LAS VEGAS — Travis Bartlett tracked the resurgence of the Dexter Regional High School football team from afar this fall with great interest.
The 1993 DRHS graduate, a former football player for the Tigers now pursuing a mixed martial arts career in this gambling metropolis, had a nephew on this year’s team in freshman Matt Bartlett.
And when Dexter’s best season in a generation ended with a 28-27 loss at Bucksport in the LTC quarterfinals last weekend, the 37-year-old is excited about the future of his alma mater’s football program.
“I followed the [Bucksport] game on the phone, people were updating me,” said Bartlett. “Things are looking up for them. I’ve been following Matt’s class as they’ve come up through, and they’re going to be good.”
On Saturday evening, Bartlett gets the chance to resume his MMA career in front of a national television audience when he faces veteran kickboxer Tyrone Spong in a light heavyweight bout as part of the World Series of Fighting’s debut card to be held at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino and aired live on the NBC Sports Network — formerly Versus.
The two-hour telecast is scheduled to begin at 10:30 p.m., with four or five fights scheduled to be shown, according to WSOF spokesman Jim Hunter. He added in an email that “it’s anticipated the Bartlett fight will be shown live. At worst, it will be shown partially or in its entirety [based on length] on a tape basis within the broadcast.”
The bout will be the first for Bartlett in two years, as well as the first of a three-fight contract he recently signed with the fledgling WSOF promotion.
“It’s perfect timing for me,” said Bartlett, who trains at the highly regarded Throwdown Training Center in downtown Las Vegas. “If I go out and lose two fights, then at 37 I’ve got to think about retiring. But if I go out and win one or two of the next two fights then I can look forward. I’m just taking it step by step.”
Bartlett was scheduled to return to Maine in June to fight on the Fight Night III card in Lewiston, but couldn’t get medically cleared after suffering dehydration and pneumonia-like symptoms in the days leading up to the bout.
He agreed earlier this fall to come back to his home state to fight veteran Randy Smith at Fight Night V, scheduled for Nov. 17 at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston, but he was let out of that deal by the New England Fights promotional group after being offered the three-fight contract with WSOF.
“Six hours after we announced the bout, Travis approached us and let us know that he had a big offer from a massive new upstart promotion out West,” said NEF co-owner and matchmaker Matt Peterson in an email. “We want to help people build their careers, so we gave him our blessing and best of luck with pursuing this new opportunity.”
Bartlett had planned to fight as a heavyweight against Smith, and he weighed 252 pounds when he agreed to the Spong bout so since then it has been a steady effort to drop weight in order to close in on the 205-pound light heavyweight limit.
“It’s been diet and exercise,” said the 6-foot-1 Bartlett. “It’s been very minimal eating and working out three times a day, trying to get to the energy level I need without much fuel. My body has adapted slowly, but I feel pretty good now.”
Bartlett took up mixed martial arts in 2007 at the urging of former boxing comrade and current MMA competitor Marcus Davis, several years after compiling a 77-19 record as an amateur boxer before leaving the sport when he became a father.
Bartlett rose quickly through the Northeast mixed martial arts ranks, eventually winning the Untamed Full Force light heavyweight regional title.
After making one successful defense, Bartlett moved to Las Vegas in 2009 and won his first three fights there before injuring his shoulder while dropping a unanimous decision to Robert Scott in Las Vegas as part of the MMA Xplosion card on July 31, 2010.
Bartlett (7-2) will be the underdog against Spong, a 27-year-old Dutch-Surinamese fighter who will be making his MMA debut after an 11-year pro kickboxing career in which he compiled a 68-6-1 record and won two international titles.
Most recently, he knocked out legendary Dutch kickboxer Peter Aerts at a June event in Belgium.
“I’ve actually been kind of a fan of his,” said Bartlett, a black belt in taekwondo who began his fighting career at age 13 as a kickboxer under the tutelage of Don Harriman of Pittsfield.
Bartlett said nine different MMA opponents have backed out of the chance to fight Spong.
“Everyone thinks I’m an ‘opponent,’” said Bartlett. “They look at me and say, ‘he’s 37 and he’s fighting probably the best kickboxer in the world.’
“Hey, I hope he’s looking past me.”
Bartlett has trained with the likes of veteran middleweight Wanderlei “The Axe Murderer” Silva and former two-time UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir since moving to Las Vegas, work that gives him confidence entering a bout against a skilled fighter in Spong but an MMA novice.
“I love the position I’m in. I know I’m better at ground-and-pound than him, and his kicks and knees are world class but striking with our hands we’re probably pretty even,” Bartlett said. “If things aren’t going the way I want standing up, I’ll take him down.
“I’ll probably bring it to him. I’m going to be fired up.”