Our interviews with San Diego Muay Thai fighters Jose Lopez and Daniel Cesena as they prepare for their upcoming bouts at Lion Fight 21 at Pechanga Casino in Temecula, California on Friday, May 27.
Photo Credit: Darktide Media/Russell Johnston
On Friday, March 27, Lion Fight Promotions travels south from Las Vegas to hold their first Muay Thai card in Southern California. With an exciting rematch on slate for the main event, San Diego fight fans from Undisputed El Cajon are focused on local fighters Jose Lopez and Daniel Cesena; two fighters that they call family.
Almost every night on Main St. in downtown El Cajon, locals and spectators walk past a sprawling window that showcases a group of fighters battling inside a ring, youngsters shadowboxing near a line of heavy bags and aspiring grapplers rolling on the mats. Any time after 5pm, Undisputed El Cajon is the place to be. And each night, two fighters who have known each other for years and came up through the San Diego fight game together lace up the gloves to live out their dreams.
Jose Lopez and Daniel Cesena each of their own story. A story of how they became fighters, why fighting gave them a reason to live and what they expect for their careers inside the ropes. In four days, they put everything aside and take the next step . . . as friends . . . or better yet brothers.
Lopez and Cesena both grew up in San Diego. They took different paths to establishing their careers as fighters, but on Friday, Lopez will kick off the main event in a 155 lb fight, while Cesena looks to close the preliminary show with a fight at 165 lbs against another local fighter named Francisco Garcia. For both men, the opportunity to fight in San Diego, and on the same card is something special.
“Guys like Daniel (Cesena) who were there with me from the beginning is someone I owe so much too. We grew together over these last few years. We always have been there for each other and now we are fighting together on the same card . . . the biggest Muay Thai card in America . . . that’s cool,” Lopez tells me.
Cesena, the man they call “Panda,” explained that the atmosphere at Undisputed El Cajon is an important part of his success the last five years. “It’s great at Undisputed. Everyone is like family there. With Andy (Murad), Jose (Lopez) Preston (Peters), Kris (Bruno) and everyone there I have a second family in all of them,” he explains.
So how did these two warriors come to this point? Like most fighters do. Through adversity, hard work and persistence, which are traits that show in the way the train and fight.
“I was born and raised in south bay Chula Vista and lived there most of my life. Just like a lot of mixed martial artists I started off in wrestling around 8th grade and then some club wrestling in high school,” Lopez tells me. He continues, “After high school, I was looking for something different and at the time I didn’t want to get into jiu-jitsu because most of my prior experience was on the mat. So I started doing some boxing at City Boxing for a few years and then some amateur fights. In 2010 I really got into Muay Thai and honestly it was the one discipline that was able to keep my full attention where I really enjoyed it.” Lopez tells me.
For Daniel “Panda” Cesena, the path was different. As Cesena tells me, fighting was something that truly changed his life for the better.
“One day I was at the bar and I saw this guy reading a book about fighting and we got to talking. That day I went to a gym with him and we started to train. I trained for a few months and had this desire to start competing. I found Undisputed around then, and since that day I have been training everyday…I just fell in love with it,” Cesena explains.
Not only did Cesena find a way to avoid bad habits, but he also lost 100 lbs in less than one year. He continues, “I was drinking a lot, partying and hanging out way too much. I found the gym and I found something I liked, which changed my mindset completely. Before I knew it I wasn’t thinking about going out…I just wanted to run, train and fight all day. I love fighting . . . It changed my life and made me such a better person. Not just for me and my health, but for my kids also.”
After spending some time at Undisputed El Cajon and getting to know the fighters and trainers, I can honestly say the members consider each other family. Within ten minutes of walking inside the door, you will hear some scream “Panda!” or you will notice that Lopez is entertaining Preston Peters with jokes or stories.
When the fun stops and the training begins, their is one common denominator that takes precedence . . . coaching. Enter Andy “The Tooth Fairy” Murad, a local MMA fighter, and Muay Thai veteran fighter Preston Peters.
“Andy Murad is a guy who pushes people to another level. We both have that wrestling background and he was my MMA coach in the past. Physically there is no matching Andy and how he pushes you. And really more important than anything is the mental toughness he taught me. He has helped me become so mentally strong and makes sure that I know my spirit can’t be broken,” Lopez tells me.
While Murad, a local fighter who has fought at WCK Muay Thai, Bellator and Gladiator Challenge strives to build toughness, the finesse and technique comes from a well-known, respectable Muay Thai fighter in Preston Peters.
“I met Preston (Peters) when I first came to Undisputed and I wanted to learn from him right away. He showed me so much about Muay Thai and got me to a level I never imagined. I work all day, I go to the gym and I listen to Preston . . . and it pays off. Preston just took me to Thailand to train and finish my camp for this fight. I am so grateful I was able to do that with him,” Cesena tells me.
“Those two guys are great. I have absolutely done the most growing in my career at Undisputed and have been able to pull knowledge from guys like Preston and Andy who know so much about the sport and fought professionally at a very high level,” Lopez adds.
As Lion Fight 21 approaches, I cannot help but wonder if pure Muay Thai can make it in the mainstream sports world. With MMA at an all-time high in popularity, fight fans at all levels appear to be willing to learn about the individual martial arts. Metamoris has shed a light on Jiu-Jitsu and high-level grappling and Glory has introduced an exciting promotion for some of the best strikers in the world. Is Muay Thai next?
“I absolutely think Muay Thai has a place here in America among the main stream sports. Right now, a lot of westerners don’t understand the deeper traditions of Muay Thai, but maybe soon we all will. I think Americans love sport and the excitement that comes from a live fight, whether it be MMA, boxing, or Muay Thai . . . anything really. And there aren’t many sports like Muay Thai,” Lopez explains. He adds, “I really think Lion Fight is taking the first step to making Muay Thai popular in America. They have a great promotion with great fighters and I am honored to be a part of it.”
Cesena will square off against a tough opponent in Francisco Garcia, another local fighter from San Diego. While Cesena stays mum on his strategy, one thing is certain . . . he is bringing his tough, relentless style to the fight. “I don’t really know where the toughest part of the fight will be, but I do know that if I listen to my coaches and keep my focus I will be fine. My pressure is going to be a big part of the fight. I don’t like to stop, I will keep going the entire fight no matter what,” Cesena says.
One thing is clear when talking to Lopez and Cesena. Despite having young fight careers, they are wise beyond their years when discussing the future.
“I take one fight at a time. I can see myself fighting Muay Thai for a long time because I really enjoy it. I would love to win a belt and maybe down the road try kickboxing. As long as I have this competitive mentality I can do whatever I want as a fighter,” Lopez explains.
For Cesena, the journey has been rewarding inside and outside of the ring, but in the end, according to Cesena, he is a competitor. “I want to keep fighting. Plain and simple. I hope that this fight does good things for Jose and I so we can continue to get more fights and represent San Diego,” Cesena tells me.
Lion Fight 21 is only a few short days away. When Lopez and Cesena travel north with their coaches, family, friends and the Undisputed El Cajon crew, they will have more support than ever before. Daniel Cesena will cap off the preliminary card in the main event, and Jose Lopez will kick off the main card shortly thereafter. There paths crossed a long time ago, and just maybe, as Cesena is exiting the ring and walking to the tunnel, Lopez will be leaving the locker room for his turn inside the ring where they will likely cross paths once more . . . as teammates . . . and family.