Finding the Perfect Match: Todd Carlson and Front Street Fights

Fans filing into CenturyLink Arena for “Front Street Fights 12: Ali vs Brock” this weekend expect to see the best mixed martial arts action that Idaho has to offer, with a fierce fight for the bantamweight title belt preceded by some of the most talented young fighters in the Northwest going toe-to-toe. This weekend’s festivities should deliver on that promise, featuring Boise favorites like Jesse Brock, Matt Jones, and a handful of fighters making their professional debuts.

And yet these match-ups scheduled for Front Street Fights don’t just happen. They must be planned, orchestrated with the best intentions for the fighters, the audience, and the overall brand of Front Street Fights. The man chiefly responsible for putting together the ideal bout in Boise is FSF Matchmaker Todd Carlson.

Carlson has been with Front Street Fights from the very beginning, using his extensive network of connections with fighters, coaches, and trainers around Idaho to stock every fight card with top-notch talent. For Carlson, the challenge is to find the best fighters in Idaho to promote and to supply them with the best competition available.

“It really starts with deciding what local fighters we have available in our bullpen. As a promotion we’re trying to highlight our up-and-comers and do justice to the promotion and to the sport,” said Carlson. “We identify here in Idaho who the fighters are that we want to promote, and it really begins there.”

“When I build my fight card, I start on one side and I say, ‘Here’s a local fighter that I want in my Main Event,’ like in this case Jesse Brock. Here’s who I’d like locally to represent Idaho. Then I have to go out and find an opponent.”

That’s not always an easy task, especially when Carlson must find an area fighter that can match up with Brock, one of Idaho’s best MMA talents. Brock is currently under contract with World Series of Fighting, and according to Carlson, his talent and resume have taken him to the next level beyond FSF. Yet the opportunity to fight again in his hometown and to win the Bantamweight Title appealed to Brock, and Boise fight fans will have the chance to see him in the cage at CenturyLink Arena for the first time since FSF 5, two years ago.

Finding a fighter of Brock’s skill level and weight-class in Idaho is a challenge, says Carlson, and in those cases he will extend his search outside of Idaho.

“Once you identify the local guys, I have to use my networking with coaches, managers, and other promoters around the Northwest,” said Carlson. “I go to them and say, ‘Hey, who do you have at 145lbs who is really talented and would want to come fight for us?”

And not just any willing combatant will do.

“I do have a lot of fighters that contact me. Whether I think they’d be worthy to fight on our card is a whole different story,” said Carlson. “We have a minimum expectation of the level of fighter we put on our card, and I think that keeps us honest and it’s a good thing for the fans. They’re going to see high-level MMA action.”

On Friday, that man will be Canadian fighter Noah “The Chosen Defender” Ali, winner of three straight fights. Ali was not the original opponent in the Main Event, coming in to replace Fabio Serrao after Serrao withdrew due to injury. Late withdrawals on a fight card do happen for a variety of issues, but Carlson knows that the unfortunate changes are often windows of opportunity.

“It’s a cliché, but a lot of things happen for a reason,” said Carlson. “When I have a fighter fall off the card in the pro ranks, almost every single time the replacement fight is better than the original. Now when something bad happens, I don’t stress like I used to.”

Carlson believes he’s found an excellent challenger for Brock in Ali, believing there is added intrigue since Brock and Ali have never faced each other. Carlson says that the younger Ali brings strength and confidence into the cage and can pose a challenge in a fight that, on paper, likely leans to Brock.

“Jesse probably should win this fight, but you never know. Ali is confident enough that it’s going to go really well for him or really badly,” said Carlson. “He doesn’t necessarily know that he isn’t supposed to come in here and beat Jesse.”

As a matchmaker, Carlson is always looking down the line to the next event. What fighters will he line up for Front Street Fights 13? And how can fights this weekend impact future promotions? Those are just some of the questions that may be answered this week.

It’s no secret that Matt Jones, making his seventh appearance at Front Street Fights, is in the hunt for another shot at an FSF Title fight. Carlson believes a victory against Carson Frei this weekend in the co-main event would make a solid case for Jones, but he’s not the only fighter with that opportunity.

While Front Street Fights originated to promote Idaho fighters and still aims to do so, the search for the best competitors has begun to extend its influence outside of the state, a point made clear when Utah fighter David Castillo captured the Lightweight Title at FSF9.

“Carson Frei trains at a very good gym in Portland and he’s a really talented guy. The problem with a local promotion like this, as we’re obviously not a national promotion, is that when you talk about championships you almost need to go back and forth. Are we looking to have Idaho champions?’ posed Carlson. “I think we’re at the point now where if Carson Frei wins this fight, I’d have no problem with him fighting Vince Morales.”

While some are looking to take home hardware, others are just getting their pro careers off the ground. That includes a bout that Carlson feels might be the most exciting of the night, when Lino Sanchez and Mario Cervantes square off with each fighter making his professional debut. When pairing fighters, Carlson deems it important that any fighter getting his start at Front Street Fights will be met with a challenge.

“You’ll notice on our card, we don’t give any easy fights. You don’t see anyone who’s 5-2 fighting someone else who is 1-6, but you’ll see that in other promotions,” said Carlson. “When we have someone turn pro, we want a similar talent level in his opponent but he needs to realize he’s in a pro fight now. It’s not the same as his last amateur fight, it’s a whole step up.”

“It’s something I struggle with, but I have two guys just starting in the pro ranks and I give them both a pretty hard fight. It’s not like they’re easing into a pro career.”

Carlson believes that may be the fight where both men come out swinging. Carlson uses Mike Garcia as an example, a fighter who made his pro debut at FSF11 with a submission victory over David Rangel and dominated in his pro debut. Now Garcia steps into his second fight against Brandon Todd at FSF12, a fight that will again require adjustments.

“The thing with Brandon Todd is that he’s a jiu-jitsu guy and a wrestler. He can stand and bang if he wants to, but I think this fight goes to the ground and the stronger man will win via ground-and-pound.”

Just as Carlson is always looking ahead to the next event and the next fight card, he also keeps tabs on the growth of the sport. Mixed martial arts as a competitive sport is still relatively new, with kids classes at many gyms being introduced just a few years ago. Younger fighters breaking through the ranks have been brought up in the sport differently from the veterans, even with many of those veterans serving as the coaches for what Carlson calls the next generation.

High school senior Noah Shultz is a perfect example, with the 18 year old amateur making his MMA debut on Friday.

“Every guy you see in the cage now came from wrestling, or a guy like Ricky Steele who did Karate his whole life. Some guys grew up boxing,” said Carlson. “This kid is the first we’ve brought up whose been training since childhood in MMA and in all aspects of the sport. As long as he can keep his nerves in check and stay calm, which is hard to do in your debut fight, I think he’s going to be really impressive.”

It’s all part of the evolution of the sport, with kids taping on the gloves as early as other children pick up a t-ball bat or tie on skates for the first time. That younger introduction to all elements of MMA makes for a brighter future, and also a more diverse pool of talent. Carlson hopes it will also lead to more women competing in the cage.

“We would love to see more women. There are a handful of them, but here’s the problem. If you need me to matchup a 145lbs pro male, that’s easy because there are a thousand of them out there in the Northwest,” said Carlson. “If you tell me I have to match a 125lbs pro female, there are five of them in the Northwest. So that’s something we’re looking to evolve, and I’ve already talked to several women about the next card. We haven’t seen as many women in the amateur ranks getting involved as we would like.”

Talent, experience, and the constantly evolving state of the sport are all factors in the equation that Carlson uses to complete every fight card. Front Street Fights 12 will have a little bit of everything, and by the time the Bantamweight Title belt is raised, Carlson will be back to the drawing board again.

 

Correction: This article originally stated that Jesse Brock and Fabio Serrao had met in a prior jiu-jitsu match, which was incorrect.