It was in 2006 when Jorge De La Noval made the decision to get into mixed martial arts. He'd just survived a health scare that included heart surgery, and at 26 years old, the perspective that comes with facing mortality followed. Instead of chasing dollar signs as he had with his previous business, it was time to do something he loved. He's still doing that, even though after promoting 10 Championship Fighting Alliance cards, he's yet to turn a profit.
Friday night's event, which stars the headline-grabbing transgender fighter Fallon Fox in a featured role, won't end that stretch of bleeding money. This event won't, and neither likely will the next one, or the next one. Yet De La Noval is undeterred, determined to take advantage of the spotlight that has suddenly come towards his promotion after a surprise revelation.
"Do I plan on competing with the UFC one day? If I tell you no, I'm limiting my dreams," he told MMA Fighting. "Are we ready to compete with them now? Of course not. The way I'm looking at, if I'm comparing it to a fighter, this is my first fight. It's going to take time and investment to create a platform where we can compete."
That vision didn't always include women. It wasn't until CFA's last event that De La Noval cooked up a tournament format to include women. At the time of that announcement, there was little fanfare, but things exploded after its opening round, after Fox revealed to Sports Illustrated that she had been born male.
When that news broke, reaction followed in every conceivable direction, from ignorant hate speech to complete acceptance. Professionally, the debate centered on one thing: whether someone born a man should be able to compete against women in a combat sport. While some felt there was insufficient scientific proof that Fox had no physical advantage from being born a male, others were satisfied that her years of hormone therapy had stripped her of any edge.
Fox became a topic hot enough that mainstream outlets as varied as TMZ and The New York Times have followed her story. Of course, many female MMA stars were asked their thoughts as well, with some like UFC bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey saying Fox should be precluded from competing in women's MMA, and others like veteran Julie Kedzie welcoming Fox into the women's fight game.
In CFA, there were many initial concerns from the female fighters, De La Noval said, but that didn't last for long, as they learned more about Fox's therapy, and saw the attention she began receiving. Since then, all of the remaining tournament contestants have signed amendments to their contracts stating they are willing to fight Fox.
Allanna Jones shared a locker room with Fox in March. The two were able to celebrate victories on the same night. As Jones recalls it, Fox seemed like a nice, polite person.
"We both shared that experience," Jones told MMA Fighting. "Every fighter, and me and Fallon, we share the same dream. We want to be successful and fight the best. We want to pursue a dream."
At the time, Jones had no idea of Fox's secret. When she found out alongside the rest of the sporting world, Jones said she didn't immediately decide to go through with her semifinal fight against Fox. Instead, she decided to research the subject, and she saw enough to believe the playing field was level. Against the objection of some of her loved ones and confidantes, including her manager, she accepted the fight.
"i know people were kind of shocked by it and I was a little shocked by it too," she said. "I was mostly upset because she didn’t come clean in the beginning, before the tournament ever started. I think that would be a normal reaction from anyone. I felt like that's something you should be honest about. I felt like women should have the choice to fight her, and that they'd almost been tricked into it. Not that she was trying to trick them, but I think it would have been better if she said it in the beginning. I could also put myself in her position and think about it from her point of view. I could understand that she didn't want to deal with the backlash, but I guess it's something she was going to have to deal with."
Jones grew up playing basketball and track, and initially joined an MMA class because her brother Victor was interested in the sport, but also because she wanted to lose weight. At the time, she tipped the scales at over 200 pounds.
From the first day, she was hooked, spending 12 hours at the gym, 9 am to 9 pm, trying to soak it up. At the time -- this was back in 2009 -- competition wasn't forefront on her mind. But she also couldn't lie to herself. She knew it was something she wanted to try.
Upon competing for the first time, Jones' love affair with the sport only grew. The rush of fighting in front of an electric live crowd was something that couldn't be replicated.
Recently, the 26-year-old Jones tried out for the upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter. That was a thrill, and she still harbors the dream of eventually fighting in the UFC, but she's fully cognizant of the possibility that Friday is as big as it will get for her. The BankUnited Center in Coral Gables, Florida holds around 8,000 fans. The event will also be broadcast live on AXS TV. While her fight with Fox isn't officially the main event -- that designation goes to veterans Travis Wiuff and Mike Kyle -- it sure seems that way, dwarfing the headliner in terms of attention.
"I want the fans to support me because they want to see me win, not because they want bad things to happen to Fallon Fox," she said. "She's human just like we all are. She has feelings, too. I just want everything to be positive."
De La Noval is hopeful they will be. He said after promoting 10 events, the organization has never even had a fight in the stands. That's by design, he says, as the promotion works to present an upscale event where fans are comfortable dressing up and presenting themselves with class. The behavior usually follows suit, he says.
But just in case, they are taking additional precautions, hiring extra security to keep an eye on Fox. The Florida State Boxing Commission, which will oversee the event, is taking extra steps as well, requiring blood tests from Fox to check her testosterone levels and ensure they are not higher than average for a female.
Like Fox and Jones, De La Noval has big hopes for Friday night. He views the wide exposure as another step in building his brand. But whether his drawing card Fox wins or Jones stops her momentum, the CFA leader thinks this is a significant step in an undeniable climb. Building a promotion takes seminal moments. The opportunity is here, and he can't let it pass.
"Everybody in MMA is going to be watching," he said. "They're going to see how committed we are to the sport. We're not basing this company on Fallon Fox. We're not making the investment based on one fighter. It just happens that we have her and that she has a lot of momentum going. It's bringing a lot of attention, and everyone is going to try to enjoy it and take advantage of all that attention and exposure. This is an opportunity you can't even pay to create. It happens when it happens, so we're all doing the best we can with it."