The Fighter: Cannon airman pursues passion for mixed martial arts while serving

Cannon Connections: Liliana Castillo Cuhen, a senior airman at Cannon Air Force Base, executed an arm bar hold that forced his opponent, Derek Cansino of Lubbock, to tap out during a fight May 27 at the Clovis Civic Center. The win gave Cuhen his first professional victory in the 135-pound class.

Gabriel Monte

Fighting is something Gilbert Cuhen can’t seem to get away from.

In high school Cuhen got into a lot of fights because of his friends. Now, Cuhen is getting into fights because it’s his passion.

A senior airman with the 27th Special Operations Civil Engineering Squadron at Cannon Air Force Base, Cuhen competes in mixed martial arts bouts, in which fighters overpower their opponents with punches, kicks or submission holds.

Cuhen earned his first professional career win in May during Evolution Combat Sports’ Friday Night Fights. Evolution Combat Sports is a Clovis-based MMA promoter.

Cuhen began training in mixed martial arts when he was a teen growing up in Deming. He said he picked up his passion for mixed martial arts after watching Ultimate Fighting Championships on TV when he was 13.

In high school, he said he got into a lot of fights. Though he only weighed 110 to 120 pounds, he said he never backed down from a fight.

“I was involved with the wrong crowd. That alone puts you in situations you shouldn’t be in,” he said. “It was either run or fight and I wasn’t going to run.”

He said he began training in mixed martial arts as a way to escape that lifestyle.

Training with his cousin, Cuhen found instruction from online videos and from a book by professional fighter BJ Penn. His cousin now coaches the Grant County Punishers an MMA team in Grant County.

Cuhen began competing in amateur MMA tournaments, losing his first two fights.

“After I lost that fight I kinda stopped training,” he said.

And a year later he was called for another fight, which he accepted and lost. But instead of dampening his spirits, the loss inspired him to train more.

“After that I didn’t like losing anymore,” he said. “I never liked to lose, I’d had enough of it.”

The training helped him notch several consecutive wins.

Though he was racking up a decent record, he needed to provide for his new family. With a dearth of jobs available, Cuhen enlisted in the Air Force in 2008 a month short of his 22nd birthday.

“I wanted to provide my child with a better lifestyle than what was available (to me),” said Cuhen who works as a heating ventilation and air conditioning technician.

His passion for mixed martial arts stayed with him through tech school where he and fellow airmen would practice grappling techniques in their dorm room.

When he was deployed to Iraq, Cuhen met a master sergeant who taught him Brazillian Jiu Jitsu. He also competed in tournaments on base.

He said it was after a successful run in a pankration tournament that he felt he was ready to fight professionally. Cuhen managed to beat all his opponents at the tournament including the pankration instructor. Pankration is a Greek fighting art that blends boxing and wrestling.

“I felt I was a lot stronger, faster, the technically better than when he first entered the Air Force,” said Cuhen who holds an amateur record of 12-4.

To fight professionally, Cuhen needed approval from his commander, Lt. Col. Daniel Guinan. Guinan said he allowed Cuhen to fight after conducting a risk assessment of the sport and Cuhen’s experience.

“His MMA clearly provides a positive representation of the quality of our Air Force personnel and the level of physical fitness that we promote,” Guinan said.

In 2010, Cuhen fought his first professional match in a televised pay-per-view event in Albuquerque against a fighter who held a professional record of 6-1 record.

He trained by himself for two weeks and another two with his cousin’s team in Grant County but it wasn’t enough to prepare him for his fight. He lost by referee stoppage.

But Cuhen said he doesn’t see the loss a bad thing. He said the match allowed him to show off his talent to other fighting organizations.

“And I didn’t get beat up,” said Cuhen who competes in the 135 pound category.

After the bout, Cuhen found a place to train with Force of One martial arts studio in Clovis operated by Eric Suan, a former master sergeant at Cannon Air Force Base.

After a day at the studio, he found the school would be a good fit for him. And since both he and Suan have military backgrounds it was easy to build a relationship.

“It’s easier for us to see eye to eye a lot,” Cuhen said.

He said under Suan’s instruction, he’s developed into a well-rounded fighter. And aside from training Cuhen, Suan also helps him decide which fights would be a good challenge for him to show off his skill.

“My goal for him is be the main event (fight) in Clovis,” he said.

Cuhen was part of a co-main event fight in Evolution Combat Sports’ May Friday Night Fights.

Suan said he researches his fighters’ opponents and make sure the fights are even.

“He wants to prepare you for success instead of failure,” said Cuhen who trains three days a week at Force of One.

And the training has paid off. In May, Cuhen won his first professional fight 52 seconds into the first round when he executed an arm bar on his opponent on a missed kick.

Cuhen said as an airman he understands that he not only represents himself in the cage, but also the Air Force.

“It affects the way I talk in the heat of the moment,” he said. “I try to represent the air force the way they’d want me to.”

Guinan said Cuhen represents the Air Force well.

“His focus and training carry over to his ability to meet our mission,” he said. “He is a role model to several others in the squadron and helped them focus on improving their fitness and training regimens.”