PROVIDENCE, R.I.— A decade removed from her last professional fight on the worldwide taekwondo circuit, then 25-year-old Maria Rivera never thought she’d get the chance to showcase her talents on national television.
“Life happens very fast,” said the unbeaten female flyweight from Framingham, Mass., “It’s very interesting to see the path it takes you on.”
With only three mixed martial arts fights (one amateur and two as a pro) under her belt, Rivera (2-0, 1 KO) now finds herself in the enviable position of fighting in front of a much larger audience Friday night on AXS TV as she makes her network television debut on the main card of “CES MMA 50” at Twin River Casino.
Rivera, born in Puerto Rico, but now living and training in Framingham, faces Mallory Martin (3-2, 1 KO) of Colorado, a two-time Invicta Fighting Championships vet, in what could be a breakthrough for both fighters.
Women’s MMA has grown exponentially over the years with female fighters headlining major Pay Per View cards and gaining worldwide notoriety. CES MMA president Jimmy Burchfield Sr., one of many pioneers for female boxers through the years, has aided the cause in mixed martial arts by showcasing some of the region’s top female talent through the AXS TV platform.
On a night in which it celebrates its 50th event, CES MMA achieves another first Friday with two female fights on its 12-fight card. Flyweight Hilarie Rose (0-1) from Norfolk, Mass., faces Thais Sousa (0-2) of Miami on the preliminary card.
The televised main card of “CES MMA 50” airs live on AXS TV beginning at 9 p.m. ET with prelims beginning at 7.
Rivera, a mother of three, turns 31 at the end of the month, but women’s MMA does not discriminate against late bloomers. In fact, Rivera has more opportunities now than she would’ve had she peaked in her early 20s, making Friday’s television debut even more impactful as she looks to take her career to the next level.
“I’m very grateful to CES for giving me this opportunity,” Rivera said. “My preparation doesn’t change because I’ll be on TV. I just have to be aware. You’ll feel a little more pressure because it’s on TV and you want to perform well, but I’ve been in tournaments all over the world and that’s pretty much the feeling I always get.”
Tickets for “CES MMA 50” start at $40 and are available to purchase online at www.cesmma.com, www.twinriver.com, www.ticketmaster.com, by phone at 401-724-2253 or at the Twin River Box Office.
Friday will be Rivera’s first fight since March of 2017, but not by choice. She was scheduled to fight on the preliminary card of “CES MMA 44” last May, but her opponent suffered an injury a week before the event. The cancellation may have been a blessing in disguise. Rivera was dealing with a nagging leg injury at the time, but didn’t think much of it.
“I just thought it was tightness in my calf,” she said.
The day her fight got cancelled, Rivera went to the gym for a routine training session. Later that night, she could barely walk. As it turned out, Rivera needed surgery on her right knee, so she went under the knife in September. The recovery went smoothly, but she wasn’t out of the woods yet. Just as she was ready to begin training again later that month, she fell down at home and broke her pinky finger. Doctors inserted a pin to stabilize the injury, forcing her to sit out for another five weeks.
“It was so frustrating, especially because neither injury had anything to do with my training, just everyday life, ironically,” Rivera said. “In all my years of fighting and training, I had never injured myself. The knee injury was my first injury. I had never gotten injured in any of my camps or in practice.”
“That part was frustrating. I didn’t want to rush in and take a fight just because I felt anxious. I wanted to give my body that time to heal. It took a long time, but everything happens for a reason.”
As fate would have it, Rivera’s long-awaited comeback happens to be her toughest test to date in front of a much larger audience than usual. Having fought since she was a child, Rivera is past the point of needing a tune-up fight at this point in her career. She competed in taekwondo tournaments throughout the world, from Mexico to Puerto Rico, until she was 15 years old. When she moved from the United States back to Puerto Rico, she stopped fighting for the next 10 years.
She eventually found her way back into the gym when her children wanted to learn martial arts. Fighting was never part of the plan — “I figured I could use the workout,” she said — but things changed quickly. Rivera began losing weight and soon rediscovered her love for competing.
Within three years, she transitioned to MMA and fought her first and only amateur bout in New Hampshire before making her professional debut shortly thereafter on the preliminary card of “CES MMA 41,” knocking out Sarah Click in the opening round of their scheduled three-round bout.
Aside from the potential payout and the unlimited exposure, MMA offers Rivera more opportunities than taekwondo, especially for a fighter her age. Former UFC bantamweight champion Holly Holm, a professional boxer who transitioned to MMA at a later age, was 33 when she defeated Ronda Rousey three years ago for her first world title and recently starred at UFC 225 with a win over 28-year-old Megan Anderson. Cristiane Justino — a.k.a. “Cyborg” — is the reigning UFC featherweight world champion at 32.
The time is now for female fighters in their 30s, making Rivera’s leap from the CES MMA prelims to the bright lights of AXS TV the most important move in her young career.
“I think I’m still at a good age for this,” she said. “With everything going on in women’s MMA, this is the time to do this. I have a lot to bring to the table.”
East Providence, R.I., native Dinis Paiva (11-6, 6 KOs) faces California’s Andre Ewell (12-4, 7 KOs) for the vacant CES MMA Bantamweight World Title in Friday’s five-round main event.
Also highlighting “CES MMA 50,” Ludlow, Mass., welterweight Jon Manley (11-4, 2 KOs) battles Philadelphia’s Jeremiah Wells (4-1, 2 KOs) and Woonsocket, R.I., flyweight Jose Lugo (2-0, 1 KO) makes his network television debut in a rematch against Cortland, N.Y., native Michael Taylor (1-1, 1 KO).
Middleweight Pat McCrohan (3-1, 2 KOs) of Berkley, Mass., returns to face red-hot Worcester, Mass., prospect Reginaldo Felix (5-3, 2 KOs). Bantamweight John Douma (3-0, 2 KOs) of Providence also debuts on the AXS TV platform in a highly-anticipated showdown against Nevada’s Adam Acquaviva (5-3, 1 KO).
The preliminary card features a welterweight scrap between veteran Toby Oden (2-2, 1 KO) of Milford, Mass., and newcomer Jeremy Puglia of Long Island, who makes his professional debut. Decorated light heavyweight Fabio Cherant (1-0) returns to face Mansfield, Ohio, native Marquis Allen (1-0, 1 KO) and featherweight Brandon Marotte (1-0, 1 KO) of Hempstead, N.H., battles debut Arslan Otchiyev of West Haven, Conn.
Also on the preliminary card, Milford, Mass., bantamweight Kris Moutinho (4-2, 1 KO) makes his long-awaited return against New York’s Alfred Jones (3-3, 1 KO) and light heavyweight Yorgan De Castro (1-0) of Fall River, Mass., faces David White (0-2) of Cumberland, Md.