Arizona is becoming a hotbed for MMA fighters and a premier destination for training camps throughout the MMA community.
In 1993, a mixed martial arts competition was introduced to the United States labeled as the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Since then, the sport of mixed martial arts has become a worldwide phenomenon.
This unique full combat competition is like no other, as it incorporates both standing and on the ground fighting. It incorporates a variety of fighting styles, from boxing, wrestling, grappling, muay thai and Brazilian jujitsu to name of few.
Before MMA, college wrestlers had no place to turn to continue their sport after graduation.
“We are always looking for that mat and ground game, so MMA is perfect,” said Michael Tellez, former high school wrestler from El Paso, Texas and current trainer at Eclipse MMA in South Tucson.
Joey Rivera, pro fighter and owner of Apex MMA in Tucson, said “I think Arizona has some of the best MMA in the whole country, starting from the beginning of time, guys like Dan Severn and Don Frye that were pioneers of MMA.”
Other UFC fighters that have Arizona ties include former heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez and Ryan Bader, both coming out of the ASU wrestling program. In addition there is former Flowing Wells High School wrestler Dominick Cruz who is the current UFC bantamweight champion.
The sport of MMA not only has taken over the two major cities in Arizona, it has stretched to the smaller cities as well. The Triangle Academy has kept fighters in Payson active, Soldier MMA Gym in Show Low, along with the numerous MMA events in Parker.
“MMA is such a evolving sport, there’s always new faces and new ways to fight. It’s always going to be popular because people love to see a good fight,” said Michael Parker, pro fighter out of Apex MMA.
Now, the UFC is pulling together some of the best fights in MMA history.
The UFC has become the largest promotion company in MMA and its popular pay-per-view events, reality shows and superstar fighters have made MMA the fastest growing sport in America.
According to BleacherReport.com, in 2010 more than nine million people ordered UFC pay-per-view (PPV) events, which set a record $411 million revenue line. Those events produced seven of the top 10 highest grossing PPV events that year.
Last Nov. 12, when FOX televised its first UFC event, it became the most watched live MMA event in the United States with an average of 5.7 million viewers. The UFC on Fox debut featured Arizona native Cain Velasquez in the main heavyweight match.
“MMA’s popularity may have surpassed boxing and is on the heels of American football,” said Molly Helsel, trainer and pro fighter out of Undisputed Gym in Tucson. While football remains king in the USA, a New York Times story revealed the UFC broadcast generated a 4.3 rating among men 18 to 34, more than any college football telecast through Nov. 5, 2011, except for the Louisiana State (No.1) vs. Alabama (No.2) game on Nov. 5.
The thought of two human beings fighting in a caged octagon can be either praised or baffled by spectators. In the early 1990s the UFC used the tagline “There are no rules!” Although biting and eye gouging was not allowed during competition, everything else was legal.
Now that MMA and the UFC has cleaned up the rules and regulations, the sport is now bigger and better than ever. In regards to MMA surpassing boxing, Executive Director of Arizona State Boxing and MMA Commission, Dennis O’Connell said, “We are starting to see a lot more (MMA) gyms and the sport goes down to coaching, our boxing coaches are getting older and leaving the sport.”
Arizona in the past was known for numerous boxing gyms throughout the state, but the rise of MMA has converted these gyms into hybrids. Tellez said, “Every side of the city (Tucson) there’s at least one MMA gym to train at.”
The sport of MMA is generating new faces everyday, in which the competition grows and evolves around new fighting styles and techniques. However, undefeated amateur fighter Simon Villa 19, from Eclipse MMA, isn’t too worried about difficult competition, as he sets his eyes on a bigger goal for his future. “I’m trying to be the Ali (Muhammad) of MMA, Jon Jones is currently the youngest (UFC) champion at 23, so I have a good head start and hopefully I can put my name into the record books until someone beats me.”