MMA and Mexico: A Matter of Time

By Caesar Garcia Sep 27, 2007
Mixed martial arts is growing all over the world, but its expansion will not be complete until it wakes the sleeping giant that is the Hispanic combat-sport fan base. Those fans certainly watch boxing. Currently, though, they're snoozing on MMA.

The Hispanic community is composed of people from any one of many Central, South and North American countries. When it comes to Hispanic fight fans, however, you'd be hard pressed to find any as passionate as Mexican boxing fans.

Who can blame them? Aside from the United States, no country has had more world champions in boxing than Mexico. That's why Mexicans come to mind when Hispanic fight fans are mentioned, the same way Brazilians spring to mind when the topic is soccer.

This fact is obviously not lost on UFC brass. They know that it's just a matter of time before a fighter catches the attention of Mexican fight fans. They know that when Hispanics jump on the MMA bandwagon, it will be more like a frenzied caravan, sort of a Charleston Chiefs fan club bus but with a Latin flavor.

The UFC could only hope that this future star's name will be Fernando, which they would undoubtedly parlay into Fernandomania 2.

Currently the promotion is banking on one fighter to attract Mexican fans: Roger Huerta (Pictures). Huerta has the tools necessary to break into the Hispanic mainstream. He has model good looks, speaks perfect Spanish and most importantly he is what Mexicans call a "fajador." In boxing terms, "fajador" loosely translates to brawler, an important ingredient when looking for acceptance in the Hispanic market.

But history says that no matter how much publicity Huerta gets in the Hispanic media, his chance of breaking into the market is 50-50. Huerta, you see, has the same problem that Oscar De La Hoya had as he was coming up. He speaks Spanish and spent a few years of his childhood in his mother's native El Salvador and his father's native Mexico, but Huerta was born in Los Angeles.

Being born in the United States can be a knock against him in the eyes of native Mexicans. Just ask De La Hoya.

One advantage that Huerta has, though, is if he becomes a champion or a top contender, he will be a pioneer. He will not be forced to fight a beloved icon the way De La Hoya had to beat Julio Cesar Chavez on his way to the top. There is no doubt that the Golden Boy hurt his early popularity by beating the Mexican legend.

It might seem wise to send scouts to comb the Mexican landscape for the most talented native fighter. However, Mexican mixed martial artists have not reached a level worth UFC consideration.

The Mexicans who have stepped into the spotlight of MMA's biggest stages have had little to no success. Edwin Aguilar (Pictures) was stopped by Martin Kampmann (Pictures) in the first round of a July 2006 WFA bout. Mexican pro wrestler Dos Caras Jr. (Pictures) was knocked out by Cro Cop in 46 seconds at Pride Bushido 1 and then lost a unanimous decision to Kazuhiro Nakamura (Pictures) at Pride 27.

Until now the closest a Mexican-born fighter has been to stepping into the UFC was when Tijuana's Akbarh Arreola (Pictures), an 11-4 lightweight, tried out for "The Ultimate Fighter 5" but missed the cut.

Just one win among those fighters might have done something for MMA in Mexico. One thing is for sure: Mexican fans do not care if a fighter gives it the old college try. They like winners. If fighters lose, they are shrugged aside, quickly deflating any confidence they might have gained from competing.

Although it may be a while before a Mexican-born contender enters the sport, it won't be long before MMA matches the popularity of boxing among Hispanics. That time may come when the pay scale for MMA increases, which could motivate the better-than-average boxer to consider ground training and a jump into the cage.

Boxing is a poor man's sport. To most Hispanic fighters, it is a way to help feed their families. Offering fighters fame but small paydays -- the way the UFC typically handles new athletes -- will not work with most Hispanic fighters. It is simply not worth it to them because they prefer to earn a living fighting, not pushing products.

Currently eight Mexican boxers hold world titles in five different divisions. At least 15 others are in the top 10 of their division, but almost none are involved with regular TV advertising. Jorge Arce is an exception, as he has been on Mexico's version of "Big Brother," and Antonio Margarito recently made a commercial for Gatorade.

For most Hispanic pugilists, especially those still trying to establish themselves, the money that comes with being a top fighter is first, proving that you are no pushover is second and being popular is last.

If the sport is going through puberty in the United States, it is still getting its rear end wiped in Latin American countries. Yet it seems only a matter of time before the first Mexican-born mixed martial artist makes some noise in a prominent organization.

Older Mexican fans still stand strong in their love for boxing. They will need a true contender to get their attention. However, the younger crowd, just as in any other part of the world, has been quicker to accept the new form of fighting.

I witnessed a glimpse of the future in June. Primal MMA, an organization based in Tijuana -- the hotbed of Mexican MMA -- hired me to interview participants of an open audition they held to find competitors for an inaugural event in August. Among the judges that day was WEC featherweight champion Urijah Faber (Pictures), a partner in the organization with Reed Shelger.

The auditions were held in Tijuana at the Entram Vale Tudo gym, which is run by Raul Arvizu, a Dean Lister (Pictures) brown belt. After the audition, one week removed from his bout against Chance Farrar (Pictures), Faber's competitive spirit got the best of him, and he rolled with the gym's most advanced grapplers.

The sparring session recalled a Bruce Lee movie, with Faber standing in a circle and taking on all comers, one after another. He had assumed that their Mexican background would make them brawlers with few skills on the mat. He tapped everyone, but their grappling ability surprised him.

Among Faber's training partners that day was Antonio Duarte, a young fighter with a 6-1 record who went on to beat a very experienced Shawn Bias (Pictures) in front of a frenzied hometown crowd at Primal MMA's August event.

While fighters like Duarte are still developing their skills, the UFC and other major shows are not waiting on them. Instead they are after the next best thing: American-born, Spanish-speaking children of immigrants who left their homelands to give their kids opportunities they never had.

Those parents probably had the opportunity to step into a boxing ring, but they never had a chance to learn how to gogo, guillotine or armbar someone into submission. Their children have that chance in the United States.

Huerta is being placed at the forefront, but others have also had success. The list includes Hector Ramirez (Pictures), who recently lost a decision to Forrest Griffin (Pictures), and WEC bantamweight contenders Charlie Valencia (Pictures), Miguel Torres (Pictures) and Manny Tapia (Pictures).

With a few more wins, these fighters could find themselves thrust into the spotlight by their respective promotions. They may not capture the full attention of rabid, Mexican fight fans, and they don't have to. In the long run, last I checked, De La Hoya did fairly well with the large and growing population of Mexican-Americans and with Hispanics in general.

Regardless, major events will take what's available now while waiting for the future, when the spread of MMA stirs Hispanic fans and delivers native contenders.

Caesar Garcia is Editor of MMA Monthly
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