By: Albert Cameron – There is an ugly truth about MMA that is extremely important that we can’t forget: it wasn’t always “seasons of the Ultimate Fighter,” “UFC on Fox,” and “Bellator every Friday night.” There was a time in our sport’s history when it carried a very heavy stigma of being brutal, brainless, and was the victim of many legislative witch hunts. Presidential hopeful John McCain (Senator, Arizona) took up the cause of having the very infant sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) completely eradicated. This week’s Friday Five is dedicated to five promotions that kept MMA strong through those witch hunts and help shape MMA into the sport that we’ve all come to love.
Note: The criteria for selection were for promotions in North America and had to have been promoting during the era between 1993 and 2005.
- Sportfight – Randy Couture, former UFC Heavyweight and Light Heavyweight champion, was partners in one of MMA’s earliest power gyms. With partner Matt “the Law” Lindland, they’d formed Team Quest; the gym was a crucible for Mixed Martial Artists, with a lot of emphasis on developing wrestling talent and getting it ready for the competition of MMA. A lot of gyms will gravitate towards a hometown promotion to get their guys sharp; Blackman MMA had Pennsylvania Fighting Championship, it would have been extremely odd to not have a Dignan-Brumbaugh fighter on a Complete Devastation MMA card, and so on. What Sportfight doesn’t get enough credit for is that they were sharpening the guys who would make one of the biggest impacts on modern MMA: they were supplying guys for the Ultimate Fighter. The Ultimate Fighter needed to be a show that featured fighters with decent pro fights; the North West (and by proxy, Sportfight) was supplying a lot of those guys in the early seasons. Without Sportfight sharpening those fighters and getting them ready for the Ultimate Fighter, the season may have suffered and the sport may have suffered.
Noteable fighters: “The Crippler” Chris Leben, Nate “The Rock” Quarry, Matt Horwich, “The People’s Champ” Josh Burkman
- HOOK n’ SHOOT – As much as we’d all like to thank “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey for all of her contribution to women’s MMA, as much credit as we’d like to give Invicta FC and Strikeforce for the advancement of women’s MMA, a lot of credit really goes to Hook N’ Shoot. Before UFC Fight Pass and YouTube, regional MMA promotions really relied on putting out DVD’s of their events with no actual guarantee that anyone would buy them. I worked at a movie store in a mall and the MMA DVD’s were kept in the back on a “special interest” rack. It is very likely that MMA promotions were losing money, hand over fist, on producing these DVDs, but they did as a method of getting their name out there in the public. Hook N’ Shoot was one such promotion. The Indiana, USA, promotion was actually pretty revolutionary despite their obscurity; Hook N’ Shoot was one of the first to offer a professional women’s platform on a regular basis. Their women’s fights weren’t novelties, it wasn’t the lingerie fight league, it wasn’t the bikini championships; it was faith that women athletes needed a place to compete and was provided with one. I really believe that without Hook N’ Shoot, Women’s MMA may not be as advanced as we enjoy today.
Notable Fighters: Meisha Tate, Tara LaRosa, Julie Kedzie
- Rumble on the Rock – Hawaii has done a lot for MMA, essentially keeping it on life support during its darkest days (to be expanded upon when we talk about Superbrawl) and cultivating the era’s toughest talent. Rumble on the Rock (ROTR) was the promotion owned and operated by JD Penn (BJ Penn’s sibling) and was a K-1 subsidiary. BJ Penn, at the time the UFC’s prodigy, defeated Takanori Gomi to become K-1: Rumble on the Rock lightweight champion while being a UFC fighter (a feat that is guaranteed to never happen again by iron clad contracts). ROTR’s contribution was taking the opportunity to cultivate and market MMA when it was counter-productive to do so. Why market a sport that has very little prospects of success with legislature calling for its demise? For that, we should be extremely grateful to ROTR. ROTR’s alumni panel is nothing to sneeze at either; it’s chock full of future UFC champions, who wouldn’t have come along in their career as far without a place to compete.
Notable Fighters: BJ Penn, Takanori Gomi, Carlos Condit, Jake Shields, Gilbert Melendez, Chael Sonnen
- Superbrawl/ ICON Sport – Hawaii’s other offering to the world of MMA. Before streaming and videos being available on your cellphone, I used to buy MMA DVDs because that was really the only way you could watch smaller promotions at the time. One of the titles purchased as “The Best of Superbrawl,” and I have yet to regret the purchase. The price of the DVD alone is worth it to watch the promotional sparring between Jason “Mayhem” Miller and The Inoue brothers (Egan and Enson). The combined efforts of Superbrawl and ROTR were far felt and reached deep; Hawaii was a state that would allow professional MMA to develop when no one else would. Eventually, Superbrawl would become ICON Sport and be purchased by ProElite. ICON Sport and Rumble World Entertainment (the company that owned Rumble on the Rock) would even go so far as to promote a fight with EliteXC in which the EliteXC middleweight champ (Ninja Rua) would take on the ICON Sport middleweight champ “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler.
Notable Fighters: Robbie Lawler, Jason “Mayhem” Miller, “The Maine-iac” Tim Sylvia, Rich “Ace” Franklin
- King of the Cage – Let’s compare MMA promotions to your circle of friends: your friend that has all of the influence, that’s the UFC; you’re friend who can’t be talked out of making terrible decisions, that’s Bellator. Think about that one friend who always seems to figure things out, that no matter how much life throws at them, they seem to find a way to overcome and endure; that’s King of the Cage (KOTC). When MMA was at its bleakest (in terms of being sanctioned and regulated), KOTC figured their way around it. KOTC turned to First Nation reservations to promote on, because they are not under the jurisdiction of US Legislation, KOTC found the loophole. In my humble (editorialized) opinion, King of the Cage is doing everything right: they have a central location and are working with local promoters, they are expanding internationally at their own pace and not beyond their means, and they continue to pursue and develop new talent. With MMA at its worst, King of the Cage was providing up and coming prize fighters with an outlet to fight out of; the KOTC championships were prestigious and worth fighting for. To date, King of the Cage has a TV deal, a lot of their biggest fighters have gone on to bigger stages, and was one of the only promotions able to be reclaimed after the ProElite meltdown.
Notable Fighters: “The California Kid” Urijah Faber, Forrest Griffin, Dan “The Beast” Severn, Don “The Predator” Frye, Mac Danzig
There you have it folks. Sure, the UFC was the first to promote MMA as we know it, but it could not have done it alone during the de-commission days. Those five promotions have kept MMA the way we loved it and has made it the force that it is today.
Until next time!