Bruce Boyington scored the biggest victory of his professional mixed martial arts career in a bout that nearly never happened.
The 39-year-old Brewer resident captured the featherweight title of one of the country’s best-known regional promotions Friday night with a second-round stoppage of Sean Soriano in the nationally televised co-main event of CES 51 at the Twin River Casino in Lincoln, Rhode Island.
Boyington, now 16-11 in a pro MMA career that began in 2009, was nearly forced to tap in the first round against Soriano, a 28-year-old Providence, Rhode Island, product whose 11-6 record includes three fights in the top-level Ultimate Fighting Championship.
But Boyington, the former U.S. Marine known in the cage as “Pretty Boy,” reversed a takedown by Soriano early in the second round, took his opponent’s back and locked in a rear-naked choke that forced the tapout at 1:55 of the period.
“He fought it off for a second, but I locked it in again and this time was adamant not to let it go, Boyington said.
Boyington was listed as a 4-to-1 underdog by oddsmakers in this battle for the CES 145-pound title vacated by current UFC fighter Matt Bessette.
His win was considered an upset, but perhaps no more so than his ability to enter the cage at all after suffering a knee injury just 1½ weeks before fight night.
Boyington had returned to Maine from a trip to California to train at Black House MMA with the likes of current UFC lightweight contender Kevin Lee and noted wrestling coach Kenny Johnson, and was working out with Young’s MMA stablemate C.J. Ewer when suddenly his left knee gave out.
“I was on my knees, and he made a quick move and my leg got underneath me and turned and popped,” Boyington said. “I stopped right there because I knew it was messed up.”
Boyington checked in with his physical therapist, and the prognosis was at least a partial tear of the left medial collateral ligament.
He notified CES officials, “but I also said I’ve yet to pull out of a fight in my career, and I don’t plan on doing it now,” Boyington said.
The injury limited Boyington’s subsequent training for the fight to make sure he made weight.
“It bothered me right up to the fight,” Boyington said of the injury, “but I thought once I got into the fight the adrenaline would be enough that I wouldn’t feel it.”
He wasn’t that fortunate.
“The first thing I did I felt it, it threw me off and I got worried,” Boyington said. “We’d be grappling but my knee wouldn’t let me do what I’d normally do, so I couldn’t hold him and we kept scrambling.”
Those early scrambles nearly led to an early defeat for Boyington, with only a desperate scramble on his part after Soriano applied a rear-naked choke during the final 40 seconds of the opening round extending the bout.
“He had me so good I was seconds away from losing the fight,” he said.
Boyington not only survived the round, but he also was reinvigorated.
“Even though I was exhausted I could tell he was more tired than I was,” Boyington said. “That just gave me such a confidence boost, so I just kept pushing because I knew I’d get hold of him.”
The end came after an exchange of top position early in the second round, with Boyington taking Soriano’s back for the second time and then hanging on after Soriano rose from the canvas.
“The first time I took his back I hurried too much,” said Boyington, a former New England Fights and CageFX lightweight champion. “When I got that opportunity to get on his back again, I promised myself that I wasn’t letting go this time.”
Potential challengers to Boyington’s CES title reign already are lining up, including Saul Almeida — whom Boyington edged by split decision in their 2016 World Series of Fighting matchup — and Pedro Gonzalez, who defeated Almeida for the CES interim featherweight crown in August 2017 but failed a post-fight drug test.
But piquing Boyington’s interest just as much is the possibility of a title defense in his home state.
“Right after the CES people gave me the belt, the first thing they said was, “How would you like it if we came to Maine?’” Boyington said. “I didn’t get into too much detail with them, but they definitely made a point to mention it, so I don’t know if they want to come up and do a show in my home state, but they’re definitely looking to the future.”
CES, which is based in Rhode Island but staged its first New York show this May, attempted to bring a card to Lewiston in 2016 before matchmaking issues forced cancellation of the show.
But Boyington’s immediate priorities include a return to good health and a camping trip with his family.
“I definitely have to address the knee, and I have a lump in the back of my head so there may have been a concussion,” he said. “I’m going to stay busy. I’ve never been one to hold things up, but I’ve got to take care of myself a little bit.”
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