Jeff and Barry Meyer grew up in one of the nice parts of Chicago, where money begat nice shopping malls and nice schools and nice kids wearing nice clothes.
They were karate kids. Most athletically inclined kids find themselves involved in football or basketball or baseball, the most American of American sports. For the Meyer brothers, however, there wasn't much interest in standard sports. They were drawn to the martial arts, and martial arts participation in the 1980s meant one thing: karate.
The Meyer brothers, like so many others of a certain generation, wanted to be Daniel-San. When he was young, Barry was asked to write down his hero and who he'd like to be someday; he wrote "Chuck Norris" on the paper. When a teacher asked Barry why he wanted to be Chuck Norris, Barry answered simply.
"Because he's great at karate," Barry told the teacher.
And so they practiced karate, moving up through the ranks and earning new belts. Every weekend, they piled in the car and drove around the state, competing in tournaments near and far.
They got older, they went to college. They got jobs. But their love for martial arts never subsided. They discovered jiu-jitsu through a mutual friend of Christophe Leninger, a submission artist.
In 1993, a friend told Barry about an upcoming event in Colorado that would allegedly feature real fighters, from all sorts of martial arts backgrounds, facing off in real fights. The brothers were slightly concerned that it might be fake, like the World Wrestling Federation, but Barry's friend assured them it would be real.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship was real. Barry and Jeff were hooked. On June 18, 1994, Barry and Jeff held the first Tuff N' Uff event at Adlai Stephenson high school. It was a kickboxing event. Then, as now, the event was largely attended by those close to the fighters on the card.
Then, as now, Tuff N' Uff was a family affair.
Twenty years later, Jeff Meyer sits in his office on the second floor of Curtis Steel. A longtime friend's family owns the steel fabrication company, and they gave the office space to Jeff for free. Free is good, because Tuff N' Uff doesn't make much money at all. For 20 years, Barry and Jeff have somehow managed to put on cards featuring amateur fighters.
But Jeff worries about the future of Tuff N' Uff; a recent misunderstanding with a local venue cost Jeff $4,500 out of his pocket. He isn't sure how long he can keep it going. He has devoted investors but hates the idea of going to them and asking for more money. There is no cash flow in amateur fighting anymore, but amateur fighting was his brother's love, and so converting Tuff N' Uff into primarily a professional organization is out of the question.
Jeff must keep Tuff N' Uff the way it is in order to honor his brother's memory.
Barry is no longer here, in the office, and the mention of his absence sends lines of grief streaking across Jeff's face. Barry spent years cultivating relationships with local gyms and future fighters out of, his brother says, nothing more than a pure love for martial arts.
But Barry also waged a considerable private war against depression. He gave little public notice of his struggles, but he struggled all the same. It was a battle he lost on October 16, 2013, when he took his own life.
It was a monumental loss to the close-knit Las Vegas fighting community, where Barry's death was felt immediately, harshly and thoroughly. The brothers had moved their base of operations to the city in 2003 and have been the busiest promotion here ever since. The UFC runs bigger events, but nobody runs as many fighting events in Las Vegas as Tuff N' Uff. Several major UFC stars started their career off in the promotion, including women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, who wrecked two overmatched opponents with armbars in 2010 and 2011.
On June 8, Tuff N' Uff will celebrate 20 years of promoting events. For Jeff, this is a bittersweet moment. It is an accomplishment, because it means that Tuff N' Uff is one of the longest-running mixed martial arts promotions in the world. But for Jeff, it is also a painful daily reminder that Barry is no longer by his side.
Jeff spends most of his days trying to make up for Barry's absence. It is not easy.
"It's very tough because obviously I miss him very much. We spent every day together for seven years while we lived out here. Any question you could ever have, you could ask him," Jeff says. "He had the answer to any question you could ever ask about MMA. He acquired such a vast knowledge.
For their 20th anniversary, Tuff N' Uff will hold the largest show in the history of the company. They'll move into the Thomas & Mack Center, on the campus of UNLV. It is a significantly larger venue than the ones they typically run in Las Vegas, but for good reason: Tuff N' Uff are attempting to set the Nevada attendance record for mixed martial arts. The event, titled "Pack the Mack," is free, and Jeff says he has placed over 50,000 tickets into circulation. Thomas & Mack holds just 19,522, but Jeff hopes that printing more tickets will result in a capacity crowd.
The event is being held in conjunction with Three Square, a local Vegas food bank. It is a good deed, and the fighting community has rallied around Jeff and his efforts. It won't make Jeff any money, but that's not the point. The point of all of this, as it has been since last October, is to honor Barry and the love he had for the sport and the thing he created.
"I missed him and I love him. It's sad," he continues, his voice cracking. "I don't want to sound weak, but the truth is that he was a much better businessman than me. Of course I want to make money from this thing. But I don't care about anything other than keeping it going. I can't let it go out of business."