There’s something strangely calming about the sound of the cage door closing for Queens, N.Y., bantamweight Miguel Restrepo.
A former U.S. Marine, twice deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, rendered homeless upon discharge, left battling post-traumatic stress disorder wondering where his next meal would come from, Restrepo fights for a living knowing no opponent he faces can be tougher than grappling with everyday life.
The pageantry of mixed martial arts, a whirlwind of emotions for some, almost comes easy for Restrepo, who finds peace in the sport’s chaos and unpredictability.
“When I take a look at my life and all the stuff I’ve been through,” says Restrepo, who returns to the cage Friday, Aug. 11th, 2017 at Twin River Casino on the main card of “CES MMA 45” on AXS TV, “fighting is a walk in the park.”
The 35-year-old Restrepo (4-3-1, 2 KOs), a transplanted Miami native now living in New York, enters Friday’s nationally-televised bout against rising prospect Richie Santiago (4-0) of Milford, Mass., in the best shape of his life “physically, mentally and spiritually,” a far cry from the war veteran who once struggled with civilian life upon returning to U.S. soil eight years ago.
It took a while for him to get here. It took living out of his car in Miami, an ex-Marine who once defended his country in combat now standing on the corner begging for change, living off friends’ leftovers, yet somehow managing to block out all the negativity for a few hours a day to focus on training.
His love for martial arts began at the age of 11 when he took Taekwondo classes, but admits that was just passing fad, similar to the one year in high school he spent wrestling.
A lifelong fan of MMA who at once used to hate Royce Gracie because “all he did was choke people out, and I thought you just had to stand up and fight,” Restrepo found ways to keep himself sharp while serving in the Marines. He enrolled at a Brazilian jiu-jitsu school while stationed in the south, and even found a small spot to train near his base in Naples when he was transferred to Italy.
Once he returned home in 2009 following eight years in the Navy, mixed martial arts was the only constant in his life. Nothing else seemed right. Restrepo spent years battling PTSD, stemming from his inability to “turn off the ‘war dog’ switch” and readjust to civilian life.
Without a degree — and being what he described as a “heavily-tattooed individual” — he had trouble finding work, particularly in the hospitality field, which fueled Miami’s tourism industry.
“Spending eight years institutionalized, being around this great group of guys who, no matter what, have your back, where if they don’t do their job, your life is on the line, it was hard for me to understand that in the civilian world, things aren’t that serious,” Restrepo said.
“In a lot of situations, I found myself in a corner where I felt like I had to fight. I was rebelling against the status quo. I couldn’t understand how being a military member wasn’t affording me the opportunities I felt should’ve been available to me when I got out.
“I couldn’t deal with people walking around nonchalantly without a care in the world. That was a major adjustment for me.”
He likened mixed martial arts to his time as a Marine, the structure of the sport balancing out the chaos in his life outside of the gym.
“That camaraderie helped guide me,” he said. “Even if I was stressed out, I always had somewhere to train.”
Restrepo eventually turned pro in 2013 and won four of five bouts after fighting to a draw in his debut, developing a reputation as a gritty, hard-nosed fighter in the Miami area, earning him the nickname, “The Magic City Mauler.”
After two and a half years of sleeping in his car, begging for money under bridges, Restrepo boldly sold his car for $400, spending $180 of his windfall on a one-way ticket to Quebec, hoping that moving north of the border would change his luck.
“As it turned out, my passport expired three days after I left the United States,” he said, “so I had to spend the rest of my money to get it reissued. That threw me for a loop.”
Restrepo spent the next few months working odd jobs to survive, either as a waiter or busboy, while sleeping on the street or at train stations, until his sister called him in October of 2015, offering him a one-way ticket to New York to come live with her instead.
“The fall was approaching, and there was a frost in the air. It was a very dark time for me, not having any money,” Restrepo said. “I fell into that rut that a lot of vets fall into.
“Twenty-two million vets are homeless. Many commit suicide. I could’ve been a statistic.”
Restrepo admits he never had a close relationship with his sister, who left their household at 14 and moved to New York, but being together the past few years has strengthened their bond. She has helped him get back on his feet so he can concentrate on continuing his education and developing a skill in order to earn a living beyond fighting. He hopes to one day inspire others, particular veterans, who have a hard time coping with life beyond the military.
“I know who I am, but on the national level I’m pretty obscure,” he says, “so when I see a little kid after a fight and he comes up to me and says, ‘I love the way you fight! Can I take a picture with you?’ that does more for me than the actual fan. It’s a sense of gratitude knowing someone has taken time out of their schedule to come watch me fight. I’m honored.
“I’m sure everyone would love to have it easy and just have a million dollars, but these were the cards that were dealt to me. I don’t shy away from hard work. I love to be in the gym. I love to grind, to make something out of myself. My life has been a good test of will, determination and characters. That’s what I bring to fighting.
“One of the thing I want to do is give back, but my motto is, ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup.’ Right now, I’m working on myself so I can get to that point where I can give back.”
Like most fighters, Restrepo would love an opportunity to compete for the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), but that’s not his barometer for success. He doesn’t put that kind of pressure on himself when he fights. Instead, getting inside that cage preparing to stand toe-to-toe with an opponent trying to take his head off is a break from the norm, arguably the most relaxing thing he has going for him.
“It’s all about living in the moment,” Restrepo said. “I’m getting paid to perform for 15 minutes. I’m an artist and the cage is my stage. It’s where I want to be. It’s where I feel I’m at my best. There’s no pressure. Why would I stress over something I love to do?”
Tickets for “CES MMA 45” are priced at $40.00, $55.00, $100.00 and $125.00 (VIP) and can be purchased online at www.cesboxing.com, www.twinriver.com, www.ticketmaster.com or www.cagetix.com/ces by phone at 401-724-2253/2254 or at the Twin River Casino Players Club. All fights and fighters are subject to change.
The preliminary card begins at 7 p.m. ET and features three bouts followed by the AXS TV Fights main card beginning at 9, which features six televised bouts.
The main card features two world-title bouts, including the long-awaited return of reigning CES MMA Heavyweight Champion Ashley Gooch (10-5, 7 KOs) defending the strap against fan-favorite Juliano Coutinho (7-3, 3 KOs), plus longtime regional stalwarts Saul Almeida (19-8, 1 KO) of Framingham, Mass., and Pedro Gonzalez (11-5) of nearby Gloucester battling for the promotion’s Interim Featherweight World Title.
In a highly-anticipated regional showdown that could steal the spotlight Aug. 11th, rising lightweight star Nate Andrews (10-1, 5 KOs) of East Providence, R.I., puts his four-fight win streak on the line against Maine native Bruce Boyington (14-10, 8 KOs), a veteran of 24 professional fights and a three-time WSOF vet.
Also on the main card, Cranston, R.I., welterweight Gary Balletto Jr. makes his television debut against Hooksett, N.H., vet Nick Alley (3-1, 1 KO). Balletto carries a three-fight win streak into next month’s bout, most recently dismantling Chris Torres by first-round submission on the preliminary card of “CES MMA 42.”
Unbeaten Milford, Mass., bantamweight Kris Moutinho (4-0, 1 KO) battles Erie, Pa., native Brandon Seyler (6-5-1, 1 KO), who makes his second appearance with CES MMA. Moutinho is off to a flying start as a pro with wins in all four of his bouts under the guidance of CES MMA, including an impressive unanimous decision win over seven-fight vet Lloyd Reyes at “CES MMA 42.”
Highlighting the preliminary card, 20-year-old Providence, R.I., native John Douma against Jason Rine (0-2) of Danville, Ohio, following wins in each of his last three amateur bouts.
Ludlow, Mass., lightweight Leon Davis (8-3, 1 KO) returns to face Andrew Osborne (7-10, 2 KOs), the two-time CES MMA vet and North Carolina native who now lives and trains in North Providence, R.I. Osborne comes off an upset win over previously-unbeaten Connor Barry by unanimous decision at “CES MMA 43” while Davis, a winner in his last four fights, makes his seventh appearance with CES MMA.
Also on the preliminary card, unbeaten featherweight Dylan Lockhard (3-0) of Hollis, N.H., faces Cortland, N.Y., vet Ahsan Abdullah (7-7, 3 KOs). Lockhard earned his first two wins as a pro under the guidance of CES MMA, including a first-round submission win over Russell Campbell at “CES MMA 40” in November.
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— CES —