One of the fastest growing sports in the world is gaining ground in the Valley of the Sun. Mixed martial arts (MMA), a full-contact combat sport that incorporates techniques from boxing, kick boxing, karate, Muay Thai and other disciplines, has become a sport of choice in the Metro Phoenix area. Numerous gyms, including Power MMA & Fitness, Fight Ready MMA, The MMA Lab and more, offer classes and training in the sport.
This weekend, Bellator MMA, the second-largest combat sport promotion in the country, returns to the Valley after a seven-year hiatus. Its fighters take over the Footprint Center on Saturday, Oct. 16, for Bellator 268. Tickets are still available here.
Heavyweight champion Ryan Bader, who will be fighting Corey Anderson, has been itching to fight in the area in which he trains. “Bellator coming back to Phoenix is huge,” he exclaims. “I’ve been trying to get them here forever, so when they told me this card was in Phoenix, I was ecstatic. Hopefully, the fans will be loud so that Bellator will want to come back again.”
According to Bader, an Arizona State University alum and former co-owner of Power MMA in Gilbert, MMA is growing in popularity in the Valley for a couple reasons. “A lot of people want to live in Arizona, so that brings fighters here,” he explains. “There are also a bunch of good gyms where fighters can train with world champions. The combination of these two elements starts to build, and it makes fans want to come out and support.”
Arizona combat sports legend, Benson Henderson, who’s set to face Brent Primus on in the Bellator cage on Saturday, offers a unique take on what’s might be bringing more Arizonans to the sport,
“It’s that Wild West mentality. People still carry guns on their hips out here, it’s just the mentality. I think there’s something in the Phoenix air.”
Benson’s wife, Maria Henderson, also will be fighting at Bellator 268, jokingly interjects, “It’s too much heat.”
She continues, “Everyone loves to get behind someone who’s local. The community is getting bigger, and more fighters are coming here. People see them at jiu-jitsu tournaments, at the store, at local wrestling tournaments — so they see that they’re real people. It creates a sense of community and a sense of family.”
Benson adds, “You see these guys around the city. They go to this store or that car dealership. People like to see local athletes have success. The more an athlete has exposure, the more people tend to like that.”
With Bellator 268 returning to Phoenix, it makes sense that the fight card is stacked with hometown fighters, as well those who have ties to the area.
Although he currently trains in Canada, Lance Gibson Jr. attended ASU, including a stint at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “I think a lot of wrestlers who go to ASU transition to MMA because they see the money in it,” he says, theorizing why Metro Phoenix is experiencing a MMA boom. “You get a lot of great fighters who come out of ASU, as well, who spread throughout the Valley.”
Doors open for Bellator 268 at 3:30 p.m., with events beginning at 4 p.m. For a complete fight card and more information and ticket information, visit bellator.com/event/282.