United Fight League begins, pinning hopes on doing more for fighters, backing of ex-stars

United Fight League begins, pinning hopes on doing more for fighters, backing of ex-stars

Harrison Rogers has known a great deal of success with his business ventures. But to do so, the native Mesa chose to give up on his dream of becoming a professional mixed martial arts fighter in his younger days.

Now he has found a way to combine business arguments with pro fighting, in a way not traditionally done by the two giants of the sport, UFC and Bellator MMA.

United Fight League offers full health insurance, life insurance and stock in the promotion. None of that is provided elsewhere for fighters in one of the most dangerous sports of all, though the bigger promotions do offer some level of insurance for in-fight injuries or those sustained when training for a fight.

Rogers didn’t finish high school but got his GED while running a carpet cleaning business he eventually sold. Later, he found success in stock trading, real estate and property management and wealth management.

Then came a meeting with MMA legends Tito Ortiz, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Frank Mir, and the formation of Rogers’ Freedom Fight League, the feeder promotion for UFL. The three former superstars of the octagon had their skepticism about what Rogers said he could offer in a new organization, but are now UFL brand ambassadors.

Rogers, UFL CEO and founder, calls it “a passion project which would be to help combat some of the frustrations in the current MMA sport world, which is fighter pay, health insurance, life insurance, ability to take care of fighters post-fight career,” he said. “And so kind of just being able to organize my other businesses in a way that I could step away from the day-to-day and really focus on growing this passion has blown up into a great thing as well, because now I can use some of my previous experiences to get creative and build a league that I think other promotions haven’t been able to succeed at.”

Ortiz and Jackson made it clear that the UFL isn’t trying to outspoken president Dana White’s UFC.

“UFC is their own. Pepsi has Coke, UFC has UFL. So it’s totally different. UFC takes care of their fighters as much as they possibly can, I get it, we just want to make something a little bit different and make it interesting for the fans to come watch,” Ortiz, a UFC Hall-of-Famer, said.

“What I didn’t have and I had to pay for was health care. I mean, it was expensive every month, I spent a lot of money every month. These guys (UFL fighters) don’t make a huge amount of money yet. … And when they are a part of the business and when they’ve got skin in the game, they want to train harder, they want to fight harder, they want to put on a show.”

Jackson fought in both UFC and Bellator. He, along with Ortiz and Mir, met fans and took pictures and signed autographs prior to the start of the first-ever UFL Grand Prix on Saturday.

The three are shareholders in the company, as are all of the fighters, who receive dividend-bearing stock shares. Fighters receive individual purses for competing as well as a piece of the profits from the company if it becomes profitable.

“His slogan is ‘every body eats.’ That’s gangster, that’s ‘hood. And it’s legit at the same time,” Jackson said of Rogers. “We’re going to need all the help we can get from the true MMA fans who want to see MMA flourish and do well. … If you really love MMA, I want to see you show your love and support this league. “

Current Bellator heavyweight champion Ryan Bader also attended, and Bellator star Benson Henderson worked one of the fighters’ corners.

The UFL Grand Prix was the culmination of Rogers’ efforts, held inside a large fieldhouse at Bell Bank Park in Mesa. The event had a two-fight preliminary card followed by eight main card fights. It was a four-hour show in front of several hundred enthusiastic fans who were streamed live by the UFL, and despite a slow start with a delay early on, picked up steam on the main card with some thrilling outcomes.

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The production included apparel sales, ads for Rogers’ sports drink brand, F3, and recorded pre-fight interviews introducing fans to fighters, all of whom were trying to build their names and careers in the sport.

There were fight stoppages, knockouts, submissions and a comeback by Jered Gwerder of Hawaii, who withstood a fast start from Phoenix area fighter Dan Huber and landed a hard kick to the head that connected and ended the fight when Huber went down. Huber needed medical attention and was taken out of the octagon sitting up on a stretcher.

In another matchup, Luis Iñiguez of Portland, Ore., was bloodied and looked headed for a loss against Ivey Nixon of Kansas. But Iñiguez, 36, landed a punch that knocked out Nixon with 14 seconds left in the first round to win the fight.

The Zurina Turrey-Veronika Smolkova bout drew a standing ovation after going the full three rounds.

Before his fight Saturday, Huber said the industry standard was low pay for fighters starting out and no insurance. He recalls receiving $400 for his first pro fight.

Huber fights part-time because he needs additional income to make ends meet. He owns and operates Spartan Nation Combatives and Fitness, an MMA gym in Mesa.

“I’m 35 years old, I’ve been doing this for a long time. And I think I can say I’ve never been treated as well with as many opportunities as this league has, and will be giving me,” Huber said. So that’s a pretty cool opportunity to be a part of an organization that offers medical coverage. And the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of it is a pretty neat opportunity.”

All fighters start with 1,000 shares in the company and winners earn even more, Rogers said. First-round winners get 2,000 shares, 4,000 for those who advance to the third round. A championship finalist gets 8,000 shares.

“It seems like pretty solid stuff, man. They’re trying to take care of us to the best of their abilities, giving us health insurance, giving us stocks in the company, doing this Grand Prix-style tournament. And then as far as the day-to-day stuff, it all feels really professional,” said José Delgado, a Yuma native who now lives and trains in Phoenix.

The next live UFL event is planned for Memphis, Tenn., in May, then Salt Lake City in September and back to the Phoenix area before the end of the year for the championships of the tournament-style league.

“This is just the start. I think the people who are going to give it a shot are going to be wowed by not only the skill set of the fighters, but of the production value and of the sincerity of wanting to put fighters first, ” Rogers said. “I sometimes have to pinch myself and be like, is this reality? This is exactly how I would have wanted things to play out when I was watching (fighting) when I was 16. But it’s actually happening. So pinch me. It’s kind of fun.”

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Mesa-based United Fight League banking on fan interest, opportunities

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