Before a fighter becomes a professional mixed martial artist, he must prove himself as an amateur in the sport, competing against other up-and-comers who have the dreams of someday fighting on national television.
For Minnesota prospect John Castaneda, that journey has been a fairly long one.
Though he only began training in the sport during his freshman year of college in 2010, Castaneda has already competed in 13 amateur bouts, even earning himself an amateur lightweight championship along the way.
Most fighters who have so many amateur fights are either fighting in small towns or have weak records that don’t lead to as many opportunities to turn pro. But for John Castaneda, it wasn’t either of those things. At 12-1 in his amateur career and with victories over some top-level amatuer opponents, Castaneda could’ve turned pro well before this if he wanted to.
“My first few fights, I just kind of won based on pure skill that I had through wrestling or some basic stuff that I picked up in the gym,” Castaneda told Bleacher Report MMA. “I really wanted to be considered well rounded before I turned pro. I wanted to be confident in all of my abilities, whether it’s boxing, kicks, elbows, jiu-jistu.”
A former high-school wrestler, Castaneda had already established himself as one of the better wrestlers in the 155-pound division within Minnesota, so his move to the Mankato Martial Arts gym has allowed him to really get the well-rounded attention that he needs.
“In my last few fights, I’ve been super confident in my hands,” he said. “ It’s almost like I don’t even want to go to the ground anymore, and that’s what I’m known for.”
When fighters who have dominant amateur records begin to look for fights as professionals, it can often be difficult to find opponents who are willing to even get in the cage with them. Losing to a fighter in his pro debut doesn’t look great on a fighter’s record, and many promotions give very little weight to what a fighter did as an amateur.
Castaneda credits his Sterling Entertainment Group manager Jeremy Bjornberg with finding a quality opponent, Nick Schmidtke, for him to test his skills against in his pro debut at Saturday’s “Caged Chaos at Canterbury” event.
Unfortunately, Schmidtke won’t be able to compete on the card due to an untimely staph infection.
Bjornberg was forced to scramble and put together a replacement opponent for the “Sexi Mexi” to go up against. He eventually found Brandon Abrego, a journeyman fighter whose fearless attitude could revitalize his career if he’s able to pull out an upset against Castaneda.
“I’m sure he’s ready to go. He wants to take out one of the top up-and-comers,” Castaneda said regarding his new opponent. “My Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach Justin Kratzke actually fought him, so I have somewhat of an idea who he is. He’s kind of a brawler, he’s not that technical of a fighter. I actually saw his last fight, but he got knocked out in just a couple of seconds, so there wasn’t much to learn from that one. I’m sure he’s going to come ready to swing, though.”
With teammates helping to simulate Abrego’s aggressive style, Castaneda feels that he is prepared for the fight. He also believes that the increased round time of five minutes in pro fights as opposed to three minutes in amateur fights won’t make much of a difference for him.
“I don’t remember the last time I actually practiced for a three-minute round,” he said. “All we do [at Mankato Martial Arts] is five-minute rounds...whether you’re pro or amateur. I had some come-from-behind wins where I was down two rounds to none, and I came back because of my cardio.”
While the increase in fight time might not be much of a factor for him, the pressure of the first pro fight is definitely not something that Castaneda is taking lightly.
“It does feel different to be preparing for my pro debut because I look at my amateur career as kind of like practice and getting myself ready,” he said. “If I screwed up before, it’s whatever...Now there’s really no room for screwing up. This is when it counts.”
Although this fight will be at 155 pounds, like most of his amateur bouts, Castaneda will actually be looking to make a dramatic drop down in weight, all the way to 135, perhaps even by the end of the year.
“It’s a big drop, but I’ve made 145 for a couple of my fights last year,” he said. “Making a cut to 145 is just like wrestling where I could cut 10 pounds of water weight. But 135, I haven’t been that low since my sophomore year of high school!”
Castaneda, who currently ranks in the top 10 in the state in the lightweight division (via Minnessota Mixed Martial Arts News), will soon be looking to make his way back into the rankings in the new weight class.
“I’m not looking to fight turds to boost my record. That’s not going to do me any good,” he said. “All of the smaller weight classes in Minnesota at 135, 145 and 155 are just stacked with talent. So I really wouldn’t expect me to be on the rankings at 135 very quickly. I know I’m going to have to work at it and get some wins under my belt.”
Though the plans are in place for Castaneda to begin fighting at 135, we might see him fighting at another weight before he gets down to 135. In fact, we might even see him competing in an entirely different sport.
“I’ll probably have a boxing fight before I do another MMA fight, maybe even as soon as next month,” Castaneda said. “I really want to get this boxing fight under my belt because especially for bigger shows, a pro boxing win looks really good on your resume. “
Before he can begin thinking about 135 or a pro boxing fight, though, Castaneda has an important first step to take by getting a victory against Brandon Abrego on Saturday night in Shakopee, Minn.
“Not to sound cocky or anything, but I’m really looking for a first-round knockout,” Castaneda said.
Castaneda will be representing Gamebred Fightwear, Sterling Entertainment Group and Taco Loco at the event, scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. at Canterbury Park. Tickets range between $30-100 and can be purchased at the door or by calling 612-281-6300.
Those who are out of town are invited to check out the event’s free live stream at SterlingMN.com.
For more MMA news, fighter interviews and opinions, follow Nick Caron: @NicholasCaron.