Ruben Saldaña: A Debt Paid in Full

How a former gang leader and MMA could save your kids

By Dane McGuire, USFL Media Relations Director

Editor’s Note: “Statements from Mr. Ruben Saldaña do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Fight League or U.S. Mixed Martial Arts Federation.” — USFL President Jon Frank

All photos courtesy of Ruben Saldaña. This re-print includes more recent photos than at the time of publication. Pictured here is the inaugural U.S. youth MMA/pankration team which Saldaña coached. The U.S. took first place overall at the first IMMAF youth world championship in Rome (August 2019.)

On January 8, 2019, Tim Bissell of the MMA website published an article concerning the criminal history of USFL East promoter and reformed gang leader Ruben Saldaña. Bissell's article is based on a November report published by The Orlando Sentinel’s Leslie Postal and Annie Martin. Saldaña feels these reports are inaccurate.

The Orlando Sentinel reported in November that Saldaña, now a youth MMA/pankration coach and crime prevention mentor, had been terminated from his role with Orlando’s Elite Preparatory Academy (EPA) after a parent complained about his criminal record.

Saldaña entered gang life early and was first sent to prison at age 16. His history according to the Florida Department of Corrections ranges from 1992 to 2014. He was last given a 15-year sentence in 1999 for manslaughter by culpable negligence—a second-degree felony according to the website of the Florida Legislature. Saldaña recalled serving 19 years overall. His previous charges include aggravated assault, robbery, and grand theft of a motor vehicle.

EPA was removed from Florida’s school voucher or school scholarship program following the complaint.

The Florida Department of Education claimed the private school lied about his role as a volunteer who worked only after school hours. The parent alleged that Saldaña was paid and also on campus during school hours. Along with the complaint came a photo of Saldaña outside of the school with Principal Hong Steele at 8:30 in the morning as proof he was on campus during school hours.

The man once called ‘Splinter’ said he was hired by EPA as the coach of EPA MMA and paid but never worked during school hours or paid through scholarship funds.

“EPA hired me as the after school MMA [coach] and youth crime prevention mentor, Saldaña said.

“The parents would pay the school and the school would pay me. The volunteer work at the school was anytime I was at the school during the school hours permitted to do so just like every other parent I volunteered many more hours than after school paid hours, and to this day there is nothing illegal about it.”

EPA MMA and Ru Camp were separate programs with many athletes participating in both.

Saldaña, formerly Inmate 369018, also pointed out that his wife is an employee and his sons are EPA students. He cited bringing his wife lunch, their single car, or meeting other family needs as reason enough to visit the campus outside of his role. Steele reiterated this to The Orlando Sentinel.

The unnamed parent also questioned how Saldaña could have a role with EPA without passing a criminal background check and said that the school “had not been upfront about his history in a big gang in Miami” according to The Orlando Sentinel.

Bloody Elbow also reported that Steele later signed an agreement to not hire anyone who can’t pass the background check. According to Saldaña, he did so even though The Orlando Sentinel noted manslaughter would disqualify him if he were an employee working during school hours.

Saldaña also said that at no point did Bloody Elbow attempt to contact him for original comment and instead relied on The Sentinel. This is despite the fact that a digital USFL East event flyer with his still active cell phone number is featured in Bissell’s article.

“The background screening [the articles] keep saying I ‘failed’ was only for teachers who work during school hours. I was neither Saldaña said.

“My background screening at the discretion of the private school was to clear crimes against children and sex charges. I cleared not only the school background screening, which was sent to the Department of Education before the parent complaint, but also with the United States Fight League.”

The Department of Education previously questioned the school about this matter in January.

“The laws governing scholarship programs do not address the staffing requirements for after-school programs,” department spokesperson Meghan Collins wrote to The Orlando Sentinel in an email.

Flyers which openly mention Saldaña’s criminal record were posted in various locations throughout the school including the window of the front office where the Ru Camp founder said it has remained since the start of the 2018-19 school year. Saldaña said in order to post the flyers, administrative clearance was needed.

“He’s been very honest with every parent who is in our program and they appreciate him keeping them in school, off the streets,” Steele told The Orlando Sentinel.

EPA was also removed from the scholarship program, which funds the school, due to failure to “submit national exam test scores for tax-credit scholarship students who attended during the 2017-18,” which is required by Florida law according to The Orlando Sentinel.

Saldaña disputed this as well, saying, “The school proved that they did turn over the requirements with emails. Only one student wasn’t turned in which they did right away.”

However, EPA was readmitted into the program shortly after Saldaña’s removal. Saldaña felt this was a way of “blackmailing the school.” He said that the Florida Department of Education refused to interview him or others at the school about the situation although he offered to speak to them. He considers this a violation of due process rights.

USFL President Jon Frank, a former Marine and retired U.S. Marshall, is well aware of this situation and brought Saldaña into the organization because of his background.

“I have known about his background and was looking for others with a gang history who have shown beyond a doubt they have reformed to work in conjunction with the character development program that is being created,” Frank said.

“We have done a proud interview together showing how a retired law enforcement agent and an ex-gang member came together. Ruben is different because he doesn't preach, he ‘does.’ He volunteered for five years to train kids in the streets without any publicity whatsoever and always presents a genuine, warm and positive attitude even when no one is looking.

He was eager to complete our criminal history screening and obtain letters of recommendation for our waiver, he has completed federal Safe Sport training and other required youth health and safety training.”

Saldaña said he turned his life over to God and has had a clean record since his last prison term. While he doesn’t go into full detail, Saldaña also voluntarily informs his pupils of his past in an effort to keep them from making similar mistakes.

“I realized that when I caught those murder charges that I was being loyal to a fictitious lifestyle,” Saldaña said. “I wasn’t born a gangster. I come from great, honorable, military parents but when my parents got divorced the streets became daddy. Mom became prison.”

"When you stick a child into prison it doesn’t make them any better because now they are being molded by other criminals. This is what I was a product of. I’m not looking for excuses, I made a lot of dumb decisions,” Saldaña said. "When I became 18 I could have chosen to not make dumb decisions anymore but I was brainwashed by that time so I needed new brainwashing.”

Since the roughly 50-student program ended its relationship with EPA, Saldaña has not lost a single student. In fact, he estimates the program has grown by roughly 30 students. The camp has also expanded into Uganda, Africa and his volunteer work with the USFL continues.

Saldaña said there have been zero arrests during five years of training hundreds of youth athletes from the most crime-ridden neighborhoods while the children were under his program’s watch. There have also been no medical incidents during training or competitions requiring an ambulance.

Ru Camp is a registered team with the USFL and follows rules against strikes to the head. EPA MMA was also a registered USFL team at the time. The camp now conducts MMA training in a ministry and trains homeless youth as well. Still, there is far more going on than just hitting pads.

“[For] the first 45 minutes we give them the spiritual enrichment. They are the body of Christ. Their body does need to be strong in order to keep the spirit of God, and then we do our training for about an hour and a half to two hours outside,” Saldaña said. “We don’t have an indoor gym and we’re perfectly cool with that.”

The free Ru Camp program is the top-ranked program in the eastern U.S. according to Saldaña. They have champions in youth pankration/MMA, boxing, and Muay Thai at every level. He also noted that a crucial part of his work is youth character development.

“We sit the kids down after our training for about 45 minutes and this is where we open up with the character development, what’s expected of them, the respect, the responsibilities,” Saldaña said. “Our secretary just graduated from a law enforcement college at 19 years old. Our first female kickboxer is already enlisted to go into the Marines as soon as she graduates from high school,” he added.

“These kids are becoming everything that I should have become when I was younger, but I didn’t have people doing what I’m doing for them right now. The result speaks for itself.”

While independent of the USFL and its decision making, the 18-and-up affiliate USA Mixed Martial Arts Federation has voiced its support of Jon Frank. After learning of Saldaña’s background UMMAF Vice President Ryan Brueggeman said, “He’s even with the house. He’s done his time.”