Far from the UFC limelight, hundreds of amateur mixed martial artists fight to go pro — or just straighten out their lives. Las Vegas has become their mecca
The first time Emily Whitmire attended a mixed martial arts event, on a whim she removed her earrings, put her blonde hair in a ponytail and stepped into the cage.
“I was a little drunk,” she now admits.
When the ring announcer had asked for a volunteer to wrestle one of the night’s female competitors, a professional fighter whose specialty was grappling, Whitmire, then a skinny 18-year-old, was the only woman in the crowd to raise a hand.
“I’ve always been a more physical girl,” she says, “always had a tough-girl mentality. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
This took place six years ago in a small town in southern Washington. We’re talking ringside now at a different gym in a different city, here in her adopted home of Las Vegas. For much the same way aspiring actors flock to L.A. and tech bros gather in the Bay Area, anyone with serious ambitions to apply guillotine holds for a living knows Las Vegas is a place you go to “make it.”
I’m visiting the gym to learn exactly why that is — and to find out what the heck draws these seemingly well-balanced people to such a grisly sport in the first place.
Going into that cage with zero grappling skills, Whitmire was choked and nearly had an arm broken and was quickly dispensed with. It was an arrogant, impulsive decision that nevertheless proved fateful and positive in the long run. Recognizing her toughness, someone in the audience invited Whitmire to train at an MMA gym in nearby Portland, Oregon. Like many 18-year-olds, she was still figuring out what she wanted to do with her life and open to trying new things, so she gave the sport a whack.
“If I wouldn’t have gone out that night, and if I didn’t raise my hand, my life for the past six years wouldn’t have happened,” she says.
But then she wouldn’t have suffered an LCL tear in her left knee two years later, either. Or broken her nose twice in one month. At the young age of 24, Whitmire has several nagging injuries that she trains through four or five times a week.
And so it went that five years after her humbling introduction to MMA fighting, Whitmire moved to Las Vegas to join its thriving MMA community and receive coaching at Xtreme Couture, an elite gym run by former UFC champion Randy Couture.
“Las Vegas is the epicenter of the MMA boom in part because the UFC has made the city its home base for more than a decade,” Jonathan Snowden, author of The MMA Encyclopedia, writes via email. “But the Super Bowl of MMA isn’t the city’s only contribution to the sport’s growth. Lots of prospective fighters now make a pilgrimage there, and many end up staying to train at the gyms that have popped up all over town.”
Theirs is an undeniably brutal sport, and so upon learning that Las Vegas is a mecca for aspiring fighters, you might see this as a negative. As if the city needed more vice, with its throngs of gamblers, sex workers and drunken revelers, we’re also a destination for people whose calling is fisticuffs? But then you tour the gyms and remember that Las Vegas is a transplant city, and the people coming here are almost always dreamers. And it’s hard to knock that. These fighters make livings as security guards, busboys at steakhouses, nightclub promoters. Some are college students, yet even that is viewed as a backup-plan for the ultimate goal of lifting belts in the UFC.
Whitmire is a waitress at Cabo Wabo on the Strip, which she considers the best restaurant in the town because it serves fresh-made guacamole and because the management allows her enough time off for her to train for official bouts, like the one that may go down as the breakout fight of her career.
In June, Whitmire won her first title, beating Utah’s number one female amateur in two minutes and eight seconds with a crucifix hold and a flurry of hammer-fist blows that convinced the referee to end the match.
This “Future Stars of MMA” event was hosted by Tuff-N-Uff, the Las Vegas-based amateur MMA promoter that also gave Ronda Rousey her start, and which is partially responsible for the city’s allure as a training destination. Its straw-weight championship should allow Whitmire to fight professionally now.
“I grew up riding horses,” she says. “My passion and love growing up was barrel racing, and my dream for the majority of my childhood was to ride in the National Finals Rodeo at the Thomas & Mack Center — and that’s where I ended up winning my Tuff-N-Uff belt. It wasn’t the right belt,” she admits, “but it was one just as good.”
I ask how the pilgrimage here, to the undisputed MMA capital of the world, played into that emerging success.
“The training here is just way better,” she says. “There’s more girls, more people traveling here, better coaches, better fighters. Just kinda better all around.”
In another area of the gym, off to the side of the mats where Xtreme Couture’s top amateurs practiced wrestling holds and escapes, I meet a lean 31-year-old man from Idaho named James Hof. He had just moved to Las Vegas and was in the gym to get in shape for an amateur team tryout that would take place in two days.
“I’ve been to prison twice,” he tells me. “I threw hands in prison so I know this is something I can do.” Watching the practice with a look of melancholic envy, he talks about the tattoos running up his arms, chest and neck. “Nobody wants to employ me,” he says. “I’m too customized. People don’t like my background. This is the only place that accepts me.”
On the rebound
Xtreme Couture doesn’t look much like a holy site from the outside. One more long stucco building in yet another generic office park. You can hear the thwap of a shin kick hit a punching bag as you approach from the back lot. Grunts, slaps, the rattle of heavy weights. You might assume the place is used as a black site for odd corporate hazing rituals, but then you see young men sitting out front in Tapout gear, gym shorts and kneepads. In addition to Gatorade bottles, they carry the nervous energy of people about to engage in hand-to-hand combat for sport.
Inside, the gym has a dedicated weight-training zone with all the requisite goodies, including a sledgehammer and monster truck tire. I see a couple of octagon cages in use for sparring (Roy “Big Country” Nelson versus Randy Couture while I was there). On several large open-mat areas, they offer classes all day. You can sign up for grappling, jiu-jitsu, kickboxing, traditional boxing, cardio kickboxing or something called “sub grappling,” or simply focus on the new-breed style that integrates the best of the above when all of the above are allowed.
Xtreme Couture has 24,000 square feet of brawl and workout space, making it the largest MMA gym in town. When considering that, and more importantly the level of talent coaching and training inside, journalists often rank it the number one gym in Las Vegas, which automatically puts it among the best in the world since there are almost as many elite fighting gyms in this city as there are slot machine parlors. Syndicate MMA, Wand Fight Team, One Kick’s Gym, Cobra Kai Jiu-Jitsu, Drysdale Jiu-Jitsu, Las Vegas Krav Maga and Hawaiian Fighting Arts also employ current or former MMA stars as coaches.
For all that vigor, the training scene here is apparently on the rebound.
“When the sport took off in 2005, 2006, Vegas was a really popular place to train — it had a lot of gyms, a lot of fighters — but it faded out as other cities slowly caught up,” says Dann Stupp, editor-in-chief of the website MMAjunkie.com. “Fighters in the Southeast would end up in the same Florida gyms. People in the Midwest would go to cities like Milwaukee. But now Vegas is re-emerging. We’re seeing some of the big names return to the bigger Vegas gyms.”
Emily Whitmire was convinced to move here by her friend Miesha Tate, one of the top women in the UFC. Tate and her boyfriend, Bryan Caraway, who is a high-ranking UFC bantamweight fighter, moved to Las Vegas from Washington in late 2014. According to Whitmire, a lot of fighters from the Northwest have moved here in recent years.
Stupp says, “We talk to fighters who are based in Vegas and they say they really like it. A lot of events take place there so it’s convenient. But more than that, you always have a fresh set of fighters coming into town.”
He refers also to MMA fighters who visit as tourists. Whether in town to see Conor McGregor fight or attend a friend’s bachelor party, they like to visit these gyms while here — thus exposing resident fighters to an even more diverse array of talent.
“The fact that they get a revolving door of guys coming in and training and getting looks during sparring sessions really works to their advantage,” Stupp says. “You get that in Vegas more than anywhere else in the world.”
Another benefit to the training scene here is the presence of a successful amateur fight promoter, in Tuff-N-Uff, and the organized system of MMA “teams” at each gym. Stupp says in other cities, amateur fight promoters are notorious for running out of money or cancelling events, or even failing to get all the fighters to show up. Tuff-N-Uff will fly in out-of-state competition when a top local amateur dominates the region (the way Rousey once did, and Xtreme Couture’s Mike Hobby does now). Tuff-N-Uff also piggybacks on the UFC by organizing fight cards on the eve of major title bouts on the Strip. Yet even when the pro league is inactive, as many as 16,000 locals and out-of-towners have shown up to these events because Las Vegas has a strong fight town culture and a passionate MMA community. The coaches always make sure their fighters are ready to represent their gyms. Teammates who train with the pugilists all week offer boisterous support from the crowd. It’s the ideal ecosystem for aspiring amateurs to gain experience and catch the attention of scouts from the UFC.
“Ten years ago, there wasn’t really much of an established amateur system. Now whether it’s the gym or just amateur-specific events, it’s developing,” Stupp says. “That’s one of the biggest strides the sport has made in the past 10 years, which is good because if you’re not getting good training, if you’re not in a good gym, it’s obviously a very dangerous sport. It just makes things so much safer for the guys who are just starting out.”
The spectacle of crazy bloodletting
Many people don’t like MMA. There are impressive moments of athleticism, yes, and you can admire the poise and controlled ferocity shown in situations that would leave most of us crab-walking around the cage in fright. But then some fights are just glacially slow; watching two people clutch each other in exhaustion is not everyone’s idea of entertainment. Really, though, what I suspect repels a lot of people (including me) is when a fight ends in crazy bloodletting.
It’s uncomfortable to watch the inevitable winner bash his defenseless opponent’s head in with a “ground and pound” flurry of hammer-fist blows. The loser is usually writhing on his back, and that effort convinces the referee to let it play out. The crowd, meanwhile, knows it’s over, the ref pretty much knows it’s over, the winner and loser know who the winner and loser will be, but everyone has to let this violent coda play out because, as often happens, the loser refuses to tap out. Some might find this beautiful. The vanquished man struggling against his pride and what he feels he owes his supporters. You can see this tortured negotiation between pain and ego going on in his eyes when he’s not shutting them as the knuckles land. He won’t do it, can’t tap out, not without another vain attempt to squirm free. He just about always fails to block the punches raining down again, again. Again. The winner is good at finding unprotected flesh. Finally, the ref calls the match.
That whole gladiatorial, voyeur, bloodlust thing may not be for you. What you’ll find interesting, rather, is the story beneath the fighter’s commitment. What compels a person to organize their life around something so brutal? In a sport with so little money in it? One in which a devastating injury is all but assured?
I ask Whitmire why she stuck with MMA after rehabbing from the LCL tear in her left knee. The motivation is always changing, she says, but at its core are two powerful things: “The people — the feeling of family — and the feeling of doing something really hard and getting it accomplished.”
She says, “I honestly have no idea where I’d be without it. Before, I drank beer and smoked cigarettes and was kind of a depressed angry girl with no direction, no parents — no anything, really.”
I talk to Dennis Davis, head coach of the amateur MMA team at Xtreme Couture. He came to the sport in a strikingly similar way, having lost his father at the age of 14. Davis didn’t enjoy school; he got in fights all the time and coped with grief through aggression. “I was a very angry kid who just wanted to hurt people,” he says. “My childhood was not great.”
Then by picking up MMA, Davis found a way to let out some of his frustration. The sport also introduced him to a father-figure coach who helped him settle down and develop the foundation of what would become a successful fighting career.
“MMA can save a lot of people,” he tells me. “Say I didn’t get into MMA, maybe I would’ve become a punk who beat people up on the street. Who knows? And for a ton of these kids, that is the case. You may have a person who’s not great at school or just doesn’t like it. I also know a few guys who’ve come out of the military and got PTSD, and so coming in here to train and mix it up kind of helps get that out.”
Davis acknowledges that most of his students won’t make it to the UFC — some will, but most won’t — and yet that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wasting their time.
"I love this stuff"
I go back to Xtreme Couture to see James Hof compete in their amateur MMA team tryout. A total of 22 young men show up. Most appear to be in their mid-twenties, but there are also teenagers, and, thanks to Hof, at least one man in his early thirties. The coaches lead them through a typical practice, which includes intense workouts, grappling and striking exercises, full-contact sparring sessions and then even more physical conditioning, a regimen grueling enough to weed out unfit, unserious hopefuls. The action takes place on a long stretch of mats walled by chain-link fencing and surrounded by packed bleachers. There are a lot of MMA enthusiasts in town for UFC Fight Week, so about 75 people show up to watch what was essentially a high-stakes practice for lower-tier amateurs.
In the end, six make the team, a larger number than Davis planned to accept because it’s a more talented group than he’s used to seeing. Atom Fogarty, one of those who make the cut, is trying out for the fifth time. He, too, says it’s the most competitive group he’d ever tried out with.
Hof — who says he has a young daughter to support — struggles to keep up with lunges and leapfrog exercises. He scurries off the mats at one point to dunk his head into a nearby trashcan, causing one coach to howl, “We’ve got a puker!”
“God, I feel old,” he tells me afterward.
Many professional fighters retire by 31, so I suggest that perhaps Hof is, indeed, too old to break out in the sport. “People keep telling me that,” he says. “I don’t care. People have been downing me my entire life. I don’t listen to them.”
If sportsmanship were the only criteria for a spot on the team, Hof would’ve been picked. By far the most generous person on the mats, he congratulates opponents and cheers on peers by name even when they’d only just met. As his energy starts to flag, they return the gesture, lifting him verbally and physically. And though his name isn’t called in the end, several fighters encourage him to work on his cardio and try out another time.
“I’ll be back,” he says, “I love this stuff. I’ll make the team — I know I will.”
Trading arm bars and elbow strikes is apparently a bonding experience, which is good because even if his dreams don’t come to fruition, showing up to MMA gyms in Idaho and now Las Vegas is a vital part of Hof’s routine. He started training as a way to give up drinking; those prison terms stemmed from alcohol and marijuana-related offenses. So Hof is using the sport as a kind of sobriety program. At UNLV this fall he is pursuing a degree in business, in the hope that as a college graduate he’ll find a sympathetic employer. But there might yet be occasions when he, as do so many others, needs to step into an octagon-shaped cage.
They do it to demonstrate strong will, cope with stress, let out tempests of frustration and enjoy pride in newly developed finesse. None of that is as surprising to me, though, as the fact that people use this somewhat violent, individualistic sport as a way to overcome anger and loneliness. Count me among those now who feel proud that this happens in Vegas more than anywhere else in the world.