By Dennis Fratella, The Gazette
CEDAR RAPIDS — Two fighters from local rival gyms could create a perfect storm Friday.
Cliff Wright Jr. of Hard Drive MMA and Derek Loffer of Down to Fight MMA square off in a 145-pound featherweight feature bout as part of the card at the U.S. Cellular Center put on by Bellator MMA.
The night also includes former Iowa wrestler Paul Bradley taking on Karl Amoussou in a welterweight feature bout.
Wright, 7-5 as a professional, is coming off two very controversial losses, one in which the Indiana Athletic Commission ruled he illegally struck a downed opponent with his knee, although replay showed he clearly was standing.
“I’ve pretty much been told that this is my last fight if I don’t win. I have a lot at stake here,” Wright said. “There’s no excuses either way for my last two fights. I’m not one to make excuses. That being said, I’m very confident, not cocky, in my abilities to go get the win here. My plan is to start another winning streak starting with this fight.”
Loffer, 5-1 as a professional and the owner of his gym, also has a lot to gain. It is his debut fight for Bellator, he was awarded a contract after a win in August.
“There’s been a lot of things that have been said in social media between our gyms, but lip service is free to the general public,” Loffer said. “Being that this fight is in both our hometowns, and we’ll have a lot of fans there, and it’s my debut, if this fight needed to happen, it’s probably best that it happens now. That aside, I look at it as I have a fight to win.”
Although many mixed martial arts shows come through Cedar Rapids, this fight will mark the first time the two gyms will have pro fighters square off against each other. Both fighters have downplayed the rival gyms tag that has been fairly or unfairly slapped on this fight.
“I’ve faced guys from all across the United States, so I really don’t get caught up in that war of words thing,” Wright said.
“Honestly, this has been built up so much by other people that no matter the outcome, whatever happens in the cage, it still might not be settled,” Loffer said. “But I consider it an honor to fight Cliff. I’ve always had respect for (Hard Drive).”
Even though it’s a big fight, Hard Drive MMA owner Keoni Koch also downplayed its magnitude.
“Honestly, it’s just another fight,” he said. “We’re really confident that we’re going to win the fight, but we’ve been asking for competition from them for a while now, and I really don’t look at us as rivals, because in order to be rivals, you have to compete against someone.”
Both fighters share unique stories regarding how they got involved in the sport. Both fathers who do this as a full-time profession.
“I lived a pretty bad life,” Wright said. “Didn’t grow up around wrestling or boxing. I kind of had to start taking care of myself around the age of 14 and sort of raise myself. Eventually my cousin got involved with it, I went to his first amateur fight and I kind was like ‘I think I could do this.’
“I smoked cigarettes for about 10 years, so one day I just quit cold turkey and went to the gym the next day in October 2007. I really haven’t looked back since.”
As a father of two, Wright deals with the struggles of raising his children and training two to three times per day during camp, which normally lasts eight to 10 weeks.
“It’s definitely hard. I’m not going to say I’ve mastered it yet,” he said. “My kids have been missing out on training camp, their mother and my dad have been helping out a bunch, so for that I’m grateful. But, I haven’t seen them too much (and) I’m really looking forward to getting this fight over with so I can get back to normal and spend some quality time with the kiddos.”
Loffer also had rough teenage years. A wrestler at Clarinda High School at 103 pounds, he eventually transferred to Linn-Mar and gave up the sport.
“Man, at age 18 I was so dumb,” Loffer said. “I didn’t see anything wrong with the way I was acting. I was hanging out with the wrong crowd, doing the wrong things and I was carving out a pretty bad path for myself. I look at this sport as if I was in an ocean. Mixed martial arts was that life raft that saved me when I could’ve easily drowned. It gave me something to do with myself instead of just waste it away like I was doing. It gave my life a purpose and some guidance.”
Also a father, Loffer, 25, goes through the trials and tribulations of trying to juggle a 19-month-old son and his burgeoning MMA career.
“I’ve been blessed with my son’s mom getting on board with understanding that this is a huge opportunity for me,” he said. “She’s pretty awesome about helping me out, sharing responsibilities and letting me train and do what I have to do. But at the same time it’s tough. I’m not going to lie. But to be able to have the support system I have around me, I consider myself blessed to be around such good people.”