Utah a hotbed for combat sports

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While Utahns are often known for being peaceful and kind, the Beehive state has actually produced some of the best combat athletes in some of the world’s most violent sports.

According to those in the boxing and mixed martial arts world, it’s the culture’s commitment to hard work that produces not only great missionaries, but also great fighters. The lack of some worldly distractions also keeps local fighters focused.

Clay Collard pins Justin Buchholz into the corner in a fight. Photo courtesy Rob Norbutt.
Clay Collard pins Justin Buchholz into the corner during a Utah fight show. Photo courtesy Rob Norbutt.

Utah has been home to boxing legends Jack Dempsey and Gene Fullmer. Dempsey may have been one of the smallest heavyweights in his time, but he was one of the toughest, often knocking out fighters who outweighed him by as many as 50 pounds. Wrestlers Mark Schultz and Cael Sanderson, a Wasatch High School legend, are also Utah natives.

Because of this past, Utah MMA has become more popular than ever. With training clubs stretching all along the Wasatch Front, local experts say the state is likely to produce another generation of international champions. One of those is Clay Collard, who trains at the Pit Elevated in Orem.

“Clay loves to fight, he loves to compete, and that is what makes Clay special,” said Jason Mertlich, head coach at the Pit Elevated. “A lot of fighters see it as a job, but for Clay it’s something he loves.”

Collard is only 20 years old and recently won the Showdown Fights lightweight title. He is just a few wins away from making it to the UFC. He is not the only one from Utah on the verge of stardom, however.

“What makes some of these Utah fighters like Collard or Josh Burkman good is that they love to fight,” Merlich said. “It’s not a job for them; it’s a passion, and they work hard. When their fights come they love being in there, and their hard work pays off.”

One reason Utah has produced so many high-level combat athletes is the willingness to compete in the state. Fighters in Utah start training in wrestling or boxing and now in MMA from a young age.

“The peaceful culture of Utah makes for a willingness to compete,” said Scott Bowler, promoter of Showdown Fights. “Everyone plays sports and starts training from a young age out here.”

The first ever MMA fight occurred in Salt Lake City in 1963, when “Judo” Gene Labell fought boxing champ Milo Savage in an anything-goes fight to the finish.

In Utah Valley alone there are at least five fighters who have fought in the UFC, the top organization in the sport, and even more fighters in the UFC outside of Utah Valley.

“Utah has a hard-working population with little to no night life or other distractions, and this creates a great fight culture,” Mertlich said.

Mixed martial arts is not a sport where competitors need to be natural fighters. The best fighters are the hardest workers. A person can only get so far on natural ability in the sport; the rest requires hard work.

Jennifer Howe, a women’s MMA champion in 2005, wouldn’t be seen from the outset as a fighter. She was a single mother of two, worked a full-time job and was going to school.

“I had to fight just to be able to fight. Every day was a struggle, and fighting became my special time,” Howe said. “Training became precious to me.”

Howe is now a promoter who puts on a show every two months to give opportunity for others to fight.

“There is a lot more opportunity to fight and compete in Utah,” said Josh Tyler, a professional MMA fighter. “This constant ability to compete allows fighters to constantly get better.”

Tyler wrestled at Old Dominion University in Virginia and began fighting out there. He moved to Utah to pursue his MMA dreams and seek more opportunities to fight than exist in Virginia.

In Utah, there are multiple MMA promotions that put on shows monthly. In other states, fighters wait several months between fights. The constant competing allows Utah fighters to get used to the fighting and work out early career mistakes before they compete on the big stage.

Many fighters from Utah are emerging to the top of the sport. Josh Burkman, pit elevated fighter, fought for the World Series of Fighting welterweight title Oct. 26. Currently, Burkman is ranked in the top 10 best welterweight fighters in the world.

“The elevation also helps fighters in their conditioning when they compete out of the state of Utah,” said Mertlich.

Fighters in Utah use the elevation and mountains to their advantage when they train. Utah fighter and Ultimate Fighter Court McGee is renowned for his cardio and conditioning and has won many fights solely because of the highly intense pace he sets in his fights.

As the sport of MMA grows, so will the talent in Utah. Look for some of the best fighters to come out of Utah in the next five years.

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