The numbers don’t lie. The sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has experienced a recent popularity explosion in America. According to MMAfacts.com, monthly TV programming featuring MMA has grown by an average rate of 390 percent in the last four years.
“Initially, I think Americans had a tough time getting MMA because it’s a sport without a ball,” said Mike Stidham, Utah resident and MMA entrepreneur.
Stidham is the founder of Ultimate Combat Experience, also known as UCE. The UCE is a popular MMA television show filmed right here in Utah.
“We’re on in 13 different countries, and in most major markets in the US and Canada,” said Stidham.
UCE is credited with being the first show of its kind on network television anywhere in the country. UCE broadcasts are even seen in places like Israel, Australia and Puerto Rico.
Despite Utah’s conservative nature, Stidham feels that Salt Lake City has a solid MMA market, and is home to a deep pool of capable fighters.
“There are a lot of people [here] with some pent up aggression that they want to get out, and we’re able to let them do that,” Stidham said.
The UCE doesn’t typically feature prominent professional fighters and is instead focused in on bringing new fighters up through the amateur ranks.
“People told me when we started that we’d never have enough fighters,” Stidham said, “They asked me how I would pull it off on a weekly basis, but strangely enough there are a lot of fighters in Utah.”
Stidham’s formula works, because he’s put on at least one UCE show every week for nearly eight straight years. UCE has produced nearly 400 shows consecutively over this time span. The first ever UCE broadcast took place on Aug. 5, 2000.
“We don’t take many days off around here, and I haven’t had a vacation in…a long time,” said Stidham. He works 12-hour days at least six days a week, and then works on post-event books every Sunday.
Stidham not only promotes the UCE, organizes the events and fights, and does the announcing and interviewing for his TV show, but he also has an all-MMA radio show on KALL 700AM.
UCE Radio airs weekly on Fridays from 7-9 p.m.
In addition to all of his usual UCE duties, Stidham is also the owner/chief instructor of The Ultimate Combat Training Center, or UCTC. The UCTC is a training gym specifically designed for MMA fighters and offers many classes ranging from kickboxing to jiu-jitsu and more.
The UCTC is being moved from its current location in Kearns to South Salt Lake. The new location is replacing the Academy of Performing Arts, on 2207 S. Main.
“We’ve been in the west side location for 20 years,” said Stidham, “That’s remarkable for a martial arts place, because they usually don’t last very long.”
Stidham’s UCTC was Kearns Business of the Year in 2009 and is credited with making a difference in the community.
“We get involved in our community and we do a lot of charitable stuff,” Stidham said. He especially enjoys knowing that his gym helps keep a lot of guys out of trouble and off the streets.
“We’re moving because we had a ton of fighters out there, but unfortunately a lot of guys couldn’t pay the bill,” Stidham said. “Plus, I’ve always had this vision of a [top-notch] MMA gym, and now we have a little money to get it done,” said Stidham.
Stidham recently received a generous donation from a local church member and is hoping to be able to outfit the new UCTC location with state-of-the-art equipment, the way he’d imagined.
It’s no secret that MMA is often seen as extreme or unnecessarily violent. Arizona Senator John McCain even referred to early MMA fights as “human cockfighting.”
Stidham agrees with McCain’s sentiment about early MMA, but feels that the implementation of new rules, regulations and sanctions along with revamped marketing strategies are bringing MMA to the fore of sports television.
“Eventually, somebody was gonna die in that environment,” Stidham said, “That’s really where I think we were headed, had the sport not become sanctioned and rules implemented.”
In the early days of MMA, rules were scarce. “It used to be-no eye-gouging, no fish-hooking, and that was it,” Stidham said. Today’s MMA fights are closely officiated and the referee has the authority to stop the match at any time in order to protect a fighter.
“There’s a certain part of a lot of people that would really benefit from that shutting of the cage door behind ’em,” said Stidham. Stidham feels that getting in the cage and trading blows isn’t a bad thing at all and encourages people to give MMA a try.
“You’ll never feel more alive than when you hear the sound of that cage door shutting,” Stidham said, “You’re petrified, but you’ll never, ever feel more alive.”
Outside the ring, the UCE is proving to be effective as a means of advertising.
“Attorney Tyler Ayres told me that advertising with us was the best marketing decision he’d ever made,” said Stidham.
The MMA target demographic are men age 18-34, which is also the demographic spending the most money nationwide. Stidham feels that MMA fans are especially product-loyal.
“Fans of MMA understand the meaning of sponsorship, and that without those sponsorships, this sport doesn’t exist,” Stidham said. The UCE is always looking for viable sponsors looking for ad space within this specific demographic.
Stidham believes that his business provides a lot of return for a sponsor’s investment, and likens what UCE does with sponsorship to Nascar’s strategy.
It’s a good comparison, because sponsor logos are everywhere at MMA events, just like Nascar drenches its cars in ad space.
“We try to integrate our sponsors into the show as often as possible,” said Stidham, “Our rates are ridiculously low…you get a lot of bang for your buck with us.”
Stidham feels that even more fans would jump on the MMA bandwagon if they only knew more about the sport. He believes MMA to be no more violent than football or hockey.
“I’ve been to Utah-BYU [football] games, and seen little old ladies up there yelling ‘kill him'” Stidham said, “I really think that if people went to an MMA match with the same open mind that they go to those football games with, they’d understand MMA and get it.”
The rules of MMA are shaping the sport in a positive way. Fights are becoming more competitive and less dangerous but still entertaining fans.
“We like fights, we don’t like to see butt-kickings,” Stidham said.
Stidham got his start in martial arts at age five and has experience in many forms of fighting, from kickboxing to wrestling and jiu-jitsu. At age 43, he has nearly four decades of martial arts knowledge.
“I really enjoy training,” said Stidham, “I’m old…and for me to be able to get out there on the mat, or in the ring and still hang with these guys, that’s my release.”
As if his plate were not yet full, Stidham also takes on the task of managing a fight team based out of the UCTC called The Combat Cartel.
“When we started Combat Cartel, we had no pros on the team, no studs…just brand new guys that didn’t have any combat sports experience,” said Stidham, “Now, we’re able to compete with the upper-tier guys, it’s pretty cool.”
Stidham’s Combat Cartel recently competed with Frank Shamrock’s Lion’s Den stable, and the Cartel had a solid showing against more experienced fighters.
As for Stidham, he still feels like he has a fight left in him. He scheduled a fight last year, but his opponent didn’t follow through.
“The guy chickened out, but not before he talked mad smack,” said Stidham, “These younger guys think that ya can’t still whoop some butt, but I still have a few tricks up my sleeve.”
When he was younger, Stidham won a gold medal in the International Police Olympics in Russia. He considers it to be one of his favorite moments of his career.
Stidham may schedule a fight for later this year, but nothing is etched in stone just yet.
UCE MMA broadcasts can be seen on multiple networks every Sunday. The show airs on Fox 13 at 11:35 p.m., CW30 at 3:00 p.m., and in Spanish on Telemundo at 4:30 p.m. UCE action can also be seen anytime by using Comcast’s On-Demand feature.
Stidham would like to thank all UCE sponsors, his friends and family, and to send a special shout out to the people who are helping with the UCTC gym move.
More information about Mike Stidham’s UCE, UCTC, and The Combat Cartel Fight Team is available at UCombat.com.