By Kenny Rice
Special to NBCSports.com
Posted: May29, 2007, 9:53 am EDT
The hexagon cage was a few feet from the stage where the country band usually plays. Ashtrays adorned wooden tabletops and drinks were served in large plastic cups. The fighters walked a narrow path past the large dance floor to the cage, flanked by fans in Colts Super Bowl caps and cowboy hats, wearing T-shirts in homage to rock tours and farm equipment.
On the eve of the ballyhooed Chuck Liddell-Quinton Jackson UFC 71 amidst the glitter and glamour of Las Vegas, the only neon the mixed martial artists in the 8 Seconds Saloon saw were blue and red tinted signs encouraging beer consumption. This was a locally driven gathering of 32 fighters at the venue 10 miles north of the Indianapolis airport. Fighters with varying talents from teenagers to late 30s, hailing from places such as Boyne City, Michigan, Crawfordsville, Indiana and Washington Courthouse, Ohio.
But there is a distinction between this and the dozen other upstart shows nationwide hoping to gleam their nugget of the MMA gold rush. This event was promoted and sanctioned by the North American Boxing Council. The same NABC that at one time handed out belts to Evander Holyfield and Felix Trinidad and currently recognizes 8 boxing champions, 3 women boxing titles and 5 Mixed Martial Arts champs.
The NABC became the first boxing organization to sanction an MMA event July 28, 2006. This night was show 18.
"MMA fans had it right before I did," NABC president Ed Hutchison said as he surveyed the 1500 jammed into the bar, paying from $200 for cage side seats to $30 for general admission. "For boxing, MMA is the canary in the coal mine. Their (boxing) fans have become a small core of aficionados."
The NABC established in 1971, never has been confused in the power structure of the sweet science with the WBA, WBC or most of the other alphabet chains. However, it has provided entree for aspiring pugilists becoming in a few cases a launching pad, for the majority a security blanket of steady fights and reasonable management.
The 47-year-old Hutchison was one of those "club fighters, never on TV," who found moments on the regional level while establishing a reputation and following that lasted over a decade. In 1999, he bought the NABC, which had gone dormant. An outpost on the jumbled boxing landscape few remembered." I sent out a press release announcing the management change and hopes but nobody even noticed it had gone away," he says only half-joking.
The Indiana native was determined to bring back the once solid regionally run operation. By 2005, he assembled his showcase card in Port of Spain, Trinidad, with five women's world title fights. It was going to produce the first world boxing champions for Guyana, Trinidad and Bermuda. But the representative who was there to present the belts reneged, claiming he wasn't paid by the promoter so he took the belts and left before it was over. Hutchison had to express deliver the belts to the champions days after. He began looking for alternatives without completely quitting on the sport he knew well, both good and bad.
"My plan for the NABC had always been to use the substantial media access available to the organization to help fighters who had the goods but not the political connections with the big three world bodies to help them break through," he said. "I saw a similar potential for the NABC for the hundreds of local MMA promotions that don't get local newspaper or TV coverage in helping their top fighters get national attention. But I hadn't gone forward because I anticipated trouble from boxing." he says.
The move to MMA awoke some of the old guard establishment who hadn't bothered with a good-luck card when Hutchison took over the NABC. "It doesn't matter who they are, let's just say I've been told by other (boxing) groups and TV packagers, 'Your boxing ain't ever going to be on (a national stage) again.' And we haven't."
He found an enthusiastic pocket of fans in his hometown Indianapolis for MMA. He found strikers and grapplers, much like the young fighters of his generation and used the same basic economic plan of promotions -- lesser paid pros wanting a chance and having a built-in local audience of family and friends. A show with 1500 in attendance can be profitable, certainly soaring above the 100 paying customers for his last Indy boxing show.
Southern California-based attorney Craig Zimmerman runs MEZ Sports Partners whose clients include the NABC. He flew in from Orange County to watch. "Trying to sell boxing to sponsors isn't easy anymore. But MMA has diehard fans who follow it on-line and on TV. We are building grass-root support and slowly expanding to where down the road our fans can ask 'How's an Indiana fighter doing against a California fighter?' When we started sanctioning cards and being available to a lot of fighters, we've grown rapidly. There are too many one-offs for bigger organizations and their shows, here they get a chance and another and another to develop."
Hutchison feels as urban area boxing clubs were boarded up and Police Athletic League participation dwindled, kids no longer had a place to get introduced to boxing. That combined with the growth of karate and Tae-Kwan-Do schools in the late '80s and early '90s turned youngsters in a new direction.
"The prototype, Kronk Gym in Detroit closed. When city funding was re-figured, gyms got cut off first. Look now at boxing, they're resurrecting guys from the '80s, no kids coming up, just old names."
NABC has another event scheduled in July in downtown Indianapolis, a bigger venue for perhaps 3000 fans or more. One of their title-holders, 170-pound champ Tamdan McCory is scheduled for a UFC fight show. HD Net, Mark Cuban's high definition television network, televised show 18 and could do more in the future. The grass roots of MMA, NABC style, are growing deeper.
"It's so different today. When boxing went off free TV with their stars, the sport started dying. The UFC on Spike has been the role model and it is only getting stronger. It's the leader with big pay-per-view, updates on NBC Sports' web site and overall marketing. But there is also the International Fight League on FSN developing an audience for the team concept," he assesses. "It's not the old days when there were three networks and (Don) King and (Bob) Arum had to promote the fight or it wasn't a big event. Now the communications demographic is so widespread with the Internet, 500 channels on TV, and Internet broadcasting coming on. It's a good place to be in MMA."
Saloons or arenas other fledgling promoters have been looking at the NABC model for ideas. Perhaps other struggling boxing organizations as well have noticed the template offered by Hutchison when he decided to step outside the ropes and into the cage.