Phoenix Rising: The UFC Heads to Arizona

Fightland Blog

By Dan Shapiro

Arizona State wrestling alumn (and UFC heavyweight champion) Cain Velasquez.

In the more-than 20 years since the UFC launched in neighboring Colorado, and 13 years since Zuffa relocated the brand to Las Vegas, the world’s largest mixed martial arts promotion has visited 32 states across the U.S., along with Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, as well as 13 countries, including a slew of Canadian provinces. So what took them so long to travel less than 300 miles to Phoenix?

Ever since the early days of the UFC, Arizona has long been considered a major breeding ground for MMA talent based on the prowess of its fighting culture and the Arizona State University wrestling program.

It was ASU All-American Dan Severn that created the modern archetype for wrestling in MMA. Severn famously succumbed to a Royce Gracie triangle choke at UFC 4, his first appearance with the promotion. But less than a year later Severn would return to the Octagon to claim his first of two UFC tournament championships (UFC 5, Ultimate Ultimate 1995), installing wrestling as the dominant discipline in mixed martial arts.

Severn’s legacy would earn “The Beast” a place in the UFC Hall of Fame, and his example paved the way for a number of ASU wrestling alums, many of whom would also go on to earn UFC belts, including Don Frye, who quickly followed in Severn’s footsteps.

Frye, the epitome of macho smooth with his husky growl and thick bush of upper lip growth, also snagged a pair of UFC tournament titles during the SEG-owned years, and while modern MMA icon Dan Henderson, another ASU Sun Devil, has never tasted UFC gold under the Zuffa banner, he did hoist the middleweight tournament title at UFC 17, an accolade that surely sits beside his pair of PRIDE championship belts and the Strikeforce light heavyweight strap.

Pioneers like Severn, Frye, and Henderson cemented Arizona’s spot as a mixed martial arts hotbed, opening the doors for a whole generation of contemporary MMA superstars.

Most notable of them all is two-time UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, also an alumnus of the famed Arizona State wrestling program, where he was a two-time All-American. And even current UFC fighters like Ryan Bader, C.B. Dollaway, and former flyweight challenger John Moraga turned All-American collegiate wrestling stints into formidable MMA careers.

However, it was another John from Arizona who made the most significant impact on the path of mixed martial arts in Arizona, littering the UFC’s course with roadblocks and obstacles. That John of course is U.S. Senator and former Republican Presidential nominee John McCain, who famously, in 1996, led a crusade against the UFC, labeling MMA as human cockfighting.

McCain, who was first elected into Congress in 1982 and then into the Senate in 1986, was a formidable fighter in his own right, boxing while enrolled at the United States Naval Academy and earning a Bronze Star for his valiant efforts during the Vietnam War. But for some reason he just couldn’t get down with the cut of MMA’s jib.

Aggressively lobbying against MMA during the sport’s early days, McCain successfully influenced 36 states in the U.S. to ban no-holds-barred fighting, nearly exterminating mixed martial arts from the contemporary milieu. However, despite this crusade to outlaw MMA in America, McCain’s influence did leverage a paradigm shift in the actual sport, forcing the UFC to adopt new rules, implementing the use of four-ounce gloves, and prohibiting head butting, kicks to a downed opponent, and strikes to the back of the head.

It can also be argued that McCain’s meddling led to the formulation of the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, as well more stringent regulation from state athletic commissions, which has been paramount to stricter testing measures, and to the ban of testosterone replacement therapy in MMA. But that is a discussion for another time…

And yet, despite its local Senator’s opposition to mixed martial arts, MMA continued to thrive in Arizona throughout the aughts. Local promotion Rage in the Cage has held over 160 events since 1999, producing talents like former The Ultimate Fighter participants Seth Baczynski, George Roop, and Jeremy Larsen, as well as Estevan Payan and Yaotzin Meza.

Arizona is also home to a number of MMA’s top training camps, making the decision to host a UFC fight card in Phoenix a no brainer.

22 miles southeast of the US Airways Center, the site of UFC on FOX 13, is Gilbert, Arizona, the location of Power MMA & Fitness, home base to Bader and Dollaway. Even closer is Tempe, a city of 161,000, which is home to Moraga and the team at Arizona Combat Sports. And, just ten miles northwest of Phoenix is Glendale, where John Crouch has built the state’s most formidable mixed martial arts team and facility, The MMA Lab.

Crouch, a disciple of the Gracie family who earned his black belt directly from UFC 1 winner Royce Gracie in 2005, has coached a veritable who’ who of elite MMA athletes, among them former WEC lightweight champion Jamie Varner, one-time UFC welterweight challenger Joe Riggs, and TUF 8 winner Efrain Escudero. He has also helped spawn the career resurgence of fighters like Alex Caceres, Rick Story, and Jon Tuck. But it is former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson who is Crouch’s prized disciple.

A native of Colorado, Henderson has lived and trained out of Arizona for the majority of his MMA career, and although his name has yet to be attached to the Phoenix card, there is more than enough time for him to make the turnaround after his upcoming bout with Rafael dos Anjos, should he escape unscathed.

From its rich wrestling tradition, to the political contributions of its senior Senator, to its place as home to some of MMA’s top fight camps, Arizona is primed to host its first UFC fight card, an event that will, no doubt, be highly anticipated by the state’s 6.6-million residents.

And just like when Arizona became the final mainland state to be admitted to the union on February 14, 1912, good things come to those who wait.


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