Egg Harbor City resident Mtume Goodrum has experienced the growth of mixed martial arts in Atlantic City from both sides of the octagonal cage — as a fighter and a fan.
The 31-year-old Absegami High School graduate has had three fights in Atlantic City for Vineland-based Cage Fury Fighting Championships and has witnessed the growth of the sport as a spectator for dozens of other MMA shows for various organizations.
“I try to go to as many as possible,” Goodrum said. “It’s almost like a cult in that it’s so exciting and special that it’s hard to stay away from it. I just love it.”
Goodrum’s enthusiasm is understandable. An MMA show promoted by Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC) or one of the other organizations that conducts shows in Atlantic City — Bellator Fighting Champions, Cage Fury Fighting Championships or Ring of Combat — is like being in the middle of a video game.
And like video games, MMA attracts a younger, hipper crowd that casinos want in Atlantic City.
The atmosphere is almost the same at any MMA event. The roar from the crowd intensifies when the fighters make their way to the cage. Music blares from speakers throughout the arena while videos of one-punch and one-kick knockouts play on giant video screens.
Each fighter pauses for some last-minute instructions from his trainer, then is escorted by a scantily clad ring-card girl up the steps. Once they step through the door and it clangs shut, the cheers and screams get even louder.
“The first time I ever walked into the cage for a pro fight, it was a little overwhelming,” said Goodrum, who was a standout wrestler at Absegami. “It’s hard to channel your emotions because there’s so much going on. And once they lock that door behind you, you know it’s serious.
“I try to block out all the outside stuff when I’m fighting, but when I’m there as a fan, it’s a different story. I can really enjoy myself and take in the whole atmosphere, the music, the lighting, the ring-card girls. It’s incredible.”
Atlantic City casinos executives must agree as MMA events are becoming more and more popular in the resort.
Boardwalk Hall still has its share of major boxing fights — more than 7,000 fans watched the Bernard Hopkins-Chad Dawson light-heavyweight championship bout April 28. It was one of 11 cards sanctioned so far this year by the New Jersey Athletic Control Board.
But there are 17 professional MMA events planned for the city this year. The sport takes center stage Friday as the unquestioned top organization in the sport, UFC, returns to Atlantic City for its first card since 2005. Clay Guida will face Gray Maynard in the main event at Revel, which will be nationally televised on FX.
“We’ve done some boxing events in the past and did OK,” said Joe Lupo , senior vice president of operations for Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. “We did our first MMA show with Cage Fury (Fighting Championships) this year and we were quite surprised and pleased. We’ve been monitoring the growth of mixed martial arts for quite some time, and the sport has really evolved and become quite popular.”
More significantly, a growing number of casino properties are embracing MMA. Revel will be the sixth venue to stage a pro MMA card this year, along with Bally’s Atlantic City, Borgata, Caesars Atlantic City, Resorts Casino Hotel and Tropicana Casino and Resort. Conversely, four of the same casinos — Bally’s, Caesars, Resorts and Tropicana — are the only ones to sponsor boxing cards this year.
“MMA traditionally draws a younger crowd than boxing,” said Caesars Entertainment consultant Ken Condon, who books boxing and MMA shows for the company’s Atlantic City casinos. “But that’s OK, because Atlantic City is not all about gambling anymore. The focus now is on making it appealing to everyone.”
MMA has long enjoyed a close relationship with New Jersey and especially Atlantic City. The sport has been around in the United States since the UFC was formed in 1993 but became legitimate in 2000, when the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board began to formally oversee MMA shows. The first sanctioned “MMA-style” match in New Jersey took place at the Tropicana on Feb. 26, 2000, as a “freestyle grappling exhibition” that consisted of one 10-minute round.
The Control Board drafted a set of unified rules in 2000, then officially adopted them a year later after a meeting in Trenton with all of the sport’s top promoters, officials and medical personnel.
UFC’s show at Revel will be the organization’s seventh card in Atlantic City, but its first since 2005. UFC held two cards recently in New Jersey, but both were at the Prudential Center in Newark as part of its quest to get MMA legalized in New York.
Its first three shows in Atlantic City were at the Taj Mahal in 2000 and 2001, just after brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta bought the UFC and installed Dana White as president. The Fertittas’ cousin, Tilman Fertitta , owns the Golden Nugget Atlantic City.
“Atlantic City was where we held our first event as owners of the UFC in 2001 and I’m excited to be back,” White said. “Atlantic City has always been a special place for Lorenzo, Frank and I. It’s a great fight town.”
Other casinos have turned to lower-level MMA organizations to fill their arenas.
Ring of Combat president Lou Neglia , a former world karate champion, said his shows routinely draw sellout crowds of 3,000 to Trop’s Showroom. His June 15 card will be Ring of Combat’s 32nd show at the Trop over the span of six years.
“Atlantic City is one of the most exciting places in the world and the Tropicana is a hotspot there,” said Neglia, who was selected for a Lifetime Achievement award in late May by the New Jersey Martial Arts Hall of Fame. “We draw a lot of people from New York and North Jersey, and they love coming to Atlantic City to see our shows.
“I know there is the misconception that MMA fans don’t gamble and spend money. I disagree. I’ve had 32 shows at the Tropicana, and there’s a reason they keep bringing me back. It’s not just all kids. Our demographic is ages 18 to 39.”
Bellator, which is considered the second-biggest MMA organization behind the UFC, has made Caesars and Boardwalk Hall’s Adrian Phillips Ballroom its home base recently. Its May 15 show at Caesars was the Chicago-based outfit’s sixth card in Atlantic City in a year, and two more are scheduled for later in 2012.
Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, a former sports agent and boxing promoter, holds fights in other areas of the country, all nationally televised, but he considers Atlantic City to be its top stop.
“Our Atlantic City experiment has been a full-fledged success,” Rebney said. “We used to do a lot of shows at the Hard Rock in Hollywood, Fla., but we’d rather be in Atlantic City. We’ve developed a large following here, and we’ve also been able to discover and develop so much (fighting) talent from the area.
“We’ve been here six times in a year and we’re looking to be here more often. The way Caesars Entertainment treats us is great. They are the benchmark for the way we want to do things.”
Vineland-based Cage Fury Fighting Championships is the only local professional MMA organization. CFFC was the last company to stage an MMA card in Boardwalk Hall’s main arena when 7,286 watched Internet legend Kimbo Slice’s debut against former heavyweight boxing champion Ray Mercer on June 23, 2007.
Financial troubles forced CFFC to fold later in 2007, but it resurfaced last year under new management headed by Vineland native Rob Haydak, a former wrestler at Vineland High School and former coach at Sacred Heart.
Haydak, who was named 2011 MMA Promoter of the Year by the New Jersey Martial Arts Hall of Fame, teamed with his brother, Joe Stant, to hold seven cards at Resorts last year.
CFFC has five cards scheduled for this year, including four at Borgata’s 2,400-seat Events Center.
“The crowd we had for the first show did skew much younger than the ones we had for the boxing shows we’ve done in the past,” Lupo said. “We were surprised at how many female fans and families of the fighters showed up. We did a lot of business with our food and beverage and other nongaming facets.
“To be honest, MMA wasn’t a high priority for us, but Cage Fury presented a great opportunity for us. It’s an East Coast-oriented organization and that fits in very well with our customer base.”
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