Hartford’s homecoming king shared the stage with a new world champion Friday night at the Connecticut Convention Center.
On a historic night of mixed martial arts, hometown favorite Matt Bessette won the first fight of his career in Hartford and nearby Stamford resident Vinicius de Jesus captured the CES MMA World Welterweight Championship in front of a raucous crowd at CES MMA 55 on UFC Fight Pass.
CES MMA 55 made history as the first sanctioned professional MMA event in the state of Connecticut and delivered a wildly entertaining fight card highlighted by de Jesus (8-2) with a unanimous-decision win over former champ and Philadelphia native Jeremiah Wells (6-2), 49-46, 48-47, 49-46, in the five-round main event.
Wells, who took a three-fight win streak into Friday, came out strong, but spent the latter half of the fight on the outside circling the cage while training to maintain his distance. Even in rare instances when Wells worked his jab effectively, he failed to follow up with a counterpunch, rendering his attack relatively in comparison to de Jesus, who expertly cut off the cage and landed more convincing blows while avoiding Wells’ wild overhand rights.
The judges subsequently punished Wells for his lack of activity over the final three rounds, awarding the decision to de Jesus, a four-time Bellator vet and now the sixth welterweight champion in CES MMA history, joining Chuck O’Neil, Dominique Steele, Gil de Freitas, Wells and Chris Curtis.
In the co-main event, Bessette (23-9) outworked the game Tim Dooling (7-4) of Trenton, N.J., earning a 30-27, 30-27, 29-28 unanimous-decision win. Born in Hartford and raised in Stafford Springs, Bessette is now 7-1 lifetime with CES MMA. Friday was his first fight in his home city, where he also fought leukemia for nearly eight years as a youth. He landed effective strikes throughout the fight, dropping Dooling in the opening round with a well-placed spinning back fist, and consistently got the better of the exchanges. Dooling amounted a late surge in the third, scoring an early takedown, but Bessette sprung back into action and closed the fight with more strikes over the final two and a half minutes, peppering Dooling before the final bell.
Not to be outdone, reigning CES MMA Bantamweight World Champion Tony Gravely (17-5) of Martinsville, Va., defended his title for the second time in the opening bout on Fight Pass, submitting New Yorker Darren Mima (10-8) via rear-naked choke at 4:54 of the second round.
Much like his first title defense at CES MMA 54 in January, Gravely came out strong, using his superior strength and wrestling ability to overwhelm Mima. The challenger briefly gained momentum at the start of the second round with a submission attempt, but Gravely calmly escaped and locked in the choke in the closing seconds to force Mima to tap. Gravely has now won six in a row and nine of 10 overall.
Providence, R.I., middleweight Eric Spicely (11-4, 3 KOs) earned the most compelling comeback of the night, weathering an early storm from seven-time UFC vet Caio Magalhaes (10-7) of Bethel, Conn., before landing the finishing blow in the closing minute of the opening round, his second consecutive win by knockout. Magalhaes caught Spicely with a head kick in the opening seconds and began to pour it on as Spicely ducked for cover.
An inadvertent eye poke midway through the round by Magalhaes gave Spicely a moment to catch his breath and get his legs back. When the fight resumed, Spicely backed Magalhaes toward the cage and caught him with a short, right hook that ended the fight at the 4:00 mark. Since a six-fight stint with the UFC, Spicely has won his last two and is now 10-0 lifetime with CES MMA.
The most entertaining fight of the main card belonged to lightweights Dan Dubuque (8-2) of Waterbury, Conn., and Ohio’s Antonio Castillo (10-9), who waged a back-and-forth war over the course of three rounds with Dubuque winning by unanimous decision, 29-28 on all three scorecards.
Neither fighter scored a takedown the entire fight, instead elected to trade leather in the center of the cage for 15 minutes. Castillo, who is also a pro boxer, had his moments, but Dubuque grew more effective as the fight wore on by establishing a jab and utilizing rear leg kicks to slow Castillo’s progress.
Also on the main card, Norfolk, Mass., strawweight Hilarie Rose (3-1) won her third fight in a row by split decision, defeating Rosa Acevedo (4-4) of Scottsbluff, Neb., 29-28, 28-29, 29-28. Rose did her best work in the second round, landing a short elbow in the clinch that opened a deep cut on the side of Acevedo’s head. Both fighters finished covered in blood, but Rose earned the narrow win despite having to grapple more than anticipated.
In preliminary action, middleweight Carlos Rivera (2-4) of Meriden, Conn., earned a split-decision win over upstate New Yorker Mike DiOrio (1-4), 29-28, 28-29, 29-28, and 40-year-old Jason Huntley (6-8) of Clara City, Minn., scored a mild upset over previously-undefeated hometown favorite Justin Valentin (2-1), also of Meriden, with a 30-26, 29-27, 28-28, majority-decision win. Huntley dominated the fight, despite the one even scorecard, to earn his first win since 2017.
LightweightTom Connolly (1-0, 1 KO) of Maine, N.Y, who hadn’t fought since his ninth and final amateur bout in 2016, scored a quick knockout win in his pro debut, stopping Gil Pinheiro (0-3) of Naugatuck, Conn., with unanswered strikes 19 seconds into the opening round.