Between sporting the consensus top-5 bantamweight fighter in the world, the steady stream of successful fights and the overall improvement of both quality and numbers, it’s hard not to catch the Oakdale Mixed Martial Arts fever these days.
The gym, owned and instructed by longtime fight coach Tom Theofanopoulos, has blossomed to the crown jewel of the local fight game.
The roster of fighters is long and talented and it’s only getting better as each card plays out. Oakdale MMA sports 21 amateur and professional fighters at 16 years of age or older. They range from kickboxers and wrestlers to exciting veterans and promising newcomers.
All have experienced their own brand of success, and each aspires to the type of career developed by Oakdale MMA’s top talent, Michael McDonald.
The 21-year-old slugger is 4-0 in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the clear pinnacle of mixed martial arts and combat worldwide. He’s unbeaten in his last eight fights, 15-1 overall and has landed devastating first round knock-outs in each of his last two contests.
McDonald is ranked No. 3 in the world (135 pounds) by MMAWeekly and No. 4 by ESPN. His last win, a three minute, 18 second knockout of MMA legend Miguel Torres, was broadcast live on pay-per-view. His previous, a 56 second knockout of Alex Soto was aired live on SPIKE and awarded him a ‘knock-out of the night’ fight bonus (his second UFC bonus).
McDonald was back in the gym at the end of July in attempts to rehabilitate a broken hand that needed surgery after his last fight. It’s this injury that removed McDonald from contention to face Sacramento’s Urijah Faber for the UFC’s interim bantamweight championship. Instead, Faber faced Brazilian phenom Renan Barao, who won a five-round decision to claim the interim belt on July 21.
Barao could potentially defend the interim title in the coming months, or wait to face UFC champion Dominic Cruz to unify the belts. Cruz tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) while training for the fight with Faber.
McDonald is somewhere in the mix of potential title shots, but said he doesn’t know what the future in his division will hold.
“I really have no idea what’s going to happen,” McDonald said on July 25. “I’m excited for what does end up happening, but really have no idea.”
McDonald expects to start punching with his healed hand in early August, but isn’t rushing his return. He spends his spare time at his new home in Modesto, where he cares for a nine-week-old German Shepherd puppy and continues his passion for woodwork. The fighter explained he has an interest to build wooden furniture and then sell the items online.
“When I was a young boy, my grandfather would make wooden toys and they really caught my interest, so I would sneak into the shop to see all the wood.” McDonald said. “I took wood shop in high school and that’s where it started for me. I can build anything from furniture, cabinets and toys to little things like cutting boards and jewelry boxes.
“Were planning on a launch of a website where I can sell my word-working. I have a brand that I burn my signature into the things that I make.”
The enterprise is made possible by McDonald’s successful fight career, which took off when he made his pro debut in November of 2007. He’s always fought for Oakdale MMA’s Last Stand Fight Team, where his brothers Brad McDonald (10-2) and Justin Smitely (8-7) also fight. The pro pair and Modesto natives are joined by the likes of Oakdale High graduates Martin Sandoval (8-4), Bill Theofanopoulos (6-0) and Rolando Velasco (6-2-1). Modesto’s Angel de Anda (9-2) and Lamar Reed (1-1) are also reputed as two of Oakdale MMA’s top fighters. Mustang graduates and former OHS wrestlers Buddy Wallace and Michael Gall were a combined 9-7 as amateurs, and expect to make their own pro debut soon.
All train under the savvy direction of Tom Theofanopoulos, a published writer for MMA magazines who has produced big results since the gym opened in 1998. The closeness of the group is contagious.
“Tom and (his wife) Lori are honestly like second parents to me,” Michael McDonald said. “They have both taught me invaluable things that have impacted my life.”
The pair is expected to return home this week from a trip to Greece. The vacation didn’t keep Tom Theofanopoulos from answering a few questions about the future of his gym, speaking over the phone.
“I think our gym and MMA in general is going to explode,” Theofanopoulos said. “MMA is getting more and more popular and I think we are at the right time right now for growth.
“Everybody comes in to work and no one is slouching. We get little breaks in training when a fight comes up, and we usually have fights every weekend. We are always peaking people, so energy is at a very high level.”
Theofanopoulos and his co-partnered promotion company, Art of War Productions, will host a fight at the Chicken Ranch Casino in Jamestown on Oct. 6. Six Oakdale fighters, including female sluggers Anntonette Bernal and Mercedes Campos will contend on the card. Sandoval will fight in the main event. Brad McDonald, Velasco and de Anda will all fight at the Tachi Palace on a Sept. 7 card.