It is in the frightening moment when leather meets flesh that the professional mixed martial artist learns what he is made of. As a modern-day gladiator who has entered the cage ready for battle, his mind is razor sharp, and his body is honed and conditioned through days, weeks, and even months of training. From the sound of the opening bell to the moment of victory or defeat, everything is on the line as his skills are tested by fire and he is either found worthy or found wanting. For him (or her, as the case may occasionally be), it is the reckoning, and it is what he lives for.
No one knows this reality better than Mike Stidham, Utah-based mixed martial arts (MMA) promoter and owner of the Ultimate Combat Experience (UCE). A former professional fighter himself, Stidham recognized the need for a local MMA promotion when he created the UCE nine years ago, giving local fighters a home for the first time. No longer would they have to cross state lines to throw their hands in a sanctioned event. In the decade since, he has seen countless fighters pass through his organization, with a handful going all the way to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the world’s premiere MMA promotion.
But what exactly is MMA? Credited as the fastest growing sport in North America, it is a combat sport that incorporates striking, grappling, and submission disciplines into a single package. Think kickboxing, wrestling, and jiu-jitsu all rolled into one and placed inside an eight-sided wire cage and you have the right idea. It is lauded by fans for its fast-paced, dynamic action, and the incredible diversity of styles and techniques. To comprehend the explosive growth of the sport, one needs only look at the pay-per-view numbers. The UFC’s first event, held in Denver in 1993, garnered just over 85,000 pay-per-view buys. UFC 100 in July of 2009, by contrast, pulled in more than 1.5 million buys, a number that is rivaled in combat sports only by the very biggest professional boxing events.
Surprisingly, there has been no shortage of Utahns who are wanting to fight, according to Stidham. His reasoning is enlightening. “There are a lot of frustrated people here,” he says. “I’ll be honest with you, when you live in a conservative atmosphere people get frustrated and there’s some anxiety there that I think this serves as a pretty good outlet for.” He has had fighters in his organization from all walks of life, he says, everything from an “LDS bishop” to a “physicist.”
Among them is Mike Crisman, the organization’s most active combatant. A self-professed “street fighter” before finding MMA, he finally stepped into the cage at age 24 and, after fighting professionally for three years, he’s not looking back. “My goal . . . is to be a world champ and make it big,” he says. “That’s what is so great about [the UCE]. It’s a foot in the door and I love getting more experience in this show.”
Crisman intends to try out for the next season of The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC’s popular reality show, currently broadcast on Spike. He hopes to do well on the show and get an invitation to join the organization’s welterweight (170-pound) division. He makes it clear, however, that whatever success he may attain in the future will be due largely to Stidham and the UCE. “My experience has been really great with the UCE,” he affirms. “They treat me like family and I love to fight for them. Mike Stidham is a really great guy.”
Long criticized as nothing more than a circus sideshow or, as then-Arizona Republican Senator John McCain described it in the mid-1990s, “human cockfighting,” MMA has been largely accepted as a legitimate sport in the past decade. Today it is covered by many major media outlets, including ESPN, widely considered to be the holy grail of sports coverage. Still, some criticize the sport as being too brutal and violent. Stidham disagrees, calling the view short-sighted. “Culturally, we just don’t get this sport,” he says. “My hope is that [people] come to the show and see that these guys are athletes . . . and that they’re involving themselves in probably one of the most physically, mentally, and even spiritually grueling things that you can possibly imagine.”
Stidham’s plan for world MMA domination seems to be death-by-suffocation. The UCE holds over 50 events each year-far more than major organizations like the UFC, which typically clocks in at less than half that number–with a new event taking place each weekend in or around Salt Lake City. In addition, the UCE is broadcast locally on Utah’s CW30, as well as nationally in over 25 markets around the United States, and internationally in over 10 countries.
In addition to the UCE, Stidham also owns and operates the Ultimate Combat Training Center, a 17,000-sq. ft. MMA training facility located in Kearns, Utah. With three boxing rings, two cages, a full-size gymnastics mat for grappling, and a weight room, it is one of the largest MMA gyms in the country and the training home for many of the state’s fighters.
For his part, at 42 years of age Stidham’s focus is now on building his organization and giving Utah’s fighters a stage upon which to compete. He is proud to foster local interest in the sport he loves and to be a support for its current generation of competitors. However, he admits that he himself still feels the competitive urge. “I would call myself semi-retired,” he says. “I still have the itch, and under the right circumstances, I would consider taking a fight.”
For more information on the Ultimate Combat Experience, including event dates and locations, visit www.ucombat.com.