It was '96 and I was a young man still learning the ropes of living on my own at 19 years old in the town of Benson, Ariz.
I foolishly ordered a UFC pay-per-view that far exceeded any disposable income I had at that point in my life.
Knowing full well the event was more expensive than my budget might handle, I ordered it anyway. Yet any guilt and regret went flying out the window when they announced one of the combatants was a fella by the name of Don Frye fighting out of Sierra Vista, Ariz.
Sierra Vista is another dust bowl in the Arizona desert, right up the road from the tiny town I called home for two years. Much to my delight, not only was I going to watch the David vs. Goliath fight card, but I could root for a local guy in the process.
When he actually won, I was off my rocker with excitement.
Little did I know the greatness that would follow the fighter known as "The Predator" would take the MMA world by storm—and in the process build a legend out of a local fighter I cheered on with such pride.
Fast-forward 14 years, and once again a great sense of pride has overcome me as I sit down and write that yet another local hero has taken his place at the top of his respective MMA food chain.
Now I live in Tucson, quite an upgrade from my Butterfield Stage days, and not only can I afford any UFC PPV I like, but now they show this stuff for free from time to time. Oh, how times have changed.
Frye has since retired from the sport, but something else has changed too. MMA has thrived in the desert since his first fights in the UFC. The long list of well-respected gyms, promotions, and fighters in the Arizona desert has become quite impressive.
Most recently, none other than Tucson native Dominick Cruz did his part to put the state on the MMA map. While his brand-new WEC bantamweight strap may have gone back to San Diego with him to Alliance MMA, there is a lot of pride in his accomplishments right here in T-Town.
We are talking about a young man who has a strong following, and fans who have a deep interest in his progress in the sport of MMA. Fans that know where he came up and got his start. This past Saturday, in the cage with Brian Bowles, he made them all very proud.
It is not just the championship that turned our heads, either; it was apparent to us all he has long been that caliber of fighter, even if the brand of champ hadn't been laid on him just yet. One thing is certain, there are a lot of smiling faces in Tucson this week, knowing one of our own has done so well on one of the biggest stages of the sport.
One has to imagine that no one is smiling quite as brightly as Mr. Cruz's mother, still a Tucson citizen.
While Cruz may be the hot topic of discussion at the moment, he is one of many fighters who hail from the land of the dry heat.
One former WEC champ, Jamie Varner, has called Arizona home, and the man who unified that very title by defeating Varner, Ben Henderson, also spends his time among the saguaros. Henderson fights out of The MMA Lab, Varner out of Arizona Combat Sports.
Arizona Combat Sports and the Lally brothers have provided MMA with a long list of high quality fighters as well. Perhaps not all champions—not yet, anyway—but all fighters who have great impact on the sport. Those fighters include Ryan Bader, C.B. Dolloway, and Joe Riggs.
Apex MMA and owner Joey Rivera of Tucson are very proud to have not one but two of their fighters included in the upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter series with coaches Chuck Lidell and Tito Ortiz. Those two fighters are Lyle Steffens and Seth Baczynski.
Just between you and me, keep your eye on Steffans, by the way—this guy is an absolute beast.
Efrain Escudero trains out of Southwest MMA in Tempe, Ariz. Escudero is the winner of The Ultimate Fighter 8 , and is also a part of the state's parade of top-shelf fighters in the sport today.
It is not just high-profile fighters and gyms that make Arizona the MMA hotbed it has become. Virtually none of the fighters listed above actually fight in the Grand Canyon State due to the unfortunate politics that have stagnated the state with regard to regulation and MMA.
That being said, though, there is a small army of promotions that do quite well and have the elite up-and-coming fighters that train under many of those mentioned before. It is not uncommon in the slightest to see any one of them in a corner at Rage in the Cage or The World Fighting Federation.
The overall point is this: Whether it be Cain Velasquez's Arizona ties, Don Frye pioneering this sport, Ben Henderson raising the bar, Dominick Cruz's Tucson roots, or just a guy like Joey Rivera of Apex teaching the fighters of tomorrow, one thing is certain—Arizona is in the mix.
Arizona provides a year-round climate that is conducive to consistent training. Not unlike the reason for having an army of baseball spring training facilities in the area, it is a great place for athletes to train and excel.
That is shining true as indicated by the small legion of elite fighters who either once did, or now do call the desert their home.
Times have changed indeed. What once was just one man who represented us in the sport of MMA has now become many men. If you consider how proud and excited I once was over just one guy from up the street competing in MMA, imagine my delight now.
I thank them all for doing their part to put Arizona on the map in the realm of MMA.
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