Sports evolve every year whether it is teams moving out of cities and players changing teams, but one thing is certain: Smaller sports continue to struggle for acceptance and coverage.
There is more to sports than the National Football League, Major League Baseball and National Basketball Association, and smaller sports continue to try to join the mainstream.
But one of the sports that is polarizing the nations is mixed martial arts, or as it is better known, ultimate fighting.
In December, I covered the first Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event held in Arizona at the US Airways Center in Phoenix.
The arena was packed, with more than 15,000 rabid fight fans cheering on their favorites during the bout.
After watching the event, I have come to the conclusion that after more than 20 years, the UFC has turned a corner.
Rumors are floating that the sports will return to Arizona for an event at either US Airways Center or right here at Gila River Arena. UFC officials praised the December events as one of the highest grossing at the time.
This sport has a bright future, with stars like Conor McGregor, women’s bantamweight champion Rhonda Rousey, middleweight champion Chris Weidman, flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, Anthony Pettis and Benson Henderson leading the way as the sport continues to grow.
Most people think that ultimate fighting is just legalized bar fighting, but I am here to tell you, it is so much more than that.
Yes, it can be a brutal sports but it takes much more than just brute strength to be competitive. There is a mental side to this sport that makes these fighters true athletes.
The fighters spend a lot more time on the mental side of the sport than the physical. Henderson, who trains at The MMA Lab in Glendale, is a former champion who leads a team of young fighters eager to follow in his footsteps.
Glendale resident Bryan Barberena won his first match in the UFC event Dec. 13 after months of delays due to injuries while training.
“I am a brawler and used to get in a lot of fights in high school,” Barberena said. “I’m a fighter and in Phoenix, my game plan was to keep it standing because I knew he would try to wrestle me.”
Barberena scored a third-round technical knockout over Joe Ellenberger.
Talking to numerous fighters after the fights in December, the one thing they all seemed to say was that their opponents were strong, but also great guys.
“We are all fighters, but we are people, too,” said fighter Willie Gates. “We go into these bouts to battle, but most of the times after the fights, we will have a beer with the other fighters.”
The UFC is considered the major league of ultimate fighting, having grown into a billion dollar business over the past 20 years.
McGregor, Rousey and Weidman are some of the most recognized athletes in the world and can compete with any football, baseball or basketball player when it comes to simple fame.
Pay-per-view buy rates for the UFC has averaged 321,250 since 2014 and the numbers continue to increase with each event. Television ratings average 3.3 million viewers per event, compared to Major League Baseball which now averages 1.8 million.
Henderson, who is one of the best fighters in the world, has been UFC Lightweight Champion, as well as the World Extreme Cagefighting Lightweight Champion.
He recently moved up to welterweight (170 pounds) and won his first fight over Brandon Thatch with a rear-naked choke.
“Sometimes you have to go out and test yourself,” Henderson said after the fight. “I didn’t know if I could win this fight. A lot of times, you have to do what you don’t know.”
Henderson is a leader at The MMA Lab and is one of the nicest athletes I have ever interviewed, but he takes pride in his fighting and continues to work hard to get better after each fight.
But it may be a woman who takes MMA to the next level.
Rousey is widely viewed as the most dominate fighter in the world – man or woman. She is attractive, witty and an unstoppable monster inside the cage. Her last five title defenses have lasted a total of 3:06, with the last three being 34, 14 and 16 seconds long.
Dana White, president of the UFC, had said in the past that women would never fight in the octagon and now a female is the biggest draw in the business. He changed his mind after Rousey became such a phenomenon.
With the success at the Phoenix event in December, the talk continues that the UFC will return this year to Arizona for another fight card. Gila River Arena and US Airways Center are attempting to get an event and the fans continue to clamor for another.
So, after 20 years in business, people need to get past what they may think UFC is and check it out and watch how much this sport continues to grow.
Rousey and her aura continue to grow and show that she may be the most dominate athlete in sports. Little girls from around the world look up to her and now feel they can achieve things that people may have said they never could. Like her or not, she brings people to the sport and makes you want to watch.
As the sport continues to grow, people should give it a chance and watch the fights for more than what they think it is, not what they think it is.
Maybe there is a future for this sport, even if it has been around for more than 20 years.