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Inspired by memory of his brother, Jeff Meyer ushers Tuff N Uff into 20th year

Tuff N Uff holds free card Saturday at the Thomas & Mack after starting in a Chicago high school gym in 1994

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Steve Marcus

Tuff-N-Uff CEO Jeff Meyer poses at the Thomas & Mack Center Tuesday, June 3, 2014. The amateur mixed martial arts organization will celebrate it’s 20th anniversary with a free amateur fight card, “Tuff N Uff: The Future Stars of Mixed Martial Arts,” at the arena on Saturday, June 7.

Tuff-N-UFF Hosts Free MMA Event at Thomas & Mack

Tuff-N-Uff CEO Jeff Meyer poses at the Thomas & Mack Center Tuesday, June 3, 2014. The amateur mixed martial arts organization will celebrate it's 20th anniversary with a free amateur fight card, Launch slideshow »

Tuff N Uff 20th Anniversary Card Title Fights

  • Strawweight women's: Molly Wren-Holmes vs. Jamie Moyle
  • Welterweight: Sebastian Buckley vs. Joel Champion
  • Bantamweight: Teejay Britton vs. Marco Lopez
  • Lightweight: Johnny Alvarado vs. Chance Cretsinger
  • Featherweight: Ian Lujan vs. Sean Francis
  • Eleven more fights scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Free tickets available at UNLVtickets.com with canned-goods collection bins to benefit Three Square Food Bank stationed at the entry.

The fights ran late, felt disorganized and suffered from a lack of proper staffing.

Keith Kizer, then executive director of the Nevada State Gaming Commission, admonished Tuff N Uff co-founders Barry Meyer and Jeff Meyer after one of their first events in Las Vegas. Older brother Barry was so devastated that he wanted to shutter the kickboxing/mixed martial arts promotion he had spent years building.

Younger brother Jeff had to convince him that the problems were resolvable, and set out to work exhaustively on making the next event flawless. Kizer spoke with a much different tone when the commentators asked him about the Meyer brothers in an interview during the following card.

“Keith is like, ‘I’m so proud of these guys. They’ve come so far,’” Jeff, now the CEO of Tuff N Uff, reminisced. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, do you realize we almost threw in the towel because of what you said?’ When we watched the DVD, I was with my mom and brother. When that interview came up, I remember looking back and seeing my brother cry tears of joy.”

Jeff hopes Barry would have a similar reaction if he knew what Tuff N Uff was staging this weekend. Barry passed away last October, succumbing to a battle with depression and taking his own life.

The president of the company died only after turning Tuff N Uff into mixed martial arts’ premier amateur promotion, a claim that will be validated by taking over the cavernous Thomas & Mack Center for its 20th anniversary card Saturday night.

Filling an arena of that size — the venue is configured to hold approximately 17,500 spectators for Tuff N Uff — was a longtime aspiration for Jeff and Barry. To ensure the largest crowd possible, Jeff has made the event free with the suggestion of bringing a canned-food donation for the Three Square Food Bank to the fights.

“I’ve already had a dream about it,” Meyer said while sitting at a table in one of the Mack’s concourses earlier this week. “I was in here, and it was so packed. Everyone was yelling and screaming. I think it’s going to be that way. I think it’s going to be the most fitting tribute I could ever do for my brother.”

Those in the fight community have engulfed the Meyer family in tributes ever since Barry’s passing. Helping foster so many young fighters over two decades in Tuff N Uff, ranging from former UFC stars like Jon Fitch and Roger Huerta to current octagon standouts such as Chris Holdsworth and Ronda Rousey, garnered him deferential standing.

“Barry really did a lot for me and helped me get fights,” Rousey said in an interview last year. “No one wanted to fight me in the beginning because even though I had no record, I still had an Olympic background and everyone backed out. Tuff N Uff really saved me on the amateur end.”

Tuff N Uff producing possibly the world’s most popular current fighter is a testament to the brothers’ everlasting devotion to the sport that started from the moment the UFC debuted. They grew up on martial arts with Barry first earning a black-belt in taekwondo at 12-years-old and Jeff traveling across the Midwest from his home in Chicago for karate tournaments.

Barry, back home in Chicago, noticed an ad for UFC 1 back in 1993 and called Jeff, then a freshman at the University of Arizona, telling him they had to watch. They talked on the phone as both of their lives changed forever witnessing the UFC in its primitive form.

“My brother always said it was love at first fight,” Jeff said. “It was something we knew we wanted to be involved in.”

Less than a year later, Barry persuaded his former suburban Chicago high school to allow “Tuff n Uff Productions” to hold a kickboxing card — the closest they could get to MMA at the time — in their gym. The Meyers continued putting together cards over the next decade whenever they could “muster up enough energy and save enough money.”

The dates were sporadic, though, as they each had burgeoning careers in the investment sector. Barry moved to San Diego, where he excelled at helping wealthy clients diversify their portfolios. Jeff worked at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, but joked he was “the worst trader ever.”

Barry eventually bailed Jeff out of the job he felt uncomfortable in around 2001 by hiring him as an assistant.

“We were in La Jolla in probably the most prime office space you could have with beautiful views overlooking the ocean and seals,” Jeff said. “But we were just hitting our heads against the wall every day and pounding the phones. It wasn’t fun; it wasn’t our passion. MMA was our passion.”

During their Southern California years, the Meyers began holding hybrid kickboxing and mixed martial arts events in Las Vegas. Sensing a shortage of options for places where young fighters could hone their skills, Barry’s real goal at the time was to get amateur fighting fully sanctioned in Nevada.

He lobbied habitually until the athletic commission relented in 2008. Barry left his job and moved to Las Vegas almost right away to set the groundwork for transforming Tuff N Uff into an amateur organization. Jeff followed a year later.

“My brother kept telling me, ‘We’ve got to do this,'” Jeff said. “To be perfectly honest, I didn’t think people were going to come watch an amateur show, but looking back at many decisions we disagreed upon, he was usually right.”

Click to enlarge photo

Tuff-N-Uff president Barry Meyer, left, and brother, Jeff, right, pose with UFC fighter Wanderlei Silva after a show at the Orleans in this file photo from 2009.

Branding a series of their cards “the future stars of MMA,” Tuff N Uff created a niche. Local UFC stars of the time like Randy Couture and Frank Mir were regular attendees and praised Tuff N Uff for its quality and professionalism, characteristics rare in the amateur fighting world.

Jeff said he was recently taken aback when someone working for the commission called Tuff N Uff, “the UFC of amateur fighting.”

“Having built a fairly substantial, or at least small loyal fan base here in Las Vegas, I think we’re happy with where we are,” Jeff said.

That following influenced Jeff to push Tuff N Uff into its 20th year. There were some doubts after Barry’s death.

Jeff wasn’t sure he could run the show without Barry, and then received a couple reasonable offers to buy the company. Jeff huddled with his father, Burt, who decided he would take on a bigger role in the operation.

They weren’t interested in selling. Jeff kept Tuff N Uff fighting once again.

“My brother was quoted in an interview years ago saying he left a lucrative career in the hedge-fund business knowing he doesn’t care if he makes a million or loses; he just loves the sport,” Jeff said. “This is his passion, so I want to continue Tuff N Uff in his honor to build on his legacy.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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