BENNINGTON >> The sport of Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, will make its return to the area with a show on Saturday night at 7 p.m. at the Mount Anthony Country Club.
Owned and promoted by Cathy Fitzgerald out of St. Albans, Xtreme Combat Promotions will come back to Bennington for the first time in nearly three years.
"We're hoping for a crowd anywhere from 200 to 400 people, it varies," Fitzgerald said. "We're the only promotion that travels and helps local fighters and teams, it's an opportunity to fight in front of family and friends for these guys."
The last event in Bennington was another XCP show called 'Assault at the Armory' that took place in April 2013. This Saturday's show was scheduled to held at the Bennington Moose Lodge, but they moved to the MACC facility, and hope to come back to the Armory in the future after renovations. Other times, the promotion will compete in Rutland, Burlington, Barre or Lyndonville.
MMA has six weight classes, including 135 pounds, 145, 155, 170, 185 and a heavyweight class.
The main event of the show on Saturday will feature a bantamweight matchup between Ian Beatease, fighting out of Schuylerville, N.Y., in possibly his final amateur fight against Rutland native Tyler Stover. Other competitors include Andre Belcarris, a fighter from Bennington, getting a chance to fight in front of his home crowd.
Both Santelli and Beatease fought in the Bennington show in April 2013 — Beatease losing in an unanimous decision and Santelli winning in the first round by submission.
Locally, MMA started in earnest with a group called the Northeast Assassins, started by Kiel Sullivan and Kevin Coon in 2009. They wanted to continue to compete at a high level, but there weren't any amateur opportunities in combat sports.
Santelli wrestled for coach Scott Legacy and Mount Anthony from 1997 to 2001, and wanted to continue competitively after high school. He wrestled for a short time at Norwich University but there wasn't a ton of opportunities after that.
"MMA was an option to compete at a high level of combat sports," Santelli said.
He came back to Bennington and with Coon — another MAU grad and product of the wrestling program — started an informal club in a small warehouse at the Green Mountain Trailer Park.
"Kevin and I trained together and a couple times of week, we'd compete in professional bouts in New Hampshire, there was very little amateur competition around," Santelli said. "Eventually we had 15 or 20 guys coming in to train on a regular basis, so we moved out of the warehouse and into a place on Pleasant Street. We had guys from high school age up to 35 or 40 training."
As part of a promotion called the Burlington Brawl, Fitzgerald was the matchmaker. By this time, Santelli and Coon were mostly out of the competitions, but the pairing between the Brawl and the NEA gave trainees a place to go and compete against other fighters from eastern New York and Vermont. Moving there was a smart decision, as NEA athletes ended up holding a handful of the titles.
"It's a self-support system, steel supports steel," Santelli said. "It caught fire after that, we had to find the right formulas. When we started [NEA], it was mostly boxers or wrestlers or jiu jitsu, but now the guys are training all at once," Santelli said. "The sport is evolving in a rapid way."
Santelli said wrestling in high school for the Patriots had an major affect on him throughout not only his wrestling career but in his life as well.
"It teaches you to be a stronger person in daily life," Santelli said. "It helps you to develop into a competitor. Some of the biggest challenges I had came inside that wrestling room in the basement at the high school."
Santelli remembered going into his first fight with the confidence of a much more experienced fighter because of the lessons taught in the MAU room.
"Some guys would be psyching themselves out, hitting their head into a door, and they had fought before," Santelli said. "I was exposed to the [pressure] every day. Coach Legacy has a system, if you subscribe to it, he'll make you into an athlete."
Tickets on Saturday are $30 for general admission and $40 for cageside seating. There's also an after party at JC's Tavern in Bennington.