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Future of sports in the SCV: A fighting chance

One of the growing sports in the country, MMA, has seen its own proliferation in the SCV

Posted: July 24, 2010 10:25 p.m.
Updated: July 25, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Isaac Salas, 8, lifts James Gonzalez, 9, in a fireman’s carry takedown as they train at Big John McCarthy's Ultimate Training Academy in Valencia on Thursday.

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Like any underdog, the sport of mixed martial arts is used to having the odds stacked against it.

Illegal in some states and working to overcome its stigma, the sport’s popularity has still grown exponentially.

With the bounds of that growth yet to be determined, the Santa Clarita Valley is poised to enter the MMA conversation.

“It’s fatiguing. It’s demanding. Society will never understand the level of commitment it takes to become an MMA fighter,” says David Dunn, the chief instructor for Sidekicks Fight Academy, which has locations in Canyon Country and Pasadena. “It’s a level of commitment unlike any other. When you wake up in the morning, you have one thing to do and that is push yourself to the physical limit.”

Dunn was the first person to bring the sport to the valley when his gym opened 15 years ago.

“We were teaching Brazilian jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts concepts in 1995, it just wasn’t called MMA,” Dunn says. “It was called NHB — no holds barred. It was called no rules for a while and no holds barred for a while. It wasn’t branded with mixed martial arts until the last five years or so.”

On Dec. 28, 2005, MMA became legal in California.

A decided boom in combat sports followed.

“I think the sport has grown tremendously within certain demographics, particularly 19 to 34-year-old males,” says California State Athletic Commission executive officer George Dodd. “We’ve also seen a sharp increase in the female viewership of MMA.”

According to James Chow, an assistant planner for the city of Santa Clarita, since 2005, 15 permits required for the operation of gyms locally have been issued.

Seven permits were granted in 2007 alone, including two for MMA facilities.

One of those locations was Big John McCarthy's Ultimate Training Academy.

Dunn says he lost approximately 15 people overnight to McCarthy.

“Everyone’s got this idea about fighting and everyone goes into a fighting gym or dojo or martial arts school for different reasons, but I think most people have kind of figured out that MMA is not barbaric,” McCarthy says. “They understand the technical aspects, how much true training is needed to do it and the amount of work that goes into preparing for a fight.”

Perhaps unknown to many mainstream sports fans, McCarthy is a legend in the MMA community.

The longtime referee has worked some of the biggest fights in UFC history and in countries across the globe.

“With Big John’s name already, it’s like a no-brainer that his gym is going to be humongous,” says John Hackleman, founder of The Pit in Arroyo Grande and trainer of former UFC light heavyweight champion and Hall of Famer Chuck Liddell. “(He’s) probably one of the top five names in MMA in the world. Big John’s name? Yeah, hell yeah.”

According to Brian Peterson, the head coach for BJMUTA’s fight team, the gym’s current numbers exceed 500.

But where does the SCV stand when it comes to California MMA, which features some of the nation’s top camps?

“I don’t think we do yet, but we are trying,” Dunn says. “Big John McCarthy sent Joe Henle to “The Ultimate Fighter” and that really marked Santa Clarita as a fight territory. ... I think that was a nice step for us to be recognized as a fight community because we are. There are a lot of people here who train and who represent the sport, and in time, this valley will put out a fighter that is known in the A-leagues and give us some notoriety.”

“The Ultimate Fighter” is a UFC-branded reality show on Spike TV, which has opened the door for such fighters as Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, Michael Bisping, Matt Serra, Diego Sanchez, Josh Koscheck, Kenny Florian and Stephan Bonnar.

Aside from The Pit, San Jose is home to American Kickboxing Academy and the San Diego area hosts a Team Quest facility, while Huntington Beach, Big Bear and Bakersfield have also produced top fighters.

“I think one thing that you’ve got to know there is they’ve got recognizable names that do a lot of stuff within those venues,” Dodd says. “San Jose is the home to Strikeforce. Down in San Diego and Huntington Beach you have well-known established UFC fighters that train out of the camps in that area. Probably what it would take is a big-value name with the UFC or with Strikeforce to start some sort of promotion company with that area or a school with that area.”

Therefore, producing top-caliber fighters remains a primary goal.

“I think speaking for us, my guys are moving up,” Peterson says. “They are doing really, really well and I truly, truly believe, with the exception of serious problems like big injuries that end careers, we are going to have — in about two or three years — one of our guys fighting in the (World Extreme Cagefighting) or UFC. One of our home-grown guys. Without a doubt.”

To do so is essential in the sport’s growth in Santa Clarita, Hackleman says.

“I think they’ve got to keep doing what they are doing and before long they will be bigger than we are,” he says. “They’ve got to keep entering tournaments — amateur and pro shows — and pretty soon, more people are seeing them fighting and more people want to go to their gym.”

Drawing comparisons to his own camp, Hackleman says it is also likely that the SCV could become synonymous with a single gym rather than becoming an entire community that produces great fighters as a whole.

McCarthy, however, is more optimistic about the entire valley’s potential.

“The SCV has got some incredible athletes,” he says. “If you look at where the football programs have been for years, basketball and baseball, everything is here. It is a great place with great people that have athletic kids. It can be a place where fighters are the next thing that comes out of this valley.”

One way of making that happen is through wrestling, McCarthy says.

“I would love to see my school help bring wrestling programs to the high schools out here,” he says. “It would only benefit the youth.”

With the valley set to host the California Fight Syndicate’s MMA/boxing event on July 31 at Six Flags Magic Mountain, the sport could garner even more attention locally.

“I think having the event at Magic Mountain is going to have more of an impact on Santa Clarita MMA than the UFC itself,” Peterson says. “The UFC is great, and I think that is the big engine in the background that everyone watches, but I think when you have the local events that people go and watch, that’s when they can go ‘Oh hey, look at that, how can I do this?’”

Women might be the most in tune with Peterson’s sentiments.

In fact, McCarthy says the day will soon come when women fight in the UFC.

“I think eventually, yes, I do,” McCarthy says. “I think we will. ... Eventually the talent pool is going to rise and be deep enough.

“I know guys that are working with (Strikeforce women’s featherweight champion Cristiane Santos) and spar with her, they’ll tell you she hits every bit as hard as a 145-pound man,” he adds. “They’ll tell you ‘I wasn’t taking it easy, I was fighting for my life.’”

McCarthy also expects future changes in the judges’ scoring to include a half-point system.

He will be meeting with Dodd and the CSAC on Monday to discuss potential changes.

No matter what comes of it, one thing is certain.

The sport’s popularity will continue to climb.

“It’s only going to grow,” Dunn says. “I think this sport is far from seeing its peak. I think we are a long way from seeing this thing cap out.”

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