Two years after the Connecticut legislature paved the way for mixed martial arts competitions on non-tribal lands, the first sanctioned professional fights are on the way.
At a press conference Wednesday, CES MMA unveiled plans for an event March 29 at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford featuring a total of 20 fighters, eight of whom are from Connecticut.
“I swear it’s a miracle," CES president Jimmy Burchfield Sr. said of MMA’s arrival in the state. "It’s a miracle that we were able to pull it off and put a great card together and let these Connecticut fighters fight in their home state.”
Mixed martial arts has technically been legal in Connecticut since 2013, when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed legislation allowing fights in the state. But a clause in that bill that required promoters to pay for all health-care costs incurred by fighters (as opposed to just insurance, as is the industry norm) deterred companies from actually staging the events. Instead of bringing their bouts to Hartford or Bridgeport, promoters continued to hold them at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, which are not subject to Connecticut regulations because they stand on tribal lands.
Finally, in 2017, lawmakers passed a bill eliminating the health-care restriction and thereby making Connecticut a feasible destination for MMA. Though some legislators at the time called the sport “barbaric” and “damaging,” supporters hoped it would drive fans to Connecticut’s cities.
For Matt Bessette, one of the fighters who will compete March 29, the upcoming fight figures to be particularly satisfying. Bessette was born in Hartford and grew up in Stafford Springs, but over a 12-year career fighting for prominent promoters including UFC and Bellator, he has never had a chance to fight in his home state.
“I didn’t think it would be legal in Connecticut until after I was gone,” Bessette said. “So this is obviously really huge.”
When MMA got the all-clear in Connecticut, Bessette’s reaction was simple: “Let’s go," he said. “Somebody book it.”
Now that Providence-based CES has officially brought MMA to the state, Bessette has been busy spreading tickets to family and friends. He said he had sold more tickets in the first three days than he had over many weeks leading up to previous CES fights elsewhere.
William Knight, a fighter from Manchester who trains in East Hartford, said he looks forward to fighting near home for a change.
“Mixed martial arts coming to Connecticut to me is a big deal,” Knight said. “We’re always traveling, we have to cancel events to get things done. So for an MMA event to be in my own backyard is a blessing.”
In addition to Knight and Bessette, the March 29 event is slated to feature Carlos Rivera and Justin Valentin of Meriden, Dan Dubuque of Waterbury, Parker Porter of Hartford, Caio Magalhaes of Bethel and Gil Pinheiro of Naugatuck.
The night’s main event will pit Brazilian fighter Vinicius de Jesus, who now lives in Stamford, against Philadelphia’s Jeremiah Wells for the CES welterweight championship. That fight will air live on the digital-streaming service UFC Fight Pass,
Burchfield said how often CES returns to Connecticut in the future could depend on ticket sales and sponsorship revenue for the March 29 event.