MMA Awards founder ready for “special” show tonight at Palms

Even before he launched the world’s first mixed martial arts magazine, Rob Hewitt envisioned an Oscar-style awards ceremony that would annually celebrate the achievements of fighters from around the world.

Much like the skyrocketing ascension MMA has enjoyed during the past few years, so too has Hewitt’s “dream party”—which hosts its fourth annual black-tie affair tonight at 7:30 at the Pearl at the Palms.

“We knew we had to time it right, and I think we did that really well the first year we hosted the awards in 2008,” said Hewitt, the CEO of Fighters Only magazine. “Every year since then it’s gotten bigger and better and in part that’s directly because MMA has a whole has gotten bigger and better. I think we’re gonna have something really special for everyone this year at the Palms.”

This year’s show—hosted by boisterous UFC middleweight Chael Sonnen and Emmy Award-winning sports reporter Molly Qerim—features a record 22 categories voted in part by fans and will air on FOX Sports on Sunday, Dec. 11 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva goes up against UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones, as well as Dominick Cruz, Nick Diaz, and Dan Henderson for Fighter of the Year award, while UFC’s Arianny Celeste looks to keep her stranglehold on Ring Girl of the Year honors for a fourth consecutive year.

“I know the award isn’t the same as winning the belt or the championship and the financial windfall that comes with those accomplishments, but it does bring with it a lot of credibility to think that hundreds of thousands of fans from around the world voted for this particular fighter, or this particular organization as being the best in the world,” Hewitt said of the event, which will include an opening performance from the Jabbawockeez.

“There’s nothing like it. There’s nothing in the industry that polls so many diehard people’s opinions and allows them to be cast on one person. I think it means an awful lot to the people involved.”

Though one of those involved, the host himself, Sonnen, brings quick wit but also question marks.

The outspoken Sonnen has had a war of words with Silva, the sport’s arguable pound-for-pound king, since losing to the Brazilian in August 2010. And just last week, Sonnen got into a Twitter feud with Celeste, basically saying she wasn’t smart.

Celeste fired back, tweeting: “Hey what’s ur name.. after @spideranderson kicks your a**..u won’t even be able to count to 5!! Get ready to kiss brazils a**! <3″ and “Talking crap about me In interviews is like when a boy picks on a girl he likes in 1st grade…GROW UP! Doesn’t work anymore sir!”

While the inflammatory Tweets have been removed, the fact that all three could be around each other on stage could make for an interesting ceremony.

But Hewitt said there’s much more to Sonnen than his top-notched trash talk.

“I think I’ve read on a bunch of forms that people think it’s just gonna be an Anderson Silva roast, but that’s not the case at all,” said Hewitt, who hinted Sonnen might even perform a skit that could challenge Randy Couture’s divorce attorney high jinx as his favorite award show memory.

“Chael is really talented, and not just as a fighter. He’s a great speaker, fantastic in front of the camera. And he has a great sense of humor. I think he’s gonna be a perfect fit as host.”

MMA has been the perfect fit for the 37-year-old Hewitt, but that form of fighting hasn’t always been his favorite.

Hewitt, who grew up in Sunderland in North East England, followed in his father’s footsteps in the construction field and boxing gym.

“Oh I was a diehard boxing fan, I loved Muhamma Ali,” Hewitt said. “I trained in the sport, I loved it because my dad loved it.”

Until fate intervened one day in the gym and one of Hewitt’s trainers asked him if he wanted to join him for an “early form of MMA” training.

The 20-year-old Hewitt was instantly hooked and took up the sport. Another acquaintance introduced him to Ian Freeman, the first Englishman to fight in the UFC, and his passion grew even fonder.

A few years after his combat life took a 180, so did Hewitt’s professional career.

At 28, Hewitt, who earned a degree in Civil Engineering at Newcastle University, had reached “the pinnacle of his career, and couldn’t advance any further because of his age.”

“Looking back I might have been a little naive, cause I had a fantastic career in that industry. But I always strove to do something on my own, and essentially be own my own boss,” said Hewitt, who did exactly that after returning from a skiing holiday.

Despite his construction background, Hewitt and another businessman launched a series of high-end luxury magazines across Europe in the early 2000s. The venture proved to be successful and the MMA-impassioned Hewitt felt the time was right to launch a combat sports magazine.

“Mixed martial arts was so beneficial to me and I had seen it grow from it’s earliest days, that I wanted to give back in any small way that I could. That was really the inspiration for the magazine,” said Hewitt, who launched the publication in 2005 with the game plan that his periodical would develop into a well-known brand—hence the early vision of the MMA Awards.

“The MMA industry over the years has been fairly disjointed, so the awards offered a chance to bring everyone together, to create a community of celebration of achievement and just have some fun.”

While the show’s success has also been a financial boon for his United Kingdom-based magazine, Hewitt thinks that fans and fighters’ excitement is more of a reflection of the recent growth of MMA and the unlimited potential the sport has in the near future.

“Not only do I smile as a businessman when I sit back and see the accomplishments that have happened over the last couple of years, but I really enjoy fantasizing what the future might hold for the sport,” Hewitt said.

“Anyone involved in the industry is very, very fortunate. I think we’re part of something that is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Not very many people get to be part of something that is going to be so big at such an early stage.”