PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Aug. 4th, 2014) -- George Sheppard almost turned down the opportunity to fightGil de Freitas on Friday night at Twin River Casino.Getting time off work, coupled with the travel from his hometown in Virginia, for a fight on such short notice didn't seem worth the trouble at first, but the chance to showcase his skills in front of a worldwide audience on AXS TV was too tempting to pass up.
"Opportunities like this don't come around too often," he said.
With 23 fights under his belt at the age of 26, including 15 wins despite taking many of those fights on short notice, Sheppard (15-8, 9 KOs) is arguably the most overlooked fighter in the northeast. His opponent, the Sao Paolo, Brazil, native de Freitas (16-5, 5 KOs), isn't too far behind, so it's only fitting they face one another in a three-round lightweight bout Friday, Aug. 8th, 2014 on the main card of "CES MMA XXV," a fight that could make either side a household name.
The 5-foot-10 de Freitas, ranked No. 1 in the northeast among welterweights, trains under the guidance of Team Link's Marco Alvan in Ludlow, Mass., and has fought some of Brazil's most experienced fighters through the years, but with limited exposure in the United States -- only three fights on U.S. soil since 2012 -- he's flown under the radar nationally. That could change with a win on AXS TV, which recently broadcasted its 250th MMA event on July 4th.
"The TV exposure is fantastic!" Alvan said. "It opens more doors to get sponsors and recognition nationally. Gil believes he is very close to where he wants to be. He just needs to keep winning his fights and he will get there. He is very thankful to CES to get the fights he is looking for. He wants to face the best in the division. He wants the toughest fights possible to prove he belongs at the top."
Sheppard might be his toughest test on U.S. soil, even more so than his dominant win over Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC) vet Chuck O'Neil last August. A native of Newport News, Va., Sheppard has plenty of experience despite just five years as a pro. He wrestled from elementary school to college, earning All-American honors at Campbellsville University in Kentucky, a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), before dropping out after his sophomore year to begin working and fighting. He would've wrestled at the D-I level, but a suspension in high school due to fighting set him back academically.
"I had a daughter at the time and I was homesick," he said. "It was time to take care of business."
Sheppard began working security at nightclubs and eventually moved up to armed security, at one point working three different jobs while training for his fight career. In 2010, he competed in the M-1 Selection: The Americas tournament in Atlantic City and reached the finals, where he lost to Jose Figueroa. That year, he fought 10 times, even in between rounds of the tournament.
"Having such a strong wrestling background, I was already used to fighting five to six matches per week," Sheppard said. "Fights don't come around that often, so I'm always ready to go, versus what my coach calls natural talent.
"The M-1 experience was great. It was so early in my career, so I didn't know what to expect, nor did I realize the acknowledgment I'd get from it, and it was one of the rare times in my career when I knew where and when I was going to fight."
Even with more than 20 fights under his belt, Sheppard is still searching for the respect and recognition befitting of someone with his record. He's still forced to take fights on short notice,Friday's fight included, yet continues to thrive in one of the sport's most competitive divisions. He's never lost more than two consecutive bouts, thereby keeping himself relevant enough to earn an opportunity like the one facing him Friday night on national TV.
Among Sheppard's notable opponents are 10-time UFC vetCharlie Brenneman, Bronx up-and-comer Joseph Aviles and three-time Bellator vet Darrell Horcher.
"Everything that's happened to me has been a blessing, but it's hindered me, too, especially trying to find fights," Sheppard said. "The big shows are looking to find fighters and develop them the way they want them to. I book a fight and then when someone gets a look at me and who I've fought, they don't want to put their record on the line.
"I've been fighting tough competition since I turned pro. I don't turn fights down."
Neither does de Freitas, nor can he afford to at this stage in his career. Alvan is confident de Freitas is "the best fighter outside of the big events," so in order to get to that level, he needs to keep fighting the best in his weight class.
"It is a matter of time to get him there," Alvan said. "He needs to keep doing his job and winning his fights and he will eventually get there. It is harder getting fights now as the wins pile up, especially with the way he dismantled Chuck O'Neil in his last fight. He just wants to fight the best guys. He wants big fights."
They don't get much bigger than Friday night, a bout that almost didn't happen, but one that might wind up stealing the show on the most stacked fight card of the year.
"He's a strong striker. Very game," Sheppard said of de Freitas. "He looks like he's ready to throw down."
"It's the same as always. Gil needs to train very hard for this fight," Alvan said. "We respect Sheppard and we're aware of his punching power. Gil needs to be smart with it."
The live network broadcast also features the return of Providence's Luis Felix (11-7, 4 KOs) who will face formerUltimate Fighter contestant Julian Lane (7-2-1, 1 KO) for the vacant CES MMA lightweight title in a five-round bout.
Tickets for "CES MMA XXV" are on sale now at $40.00, $55.00, $100.00 and $125.00 (VIP) and can be purchased online at www.cesmma.com or www.twinriver.com or by phone at 401-724-2253/2254. All fights and fighters are subject to change.
In addition to Felix-Lane, the main card features unbeaten featherweight Charles Rosa (8-0, 3 KOs) of Peabody, Mass., who now lives and trains in Delray Beach, Fla., battling Springfield, Ill., vet Jake Constant (5-4, 2 KOs). MiddleweightChip Moraza Pollard (8-6, 3 KOs) of Plymouth, Mass., looks to build off his win in March when he faces Harley Beekman (6-2, 3 KOs) of Amsterdam, N.Y.; fan-favorite Tateki Matsuda (8-4, 3 KOs) of Boston faces Robbie Leroux (5-2, 4 KOs) of Fall River, Mass., in a bantamweight bout; and East Providence, R.I., welterweight Nate Andrews (6-0, 3 KOs) faces his toughest test to date in a three-round bout against Philadelphia's Gemiyale Adkins (8-8, 3 KOs).
On the preliminary card, Providence welterweight Eric Spicely(4-0, 1 KO) puts his undefeated record on the line against 37-fight veteran Nuri Shakir of Nashua, N.H.; Providence lightweight Keenan Raymond (2-0) battles Jay Bakanowski(1-1) of Northboro, Mass.; welterweight Tommy Venticinque(1-1) of Warwick, R.I., faces newcomer Wayne Alhquist of Nashua; and flyweight Billy Giovanella (5-1, 2 KOs) facesKody Nordby (3-2) of Woonsocket, R.I. MiddleweightsRaphael Correia (2-1) of Danbury, Conn., and Terrell Clark(1-1, 1 KO) of Framingham, Mass., battle in a three-round bout.
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