In the shadow of the Strip at Wanderlei Silva’s Training Center, the next generation of mixed martial arts fighters is hard at work learning the techniques necessary to become a champion. The students range in age from 4 to 12 years old, and instructor Peter Simone directs the kids to perform each move over and over, until it becomes second nature.
“A good way to stay close to your opponent is to trace his body,” Simone explains as he works on grappling moves with 12-year-old Rion Almeida, one of about 25 children taught at Silva’s facility each week.
With about 100 gyms in the Las Vegas area offering martial arts instruction, it’s just another sign of the growing popularity of MMA, and nowhere has the sport been embraced like it has here.
Since MMA competitions were introduced in the United States with the first UFC event in Denver on Nov. 12, 1993, the sport has made tremendous strides, especially after Station Casinos executives Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta purchased UFC in 2001 and installed Dana White as its president. With MMA now king among fight fans in what has always been considered the “Boxing Capital of the World,” Las Vegas is hosting the World Mixed Martial Arts Awards for the second straight year, on Dec. 1 at the Palms.
The awards show will honor those chosen by MMA fans, who can vote online until Nov. 26 at WorldMMAAwards.com in 19 categories, from Fighter of the Year to Ring Girl of the Year.
Staging the awards show here makes sense since Las Vegas has hosted 59 of UFC’s 164 events—140 of which have been held in the United States. The city even has its own homegrown hero in former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir, a Las Vegas native and 1998 Bonanza High School graduate.
While the early days of MMA brought combatants together with clearly outlined fighting backgrounds such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, karate, wrestling and boxing, aspiring competitors such as Almeida, who already has two sponsors and his own website although he is only in seventh grade, have the benefit of having grown up with the sport and learning a combination of styles.
“If I started when I was 10 years old and I had the opportunity to train Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and train Mui Thai in the same day, I would do that,” Simone says. “And your skills would just pick up and level out.”
Nowhere is the sport’s appeal in Las Vegas more evident than at the UFC Fan Expo, which attracted an estimated 125,000 fans to Mandalay Bay in late May in its second year, following an attendance of 30,000 to 50,000 in its 2009 debut. The event allows fans to meet many of their favorite fighters, another factor that has contributed to MMA overtaking boxing in popularity, with expos also held this year in Boston and London.
The sport’s unique relationship with Las Vegas can also be found in local sports books. While MMA betting accounts for just about 1 percent of the annual $2.6 billion handle in Nevada, Jay Kornegay, executive director for the Las Vegas Hilton race and sports book, says that number is misleading when compared with sports such as baseball, football and basketball.
“It’s not because [MMA is] not popular,” he says, “it’s just because of the number of games that are played versus the number of fights that are fought.”
Not only has MMA become more popular than boxing with fight fans in general, it also has overtaken the more traditional fight game at the betting window.
“There’s only a couple of matches here and there that attract betting interest in the boxing world these days,” Kornegay says. “And they normally need a name out there before they get the attention. … There’s a lot of people who can’t name five boxers these days, and they can name 20 MMA fighters.”
MMA betting action is seemingly growing with each card, something Kornegay attributes to the sport’s visibility through avenues such as The Ultimate Fighter reality show, which is produced by Spike TV and UFC, and has allowed fans to watch the ascension of UFC champions such as Forrest Griffin and Rashad Evans since debuting in 2005.