Saturday, May 30, 2009 | midnight
Las Vegas might be the fight capital of the world, but before a starry-eyed mixed martial artist can turn pro, he has to first prove he’s “Tuff-N-Uff.”
The MMA organization of the same name, which grew from one man’s dream in the gyms of Chicago, has become a solid proving ground for amateur fighters for more than five years.
“It was love at first fight,” says Tuff-N-Uff president and founder Barry Meyer with a chuckle, recalling his initial concept for Tuff-N-Uff, which started with kickboxing.
“I have enjoyed watching the sport grow and knew that it needed something like this from the beginning.”
That beginning came in 1994 when Meyer conceived the idea for an amateur MMA organization after watching the first Ultimate Fighting Championship event held in November 1993 in Denver.
However, the no-rules attitude of the early UFC days didn’t offer much help for the rest of the MMA community trying to legitimize a sport that much of the rest of the world viewed as “human cockfighting.”
Almost a decade later, Meyer’s kickboxing concept has transformed itself into a full-fledged MMA organization. The first Tuff-N-Uff MMA show took place in Las Vegas on Nov. 14, 2003, at the Orleans.
“It wasn’t an easy task to get up and running,” Meyer said of the licensing process with the Nevada State Athletic Commission, which he estimated took 16 months.
“But we weren’t going to stop. Fighters from all over the world want to come to Las Vegas and fight. And we wanted to be the first amateur organization to give them that opportunity.”
Meyer got his wish and since that first event, the organization is respected at the level “Golden Gloves” is in boxing, he said.
In 18 months, Tuff-N-Uff has put on 10 shows, which usually feature 15 to 20 fights and an average audience of 1,700 filling up the Orleans’ ballroom.
Meyer, who quit his high-paying job as a hedge fund trader in San Diego, is involved in every aspect of promoting the events he puts on.
“You can’t count how many hours that are behind planning this event. I eat, sleep, drink and breathe mixed martial arts,” Meyer said.
“It is truly incalculable how much effort and thought that goes into it. But I love this job. It’s truly a passion and I’d much rather be doing something I love, than flipping burgers for all the money in the world.”
Meyer’s passion is reflected in the Tuff-N-Uff fighters he helps to promote, many who envision turning their fighting dreams into the riches of the UFC. Others simply want to test themselves against the toughest amateur competition out there.
One high-profile fighter, Ryan Couture, says he's caught somewhere in the middle.
“I’d really like to take this as far as I can. If I can make a career out of it — great,” said Ryan, the son of legendary UFC fighter Randy Couture, who sports a 2-1 amateur record.
“Right now I am just having a good time and it's something that I love to do. Barry and Tuff-N-Uff always put on a great show.”
The Tuff-N-Uff organization has provided a successful transition for some of MMA's top-notch fighters.
Pros like Jon Fitch and Aaron Riley both cut their teeth in Tuff-N-Uff before leaping to the UFC circuit.
UFC interim heavyweight champ Frank Mir credits Tuff-N-Uff with helping with their success and says the promotion is providing an unparalleled outlet for up and coming amateurs.
“It’s like any other sport where you have different levels of learning. Here there are no repercussions to their career,” said Mir, who helps coach fighters from the Striking Unlimited gym that he works out at in Las Vegas.
“You can lose one or win one here, and still get to experiment and try things out. The only difference is that the amateurs fighting here don’t get paid.”
Mir, who is often joined at Tuff-N-Uff events by fellow UFC stars Wanderlei Silva and Randy Couture, says the level of “professionalism held at (Tuff-N-Uff)” is what separates it from the competition of smaller-level MMA shows.
Meyer said the monthly events — which offer local MMA vendors, sponsors, and gyms a venue to display their products — are now turning a slight profit.
“I think a lot of that has come from our exposure on television and off MMA Web sites and forums,” said Meyer, whose company has six full-time employees and another dozen or so volunteers.
Every Saturday night Tuff-N-Uff events are aired on Las Vegas One (Cox Cable Channel 19) in Las Vegas and just recently got picked up by the Fight Network in Canada.
While Meyer admitted he loved the growing exposure, he was quick to offer up a reminder that the true point of Tuff-N-Uff is “all about the fighters.”
Meyer says fighters wishing to participate in the organization can find more information and register online at Tuff-N-Uff’s official Web site. It costs $35 to enter an event. Applicants will answer general questions on the site and will have to undergo medical clearance and a physical. Meyer and matchmaker Jason Bedford then try to pair up similar fighters based on physical attributes, experience and fighter-submitted training videos.
“I thinking matching the fighters up is the toughest part of it all,” Meyer said. “Sometimes there’s not a lot of information out there for a particular fighter, so you don’t have a lot to go off of.
“But Jason does a great job of breaking down training tapes and making the most practical matchups he can.”
Barry’s brother, Jeff, is co-president, and he shares in his brother’s mission of helping fighters reach their ultimate dreams.
“It’s important to know that for the fighters, this is a life-changing experience. As fans and owners we’ve worked so hard at making things work and it feels great when fighters such as Larry Mir or Ryan Couture feel comfortable with Tuff-N-Uff,” Jeff said. “It’s rewarding for both of us and the master plan is coming.”
The Meyers’ master plan is to expand Tuff-N-Uff outside the Silver State’s borders. Tonight’s main card, which is filled with several Mexican-born MMA fighters making their debuts in Las Vegas, is a further example of Tuff-N-Uff’s developing growth.
“This event spearheaded the whole amateur movement in the state of Nevada. As of right now amateur fighting is not legal in California, but they are opening up to the possibility of it,” Jeff said.
“And ultimately we are hoping to go global.”
UNLV journalism students Jennifer Miller, Ashley Kringen and Michael Jackson created this multimedia project about amateur mixed martial arts organization Tuff-N-Uff for their spring semester sports journalism class at the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies.