Phoenix is the sixth most populated city in the United States. The state capital supports four major professional teams, two Div. I Universities and has hosted multiple all-star games, Bowl Championship Series NCAA football games, World Wrestling Entertainment pay-per- views and Super Bowls. However, in 2010, the Zuffa LLC-owned World Extreme Cagefighting and a Strikeforce Challengers were the only national MMA events to give the state a sniff. As local shows struggle to turn a profit and produce consistent attendance numbers, national MMA shows appear to view Arizona with a cautionary eye after just average success in 2010.
In addition, Arizona fighters complain about lack of quality shows and Helter Skelter matchmaking tactics that put developing prospects at a disadvantage. Local promotions cite multiple cases of amateurs asking for payments and gyms wanting a significant cut of ticket sales. In prizefighting, promoter-athlete relations have always been tenuous, and when the slice of the monetary MMA pie is on a smaller localized scale, the promoters, fighters and gyms often clash.
The Power MMA Team was a project founded by Bader, Dollaway and Aaron Simpson after the trio of former ASU wrestlers broke away from the most established gym in the state -- Arizona Combat Sports -- in 2009. Despite taking behind-the-scenes verbal shots from other gyms in Phoenix after what was for the most part an amicable split, the Power MMA Team has planted its flag in the eastern part of the city.
Power MMA opened the doors to its state-of-the-art facilities in April 2011, and membership numbers have already surpassed 700. In 2012, the gym’s professional fight team aims to kick into the next gear. While local Arizona shows sort out themselves, the camp has sent more than a handful of fighters outside of state lines in order to pick up experience.
“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,” Bader said. “Gyms can help out by helping guys just starting out with connections. We have events out of state calling all the time asking for fighters in different weight classes.”
When asked for advice by younger Power MMA Team representatives who are wary of canceled fights or last-minute catchweight bouts, Bader preaches a philosophy of readiness.
“Really, those guys have to be in shape and ready to go because when you’re fighting in local shows you can’t let your guard down, because you could be fighting that weekend,” Bader said.
Born in 2007, the MMA Lab’s rise to prominence has run almost parallel to the in-cage success of the state’s best-known fighters. Located on the western outskirts of Phoenix, the gym is home to newly crowned UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson. After his win over Jim Miller in his second Octagon appearance, Henderson took a stand for those who view MMA as a team sport when he used to his post-fight interview platform to hype a few of his unsung teammates back in Arizona.
The MMA Lab’s competition team is led by striking coach Rick Roufus and Royce Gracie black belt John Crouch. A Brazilian jiu-jitsu stylist for nearly 20 years and full-time instructor at the gym, Crouch has recently gained notoriety as a high-level MMA strategist.
“Ben Henderson has been the flagship of the place. Yaotzin Meza, he’s 18-6, and his brother, Victor, is 10-3. Chris Gruetzemacher started here, is 9-1 and knocking on the door of the UFC’s entrance,” Crouch said.
“We have a room full of guys that you may not of have heard of, but Ben has fought a number of BJJ black belts and we have prepared [for] them all here at the Lab; it’s homegrown, all this talent.”
The formula for the MMA Lab’s success will add another sweet ingredient to its core business plan in 2012. Along with longtime Arizona gym owner Joe Ervin, the duo of Henderson and Crouch recently purchased the MMA Lab from its previous owners, and, as a result, both will add “MMA gym owners” to their resumes.
For a leveled take on the all things Arizona MMA, one of the men to go to is “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 8 winner Efrain Escudero. Stationed at the MMA Lab for nearly two years, he has trained with Southwest MMA, the Power MMA Team, Arizona Combat Sports and others schools across the state.
“It’s kind of like wrestling. We would always say those Nebraska guys have nothing to do but throw hay bales and wrestle. They all have monster grips and are shredded,” Escudero said. “I think MMA in Arizona played a big role because it’s hot outside, we want to stay indoors, we want to do something and we want to stay active. I don’t know, but something is in us where not a lot people give us respect, so we have to go out and take it.”
The Phoenix metropolitan area covers nearly 520 square miles of sprawling land. Across the desert landscape filled with mountain ranges, the sport of mixed martial arts and the modern-day Wild West have latched onto each other to form an epicenter. Despite a downtrodden state economy, aspiring Arizona fighters, local promotions and gyms battle to keep the local MMA scene bubble from bursting. When all three work in unison, the Arizona fight game has potential to rival any of the other 49 states. For now, it is enough that there is self-awareness in Arizona, a new feeling that could lead to better working relationships in the future.
Tommy Messano is the editor-in-chief of ULTMMA.com. You can contact him on Twitter at @ULTMMA.