When I first heard that 42-year-old Affliction vice president Tom Atencio would be fighting a 20-something casino-card dealer in Biloxi, Miss., this Saturday, I assumed it was a publicity stunt. Middle-aged promoters/clothing company executives (or those UFC president Dana White refers to as "T-shirt makers") aren't exactly known for their ferocity in the ring. And if there's any MMA organization that could use a media boost heading into this summer, it's Affliction.
But now that the "Ultimate Chaos" weekend is finally upon us and Atencio's bout with unknown local fighter Randy Hedderick is here, I'm starting to think the whole thing is genuine. If it wasn't, he'd probably be more eager to talk about it, to fend of further rumors. Instead, he seems slightly embarrassed by the attention being paid to his fight. With guys like Bobby Lashley, Pedro Rizzo and Chris Horodecki on the card, Atencio seemed taken aback that anyone would rather talk about his fight than the actual careers of actual pros.
But I tracked Atencio down this week anyway to get him to answer one question for me: Why? Why this fight? Why now? Why does a wealthy executive in his 40s want to fight on a small promotion where he has very little to gain and plenty of teeth to lose?
"For me," Atencio said. "Why do other guys go out and play sports on the weekend? It's the same thing."
Only, it's not. Anyone who's actually seen an MMA bout knows there's a big difference between playing in pick-up basketball game on a Saturday afternoon and battling a guy half your age in front of a crowded arena. Atencio seems to be doing it not for self-promotion or self-interest, but just because he enjoys the thrill and the opportunity to test himself.
It's the same reason construction workers and bartenders, who have no hope of making a living as a pro, compete in small events all over America. It breaks up the monotony. It gives you something to get excited and nervous and scared and eager about. It just so happens that Atencio is a vice president and not a stone mason, though the motives are the same. And in a way, isn't that what's best about combat sports? Economic class gets thrown out the window in a hurry, and a kick in the head is always the same no matter how much money you have in the bank.
But Atencio is in a line of work where he has some distinct advantages. Sure, he has the same time constraints that any other busy executive might, and he has to squeeze in his training every afternoon just to stay sharp. But while his opponent has to balance work and training as well, he can't pick up the phone and call Josh Barnett if he has a question.
"I've been really fortunate to have the kind of access I have," said Atencio, who trained under early Vale Tudo icon Marco Ruas. "But all those good trainers and good coaches don't mean anything if you aren't willing to push yourself on your own."
To make up for the lack of star power in his corner, Atencio's opponent does have the advantage of youth. A young man's body can withstand the rigors of training and still come through with more speed and explosiveness on fight night -- news Atencio is paying no mind.
"That's the least of my worries," the VP said. "I'm in the best shape of my life right now. My cardio is good. My weight is perfect. I don't look my age and I sure don't act my age."
If you're a promoter putting together an event, it also helps to have a guy like Atencio on the card. Not that he's a tremendous draw on his own, but if you need fighters he's the guy to call. Several current and former Affliction fighters dot the "Ultimate Chaos" card, which Atencio helped to arrange.
"The promoter said he needed fighters," Atencio said. "I don't want to keep these guys from making money. With [Affliction] not holding fights all that often, these guys still need to get paid. If I can help them do that I'm happy to."
While Atencio might be popular among fighters for the paychecks and the patronage he's provided over the years, he knows there are plenty of detractors waiting for him to fail, preferably in a way that involves the pain and humiliation of getting his head pounded on by a casino-card dealer. It's bad enough when people want to see your business flounder. When you give them an opportunity to see you physically harmed as well, that's opening yourself up for a completely different kind of criticism.
"I'm never concerned with what people think," said Atencio. "Once I started being in the public eye I stopped caring about that. You just can't. There are always going to be those people. They say my next [Affliction] event will be my last event. They said that about the first one. But if you're going to be out there you can't listen to any of that."
Wining or losing doesn't seem to be the point for Atencio on Saturday (not that he wouldn't rather win). Beating Hedderick won't silence any of Atencio's critics just as losing to him won't derail a non-existent career as a pro fighter. He's fighting just because he wants to. Since that makes him one of the only fight promoters in the world with the guts to compete in the sport he's selling, it's worth our respect no matter how things turn out in Biloxi.