his southpaw style,” Johnson said of Rebello.
“I noticed in his last two fights he finished with head kicks, but I’ve also seen him get finished by submission. He really didn’t have any ground game. He didn’t have an answer for the takedowns. I’m training for whatever comes.”
Like Rebello, Johnson is putting a bigger emphasis on finishing fights with his standup, insisting promotions such as Bellator and UFC “don’t like the ground game,” so he’s been training with six-time Muay Thai world champion Manu Ntoh.
“CES has been moving fighters up in the rankings, so this is why we’re coming to CES,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, I can get my record up and fight for an even larger organization soon.”
“You never know when you’re going to get that call,” Rebello added. “You just have to be ready.”
The main event of “CES MMA XXIV” features Providence lightweight Luis Felix (11-7, 4 KOs) facing Julian Lane (6-3-1, 1 KO) for the vacant CES MMA title in a five-round bout.
UFC vet Ricardo Funch (8-4, 4 KOs) of Ludlow, Mass., will make his CES MMA debut on the undercard when he faces welterweight Brett Oteri (12-5, 1 KO) of Dedham, Mass. Also on the card, East Providence, R.I., vet Dinis Paiva (4-5, 1 KO) faces Joe Cushman (11-5, 3 KOs) of Bridgewater, Mass., in a featherweight bout; lightweight Andres Jeudi (6-2, 2 KOs) of Dorchester, Mass., battles Framingham, Mass., vet Saul Almeida (15-5); and female flyweight sensation Kaline Medeiros (2-3, 1 KO) of Fall River, Mass., faces Brigitte Narcise of Fairfield, N.J., in Narcise’s pro debut.
Fan-favorite Willie Brown (2-0) of Meriden, Conn., returns to battle J.A. Dudley (6-11) of Plainfield, N.J., in a light heavyweight bout; Providence’s Keenan Raymond (1-0) puts his record on the line against Dorchester featherweight James Murrin (1-0); featherweight Pete Rogers Jr. (1-1, 1 KO) of Norwich, Conn., faces Mike Lamm (0-1) of Newton, Mass.; and Providence vet Joe Reverdes (1-3) returns to battle newcomer Randy Campbell of Elizabeth, N.J., in a bantamweight bout.