The Chuck O'Neil preparing to enter the cage next Friday is a smarter, savvier version of the raw talent who first stepped foot inside the hexagon eight years ago.
"I'd just fight and say, 'Screw this guy. I'm going to punch him in the face,'" O'Neil said. "That was my logic behind fights."
Nearly a decade later, the Bourne, Mass., native is a student of the game, a technician who now watches film, studies tendencies and prepares in advance of each upcoming fight. The game plan these days is far more sophisticated than just cocking back and firing a right hand at a moving target, perhaps the main reason O'Neil has evolved from a fringe contender on the regional circuit to the reigning CES MMA welterweight champion.
"You'll see even more improvement from my last fight to this next fight," O'Neil promised.
The next opportunity for O'Neil (14-6, 4 KOs) comes Friday, Jan. 30th, 2015 in the main event of "CES MMA XXVII" when he defends his title in a five-round bout against Jersey City veteranManny Walo (7-1-1, 1 KO) at Twin River Casino. The fight will air live on AXS TV, the first of five CES MMA events scheduled for network television in 2015.
It'll be difficult for O'Neil to top his win over Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC) alum Ricardo Funch in October, a fight in which O'Neil submitted the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt via arm bar in the second round, but Walo might force his hand. The 27-year-old vet has won seven of his last eight fights and hasn't lost since dropping a three-round decision to Michael Wilcox in his pro debut.
"He's a very tough opponent," O'Neil said of Walo. "Coming off the win against Ricardo, I came back to [CES MMA matchmaker] Pat Sullivan and said, 'Look, I want a tough opponent.'
"That's what it's going to take to get back to a bigger show. Yeah, I've won three in a row, but I need to keep fighting tough opponents. They found one in Manny Walo. I expect him to come out guns blazing looking to rip my head off, take me down and smash me out on the ground.
"These are the kind of fights that bring out the best in me. I'm healthy and I'm ready to keep going. It's time to make this push and make something happen in this sport."
The Walo-O'Neil title bout highlights a stacked main card featuring six nationally-televised bouts, including a five-round lightweight showdown between CES MMA's reigning 155-pound champion,Julian Lane (8-3-1, 1 KO) of Mansfield, Ohio and Somerville, Mass., challenger Lucas Cruz (7-2, 4 KOs). Lane is fresh off a nationally-televised win over Providence, R.I., lightweight Luis Felix, who also returns Jan. 30th on the main card in a three-round bout D'Juan Owens (11-8, 4 KOs) of Richmond, Va.
Also on the main card, Woonsocket, R.I., bantamweight Andre Soukhamthath (8-2, 4 KOs) faces Brian Kelleher (11-7, 5 KOs) of Seldon, N.Y., while Dedham, Mass., welterweight Brett Oteri(12-5, 1 KO) battles Ludlow, Mass., vet Jon Manley (8-2). The opening bout on AXS TV features East Providence, R.I., bantamweight Dinis Paiva (5-5, 3 KOs) battling Matt Doherty(3-1, 4 KOs) of Salem, Mass.
O'Neil's rise back to the top of the regional welterweight rankings comes more than a year half after his devastating knockout loss to Brazilian Gil de Freitas, a blow he considers nothing more than a minor detour on his road back to the UFC, where he starred in Season 13 of the promotion's The Ultimate Fighter reality television series.
"The big thing was I knew I made a lot of mistakes in that [loss to de Freitas]. It was time to work on my boxing issues," O'Neil said. "I worked on my footwork and movement and began cross-training at Tri-Force, working with boxing coach Dave Keefe. It's a huge difference."
With wins over Chris Woodall and Roger Carroll under his belt, O'Neil challenged Funch, a four-time UFC vet, and pulled out a victory he admits ranks "pretty high up there" on his list of career accomplishments.
"Ricardo is a beast," O'Neil said. "We came up around the same time, but when I came up I was just some scrubby guy throwing crappy punches and relying on last-ditch effort submissions. He was out there mauling people and I'm thinking to myself, 'Wow, this guy is awesome!' To be able to go out and perform as well as I did was awesome.
"I've gone from a submission grappler to a jiu-jitsu practitioner now. People look at me and say I'm this or I'm that. I'm an MMA fighter. I'm prepared to go wherever the fight takes me.
"I'm not just going out there to get a win. I'm looking to make a statement and that's what I'm going to do."
The undercard of "CES MMA XXVII" features six bouts, including a three-round featherweight showdown between Kyle Bochniak (3-0, 1 KO) of Boston and Long Island vet Thomas English (5-5, 2 KOs) and a lightweight bout between battle-tested veteran Jeff Anderson (11-9, 2 KOs) of Pawtucket, R.I., and Medford, Mass., prospect Lewis Corapi (6-1, 3 KOs).
Middleweight Eric Spicely (5-0, 2 KOs) of Providence facesTerrell Clark (2-1, 1 KO) of Worcester, Mass., and South Boston'sJames Murrin (2-1, 2 KOs) battles Baltimore's Robert Sullivan(4-3) in a featherweight bout. Flyweights Chris Cole (3-2) of Andover, Mass., and Dan Cormier (4-4, 1 KO) of East Providence, R.I., battle in a three-round bout and featherweight Rico Disciullo (3-0, 1 KO) of Peabody, Mass., faces newcomer Mak Kelleher of Selden.
Tickets for "CES MMA XXVII" are on $40.00, $55.00, $100.00 and $125.00 (VIP) and can be purchased online at www.cesboxing.com or www.twinriver.com or by phone at 401-724-2253/2254. All bouts are subject to change.
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