Waterford’s Dalton Rice will compete in his first mixed martial arts fight on May 13 at Aura in Portland against Zach Danesh of Massachusetts. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

WESTBROOK — Dalton Rice struggled to answer. Why?

Why drive an hour each way from his home in Waterford to a gym in Westbrook to spar and grapple? Why put his body through the rigors of mixed martial arts training at all?

When it was suggested that diving into MMA a year ago filled a competitive void that was missing since his collegiate baseball career ended four years ago at the University of Southern Maine, Rice nodded emphatically.

“That’s a good way to put it. Competitive void,” said Rice, 26. “I just wanted to get training, and from Day One I was hooked. If I’m going to be putting in all this time training, I travel an hour each way, I have to have a goal of some sort.”

A power pitcher in his time at USM who holds the program’s record for career strikeouts with 244 in 195 innings, Rice is in the final stages of training for his first MMA fight, scheduled for May 13 as part of New England Fight’s NEF 52 at Aura in Portland. A Maine-based MMA promoter, New England Fights often stages fight cards in Lewiston, Auburn, Portland or in Bangor.

Rice’s opponent will be Zach Danesh, a 37-year old black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu from Massachusetts. Danesh is only slightly more experienced than Rice, with a 1-1 record.


“It’s a heck of a thing for a guy to take his first fight against a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, so I think it speaks a lot to Dalton’s character and desire for a challenge,” said Darren Elder, Rice’s boxing coach at Recon Fitness in Westbrook. “I think (Rice’s) a pretty well-rounded fighter. Being 0-0, we’re going to find out, right?”

Rice hoped to make his debut earlier, but he and his wife, Tayla, were expecting their first child, a daughter who is now four months old. At first, Tayla was nervous about Rice taking up MMA, but now she’s good with it, he said.

Rice’s former USM teammates are not surprised by their friend’s new athletic pursuit. Devin Warren played baseball with Rice and was his roommate when they were freshmen. They would often wrestle in their dorm room, Warren said. Rice wrestled competitively through junior high before focusing more on baseball. He also played golf and basketball at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in Paris.

Dalton Rice, left, works out with Dylan Cobbett at Recon Fitness in Westbrook. Rice, a former University of Southern Maine pitcher, is training for his upcoming MMA debut in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“I consider myself a strong guy, and he turned me into a pretzel. He’s got that confidence you’re kind of born with,” Warren said.

A 2014 graduate of Oxford Hills, Rice sat his first season at USM while recovering from Tommy John surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He finished his college career with a 13-9 record in 44 games, including 39 starts, with a 4.42 ERA. At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds (Rice will fight at 185), he was an intimidating presence on the mound, with a fastball he could bring into the low 90s.

“He had a big personality. He was one of those guys who, you knew he meant business. We just really enjoyed playing behind him. He made it pretty easy for us in the field,” said Dylan Hapworth, another former USM teammate who met Rice when they were 14 years old and playing on the same AAU baseball team.


Sam Dexter was the Huskies’ All-American shortstop and team leader when Rice arrived for Dexter’s junior season in 2015. Dexter watched Rice rehab from his elbow surgery all that season, and has vivid memories of Rice’s first career start.

It came in the second game of the 2016 season – an Opening Day doubleheader against Worcester State in Massachusetts. Rice threw six shutout innings, allowing four hits while striking out nine and walking one. Rice remembers his nerves. Dexter remembers knowing the Huskies had another guy who was passionate about winning, the kind of player coach Ed Flaherty excelled at finding.

“(Flaherty) looks for that in recruits, and Dalton fit into that,” Dexter said. “We all knew he was going to be a special pitcher right then.”

Dalton Rice warms up during an indoor baseball practice at the University of Southern Maine in March 2017. Rice holds USM’s career record for strikeouts with 244 in 195 innings. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Rice earned first-team all-Little East Conference honors after his sophomore season, in which he went 6-1 with a 3.78 ERA while striking out 80 in 69 innings. Arm injuries limited his innings in his junior and senior seasons. But still, in June 2019, Rice flew to Orem, Utah, intending to sign a rookie free-agent contract with the Los Angeles Angels and begin pitching for the club’s Pioneer League affiliate. Instead, Rice came right back home after failing the Angels’ physical. When asked what the problem with the physical was, Rice declined to say.

“It just didn’t work out,” Rice said.

Living back home in Waterford and working as an arborist with Rice Tree Services, his family’s business, Rice reached out to Jon Deupree, the owner of Recon Fitness, and asked about coming in and training.


“As soon as I started, I knew I wanted to compete at some level. It just made sense to keep this going,” Rice said.

One area where the novice Rice has an advantage over Danesh is size. Both are 185 pounds, but Rice is seven inches taller than the 5-foot-9 Danesh.

“Any time there’s a reach advantage, it’s a good thing,” Rice said. “I’m pretty comfortable any way the fight goes, to be honest with you. I think maybe my biggest advantage is just the fact that I think I know how to compete, and I know how to dig deep when things aren’t easy.”

Dalton Rice, left, works out at Westbrook’s Recon Fitness on Friday in advance of his mixed martial arts debut at Aura in Portland on May 13. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In a recent workout, Rice worked with Elder on punching, with coach Henry Clark on kicking and takedowns, and with Dylan Cobbett, an old friend from Oxford Hills, on grappling.

“He’s a great athlete, and he picks things up very quickly,” Elder said. “He’s a big strong kid, for sure. He’s been blessed with a lot of good attributes. It’s going to be interesting to see how they translate to grappling and striking.”

Right now, Rice isn’t sure how far he can go in his new sport. He just knows the competitive void has been filled.

“I have no end goal, really. I like being here, and I like competing,” Rice said.

Since his college baseball career finished in 2019, Dalton Rice has been searching for a competitive void. He’s found that in training for a mixed martial arts bout. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


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