For years, politics and public sentiment relegated local mixed martial arts (MMA) events to venues like Rock Creek Lodge, the Clinton roadside attraction best known for hosting the infamous Testicle Festival. At capacity, Rock Creek’s summertime fights draw approximately 1,700 spectators.
But now, corporate sponsorship and mainstream media attention have boosted the sport’s legitimacy and created a boon for Missoula’s MMA enthusiasts. The University of Montana introduced a new MMA class this semester through the Department of Human Performance, and later this month the Adams Center will host its first-ever MMA event. Organizers of the 13-fight lineup, dubbed “Missoula Mayhem,” say the arena is prepared to seat as many as 5,500 general admission fans and 400 guests at premium ringside and floor tables—more than three times Rock Creek Lodge’s capacity.
“The popularity worldwide is just huge now,” says Matthew Powers, co-owner of Rock Creek Lodge and the instructor of UM’s new MMA course. “Two of the last [Ultimate Fighting Championships] have been overseas, and they sell out every time they put on an event.”
MMA fights allow for both striking and grappling techniques, and include full-contact combat while standing and on the ground. The sport received harsh criticism in the 1990s for its intense bloodshed and lack of rules—John McCain famously called it “human cockfighting” on the U.S. Senate floor in 1996—but gained legitimacy by instituting new regulations and creating legitimate sanctioning bodies. In the last five years, MMA surpassed boxing in popularity based on television ratings and pay-per-view purchases. For instance, UFC 94, the sport’s most recent marquee event, attracted 1.3 million PPV customers on Jan. 31, or about 50,000 more than boxing’s premier December bout between Oscar De La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao.
The sport’s popularity—and the reputation of local proponents like Powers—led UM administrators to add the new MMA course this semester. Adrienne Corti, the advising and activity class director at the Department of Human Performance, met Powers through one of the department’s community partnerships. She says the program already offered classes in Tai Chi, Judo, Tae Kwando and Capoeira, and she was impressed by Powers’ approach to teaching MMA.
“So much of me doing these classes depends on the instructors themselves,” she says. “He really wants to teach this sport so people understand what the deal is behind it. It’s not, ‘Let’s brawl in Missoula.’”
In a recent Thursday afternoon class, Powers squatted over a volunteer inside UM’s Schreiber Gymnasium while leading a group of 15 students through the specifics of a submission move. The move, called an “arm bar,” looks innocent until Powers deftly maneuvers his hamstring over the volunteer’s face and bends the volunteer’s arms against his shoulders. Then it looks painful. However, Powers points out that the arm bar is an apt representation of the sport as a whole—more of a technician’s chess match than a barroom scuffle.
“The fighters are true athletes,” says Powers, “and not some guy who just rolled out of the bar.”
The true athletes, as Powers describes them, will be on display March 21 at the Adams Center. The event’s promoter, Brian Deets of Bozeman’s Fightforce, says that although he’s been associated with MMA for the past 20 years, the Adams Center event is the first of its kind in Missoula.
“In terms of reputability, it’s definitely a step up,” says Deets.
Mary Muse, executive director of the Adams Center, says she “doesn’t see any red flags” with “Missoula Mayhem” and views it as an opportunity to diversify her venue’s offerings.
“The way I look at my responsibility is that it’s not my job to make value judgments—I don’t mean that as a backhand to the event,” she says. “It’s like any other on-campus production.”
However, Muse does apply a universal set of criteria to event organizers hoping to rent out the Adams Center. For instance: Is the promoter who is putting on the event credible? Does he have appropriate insurance? Does he have a good business structure in place? Does his business practice mitigate the university’s liability?
“Those kinds of things I do take very seriously, and when you look at an event such as mixed martial arts, those are very pertinent questions,” Muse says. “And I will say that I have had inquiries from other mixed martial arts groups and oftentimes I’ve found that as I’ve outlined my criteria and met with them, they don’t ever call back.”
Once Muse scheduled the event, Deets turned his attention to promotion and ticket sales. He says he’s sold eight of 10 ringside tables for $500 each and most of the floor tables, which cost $400. Deets says he doesn’t have sales figures for general admission tickets, but notes most attendees buy tickets at the door on fight night. He’s hoping to meet or exceed the attendance from the last fight he promoted—February’s “Butte Brawl 6” at the Butte Civic Center. That event drew more than 2,400 fans, the most to date for a Montana MMA event.