I was presented with a handful of incredible opportunities back on February 7, 2009. I received free tickets to attend the UFC's Fight Night 17 held at the USF Sundome here in Tampa, Fla., and was able to meet some of the biggest names in MMA, including Matt Hughes, Bruce Buffer, Jens Pulver and Robbie Lawler.
Most incredible, as the night concluded, UFC President Dana White himself marched over to our seats and climbed up to the second floor to come mingle with the crowd.
Caught completely off-guard by my chance meeting, I shook Dana's hand and blurted out "Please come back to Tampa soon. Please."
Dana patted me on the back and assured me he'd bring the UFC brand—inarguably the most successful and widely-known promotion in MMA history—back to my hometown.
Fast-forward two years.
The UFC has yet to bless us with another show 'round these parts, but it's easy to understand why. Even with an ever-increasing amount of events scheduled each year, the focus seems to be more on establishing international crowds in locations such as Montreal, Sydney and Abu Dhabi.
Tampa, a proud and storied sports city, has been largely ignored in the race for MMA to become the fastest-growing sport in the world.
At least, as far as Dana White and the UFC are concerned, it has.
Luckily for the passionate MMA fans in the area, the Art of Fighting is still going strong locally, and is showing no signs of slowing down in 2011.
The three-year-old Art of Fighting has done very well for itself considering its lack of national exposure and grassroots-style promotional tactics. AOF can now be seen Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. on MAV-TV, and has attained some big-name sponsors, such as the US Marines and Full Tilt Poker.
The lack of MMA in the Tampa area looks to be a non-issue this month, as the AOF has gone out of its way to set up what should be a very exciting, informative and—most important—fun couple of days this month, culminating with the AOF 11: Fusion event on February 19th.
In addition to the fight card, which will take place at the Florida State Fair, the folks at AOF are also presenting fans with Florida's first-ever MMA Fan Expo a day before the event. The AOF website is advertising demonstrations, fight seminars, merchandise, autograph sessions, games and prizes as just some of the activities leading into the next day's battles.
Although no names have been mentioned specifically, we are being promised expo appearances from fighters in Strikeforce and Bellator FC, the two biggest MMA promotions outside of the UFC in North America. This will no doubt bring in more casual fans that normally would pass up an event filled with unfamiliar fighters.
This expo has been a long time coming for Florida MMA fans, and should go a long way in promotion MMA as a sport, and of course, AOF as a brand to be taken seriously in MMA.
Aside from all the fun and sun on the 18th, the next night is the big one, as AOF 11 hopes to lasso in new fans while appeasing to the hardcore set with some solid MMA action courtesy of a 10-fight card.
In the main event of the evening, we have Robert "The Hulk" Turner taking on Buddy Roberts. Turner has been fighting all around Florida since his debut in 2007, and has amassed a 2-1 record in the AOF. Roberts is 9-2 with five submissions, and he makes his AOF debut riding a three-fight win streak.
Veteran fighter "Little Tiger" Edson Burdo of EliteXC and RFC fame returns to the AOF next Saturday, hoping to maintain the momentum he achieved by heel-hooking Greg Loughran at AOF 7. His opponent, Rob "The Saint" Emerson, debuted in 2002 with a decision loss to former UFC Lightweight Champion Jens Pulver.
He has fought seven times in the UFC against such notables as Gray Maynard, Manny Gamburyan and Kurt Pellegrino. Emerson is currently 1-0 in the AOF.
Also appearing on the card are longtime-AOF veteran Dave "Pay Me" Yost, and the 5'2" Angelica Brotherton. Angelica submitted the popular Tiffany Connell back at AOF 9 in her professional debut.
Her opponent, Carla Esparza, is 4-1 in her pro MMA bouts, with her only loss coming courtesy of the widely-known Megumi Fujii at Bellator FC 24.
So, with some returning AOF stars and some well-known MMA stars making promotional debuts and signing autographs, the AOF should be applauded for its rather large effort to jump-start Florida MMA. Any fan of combat sports will tell you that you don't need a fighter with the name value of a Brock Lesnar on every card to present a worthy fight card.
I encourage everyone in the Tampa area to come and check the AOF out at the Florida State Fairgrounds next weekend. Who knows? It may fill that MMA void in your heart that Dana White may not be totally interested in filling.
-Justin 'The Juice' Orel