FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Auburn, Maine (April 21, 2022)
The namesake of NEF 47: “The Battle of L/A” is no ordinary neighborhood rivalry or backyard brawl. Any honest depiction of the relationship between Matt “Ken Doll” Denning (5-12) and Jesse “The Viking” Erickson (10-8) is sprinkled with plot twists fit for a crowd-pleasing 1980s motion picture about combat sports or even a Sunday School lesson from the Old Testament.
Denning, a New England Fights fixture and Bellator veteran who is frank about losing more than he’s won and the demons he’s battled along the journey, wears much of that drama on his sleeve, as evidenced by a fiery, 35-minute interview with Ryan Jarrell of Between Rounds Radio.
Occasionally tearful, often boastful, and always thoughtful, Denning connected the dots from the promising early days of his career as a baby-faced assassin to his current status as persona non grata at Central Maine Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (CMBJJ), the school where Erickson is a lead instructor.
“People don’t know the history behind Jesse Erickson and Matt Denning coming to the point where we’re throwing hands with each other,” Denning said. “I feel extremely let down by everyone from the Central Maine Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school because no one’s even reached out to talk to me. No one has said anything on why I was exiled from the school.”
Erickson and Denning will collide in the main event on Saturday, May 14 at Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn, a stone’s throw from home for each. Opening bell time is 7 p.m.
Denning presumes that the separation from CMBJJ shortly before a bout in April 2018 was a consequence of numerous admitted missteps in his personal life.
“I made a huge mistake before I fought Bill Jones and I put my hands on a woman, and I’ll be the first one to admit it,” Denning said. “And what I did was not in any way, shape or form the right thing to do, but I didn’t hurt anyone. Maybe hurt some feelings, but I was put in a position where, in that drunken state, defending myself was the smartest idea, even though it wasn’t.”
He credits Erickson, a longtime coach and mentor, for initiating a conversation that changed his life for the better.
“Jesse Erickson saved my life. Erickson was the only person to have the sack to come into the locker room and say—I don’t know if he talked to everyone beforehand and if he was just the one that had the balls to come in and do it—but he said, ‘We don’t treat people like that’ and ‘We beat up people that treat women like that. I don’t care if it’s true or it’s not true.’ He was pissed,” Denning said. “He was genuinely fucking mad at me, and it changed my life forever. I gave up. It was a while later I went through a really dark depression. I was hard into alcohol and drugs. I gave up fighting for a woman and it didn’t even last two weeks after I retired from fighting. So, I just gave up everything I had known for the last five years—all the family from that school—for a woman that didn’t even care about me. It sucked.”
Circumstances of life have continued to challenge Denning’s commitment to sobriety.
Denning said that he “never had a (fight) camp without someone close to me passing away,” and this training period has been no exception with the unexpected loss of Jesse Peterson, an NEF champion and younger brother of co-owner Matt Peterson.
“It’s rough on everyone,” Denning said. “I don’t have a beer to mask any of this emotion anymore. I don’t have the drugs to cope with all this. But I can fucking fight, and everyone knows that. It’s rough, man. It’s life. I choose some of the hardest battles because I know I can win.”
Denning spared no words about why he chose his next showdown in the cage. Among his allegations are that CMBJJ owner Travis Wells, his family and numerous students at the school quietly hope he beats Erickson.
He said his primary goal is to earn more respect from Erickson, whom he has known since the age of eight, and that he is fighting for more than a mere invitation back to a gym he claims to have helped put on the map.
“I put a lot of people in that gym [CMBJJ] because they wanted to beat ‘Ken Doll’ fucking Matt Denning. ‘Oh, this guy sucks at fighting. I can be better than him.’ A lot of people tried. And then they fucked around and found out that the fight game is really hard,” Denning said. “I’m not coming for a participation trophy. I’m coming to fucking knock some teeth out and get my point across that this last three years I haven’t been doing the same dumb shit that I did back then, and I’ve taken my life seriously, and I want my fucking friends back. I don’t care if they let me back in their gym or not. These are people that I hung out with every day, saw on a regular basis.”
Denning acknowledged making his point will be easier said than done against Erickson, who achieved perhaps his career-defining victory in his most recent outing, a first-round submission to armbar by previously undefeated Josh “Hook On” Harvey.
“Don’t forget, I’m fighting Jesse ‘The Viking’ Erickson, the guy who I think has the best jiu-jitsu in MMA in New England fighting,” Denning said. “Better than Ryan Sanders himself.”
In terms of his own advantages over Erickson, Denning said one is the amount of punishment he can take, although he acknowledged that is a double-edged sword given one major upcoming milestone in his personal life – his marriage to his fiancé Amanda.
He also noted that the pressure, due to recent results and status in the local combat sports community, rests squarely on Erickson’s shoulders.
“I feel like I can take more of an ass-whooping than him. I think I know him better than anyone else. He’s obviously learned a lot in the last—he’s a legit black belt in the thing that I love the most. Think I’m gonna go out there and fucking grapple with him? Fuck no. I ain’t trying. I gotta get married the week after,” Denning said. “If I get heel-hooked, then I can’t walk to my own wedding? Pissed. Breaks my arm? Pissed. Splits my eye? Pissed. No matter what happens, I can’t lose. It’s just, I can’t. Even if we go all the whole fight and I lose a split decision, I get subbed, I get knocked out. Who cares? You’re a fucking black belt, this coach at Central Maine Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. You better win. Especially to the drug addict, fucking ex-alcoholic that can’t even keep a fucking job for longer than two weeks.”
All of that said, Denning doesn’t shy away from stacking up his own resume against his rival.
“There’s just a lot of skill between him and I, and we need to settle some beef. Who is Central Maine Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu? Who is the real fighter from Central Maine? Is it him? Is it me?” Denning said. “I feel like I’ve already won this fight. I fought in Madison Square Garden. You didn’t. I fought more than one time in the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. I showed up to fight in the Staples Center. My opponent didn’t even show up to weigh-ins and I got paid and didn’t even have to fight.”
Denning plans to post a symbolic photo on his social media in the days leading up to the fight, one that shows Wells and Erickson in Denning’s corner for his Bellator bout with Don Shainis at Mohegan Sun in 2017.
He claims that coincides with a time when Wells wanted Erickson to retire from competition.
“Travis said some not too nice things about the guy that makes him as much money as he does. Because Travis—Travis owns the gym. Jesse runs that gym,” Denning said. “But back then, a lot of people weren’t a fan of Jesse for the same reason people aren’t a fan of me. We’ve got more L’s than we do W’s. We’re mostly grappling guys. We show boring fights because we like to grapple. All those little things. But deep down at the end of the day, I know that the Wells family want to see me win this fight.”
Those feelings run much deeper in the ranks at the school, he insists.
“The only reason I’m fighting Jesse is ‘cause I know too much. I know who the people in that gym want to see win that fight, and it ain’t their coach,” Denning said. “I know that deep down there’s people that train there, parents of children that train there, that want to see me beat up the coach from Central Maine Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu because he himself has a bad reputation. I didn’t give him that. I don’t give him a bad reputation. I don’t speak poorly of him. It’s not my position. He never did me wrong, but there’s people out there that don’t like him.”
As for the fight itself, Denning said he hopes that Erickson enters the cage with a game plan, indicating that his former teacher is at his best when he’s winging it.
Of course, Erickson has never been able to read a blueprint in his 10-year MMA career as detailed as the one he’ll have at his disposal against Denning.
“Jesse knows that there’s respect there because he was my coach,” Denning said. “He knows what I can do. He knows what I’m capable of. He taught me it all. My biggest focus right now is May 14th. Whether it lasts the whole three five-minute rounds or it lasts a minute, I don’t care. I’m going to give what everyone wants to see. And I’m still gonna do that until I can’t fucking move anymore.”
Denning also doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon regardless of the outcome of this fight.
“You just saw how emotional I was about the sport and how impactful it is on my life. Why would I want to hang that up?” he asked Jarrell. “Sure, there’s some people that I’m probably gonna fight after Jesse that aren’t nearly as good so I can get some back in the win column and have some W’s. Cool. That’s the way this game works. There’s people there that suck at fighting that still wanna fight me and think they can win and I’m gonna mop them and walk through ’em because I fought all the guys like who I’ve fought already. I still have a solid purple belt underneath the best jiu-jitsu-slash-MMA school in the Lewiston/Auburn area.”
Win or lose, Denning hopes his success in giving up alcohol and hard drugs, becoming a family man and continuing his career will inspire others.
“I’m never gonna focus on the negativity in my life ever again,” he said. “The world’s your oyster, man. Life’s a garden. Dig it. Go out there and fucking make something of it, because that hourglass isn’t getting tipped back over and you can’t get any of that sand back. This is the nature of the beast. You’re only here once.”
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.