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Promoter returns after 10-year hiatus with Combat FC 1

Joe Cavallaro, center

Two Danas have had a huge impact on Joe Cavallaro’s life.

There was Dana Rosenblatt, the 37-1-2 middleweight boxer who briefly held the WBC and IBA title. Then there was Dana White, an 18-year-old bellhop who introduced himself when they worked at the Boston Harbor Hotel in 1987. The latter would go on to become an executive in the world’s biggest MMA promotion. Both, however, provided an entree into the fight world that would send Cavallaro down the road of promoter.

On Friday, the World Championship Fighting founder returns to the business after a 10-year hiatus with Combat FC 1, which takes place at The Shriners Auditorium in Wilmington, Mass., and airs on UFC Fight Pass. Former Bellator commentator Sean Wheelock will be on the call for the event.

Cavallaro has helped send fighters such as Jon Jones and Calvin Kattar to the big show. He now aims to do the same with a new generation of fighters.

“We were doing that before it was a business model,” Cavallaro, 57, told MMA Fighting.

A longtime training partner of Rosenblatt, Cavallaro got an education on matchmaking from the boxer’s manager. He got his start in MMA as a cutman, flying to Las Vegas at White’s invitation to work fights after the UFC was purchased by Zuffa LLC.

“I learned [the business] through Dana, being around the fights,” he said.

Cavallaro remembers walking out to the octagon with Marcus Davis, a client, at UFC 72 in Belfast. When Davis’ song, “Jump Around,” hit the speakers, the entire arena reverberated as the crowd went wild.

Cavallaro turned the WCF into a solid regional player as the sport exploded in popularity. But a jaunt in real estate turned into a full-time career that took him away from the sport. Like everyone else, the pandemic delayed his return to normal. As prices went haywire, he was drawn away from real estate. White put him in touch with the UFC Fight Pass team when he finally was able to plan a show.

Things have changed a lot since he left the business, Cavallaro admits. For one, everyone’s older. The fighters he used to rely on are 10 older and don’t fight any more. Production talent has also changed.

“Our ring card girls were 22 years old,” he said. “They’re now 30 with kids.”

Then he’s got a streaming deal that puts him on a worldwide platform. He had to reshoot all of his promotional video because his library was shot in a ring instead of a cage. Regional fighters could no longer be his sole talent pool. To draw strong numbers, he needed to diversify – a difficult task, he said, when everyone aims to curate their careers for the UFC.

“I think it’s tougher to get guys to fight tough fights,” he said. “Everybody’s thinking they’re going to get on the Contender Series and that will be their route. So they don’t necessarily take tough fights. They just want to get to 6-0 and then they think they’re going to get the opportunity to go to the UFC. And in a lot of cases, that’s what happens. Guys go in and they’re not ready.”

Cavallaro said he and his longtime matchmaker, Rick Caldwell, have done the best possible job to stack the card. His co-headliner, Salaiman Ahmadyar, is a 7-2 up-and-comer nicknamed “The Cutthroat Assassin.” Ahmadyar bears a large scar across his throat that marks a surgical scar from a tumor doctors removed from his jaw; the tumor was discovered when he took a knee to the nose in a fight and was sent to the hospital. His opponent, Tim Caron, is a Bellator and Contender Series vet. Keith Florian, brother to The Ultimate Fighter 1 finalist Kenny Florian, has sent a jiu-jitsu black belt, Sanad Armouti, who choked out Contender Series newcomer Billy Goff in the amateurs. Fabio Alano, another main card fighter, is a three-time world jiu-jitsu champion making his MMA debut.

None are household names, but they’re a start that Cavallaro hopes will open the door. Despite the challenges, he said he’s lucky to have discovered his passion for MMA and been able to return to it.

It’s also helpful when you have one of the most prominent figures in the sport on speed dial.