Patchogue’s Jeremy Puglia works full-time as a heavy equipment operator. After his day job, he spends a few hours in the gym training for his side gig. He just bought a house. He and his wife are expecting a child next month.
Add to all that this: Puglia’s one-year wedding anniversary coincides with the biggest moment of his young career — a mixed martial arts fight on the Bellator 208 card at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum on Oct. 13, headlined by Fedor Emelianenko vs. Chael Sonnen in a heavyweight grand prix semifinal.
“I played hockey at the Coliseum a couple times,” Puglia, 28, said. “It’s like a dream come true. I’m a Rangers fan, but I wouldn’t pass up this opportunity.”
Puglia is one of seven Long Island-based fighters with a chance to compete on their biggest stage yet, in front of what figures to be the largest crowd they've seen. Gone, for this night at least, are hotel ballrooms, converted restaurant spaces and other smaller venues where much of their amateur fights took place.
The group includes Serra-Longo fighters James Gonzalez (Shirley) and Dennis Buzukja (Staten Island), Bellmore Kickboxing MMA’s Nick Fiore (Hicksville), No Limits Kickboxing’s Ryan Castro (Patchogue), East West MMA’s Eric Olsen (Levittown) and Victory MMA’s Andrews Rodriguez (Brentwood).
They all are on one-fight deals as Bellator typically signs a number of local fighters to bolster its card. That's no different than their previous pro fights on the regional scene, mainly Ring of Combat based in New Jersey and run by Bellmore’s Lou Neglia. They are signed for a fight and can earn a share of the revenue from the tickets they sell.
“Logically, it makes sense,” said Fiore, 25, who played football and wrestled at Kellenberg High School down the street from the Coliseum. “You get a lot of local guys on the card. If they have a good following on the Island, you’ll be able to fill a lot of the seats.”
It’s not impossible for a local prelim fighter to get signed to a longer deal with Bellator. Emily Ducote was signed to a card in Oklahoma and worked her way up to a women’s flyweight title fight. Rafael Lovato Jr., also from Oklahoma, is nearing middleweight title contention with Bellator. Reigning UFC champion Tyron Woodley was once a local fighter signed by Bellator CEO Scott Coker when he ran Strikeforce. So, yes, it does happen.
“You want to gain a good win, add it to your record, build on top of those wins,” Fiore said. “That could get you a more sustainable contract.”
Gonzalez, 28, lives in Baldwin now but trains around the corner from the Coliseum at Longo & Weidman MMA. He’s a jiu-jitsu specialist with improving striking, and his seven pro fights (4-3) is the most of any local fighter on the card.
“I kind of think of it like going to college right now,” Gonzalez said. “I’m here to learn. I’m here to progress, get better. The money will come later.”
Teammate Dennis Buzukja, who lives in Seaford with UFC fighters Al Iaquinta and Aljamain Sterling, will be making his pro debut after winning five of his six amateur bouts. The night of his last fight, a knockout win in July, trainer Ray Longo told him he’d be on the Bellator card.
“I was blown away,” Buzukja, 21, said. “I was already on Cloud 9 from winning the fight and then that just took it to another level. Only when I’m there will I believe it.”
Home town: Staten Island
Opponent: Ryan Castro
Home town: Patchogue
Affiliation: No Limit Kickboxing
Opponent: Dennus Buzukja
Home town: Hicksville
Affiliation: Bellmore Kickboxing MMA
Opponent: Jerome Mickle
Home town: Shirley
Opponent: Frank Buenafuente
Home town: Levittown
Affiliation: East West MMA
Opponent: Jeremy Puglia
Home town: Patchogue
Affiliation: No Limits Kickboxing
Opponent: Eric Olsen
Home town: Brentwood
Affiliation: Victory MMA
Opponent: Mike DiOrio