FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Auburn, Maine (April 30, 2022)
Like a savvy mixed martial artist who allows his opponent to slip up before taking advantage and swooping in for the easy finish, Jesse “The Viking” Erickson is mostly content to let Matt “Ken Doll” Denning spill his guts about their estranged relationship as coach and student and impending appointment in opposite corners of the New England Fights cage.
Denning (5-12) recently exhibited the full spectrum of emotions and withheld few words in an interview with Ryan Jarrell of Between Rounds Radio ahead of his main event with Erickson (10-8) at NEF 47: “The Battle of L/A.” Given an open mic and a blank check for rebuttal by Steve Domenico on this week’s installment of The Room Podcast, Erickson largely let Denning’s catharsis speak for itself.
The road to Erickson and Denning’s showdown Saturday, May 14 at Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn, Maine, was paved four years ago, when Erickson, an instructor at Central Maine Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, informed Denning that he was no longer welcome at the gym. Denning admitted in his interview to physical aggression against a woman as well as substance abuse during that phase of his life and career.
“He made some poor choices, and it was just time to move on,” Erickson said. “You can only help someone so long and try to guide them in the right direction for so long until eventually you’re like, ‘All right, man, you’ve gotta do this on your own. You can’t be my problem anymore. I’ve tried. I’ve tried to help you.’ So we parted ways and everything, and I said from the beginning, I don’t need to drag his name through the mud and air all his dirty laundry. He’s fuckin’ doing that himself, man. If you listened to that abomination of an interview he did, he’s handling it just fine.”
Opening bell time for NEF’s long-awaited return to the Twin Cities is set for 7 p.m.
Now entering his second decade in the sport, Erickson, who submitted previously undefeated Josh “Hook On” Harvey by armbar in his last appearance at NEF 42: “Symphony of Destruction,” ended a two-year break from the cage to accept the grudge match.
“Without going into too many details, initially no, I have no interest in fighting my former students,” Erickson said. “Like normally that’s not something that I would do. That’s not a really good look. But let’s just say I’ll make an exception for this kid.”
Erickson did choose to address some of Denning’s strongest allegations, including the claim that CMBJJ owner Travis Wells, Wells’ son and many students and families affiliated with the gym hope to see Erickson lose the fight.
“They all fuckin’ hate me. Everyone in my gym, they can’t stand me. They want me to lose for sure. He’s 100 percent right,” said a tongue-in-cheek Erickson. “I think he believes his own bullshit, which is the scary thing. Like, what do I say to that? Does my coach want me to lose? No, he doesn’t want me to lose. He’s gonna be in my corner. What are you talking about?”
Denning said there was underlying tension between Erickson and Wells, fueled by the 35-year-old Erickson’s decision to continue his MMA career while Wells allegedly wanted him to retire several fights ago.
“He tends to take a grain of something and try to turn it into some big thing that it isn’t. Like with Travis, my head jiu-jitsu coach and my employer,” Erickson said. “I literally teach classes. That’s what I do for work. I do private lessons and teach jiu-jitsu aside from fighting and taking care of my family. He didn’t want me to hang ’em up for any other reason than he wanted me to pursue jiu-jitsu. He’s told me before that he sees something special in me and he thinks that I could make a good name for myself in jiu-jitsu.”
An NEF pioneer who fought on the promotion’s first seven cards and earned a bout with Bellator in that stage of his career, Erickson has long considered the more diverse environment and bright lights of MMA his happy place.
He also isn’t enamored with the common practice of fighters who announce their departure after one card in their hometown and then herald their own second coming in time for the next one.
“I just love fighting, man … I don’t know, MMA has just always been to me like … I grew up watching Mortal Kombat and playing those games and stuff and trying to copy the moves and shit. That’s always what I wanted to do. Sure, I’m a natural grappler and stuff, but I love all martial arts, and I just wanna train and grow and get better, and I think MMA is the best outlet for me,” Erickson said. “I am getting a little bit older, and with my record the way it is, maybe I will pursue more jiu-jitsu, sport jiu-jitsu matches and stuff in the future.
“But you’ll never hear me say I’m gonna retire from MMA. And some people do it with class and stuff and they really never do fight again, but on the local scene, everybody retires and then in six weeks it’s their comeback fight and shit like that. I’m gonna fight when I feel like fighting. I’m gonna fight when it fits my schedule and my time and my family. My family comes first. My students come second. I come third. It takes a lot to prepare for a fight. You’ve gotta be a little bit selfish. You’ve gotta go do the things that you have to do. I can’t be in everyone’s corner on fight night like I’d like to be, but I’ve gotta get this win. Whether I’m fighting Matt Denning or Josh Harvey, it doesn’t matter the level of opponent that I’m fighting so much as what I want to represent myself.”
Erickson’s all-out style has endeared himself to fans around the region. Not one of his professional fights has gone to the scorecards, and only the first of his six amateur scraps (a loss) did.
Seven of his 10 professional wins are by submission, with three more via strikes. Erickson’s last bout to go beyond five minutes was a third-round loss to Bruce “Pretty Boy” Boyington in September 2014.
“I’ve had a lot of first-round finishes, but I’ve had far too many losses, first-round losses too. You prepare so long for a fight, and it just sucks so bad when it doesn’t go your way, especially when it’s early in the fight like Dylan Lockard caught me early on,” Erickson said. “Fair play, he caught me. But you put in so much work, and it’s just crushing when the fight gets stopped. It wasn’t a bad stoppage. He fuckin’ dropped me. I fell on the ground.
“I don’t say ‘Victory or Valhalla’ just for shits and giggles. I’m willing to die while I’m out there. Going into the fight, do I want to die when I get in the cage? No. I’ve got a family I love and friends that love me. But my mentality when I’m in there is that ‘Victory or Valhalla.’ I’m trying to win. I’m not trying to get a decision either. I’m gonna leave it all in the cage. Is that always the smartest gameplan? Maybe not. Maybe sometimes I should just try to point fight my way to a decision, but that’s not why people are buying tickets to watch me fight. They want to see me do what I normally do, and that’s finish the fight or die trying.”
Erickson admitted to diving into the mud ever-so-briefly in the name of generating heat for the fight, recently posting a picture on social media presumably of him choking a ‘Ken’ action figure and popping its head off.
But given his time-honored approach, it’s no surprise that Erickson finds most of the chatter inconsequential. He added that it irks him when other fighters engage in technology wars without committing to back it up.
“I could be fighting anybody and it’s the same thing. Once they close the cage door, none of this bullshit matters anymore. You can run your suck all you want online and say whatever you want, but we’re getting in a cage. It’s gonna happen, so why talk about it when you can have a scrap already, you know?” Erickson said. “I see a lot of guys online too going back and forth with each other. You guys are both MMA fighters. Just fuckin’ fight already. If you really don’t like each other, have a scrap about it already.”
COVID-19 left no aspect of life untouched, and in Erickson’s case it robbed him of some of his greatest professional momentum in many years. Prior to his win over Harvey, Erickson appeared on Discovery’s “Man vs. Bear” reality series. When the virus shut down sports and business, it stifled his opportunity to take advantage of the double-barreled notoriety.
Like many of us, Erickson stayed home for about six weeks and said he got fat by his own standards. It wasn’t long before he and other training partners couldn’t take it any longer and began covertly working out. That chapter far behind him, Erickson said the aggregation of his workouts at CMBJJ, Recon Fitness, CrossFit 196 and Chris Young and Glory Watson of Young’s MMA has him ready for however long the fight ensues.
“Whether it’s Matt Denning or anybody else, I’m coming in shape. I’m coning fully prepared to go. I just got back from training. We just sparred 10 rounds. I’m ready to go. We could fight tonight. It doesn’t matter to me. I love this shit,” Erickson said. “I’m hoping that it’s not a first-round finish. That might be the case. I hope he gives me a good fight. I’m not going in there just to run through him in 30 seconds. When you fight a guy like this, you have to make it obvious that there are levels to this game, but I’m not in a rush. I’m gonna be calculated and pick my shots and take the finish when it’s there. I’m not gonna go out there and try to just finish him as quick as I can. That’s how you make mistakes and get caught. I’m looking forward to finishing him.”
The recent, unexpected death of longtime friend and training partner Jesse Peterson has caused Erickson to reflect on how his MMA journey started and redoubled his motivation to fight on.
“We used to travel all the way down to Massachusetts to train at South Shore Sportfighting. We literally slept in the cage there numerous times,” Erickson said. “That’s where I got my start before NEF was even around. I made my debut on NEF 1, but I have (Peterson) to thank and those guys down there at South Shore to thank along with Travis Wells, my jiu-jitsu coach.”
Denning’s digs aside, Erickson also said his bond with Wells has never been stronger.
“MMA was never what he wanted for his gym and for himself, but he always supported me and allowed me to start doing some practices, and it just kinda slowly grew,” Erickson recalled. “At first it was just guys getting in a room and hitting each other. Eventually it grew into something else where now we’re teaching actual techniques and we’ve got classes, MMA, grappling classes, jiu-jitsu classes, no-gi. We’ve got a full program now, and it’s cool to see how far it’s come from 12, 13 years ago when I started with them.”
CMBJJ expects to have a full complement of fighters on the May 14 hometown card, including Curtis Ouellette, Nate Boucher and Tyler Parent.
Erickson said the group is more dedicated and requires less prodding from him than ever, and he looks forward to what the sport has in store for them. For now, however, at least one more time, he will take that long walk into the spotlight as their standard-bearer.
“Like I said, I’m a martial artist. I just love to learn,” he said. “Let’s be honest here. I’m 35 years old. I’m 10-8. I’m not exactly kicking down the fuckin’ door to the UFC right now. I do this shit ‘cause I love it, no other reason. I just want to lead by example for my team and represent myself and the martial arts that I love to the best of my ability.”
NEF 47: “The Battle of L/A” is the organization’s first appearance in Lewiston-Auburn since June 22, 2019, and its inaugural card on the opposite side of the river. NEF held 25 of its first 30 dockets in Lewiston. Tickets are on sale now at www.NewEnglandFights.com/Tickets.