As far as life-changing low points go, Erick Gonzalez was lucky. He reached rock bottom when he was still young enough to make real change.
The fast-rising Combate Americas standout was by his own admission a punk kid who was more interested in getting into street fights and finding trouble in Los Angeles’ South Bay suburbs than he was in making something of himself, and it all came to a head one night when he was pulled over and arrested in his hometown of Torrance for driving under the influence of alcohol.
“That was my wake-up call,” Gonzalez said. “Having my mom come get me out of jail was the worst moment of my entire life and I knew right then and there I needed to find a new direction in my life.”
Gonzalez was just 21 when the incident occurred, and he had been a mixed martial arts fan, so he put two-and-two together: Gonzalez was a wrestler at South Torrance High and, well, was a pretty solid street fighter, so why not put them together and see if he could make something of it?
“Right away I knew this was the thing for me,” Gonzalez said. “It put a discipline and focus into everything I did and it spilled over into the rest of my life. I’m grateful I was able to turn things around before I went too far down the wrong path.”
Just five years later, Gonzalez is making his name as one of the up-and-coming stars of Combate Americas, and on Friday night, he’ll become a small piece of MMA history: Gonzalez, usually a lightweight, drops down to featherweight to meet Andres Quintana in the first of two one-round qualifying bouts for November’s Copa Combate tournament.
On paper, the matchup seems to promise fast and furious action, as there is no taking a round to size your opponent up and figure out how you’re going to approach the rest of the fight. Every minute is going to matter if the bout reaches a decision.
“I’ve put in so much work to up my cardio for this one,” Gonzalez said. “Last week, I ran 40 miles in addition to all my usual work. I’m going to make sure my gas tank is full. Other than that, it’s pretty much been a typical training camp.”
And anyway, this fight sure looks like it was selected because it has the potential to finish within the five-minute distance. Quintana (14-2), out of Roswell, N.M., has nine knockouts and 10 finishes among his 14 career wins. Gonzalez (7-2) has five of his seven career wins via knockout. He’s 4-1 in Combate Americas and avenged his only loss in that span, to Danny Ramirez, with a first-round knockout on April 13.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if this doesn’t go to the judges,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve get similar styles and we both like to move forward and we both hit hard for our size. I’m just confident I’m a little faster and a little quicker and that I’m the one who is going to get the job done.”
And a berth in the one-night Copa Combate tournament would be another boost to a career that shows all signs of beginning to takeoff. Gonzalez’s mom, and the rest of his family, got an inkling just how well her son was starting to do when a Univision crew recently showed up to his house for a feature story.
“Sometimes it’s hard to explain to people who don’t know that people in the [Latino] community know how big Combate is in this part of the world,” Gonzalez said. “When I’m fighting here, it’s like, basically my friends and family know who I am. But then in other countries millions of people see my fights. Then one day a Univision crew came over to interview my family and, Univision is a big big deal in Hispanic communities. When they come out to talk to my family, that’s when they realized, hey, Erick is coming along pretty good.”