MMA team provides a shot at redemption

Published 8:18 am Thursday, April 23, 2009

Brandon Abrego’s name has appeared in the newspaper before, though it’s often been for the wrong reasons.

In and out of detention centers since the age of 14, Abrego has found a new path through competing in Mixed Martial Arts fighting.

Abrego formed the Albert Lea Golden Fighters, an MMA team with 14 members, looking to move up the ranks of the MMA world. The team is a collection of 14 men who know each other through MMA events.

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For many the team has provided an opportunity to do right after years of making the wrong choices.

Abrego, 24, went to prison at age 20 for methamphetamine sales and prior convictions. Before all of that he was stealing cars, burglarizing homes and getting into fights throughout his teenage years.

He’s committed himself to making his most recent trip to prison his last.

“I was a hard learner all my life,” Abrego said. “Once I’ve learned my lesson, I’ve learned it pretty well.”

He’s been out of prison since August and has tried to adjust to a new life. He said the decision to reform his life wasn’t very difficult.

“In a way you come from a position of power to an average Joe,” Abrego said of his transformation. “But after you see all your friends go to prison for the rest of their lives it wasn’t too tough (to change).”

Abrego is hoping to lead others away from trouble because he’s experienced it.

“The people that come to my gym I can let them know because I’ve been there and done that,” Abrego said. “As long as it can help me, I can help others.”

There were few job opportunities for Abrego, because of his criminal history. Following his release from prison in August he wasn’t able to get a job at McDonald’s. Through the help of a former parole officer he did catch on at Select Foods. He lasted there for a few months until he was introduced to MMA fighting.

Zach Coy had a troubled past as well. He was an angry kid prone to violence in a moment’s notice. He was diagnosed with ADHD and bipolar disorder.

Coy, 26, grew up in foster care since the age of 6 and bounced around juvenile detention facilities around the state. From Owatonna to Willmar to Bemijdi to New Ulm and even Sioux Falls, he moved for a number of years. Coy said he learned a lot in those facilities, like anger management, conflict resolution. He also learned how to box.

Coy and Abrego are fighting for another chance, fighting for an opportunity to reform, and fighting to help others.

Both have had plenty of other chances to turn their lives around, but both view MMA as their saving grace.

“I want kids to see this and think about their lives before they make the mistakes that me and Brandon made,” Coy said.

Now they are supporting themselves as full-time fighters and have formed a MMA team in Albert Lea.

MMA is a combination of a number of fighting disciplines, ranging from boxing to jiu-jitsu to wrestling to muay tai and kick boxing. Matches are either won by submission, knockout, technical knockout, or judges’ decision.

Abrego has three fights under his belt and is 2-1. He’s fought in three different states already and will fight in his fourth Friday in Mankato at the Kato Ballroom. His background is in boxing, but he is taking on many of the other forms of martial arts that occur inside the octagon.

An amateur fighter like Abrego can earn anywhere from $100 to $400 a fight depending on their record entering a fight. A winning record generates more money whether a fighter wins or loses.

For those who participate in the sport, it’s an opportunity to compete in a more complete way.

“I’ve been in martial arts since I’ve been 8 and I’ve always wanted to better myself and martial arts has always been that for me,” said Emmanuel Poindexter, who goes by Dex. “Every time I’ve gotten a new belt or every time I’ve beaten an opponent it basically betters myself. If I lose, it still betters myself. It’s more of a discipline thing. A lot of people say, ‘Yeah, there’s a lot of violence,’ but it’s also a mental thing.”

MMA is often misunderstood by people who are unfamiliar with the sport, team members said.

“It’s based on respect,” Coy said. “Respect for yourself, respect for the people around you, honor, integrity.”

The Albert Lea Golden Fighters team has a mix of disciplines in its gym. Caleb Kolodge is 16-years-old and a wrestler at Albert Lea High School. He trains with the group, but isn’t allowed to fight in Minnesota because he is under 18, but he can fight in Iowa and Wisconsin, where there is no commission that oversees amateur MMA fights.

“We’re trying to get a little of every area involved so that way all the fighters are well rounded,” Abrego said.

Abrego’s brother Trevor is a professional fighter and will help teach the fighters.

The team currently trains in a space in the back of Ad-Art. There are two bags and a mat for the fighters to train on. Speed bags on are on their way to the space and Abrego would eventually like to have a ring put in place. The space is tight, but Abrego said he might have a new space to train in the next month.

The Albert Lea Eagles are sponsoring the Golden Gloves boxing team that has emerged as a joint venture with the MMA team. Abrego has a handful of 12-and 13-year-olds interested in MMA, but since they aren’t old enough to fight he has put together a Golden Gloves team for them.

The training has been rigorous. Abrego trains multiple times a day on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. The doors are open for anyone that would like to participate. The cost is $25 to join, but Abrego will work with anyone that wants to join.

“We’re not trying to turn anyone away,” Abrego said.

The Albert Lea Golden Fighters will have a shot at a title Friday at the Kato Ballroom as Steve Snyder will compete for the title. It’s a big step for a new team trying to rise up the ranks.

“I’m looking forward to making a name for us all over,” Abrego said.