FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Portland, Maine (April 25, 2023)
New England Fights newcomer Dalton Rice developed a reputation as a thinking man’s pitcher during his distinguished baseball career.
Now don’t get it twisted. Rice, encamped atop the rotation for two perennial powerhouse programs at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School and the University of Southern Maine, could heave the ol’ horsehide harder than any average Joe in the general populace.
Still, the strapping right-hander was more likely to channel a crafty, wily sort such as Greg Maddux rather than a fireballer the likes of Nolan Ryan.
It’s a style that can either make you a legend of the game or pile up the career-derailing injuries in a hurry. Unfortunately for Rice, a native of Waterford, Maine, his was the latter experience.
Those maladies were the final straw of Rice’s career. He was unable to pass a physical examination with the Anaheim Angels just as he was on the cusp of getting at least a cup of coffee in the minor leagues.
“I went out (to Orem, Utah) to sign, and some things fell through from a physical standpoint,” Rice recalled. “It was kind of a mutual parting of ways. I was riddled with injuries through college. I could never really stay healthy with my arm after surgery.”
No longer the man in the arena after piling up 244 strikeouts in 195 career collegiate innings, 13 total wins and one all-Little East Conference first-team selection, Rice needed a new outlet for his athletic prowess and competitive spirit.
Rice messaged Jon Deupree, whom he met at Southern Maine and knew was in the business of training mixed martial artists at Recon Fitness in Westbrook.
“I hit him up,” Rice said. “I said, ‘Hey, I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Can I come in?’ This was about a year ago, and I went in, and I was hooked from day one.”
And as is often the case for former athletes who are bitten by the MMA bug, Rice wasted no time inquiring about the possibility of testing his skills against a rival in a cage with a capacity crowd following the fray.
Rice will take that rookie walk on Saturday, May 13, when he confronts Zach Danesh (1-1) of Massachusetts in a middleweight bout at “NEF 52: Zero Hour.” The card is scheduled for Aura in Portland, Maine, with an opening bell time of 7 p.m.
“I know he’s a black belt in jiu-jitsu. He seems pretty high-level,” Rice said of Danesh. “I haven’t watched a ton on him, only because I wanted to go into this fight being prepared for anyone. I know when I saw that he was a black belt and he was quite a bit shorter than me, I thought maybe his style would be to try to get the fight to the ground.
“But I don’t know a lot about him. I know he’s 1-1. I know basically what everybody else knows about him. I’m sure he’s very good. They don’t just hand out black belts. And I’m prepared for that. I’m prepared for this guy to be really good.”
Rice was a three-sport athlete at Oxford Hills, including four springs of varsity baseball, three autumns on the golf team and two winters with the Vikings’ basketball program.
It surprises even some of his closest friends, however, to learn that a combat sport was his first love.
“I wrestled growing up, which a lot of people didn’t know, because I went to college to play baseball. But I wrestled from when I was a little kid four or five until eighth grade. My dad was a wrestling coach, so I started young,” Rice said. “I always enjoyed grappling, and I got out of it because of baseball. Then after college, man, I missed the competition, that everyday something pushing me. I have a job. I have a family. But as an athlete and someone who was very competitive and liked to compete at a high level, I needed something.”
A 2014 graduate of Oxford Hills, Rice tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow as a senior and sat out his first season at USM while recuperating from Tommy John surgery.
“I had an amazing time,” Rice said. “Great team every year it seemed like. We had a great team, great coaches, great guys. It was awesome.”
Listed at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds in his playing days, Rice hopes to exercise what he feels are some natural advantages at the 185-pound MMA weight limit.
Rice considers himself a quick study at some of the skills he will need to make a successful transition into his new sport.
“I had never done any jiu-jitsu formally, but with my wrestling background I picked up on it really fast. That was kind of the direction I went,” Rice said.
The initial motivation for the arborist by trade – Rice works for his father in the family tree service business – was to get a good workout and perhaps burn off the adrenaline baseball used to soak up.
“I wasn’t even really thinking about fighting. I just wanted to do something and give myself a challenge,” Rice said. “When you get done (baseball), golf wasn’t doing it. You know what I mean? Golf, I get competitive, but it’s not that same feel. I didn’t get my jitters going, and I’m someone who I always like a challenge in my life and something to work toward.”
It wasn’t long before rolling around on the mat evolved into complete immersion.
“I went to a boxing class, and I really enjoyed the coach that was running it, and I hopped right in,” Rice said. “So it was a fast progression, but it kind of happened in steps. Then as soon as I started mixing the striking in and sparring, I was hooked, and it just got to the point where I knew I wanted to compete.”
Rice hoped to make his debut at both NEF 50 and 51, but one not-so-minor detail got in the way.
He became a father during that time and laughs now at the naivete of not knowing about middle-of-the-night feedings and sleep deprivation.
“I talked to the coaches, and they were fine with it. But I had a lot that I had going on in my life. My wife was pregnant,” Rice said. “I was like, ‘Fall would be good,’ and I didn’t realize how much (becoming a father entailed), you know? And then I was like, ‘Oh, the baby will be born, and maybe I’ll fight in the wintertime.’ So the timing of it just worked out really good for this card in May.”
Asked what he likes most about MMA and how he compares it to his previous sporting life, Rice first noted that the cage craft takes a lifetime to master.
“It’s such a broad sport. There are so many different avenues within mixed martial arts that people could go. You run into different challenges with different guys, and I think that’s what I like about it so much and why I became so addicted to it right off the bat,” Rice said. “It’s so humbling, and you just realize how much you have to learn and how much time you have to put in just to compete and just to hang with some of these guys, not even to be good.”
Rice’s size and background probably give some clues on what fans can expect to see from the novice.
“Obviously I had a background with grappling. That came a lot easier to me. My body moved really well on the ground,” Rice said. “With my length and my athleticism, I think striking is where I’d rather be now, but that took me a while to get good on my feet. I’m still learning. I’m still getting there. I’m not gonna say I’m this world-beater by any means.”
The cerebral aspect of MMA mirrors the acumen and mental toughness required of a man standing on the bump in the middle of a baseball diamond.
That parallel is what Rice enjoys most about his new surroundings.
“My boxing coach (Darren Elder, himself a former college basketball player) talks about that all the time. I love that part of it. That kind of keeps me hungry when I’m training,” Rice said. “It’s so much fun, and I have so much respect for anyone that I train with or anyone that I compete with now or in the future because of that. It’s such a physical game, but it’s so mental too, a lot like pitching.”
Rice commutes a little more than an hour each way to train at Recon.
“The main thing I appreciate about the gym is there’s so much access to information there because of the high level of coaching,” Rice said. “I’d like to be a little closer, my wife and I would, but right now it doesn’t make sense.
“I’m definitely gonna stick with it. There’s no real end goal for me. I really enjoy training. I really enjoy learning. I just enjoy the sport a lot. Maybe even more than … well, I shouldn’t say more than baseball. I like them differently.”
MMA has elements that will remain a lifelong quest for Rice, even when the cheering stops.
“It’s so fresh. When something’s new, you love it, but I enjoy the sport a lot,” Rice said. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop training. And I hope that I get to a point where if I continue to fight and that’s the way I want to go, then great, and if it logistically doesn’t work out then it doesn’t work out. I have no real long-term goals yet. I just know that I really enjoy the sport. I really enjoy training. And I know I like to compete in whatever it is. I think those three things can lead to a lot of success if that’s the way I go.”
High school and college baseball games in Maine often attract perhaps a crowd of a couple hundred fans, depending upon the fickle spring weather.
Rice expects to hear a louder reaction at Aura than in any of his walks to the mound.
“I look forward to that experience for sure. I can only imagine, I had a grappling match a couple months ago, and just that is like a whole different mental preparation,” Rice said. “It’s definitely different than baseball, but it’s similar in a lot of ways too. Controlling your emotions and then staying calm and then approaching it in the right way, I think there’s a lot of similarities between the two.”
“NEF 52: Zero Hour” will take place Saturday, May 13, 2023, at Aura in Portland, Maine. Doors will open at 6 p.m., with the first fight at 7 p.m. Tickets are on sale now at www.TicketMaster.com.
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 fighters and fans alike. NEF’s executive team has extensive experience in combat sports management, events production, media relations, marketing, legal and advertising.