By: Kalle Oakes
It is hard to believe that Caleb Hall and Johnny Crafts’ paths have not crossed in the New England Fights mixed martial arts hexagon before now.
Separated by only two years in age and only a handful of pounds on the scale, the two former high school athletes made the transition to the cage from other combat pursuits at around the same time. Hall was a champion wrestler, while Crafts was a decorated grappler in the jiu-jitsu realm.
They are even considering a jump to the professional ranks at the same time … after one final stop to stand toe-to-toe with one another in a clash of amateur champions at “NEF 25: Heroes and Villains.”
NEF amateur featherweight champion Hall (7-3) of Portland by way of Dixfield will collide with NEF amateur bantamweight titleholder Crafts (4-0) of Lisbon this Saturday, September 10.
“I’d say my days in the amateur ranks are numbered,” Hall said. “I feel at this point, as tough as the fights are getting, I might as well be a pro. I just didn’t want to do it too early. I wanted to be a legitimate pro athlete.”
Hall took a measured approach to his ascent through the ranks. Not many fighters stick around for a double-digit number of amateur bouts before either taking prize money or returning to the safety of spectator-hood.
Then again, not many debut in the sport as early as Hall. He remembers getting his first recruiting call from NEF co-owner and matchmaker Matt Peterson while helping a friend, Josh Thornton, train for an NEF appearance.
“He called me out of nowhere and tried to get me a fight on short notice. Then he saw me filling out the information sheet and noticed that I was still only 17,” Hall said, noting that the rules prohibit minors from entering the fray. “So I ended up fighting in September, a month after my 18th birthday. I was hooked from the first time I watched it. I knew it was something I wanted to do.”
Hall won his first three fights, largely on the strength of his wrestling acumen, while bouncing between his hometown in the Western mountains of Maine and Plymouth State University in New Hampshire.
While sparring at First Class MMA in Topsham, Hall heard NEF mainstay John Raio rave about the merits of the Choi Institute in Portland. Hall took the advice and quickly discovered a place where his boxing and striking skills improved exponentially.
“Most of my training has been stand-up. I’ve tried to improve on it,” Hall said. “I figure that I’ve wrestled so long that I can kind of put it down when it comes to training and put more effort in the areas where I need to improve my skills.”
Hall carries a two-fight winning streak. The latter victory was a second-round submission over Erik Nelson for the vacant 145-pound strap in April.
He has stayed busy, rarely skipping back-to-back NEF cards during his time with the organization. By contrast, Crafts had been out of the cage for a year prior to his third-round TKO of Henry Clark for the 135-pound title in February.
“Injuries are what have screwed me over. I should have a lot more fights for as long as I’ve been at it,” Crafts said. “If I’m healthy, win or lose, I think this is probably my last fight as an amateur. I’m 24. I don’t want to drag it on too long.”
Crafts agreed with Hall’s assessment that whichever of the two fighters is able to step out of his comfort zone on the mat will gain the upper hand.
“Caleb is a really good wrestler. I never wrestled in high school, just jiu-jitsu. But with jiu-jitsu, you learn how to wrestle,” Crafts said. “I think people are going to be surprised by my wrestling, and I think everybody’s going to be impressed with my boxing. I feel more confident. I think he’s going to be surprised when I punch him in the face.”
Hall has fought all but two of his fights at 145 pounds and said that he considers that weight class “home.” Crafts dismissed any disadvantage in having to step up, noting that his walking-around weight is in the 160s.
“This is my first time fighting at 145. I’m really excited about it. Getting down to 135 is a really big cut for me. I felt it in the last fight. I could just tell. I really shouldn’t have been as tired as I was,” Crafts said. “And Henry was a good opponent. I was working on things, using more of my stand-up. That kind of prolonged it.
“He’s definitely the best at 145 in my opinion,” Crafts added in reference to Hall. “He’s one of the most experienced amateurs out there. He’s definitely the best guy for me to fight.”
The opening bell this Saturday, September 10 is set for 7 p.m. The current docket for “NEF 25: Heroes and Villains” includes three professional boxing matches, five pro mixed martial arts bouts and five amateur MMA scraps. Tickets start at $25 and are available at www.TheColisee.com or by calling the Colisee box office at 207.783.2009, extension 525.
For more information on the event and fight card updates, please visit the promotion’s website at www.NewEnglandFights.com. In addition, you can watch NEF videos at www.youtube.com/NEFMMA, follow them on Twitter @nefights and join the official Facebook group “New England Fights.”
About New England Fights
New England Fights (“NEF”) is a fight events promotions company. NEF’s mission is to create the highest quality events for Maine’s fighters and fans alike. NEF’s executive team has extensive experience in combat sports management, events production, media relations, marketing, legal and advertising.