Fast-growing Arizona and the fast-growing sport of mixed martial arts have become bedfellows over the past 12 years, as the state has become an all-inclusive hotbed for MMA camps and fighters. Now, two gyms separated by 48 miles of blacktop and three local promotions with different levels of financial backing struggle for the whimsical attention of sports fans across a busy metropolitan area.
The gyms are household names nationally, with the MMA Lab and Power MMA Team housing multiple UFC fighters. On the promotional end, Rage in the Cage remains the old dog in the game, with competitors The Coalition of Combat and World Fighting Federation each hoping to carve out their own niches. However, what seems like the perfect marriage of homegrown talent and local spotlight often turns into dysfunctional family squabbles.
For better or worse, Arizona MMA talk begins and many times ends with the longstanding Rage in the Cage promotion. The baby of promoter Roland Sarria, RITC has presided over nearly 1,700 mixed martial arts matches in the state. Rage in the Cage held 10 events in 2011 and plans to expand beyond its core product into other areas of combat sports in 2012. However, three months into the year, the promotion has only booked one MMA event with professional bouts on the card.
“They have all failed, including some major shows that came here. Arizona is a funny state. I can’t figure it out yet. It’s mind-boggling. I don’t know if there is too much to do here or we need a bigger fan base,” Sarria told Sherdog.com. “Yes, I do think there is room for other shows, but they have to be a really small production:  to 800 people. It doesn’t matter how many people go to your show. At the end of the day, it matters how many people paid.”
In order to expand his slice of the pie, Sarria and the Rage in Cage brand have tried their hands at everything from kickboxing, gyms and grappling tournaments to clothing lines and, most recently, a series of weekly all-amateur fight cards. After 14 years of promoting, Sarria offers advice to anyone trying to crack into the regional MMA game.
“Be prepared to lose a lot of money because people in Arizona don’t have a lot of spending money. I find it to be more difficult, now more than ever, over the last two years,” Sarria said. “MMA is not as big as everyone thinks it is; it’s big for the UFC, but look how much money they spent over the years to turn the tide. I would say that 99 percent of MMA promoters are losing their butts.”
As the new kid on the block, The Coalition of Combat bills itself as a fighter-friendly MMA company. With a background in business, eight years of MMA training and knowledge of the Ohio MMA scene, The Coalition of Combat CEO Asher Lutz sees the need for sweeping changes to all current Arizona MMA promotions.
“When I got to attend some of the live events out here, I realized just how shoddy some of these promotions are and how so many people down here complain about them. Also, the lack of illustrious history in promoting that Arizona has is just terrible,” Lutz said. “I can draw five random shows out of a hat of 20 in Ohio, and most of them will be good. Down here, it is the exact opposite, so much so that you’re really gambling in spending any kind of money seeing an MMA show down here. I saw a window of opportunity down here. I saw a depressed market for a quality MMA show, and I decided I wanted to be that person.”
When asked about the most difficult aspect of building an MMA startup in Arizona, Lutz pointed to the previously burned bridges.
“Sponsors [and] people down here have been tainted so [badly] by two promotions -- that I will not name -- that have really jaded people’s sense of MMA promotions. Local businesses are very, very reluctant to invest any money into MMA shows,” Lutz said. “They have been promised the world and not delivered a 10th of that. I’ve heard stories of MMA promotions here in Arizona taking sponsorship money and not doing anything with it, not putting it into anything. That’s just sad. When I see people trying to bleed the sport dry for money, it’s sad; it really is.”
The Coalition of Combat made its debut to mixed reviews in downtown Phoenix in February. The promotion anticipates holding its second show sometime this summer and has positioned itself as an alternative to the current Arizona promotional status quo.
A key cog in the rise of the Arizona MMA scene over the several years was the Arizona State University wrestling program morphing into a quasi-cage fighting trade school. No two men recognized the wrestling-MMA connection more than former Sun Devil wrestling coaches Al Fuentes and Thom Ortiz, who now preside as CEOs of the World Fighting Federation. Ortiz coached current UFC fighters like Cain Velasquez, C.B. Dollaway and Ryan Bader when they were at Arizona State. Transitioning from Pac-12 wrestling coaches to mixed martial arts promoters in the span of a few months in 2009, Ortiz and Fuentes learned on the fly with the World Fighting Federation.
“You have to invest into the production, the video and sound. You have to rent the venue, so the promotion takes all the risk,” Ortiz said. “We started the process of WFF when I was the head coach at ASU and [Fuentes] was the assistant coach. They dropped the ASU wrestling program in 2008 and then reinstated it in 2008-2009. Initially, we started the organization to raise money for ASU wrestling. However, they fired us in April 2009.”
The World Fighting Federation has dominated the market in Tucson, a city about 100 miles south of Phoenix, over the past two years and will make its Phoenix area debut this summer.
Since MMA became regulated by the Arizona Boxing and Mixed Martial Arts Commission in 2008, more promotions have fallen by the wayside than have turned a financial profit. According to the commission, the number of MMA events regulated by state was 22 in 2009, 10 in 2010 and 16 in 2011. As the number of events fluctuates, the amount of fighters licensed by the state continues to increase. Local gyms worry about lack of opportunities for the state’s next wave of mixed martial artists.
Arizona Boxing and Mixed Martial Arts Commission Executive Director Dennis O’Connell explained the surge of MMA fighters since 2009.
“In July 2011, we began to issue licenses for amateur MMA fighters. Prior to that time, we only licensed pros, with the amateurs being subject to regulation in bouts,” O’Connell said. “In 2009 and 2010, we did not break out [between] pro boxers and pro MMA fighters. I estimate that we licensed about 35 to 40 pro MMA fighters each year in 2009 and 2010. In 2011, we licensed about 50 pro and 50 amateur MMA contestants. Remember, amateurs began to be licensed only for the last six months. I expect that licensed pro and amateur MMA fighters will grow to around 140 for the full year of 2012.”
Finish Reading » “More successful shows would be great because there would be more fights. Guys would get to fight more often and make more money, but running a show and keeping it successful is hard.”