UFC 278 is happening Saturday. Can it help Utah’s languishing MMA scene to avoid tapping out?

The state once had a reputation as a mixed martial arts hotbed, but it now has just a single fighter signed to the top combat-sports promotion.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gavin Garcia, 16, trains with his dad Mario at Elite Performance MMA Gym in Sandy on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022. Elite Performance mixed martial arts is owned by Jeremy Horn, one of the legendary fighters/trainers in the state.

Back in June, as UFC President Dana White was extolling the virtues of bringing a numbered pay-per-view to Utah for the first time, he was asked about the possibility of letting some local fighters shine in front of a big, friendly, supporting audience.

“There will be kids on the card, I’m sure, that are gonna be from Utah. They’ll finally get to fight in front of their home crowd, their home state,” White said. “… I’m sure we’ll end up with a couple guys from Utah on the card.”

And with five fights on the main card of UFC 278 at Vivint Arena, three on the prelims, and four more on the so-called “early prelims,” there should, theoretically, have been opportunity to do just that.

Turns out, there was just one slight problem.

Of the 700 or so fighters the UFC has under contract right now, only one — Court McGee — was born in or fights out of Utah.

And the chances of McGee (born in Ogden, now fighting out of Orem/Provo) getting on this particular card took a significant blow when he was brutally knocked out by Jeremiah Wells just 1 minute, 34 seconds into their “Fight Night” bout on June 18 in Austin, Texas.

Utah actually once had a reputation as a mixed martial arts hotbed. It was regarded as a place that produced more top-level MMA talent, which sent more people to the pinnacle that is the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) than most locales on a per-capita basis.

Those halcyon days are a thing of the past.

While it would be harsh to say that MMA in the state has reached its nadir, it is undeniably true that there are very few Utah-based fighters in the upper echelons of the sport now. And so, some are hopeful that UFC 278 — taking place this Saturday — can provide a jolt.

“More than anything, I’m just excited for the local MMA community here,” said Sean O’Connell, a Salt Lake City resident who went 2-5 in the UFC as a heavyweight but later gained international acclaim for winning a $1 million tournament in the Professional Fighters League (PFL). “We’ve had a pretty thriving MMA scene locally for a long time. We might be in a little bit of a lull compared to its glory days, but hopefully something like this coming here can jump-start it again.”

For what it’s worth, White touted his company’s pay-per-view fight cards as “the best live sporting event you will ever see.” Ryan Smith, chairman of Smith Entertainment Group (which owns the Utah Jazz and Vivint Arena and which partnered with the Utah Sports Commission and UFC parent company Endeavor to bring UFC 278 to Utah), promised a sellout and an arena attendance record during the introductory news conference back on June 21.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) UFC president Dana White, left, and Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith conduct a news conference ahead of a mixed marital arts event UFC 278 at Vivint Arena, Tuesday, June 21, 2022.

Perhaps. But even if all of that plays out, is it realistic to expect one singular night of fights — even one featuring some of the best combatants in the world — to possibly do enough to inject new life into a sport that’s been on the decline at the top levels locally for a few years now?

UFC 278 will undoubtedly be a spectacle. It remains to be seen if it can be a solution.

The rise and fall

One Utah fighter presently under contract is quite the far cry from the state’s heyday in the organization between the late-aughts to mid-2010s, when all of O’Connell, McGee, Jeremy Horn (Salt Lake City), Josh Burkman (Salt Lake City), Clay Collard (Payson), DaMarques Johnson (Salt Lake City), Ramsey Nijem (Orem), and Steven Siler (Orem) got a shot in the world’s preeminent combat sports organization.

(Jae C. Hong | AP file photo) Ogden-born Court McGee, shown in his welterweight match against Josh Neer in Anaheim, Calif., on Feb. 23, 2013, is the only fighter born or training in Utah currently signed to the UFC roster.

McGee’s been around the UFC since 2010 when he appeared on and won Season 11 of “The Ultimate Fighter” (TUF) reality TV series — which sees amateurs and young professionals drafted onto teams coached by UFC veterans, then fighting tournament-style, with the eventual victor given a UFC contract.

Lindon’s Kaytlin Neil got a shot on this year’s Season 30 of “TUF,” but was eliminated after a second-round loss and was not subsequently signed to a deal. Layton’s Bobby King is having some success in the lightweight division of Bellator (a fight promotion arguably the next step down), but is too old at 38 to be a UFC prospect. And Collard is now doing well in the PFL. But that’s about it.

What’s so different, now? Why are there fewer top-level fighters from Utah these days?

Fighters from/fighting out of Utah affiliated with the UFC:

• DeAnna Bennett, Orem (2017)

• Josh Burkman, Salt Lake City (2005-08; 2015-18)

• Clay Collard, Payson (2014-15, 2019)

• Derek Downey, Orem (2009)

• Jeremy Horn, Salt Lake City (1998-2001; 2005-09)

• Brandon Melendez, Bountiful (2007)

• Brock Jardine, Orem (2012-13)

• DaMarques Johnson, Salt Lake City (2009-12)

• Scott Jorgensen, Payson (2011-15)

• Court McGee*, Provo (2010-present)

• Phillip Miller, Salt Lake City (2002)

• Kaytlin Neil, Lindon (2022)

• Ramsey Nijem, Orem (2011-15; 2017)

• Sean O’Connell, Salt Lake City (2014-16)

• Nick Rossborough, Rose Park (2008)

• Steve Siler, Orem (2011-14)

• Mark Schultz, Lindon (1996)

* — active in the UFC

“Because people are soft, and they see how hard it is to kind of maintain that kind of lifestyle,” said Siler, who was part of “TUF” in 2011, on the UFC roster between 2011-14, and who has 65 professional bouts to his credit. “I mean, to be an MMA fighter, you gotta start out with the lows. … You’re putting your body through the wringer almost every day, and it hurts, and it’s hard. And I think a lot more people these days, they want to find an easier way to make money.”

It sounds overly dismissive, but there’s some truth to it. Siler notes that when he started in the UFC, he was making “eight and eight” — a guaranteed $8,000 for a fight, plus an $8,000 bonus if he won. With only three guaranteed fights per year, he had to go a perfect 3-0 just to make $48,000 per year.

“People can make $48,000 working at McDonalds,” Siler added. “By the end, I was making 20 and 20, which is decent money — but you pay 10% to your manager, 10% to the gym, 50% to the government; you’re not making very much unless you’re the Conor McGregors or Jon Joneses.”

Ergo, there simply isn’t a lot of motivation for many people to try and do MMA professionally.

O’Connell, meanwhile, puts much of the blame on the old guard, suggesting that, about a decade ago, the combination of silly rivalries, petty politics, and an overabundance of fighter-focused gyms in a relatively small-population state all contributed to the decline.

Some already in the scene got burned out on the drama and quit. Some of those who might have come in and done well got turned off at the outset by the squabbling and the constant admonitions not to train with those guys. And the divide had the unintended effect of keeping local fighters as big fish in a small pond, rather than providing an opportunity for iron to sharpen iron and making them better prepared for the big time.

“The talent pool in Salt Lake and in Utah County and beyond is not quite as deep as in Vegas or in South Florida or some of these other MMA meccas, where even if you have a little bit of tribalism and two or three gyms that are kind of separating and taking their piece of the pie, there’s a big enough pie that you can still have a bunch of UFC-caliber fighters,” O’Connell said. “… That’s the only explanation I can really come up with, because it’s not like my generation of fighter was anything special physically or athletically.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Former Utah football player Sean O'Connell became an MMA fighter, and after struggling in the UFC, in 2019 won $1 million for his career-altering and career-ending bout in the Professional Fighters League.

Horn — arguably the godfather of mixed martial arts in Utah owing to a career that has included some 120 bouts as a fighter, plus many more now as a trainer — has perhaps the most pragmatic and simple rationale for the discrepancy.

The sport is cyclical.

The old cadre has mostly retired, transitioned into coaching positions and running gyms, or just moved on altogether. And the next group of up-and-comers (headlined by the likes of Aldyn Ashcraft, Willie Dean, David Maggio, Johann Rubio, and Marco Sanchez) simply hasn’t fully emerged yet.

“I don’t really want to call it a down point, but we’re working on building the next cycle of fighters that’ll be coming up and getting things going again,” said Horn.

Unlike Siler and O’Connell, though, who said they could envision a UFC 278 event headlined by a welterweight title bout between respected contender Leon Edwards and reigning champion and pound-for-pound king Kamaru Usman having sufficient appeal to entice young local athletes to take up MMA training, Horn does not anticipate a flood of new sign-ups at his Elite Performance gym in Sandy in the aftermath.


“The sport is pretty prominent now,” he said. “… Having the UFC here is fun, but if somebody is just now learning about the UFC and deciding they’re going to give it a try, I’m wondering what rock they’ve been living under.”

As it turns out, though, that desired UFC bump may not even be necessary to bolster MMA participation in the state at all.

The pathway back, and the events small and big

There aren’t any MMA gyms in Utah now which cater exclusively to would-be professional mixed martial artists. Not Elite Performance in Sandy, not Agema Jiu Jitsu & MMA in Provo, not the Ultimate Combat Training Center in Millcreek.

For that matter, there aren’t many fighter-exclusive gyms anywhere anymore. And there’s a pretty simple reason why.

“People figured out that training fighters is not a lucrative business, so all of the serious MMA gyms in Utah converted to a more consumer-friendly model where it’s kids classes, it’s weekend warriors, and things like that,” said O’Connell.

Before he retired, O’Connell trained at Horn’s Elite Performance gym. Right now, Horn has more than a hundred people signed up there, but more than 90% of them don’t look at MMA as anything more than a fun pastime and a good workout.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Emma Pang pounds the pads provided by Kwame Stevens while training at Elite Performance MMA Gym in Sandy on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022. Elite Performance mixed martial arts is owned by Jeremy Horn, one of the legendary fighters/trainers in the state.

“Fighting is not just — I would say it’s not even — a barbaric way to go out there and beat the hell out of each other and feel macho. It’s just another sport,” said Horn. “If you talk to a professional boxer, you don’t automatically think, ‘Oh, that guy’s a knuckle-dragging savage.’ He’s a [prize]fighter, he’s a boxer. MMA is the same thing, but a lot of people think MMA is just a glorified street fight. That’s just not the case.”

Meanwhile, Horn’s longtime friend Andrew Boquet, a former taekwondo competitor with two low-level MMA bouts to his credit, also runs his own MMA gym: Impact Academy of Martial Arts, in South Jordan, which primarily teaches wrestling and jiu jitsu.

He has only a handful of adults taking lessons — but they’re mostly among the parents of the hundred or so kids he teaches. Most MMA gyms were started for adults and belatedly added kids’ classes as a money-making necessity. Impact Academy, however, was designed to cater to youngsters.

Boquet’s students, some as young as 3, are involved in summer camps, after-school programs, and the martial arts school. Parents always are looking for activities to get their kids involved in, and he has increasingly seen adults turn to signing their children up for martial arts, attracted to its core values of discipline, respect, focus, and perseverance.

“I cannot emphasize enough how great martial arts programs are for kids. It will literally change children’s lives,” Boquet said. “… There’s obviously a big sporting component, a big prizefighting component to [MMA], but on my side, the reason this is called ‘Impact Martial Arts’ is because we’re trying to make an impact on the community. And martial arts is such a positive conduit for that. I really do believe martial arts is for everybody: kids with ADHD, kids suffering from depression, who are getting bullied. It runs the gamut.”

Horn notes that while he greatly enjoyed his own fighting career and all the opportunities it afforded him, and while he took great pride in being a coach with the Miletich Fighting Systems team in Iowa that once produced such UFC champions as Matt Hughes, Tim Sylvia, Jens Pulver, and Robbie Lawler, he also came to an epiphany some time ago that he had “lost focus on what martial arts is supposed to be about.”

He believes that participating in martial arts is beneficial for literally anyone and everyone, and wants to help people better themselves.

“I don’t think that me being a professional fighter is really very much to brag about. I’m one of those people who thinks that if all professional sports disappeared, the world would not be any worse off. A football player, basketball player, baseball player, fighter — we don’t really bring much value to society,” Horn said. “… On the other hand, I am very proud of what I’ve done running a gym and training people and helping people to redirect their lives and improve their lives and improve their health and improve their confidence and their self-esteem and all the other things that go with that.

“As far as being a fighter goes — eh, whatever. I was happy about it, don’t get me wrong; I’m lucky to have been able to do that. But I didn’t help the world very much as a fighter,” he added. “I feel like I help the people around me quite a bit as a trainer and gym owner.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Erin Russell spars with her husband Allan during open mixed martial arts training at Elite Performance MMA Gym in Sandy on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022.

Of course, a natural byproduct of increased participation in general, especially starting at younger ages, will be increased participation in the higher levels of MMA.

And even if the average person is not aware of them, there are actually plenty of opportunities for fighting in the considerable intermediate area between those doing MMA for fitness, fun, and self-defense, and those who aspire to reach the UFC/PFL/Bellator ranks.

SteelFist is a Salt Lake City-based organization with roughly monthly events, catering to MMA hobbyists, those looking to do the fighting equivalent of, say, people who play basketball in gym runs or rec leagues, while recognizing the NBA is out of reach.

“They do a good show, they give a lot of guys an opportunity to fight, and they do a good job of matching up people pretty evenly so you don’t have to worry about getting your face caved in,” said Horn.

A tier above that is the Fierce Fighting Championship, a local promotion putting on quarterly events for low-level professionals. Its next event will be Sept. 24 at the Maverik Center in West Valley. Four fighters affiliated with Elite Performance — including the 32-year-old Boquet, in his first official fight in six years — will be on the card that night.

“I’ve been training literally the entire time. It’s been tough for me to get a fight. … My record’s only 1-1, and so fighting other guys who are 1-1 or even 2-0 — our records are comparable, but as far as experience, not even close,” he said. “But we finally got someone to agree. It probably wasn’t a good choice for him.”

And up from that — way, way up from that — is the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which brings us back to UFC 278, taking place this Saturday.

Besides the title fight between Usman and Edwards (a rematch of their then-unheralded first matchup back on Dec. 19, 2015), the other marquee fights include a middleweight bout between No. 6-ranked Paulo Costa and former champ Luke Rockhold, and a bantamweight showdown between No. 3 Jose Aldo and No. 6 Merab Dvalishvili.

This event will be a massive upgrade from the UFC’s previous foray into Utah — a lower-prestige “Fight Night” staged in August 2016 which featured a lackluster card (aside from McGee, of course) and drew a meager 6,600 fans. A Vivint Arena employee with knowledge of ticket sales projected UFC 278 will sell out in the days leading up to the event, but threw cold water on Smith’s boast of an arena attendance record, noting that crowd capacity for the night will be around 16,500.

Still, this will be a seismic happening for the fight scene in Utah, even if the UFC remains a far-from-perfect promotion.

Both O’Connell and Siler acknowledge they made far more money fighting for the PFL, and maintain that the UFC’s fighter payscale remains highly problematic. With no unionization among the athletes, fighters are treated as “independent contractors,” and collectively earn a meager 20% of the UFC’s revenue. Meanwhile, White — who makes a reported $20 million per year and is worth an estimated $500 million — made headlines in recent days by defiantly insisting there would be no fighter raises in the UFC while he’s in charge because “These guys get paid what they’re supposed to get paid.”

And yet, both O’Connell and Siler remain enamored of the pageantry and gravitas that comes with White’s organization. The former now works for the PFL, and acknowledged it is still chasing the “electric atmosphere” that comes with a UFC pay-per-view. The latter said he tells the young fighters he works with at Agema to aspire to reach the UFC, because a bout there will help them prove their legitimacy. He added that even though he earned a significantly bigger paycheck in the PFL and felt better-treated there overall, his time in the UFC remains his favorite part of his career.

Of course, Siler was in something of a nostalgic mood. Even as the 35-year-old now works primarily in the home loan and mortgage industry and has reduced his training from several times per day to just several times per week, he expressed a desire to keep fighting until 2025 (so he’d have 20 years in the business) and to participate in five more bouts (so he’d have 70 for his career). He also expressed a desire to attend UFC 278 so he could cheer on one of the pugilists on the card he got to know during his “Ultimate Fighter” days.

Then-fighter/team coach Jason “Mayhem” Miller brought in a couple of specialists to serve as his “TUF” assistant coaches, including a virtually unknown freestyle wrestler out of the University of Nebraska at Kearney who had won the 2010 Division II national championship, but was otherwise an MMA neophyte.

Siler was with Kamaru Usman “the first time he put on a pair of MMA gloves. He was getting choked out, didn’t know how to throw a punch. He did not look like he’d be the lion that he is now.”

Perhaps someone watching him work this Saturday in Salt Lake City will travel a similar path somewhere down the line.

UFC 278 events

News conference (free and open to the public)

When: Thursday, 4 p.m.

Where: Vivint Arena

Featuring: Kamaru Usman, Leon Edwards, Paulo Costa, Luke Rockhold, Jose Aldo, Merab Dvalishvili

Cermonial weigh-ins (free and open to the public)

When: Friday, 4 p.m.

Where: Vivint Arena

Fan experience (free and open to the public)

When: Saturday, 1-5 p.m.

Where: Vivint Arena plaza

Featuring: UFC Champion Tunnel, UFC Legacy Championship Belt selfie area, UFC Striking Challenge, UFC Store trailer, athlete meet and greets (1-2:30 and 3-4:40)

UFC 278: Usman vs. Edwards 2

When: Saturday, 4-11 p.m.

Where: Vivint Arena

Tickets: Ticketmaster.com

TV: Early prelims on UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+ at 4 p.m., joined by ESPN at 5 p.m.; Prelims on ABC, ESPN, ESPN+ at 6 p.m.; Main card on pay-per-view/ESPN+ at 8 p.m.

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