Amy Castillo and Hugo Dominguez remember the long evenings when they would grapple and fight and clench and punch in the tiny confines of the Patterson Kickboxing Academy. As trainer Mitch Heramia looked on, they dodged the heavy bags hanging tautly from the ceiling on one side, the free weights on the other.
For plenty of reasons, it was a dangerous undertaking for Castillo and Dominguez, who were training as mixed-martial arts fighters, and they had no illusions about the long road ahead. What would amount of the long hours they spent working together? There were no guarantees.
A year later, the two friends and teammates are realizing their dream. Castillo and Dominguez each improved their records in the ring to 2-0 last month, pummeling their opponents and earning unanimous decisions Nov. 22 at the Doubletree Hotel in Sacramento.
The fights were sanctioned by the International Kickboxing Federation and the California Athletic Commission.
“Both fighters did an awesome job,” Heramia said. “They stuck with our plan that we worked on.
“To tell you the truth — and both fighters know this, too — they could have knocked their opponents out in the second round or early third round if they wanted too. But they took their time.”
The Ultimate Fighting Championship might be the holy grail for aspiring mixed martial artists, with its pay-per-view millions, sponsor-drenched octagonal cage and roll call of superstars. But to reach that spectacular stage, the road to MMA legitimacy begins in humble, nondescript places like the Patterson Kickboxing Academy.
“(The gym) is my second home,” Castillo said. “We are a family at the (Patterson Kickboxing Academy) and we all look out for each other.
“Mitch and (wife) Diana are amazing instructors and mentors. They truly care about their students in the gym and outside of it. They work us out hard, but they will be there any time for any reason.”
Castillo, a former three-sport standout athlete at Patterson High, used her long limbs to keep her adversary at bay in her middleweight bout. She punished her opponent with a series of Muay Thai-style kicks and punches, occasionally dashing in a knee strike or two.
“The fight was a good fight, but I have to admit I was left with a couple of bruises,” Castillo said. “But it felt really good being sore the next day, because that meant it was a good fight the night before.”
For Dominguez, the Patterson academy is an MMA breeding ground, the kind of gritty gym that serves as a practice venue and proving ground for up-and-coming fighters.
The humid air inside only supplements perspiration in the wrestlers, kickboxers and jujitsu artists who toil on the mats most days. There are few distractions, an assortment of hanging bags and padded support posts for striking and nary a decoration, save for fliers that advertise upcoming bouts.
“It’s a fun experience; it’s like pressing the ‘go’ button and seeing what happens,” said Dominguez, a former soccer star at Patterson High. “If you’re an adrenaline junkie, it’s the best thing you can do.”
Heramia said Dominguez put on an impressive display in his light-heavyweight match, landing several unremitting blows with both hands and feet.
“It definitely helps that both fighters are natural athletes,” Heremia said.
Castillo and Dominguez fly in the face of MMA stereotypes. Far from brutish brawlers covered in tattoos and prone to rage, Heramia said both are gracious, hard-working and passionate about the sport.
“We train at least two to three hours a night and weekends,” Heramia said. “I take them up to Diablo Grande, and we run up the mountain.
“I believe that if they are in good shape going in the ring, it makes their job easier and helps them to not get hurt.”
Castillo and Dominguez haven’t yet received nicknames — somewhat of a christening in MMA. Monikers add to a fighter’s recognition and perhaps signal an arrival. All of the sport’s greats have them: Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell, Randy “The Natural” Couture, and so on.
If both keep evolving and start stringing together wins, those nicknames might surface — and maybe so will a big break.
“I was always a boxing fan, but when MMA came out, I became interested in that sport,” Castillo said. “Once I started training, I became addicted, and the addiction hasn’t left.
“It’s a lifestyle now, and the respect and honor in this sport is immeasurable.”
• Contact Marc Aceves at 892-6187 or firstname.lastname@example.org.