Mason City, with a population of just over 27,000, will become the center of Midwest MMA on Saturday with the return of North Iowa Fights.
The promotion is back for its first event of 2022 and is hosting its card at the Mason City Arena on May 21.
Promoter Mike Estus said while he has the best card he’s ever had, it’s been the most stressful card he’s put together.
“It’s definitely heart attack season,” Estus said. “There’s always obstacles. I make sure I get serious people, to begin with, but I have to investigate their records. But people get injured and pullouts happen. It’s part of the game.”
From Stockton to Mason City
Estus, 39, lives for MMA. Originally from Stockton where he still takes fighters to train with the superstar Diaz brothers today, Estus moved to Iowa with his mother when he was young. Along with North Iowa Fights, he also runs Mason City Fight Team.
Being a former fighter with bouts in Bellator, Victory FC and Iowa Challenge, Estus said he approaches his promotion with the mind of a fighter, recognizing all the challenges each has to go through. Estus, himself, has another job at a car dealership where he works 2-3 days per week, but lately, the promotion has taken off and is steadily becoming a full-time gig.
“I learned the ropes co-promoting with Chad Bergmeier and Iowa Challenge,” Estus said. “I kept telling him to bring fights to Mason City and he finally did and it was one of his favorite shows. I’ve learned a lot from him: working from the ground up, doing it the right way.”
And now Estus brings his own shows to his beloved Mason City. Estus is the first Iowa promoter to be able to offer sports betting for his fights after connecting with Elite Sportsbook and Spectation Sports. He started the promotion in 2016 and now the opportunities to expand could be in the near future.
“I am open to expanding it because we have some casinos interested,” Estus said. “The sports betting people want me to branch out.”
If you’re going
- When: 6 p.m. Saturday, May 21
- Where: Mason City Arena, Mason City, IA
- How to watch:
- Tickets are available at northiowatix.com.
- SpectationSports.com is a streaming option for $19.99/month or single-event access for $34.99
The fight game is a family affair
Estus’ wife, Cathryn, who is heavily involved in the promotion work with her husband, said it’s “magical” watching him put together a show.
“He has a lot of irons in the fire and I try to help him piece it together,” she said. “We make a really good team. He knows what fighters go through: The discipline, the eating, all of it.”
Now that it’s inching closer to event day, the pieces are seemingly falling into place and Estus can let go of his chest a little more.
“I’m relieved but I’m also on edge, wondering if a message will come through that something has happened and someone needs to pull out,” Estus said. “I make sure they’re getting the blood work done and I keep it in check, reminding them about weigh-in times, getting gift bags together for the fighters. There’s a lot of staff and we line up security, ambulance, gurney, the venue, the sponsors. I have to balance it all.”
Not only does the Estus couple work together on the show, Cathryn’s son, Austin Robinson, is fighting on Saturday night’s card. The 1-1 pro fighter is coming off a win just over a month ago at Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA), a fast-rising promotion based out of Texas, against Mike O’Gorman. But as a 6-3 amateur, he has fought for North Iowa Fights before.
‘Nothing beats Mason City’
Robinson, 24, also works as a skilled-equipment operator in Mason City.
“Growing up, I watched UFC and never really thought I was going to do that,” Robinson said. “I just thought it was cool, but when my mom met Mike, I thought, ‘Man, I could really do this,'” Robinson said. “He’s been a huge aspect of my life for over three years now.”
Robinson and Estus have formed a bond as not only stepfather and stepson, but also as coach/manager and fighter.
“He makes people believe in themselves. It takes a lot to step into a cage and be willing to get punched in front of a lot of people,” Robinson said. “Mike got me thinking I could do this for money and compete. He sparked that I’m not just some average Joe in the gym.”
While he’s fought for LFA, Robinson said there’s nothing like being home under the lights in Mason City.
“The LFA felt very different. It felt like I’m making it,” Robinson said. “It’s the next step in my career with ties to UFC Fight Pass. But nothing beats Mason City. There’s something about that canvas, the hometown crowd. There’s something different about that.”
Main event fighter feigns injury, promotion says
The main events features a 160-pound bout between Leo Kuntz and Eddie Larrea.
Kuntz was initially supposed to fight Amartuvshin Khuukhenkhuu of Mongolia, but Khuukhenkuu pulled out less than a week prior to the event due to an alleged knee injury he sustained training in Utah.
A Facebook post from Kuntz’ manager Peter Johannes and a quick Google image search shows that the picture that Khuukhenkuu’s camp sent of the injury was actually a picture they took off of the internet of a swollen knee. The fighter also posted an Instagram story from Mongolia around the same time.
Estus said the situation is pending, but Khuukhenkuu will likely be suspended from competition and he is thinking of getting a lawyer involved as he bought Khuukhenkuu a plane ticket to get to Iowa.
North Iowa Fights Main Event: Kuntz vs Larrea
Kuntz, originally from North Dakota, fights out of Florida with a profesional record of 18-4-1. A previous member of American Top Team, he is now traning with Sanford MMA. The 38-year-old has fought in the UFC, Road FC and fought on the entry round of season 16 of The Ultimate Fighter.
Larrea, 40, is a regional MMA veteran with over 70 fights and a record of 23-49. Fighting out of Portage, Wisconsin, Larrea has fought for Bellator, King of The Cage, and Pure FC.
Tale of the tape
Nelly Thompson: L (TKO)
|Last 5||Shamil Zavurov: L (Dec.)|
James Bochnovic: L (Sub.)
|Young Gi Hong: W (Sub.)|
James Warfield-Lane: L (Dec.)
|Tae Hyun Bang: L (Dec.)|
Jason Ramos: L (TKO)
|Islam Makhachev: L (Sub.)|
Jordan Dowdy: L (TKO)
|Ted Worthington: W (Sub.)|
“Any fighter that tells you they don’t get nervous before a fight is lying,” Kuntz said. “It just depends on how you deal with that. Are you able to channel that into the fight or does it become an obstacle for you?”
Kuntz makes his return to the cage for the first time since 2017, a loss in Road FC to Shamil Zavurov. Aside from fighting, Kuntz is a real-estate agent in Florida, managing properties and doing some construction work.
“My plan was always to be able to have a comfortable life awarded by fighting,” Kuntz said. “My time in the UFC didn’t go how I knew I’m capable of, but now I have to out there and showcase my abilities at the highest level. I want to get in with a promotion where I can fight comfortably instead of being a struggling fighter.”
After his Ultimate Fighter bout, Kuntz went on a winning streak with Impact FC and was given a second chance in the UFC. His first fight was just about the hardest challenge one could be assigned: a bout against a newcomer at the time named Islam Makhachev, Khabib Nurmagomedov’s protege and now one a top lightweight contender currently in the title picture.
Kuntz knows his time in the sport is now limited. Many fighters are lucky to fight so close to 40. But as a Floridan with a connection to Nurmagomedov, Kuntz thinks Eagle FC, which Nurmagomedov runs, could be the next move. Eagle FC just applied to hold events in Miami throughout the summer and fall.
“You’re always at the point in your career where wins are important, but I want to take this as far as I can, as fast as I can as an aging fighter,” Kuntz said.
North Iowa Fights Co-Main Event
The co-main event on Saturday is a featherweight championship fight between Ankeny’s Chris Dunn and Sean McPadden of Maple Grove, MN.
Dunn, a 34-year-old logistic management specialist at Joint Force Headquarters, is 16-10 in a career that has included many regional promotions around the country.
McPadden, 26, is 4-1 as a pro with all five fights being in the LFA. Neither fighter has fought for North Iowa Fights in the past. McPadden is also a server and bartender, but he’s looking to fight full time soon.
Dunn trains out of Elite Edge MMA in Ankeny with head coach, UFC veteran Josh Neer. Neer and Estus are also great friends and Estus made his connections with the Diaz brothers through Neer.
“I’ve been trying to get a fight with Mike, but timing never worked out before,” Dunn said. “He’s been fantastic to work with as a promoter. He checks in and he’s nothing but nice to fighters. I’ve known him for quite some time.”
McPadden trains out of McCune’s Martial Arts in Brooklyn Park, MN. Being from Minnesota, he has a hockey background.
“I played for 14 years and was the leader in penalty minutes in my last three years,” McPadden said. “I’ve never been one to back down from a fight. I needed to get out the energy. I walked into a gym one day and got beat up by someone who fought in Strikeforce, but I still knew it was for me… When I’m in the cage, I’m at peace. I go there and the world goes blank.”
Dunn looking for quick finish, McPadden ready for distance
Dunn said he’s excited to fight for the featherweight belt and is looking for a quick finish.
“This is my chance to beat another worthy opponent. He has a good record and a following,” Dunn said. “Leading up to this fight, I feel great. I’ve been working on some new skills, dressing up the jiu-jitsu. Everyone knows I’m a high-paced striker and I like to finish fights. I’m hoping to get out of there in two rounds max.”
McPadden said he’s feeling great as well. He said “simply prepared” is the best way to describe how he feels.
“You’re not going to see me rush in like I usually do. I’m going to take my time. I have five rounds to work in there,” McPadden said. “I’m better in those later rounds, I’m a champion. I’m the cardio king. I like putting people in uncomfortable positions where I’ve seen them struggle. I’m going to put you where you suck and I’m going to show you how bad you are compared to me.”
Allan Begosso: L (TKO)
|Last 5||Emeka Ifekandu: W (TKO)|
Mark Slyter: W (Sub)
|Carl Wittstock: W (TKO)|
Zachary Buros-Nash: W (Sub)
|Lance Lawrence: L (Sub)|
Jason Huntley: W (TKO)
|Will Shutt: L (Sub)|
Jesse Wannemacher: W (Sub)
|Tony Crowder: W (TKO)|
Full North Iowa Fights Betting Odds
- Catchweight: Eddie Larrea vs Leo Kuntz
- Featherweight: Sean McPadden vs Chris Dunn
- Featherweight: Steve Merrill vs Carlos Mota
- Heavyweight: Ryan Fournier vs Mark Currier
- Featherweight: Kurtis Ellis vs Paul Burgin
- Featherweight: Eli Mefford vs Austin Robinson
- Catchweight: John Kennedy vs Jim Stepleton
- Am. Bantamweight: Dylan Stanke vs Draven Lantz
- Am. Bantamweight: Brannon Samuelson vs Dawson Closser
- Am. Bantamweight: Ricky Field vs Austin Locke