Daniel in the Warriors’ Den: Santa Cruz MMA pro faces a make-or-break fight, in front of his hometown
Kaiser Permanente Arena will be the scene Friday as Soquel High and Cabrillo College grad Daniel Compton headlines a mixed martial arts card with a bout against Renato Valente that could propel him into the upper echelon of the sport.
Let’s get this on the table at the start: I know nothing about fighting. My weapons of choice in moments of conflict are muttered sarcasm and tartly worded emails.
But I do know this: I know a fighter when I see one. And Daniel Compton, this guy’s a fighter.
He’s 6-foot-3 and a lean 185, with a blacksmith’s beard and the poise of a panther. He’s got about as much body fat as a eucalyptus tree. As he shows me around his house, near La Selva Beach, he moves with the grace of a dancer, but there’s a tension with this guy. He’s got that easy, beach-dude way about him, as many born-and-raised Santa Cruzans have. But he’s about a week away from the biggest fight of his career. He’s been training in one of the most aggressive and violent activities in the sports world for most of his life. And, at 35, he realizes that Friday is probably his best, maybe his last shot at reaching his life’s goal. So, yeah, he’s not exactly chillin’ right now.
On top of all that, the fight of his life is a home game.
Compton, a graduate of Soquel High School and Cabrillo College, will be the headliner at a big event at Kaiser Permanente Arena in downtown Santa Cruz, sponsored by Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA), the Texas-based company that stages mixed martial arts (MMA) fights at sites across the country. Next week, LFA comes to Santa Cruz for the first time and the big draw is Compton, in front of his friends and loved ones, taking on Brazilian Renato Valente, a former training partner whom Compton has known for years. There are 11 fights altogether on Friday’s card, but Compton versus Valente is the main event.
Home-field advantage is historically a big thing in sports, no less so in MMA fighting. “These fights can be grueling, man,” Compton said, sitting at his dining room table. “When it gets into the later rounds, and you feel like giving up, it’s nice to have that support there, and have that energy to feed off of.”
Many locals know Compton more as a football player, as a safety for the Cabrillo Seahawks back in the 2000s. Football, in fact, was his first love, but a back injury quashed that dream. MMA, incredibly, was a fallback. He attended Cal State Monterey Bay and studied kinesiology, the science of how the human body moves. Those unfamiliar with MMA and other forms of combat sports might still hold stereotypical views of fighters as none-too-bright palookas who can communicate only with their fists. Compton, and many of his colleagues, are nothing like that. They come into the ring with sophisticated understandings of movement, injury, nutrition, sleep and other finer points of training. These days, palookas would be at a distinct disadvantage.
He’s also surrounded by a support team, which includes his mom, Angie, once a nurse at Dominican Hospital, his girlfriend, Shanee Martin, who is also a professional boxer, and his trainer, Rudi Ott, a former world-champion kickboxer. On top of that, he is inspired by another former Soquel High fighter, two-time champion Luke Rockhold.
Compton’s record since he turned professional is 8-2, and he’s fighting, literally and metaphorically, to rise in the ranks of pro competitors in his field. He’s now on the precipice of reaching the pinnacle of his profession, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). To engage in an alphabet-soup of sports terminology that might be meaningless to those not into sports, the UFC is the NFL of MMA. Translation: Compton is on the cusp of reaching the prize he’s kept his eyes on for years.
The goal of making the UFC is not only dream fulfillment in its own right, but it has a practical side, too. When he’s done with MMA, he wants to open a gym, and being a UFC fighter will make marketing that new gym a bit easier. The goal is in sight, but at his age, he knows there’s a narrow window to achieve it. And on Friday, that window opens just a crack.
“Every fight is the fight of your life,” he said. “Some people would argue that my last fight [a victory, in Las Vegas, in November 2022] was a bigger fight. But, to me, this is the fight of my life.”
For all its positives, fighting in front of his home crowd for the first time ratchets up the pressure to a maddening level. Of course, Compton never wants to lose. But losing on your home turf? That can’t happen.
“I’m getting calls from people that I worked with, like, 10 years ago or something,” he said. “Everyone I’ve ever crossed paths with in Santa Cruz, it seems like, is super excited and they’re all coming. But I’m not necessarily doing it for them.
“I’m doing it for the coaches that coached me Cabrillo and at Soquel High, the people that invested time into me and knew what I was capable of. And it’s nice to be able to prove to them that they were right, that I was capable of accomplishing more.”
The Legacy Fighting Alliance featuring Daniel Compton versus Renato Valente takes place at Kaiser Permanente Arena in Santa Cruz on Friday, Aug. 18, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $34.50.
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