Benny Madrid has finished six of his first seven opponents. | Photo Courtesy: David Clark/Jason Karpel
Professional mixed martial artists have wide and varying backgrounds. However, few -- if any -- have the backstory of lightweight prospect Benny Madrid, a man for whom mixed martial arts was a lifesaver on two different fronts.
MMA helped Madrid get away from a life that had gone down the wrong path and lose more than 100 pounds.
“MMA just changed my life,” said Madrid, who is 7-0 in his professional MMA career and fights out of the Fight Ready camp in Scottsdale, Ariz. “MMA humbled my life and showed me the beauty of my life.”
Madrid grew up in the southern part of Phoenix in a neighborhood that Madrid described as “one of the worst neighborhoods in the state.” He started running with the wrong crowd at the age of 11.
“All my friends were drug dealers and in gangs,” Madrid said. “I didn’t know anything about doctors or what life was really about. When I was growing up, I met a big drug dealer who’d just got out from doing five years in jail. I was 11 years old and wanted to be like him. I followed that path, and he told me I could make easy money. I did what he told me to do. I got to where he could count on me, and that opened the door to a bad lifestyle.”
Madrid wrestled and boxed some when he was in high school, but fatherhood at the age of 15 and distance to the nearest gym kept him trapped in the lifestyle into which he had entered -- until he lost a family member to the violence that surrounds the drug and gang life.
“The closest gym was like 10 miles away and I had a baby when I was 15, so I had to get out of school,” Madrid said. “I made good money, but one of my nephews died. I never knew what love was until then. A lot of the time when I was growing up, nobody had time for anybody, but my nephew was always with me and when he died, it hurt me. I knew something was missing.”
Madrid realized what was missing was something he could find in the gym. It was the solidarity that came with bleeding, sweating and training with other fighters.
“My nephew dying made me want to change my life,” the 32-year-old Madrid said. “I went to the gym thinking I was going to knock some people out and I got taken down and was tapped out. I didn’t know anything and was humbled, but I fell in love with it. You come to MMA school and people don’t judge you. You fight with each other, but at the end of it, you hug and at the end of the day, you can count on them.”
Since starting his mixed martial arts training, Madrid has sought to give back to the community. One way he does so is by volunteering his time with Fight Your Way Out, an organization designed to get kids into the gym and away from the streets.
“If kids see me doing well, maybe even fighting in the UFC, and realize where I come from, maybe they’ll think, ‘Why can’t I?’” Madrid said. “I was a kid that lived a fast life. I should’ve been in jail or dead, but I’m here. That’s what I fight for. I fight to show them that if I can do it, anybody can do it.”
When Madrid started training in 2007, he weighed about 285 pounds. Slowly but surely, he started shedding weight until he eventually reached today's walking around figure of 175 pounds. However, before Madrid could make his professional MMA debut, his past issues resurfaced. He ended up spending a year in Tent City Jail for possession of marijuana with intent to resale.
“I’d been training for a while,” Madrid said. “I’d started trying to straighten out my life, but things from my old life started coming up. The police started trying to build a case on me and spent a year doing it. They told me I could go away for up to 10 years, but not if I snitch on my cousin. I didn’t snitch on him, so I went away for a while.”
Madrid, the World Fighting Federation’s 155-pound champion, made his professional MMA debut in April 2009, as he locked down a first-round keylock submission win over Bryan Donovan at a Rage in the Cage show. He posted a pair of wins in 2010 -- one by decision and the other by second-round knockout -- before staying out of action until May 2012, when he secured a first-round guillotine choke submission against Joe Torrez.
“When I made my debut, I was OK at everything but not my best,” Madrid said. “I felt ready enough. My striking was OK and that’s where I felt comfortable. It came naturally and my jiu-jitsu was solid, but my wrestling wasn’t where it needed to be. I didn’t want to get taken down and get submitted, so I got to work on that.”
Madrid, who has six finishes among his seven wins, picked up his fighting pace the rest of 2012, earning two more knockout victories. His most recent victory came in April, when he knocked out Shawn Fitzsimmons with knees and punches in the second round of their fight on a WFF card. Madrid hopes to draw another fight this summer, but as sometimes happens with unbeaten prospects, he is having trouble finding someone willing to step into the cage with him.
“Benny loves fighting,” said Madrid’s head coach, Thom Ortiz, who has worked with him for a little more than three years. “He wants to fight every day. He gets in the cage and loves fighting. I feel like his striking is up there. He has fast, heavy hands and he’s going to land a lot.”
Ortiz said Madrid, who owns a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, is always seeking to make himself better, a trait which often separates good fighters from great ones.
“If he really needed to work on something to get better, I’d say it’s his wrestling,” Ortiz said, “but he’s always looking to learn. He’s never satisfied with how good he is right now. He loves fighting, so he wants to get better. He loves competing, so it’s perfect. You’ve got to have the desire to win. Everybody likes to win, but you have to see who’s willing to put in the work to make it happen.”
Fighting in a weight class as loaded as the lightweight division means it will be more difficult to break into the upper echelons of the sport. However, Madrid believes he has what it takes to get there.
“I’m ready,” Madrid said. “The spotlight has never bugged me. I think I’m ready now. I think I could’ve already signed with somebody like a Bellator, but if the UFC is the way to go, I’m going to go that way. I want to go to the UFC. That’s my big dream. I’m just going to keep kicking on the door and hopefully they’ll let me in.”
Even if he never graces the Octagon with his presence, Madrid knows MMA is the sport that saved his life.
“I’m blessed,” he said. “My son and my students look up to me, and I have great friends. I should’ve been dead or in prison, but I made it. I shouldn’t be here. It’s a dream come true just to be here.”