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MMA gaining popularity in Ventura County, CA

Looks like mixed martial arts is on the rise in Ventura County, CA.  Keep up the good work folks!  Story follows:

In the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, Port Hueneme-based Pryme Time Promotions recently sold out its debut mixed martial arts (MMA) show on March 5 at the Hyatt Westlake Plaza, where there were no cheap seats.

According to promoters. the standing room-only crowd of about 900 was indicative of the soaring popularity of MMA, frequently touted as the fastest-growing sport in the country, particularly among the 18-34-year-old male demographic.

“You wouldn’t think we had a recession going on with the amount of money people were spending to see our fights,” said Pryme Time co-owner Rene Carranco.

Though some 300 miles away from the national capital of MMA, Las Vegas, Ventura County has witnessed the rapid growth of the sport right in its own backyard.

“The interest in MMA in Ventura County and Westlake Village is tremendous,” Carranco said. “The tickets for our show weren’t going for $10, $15. Minimum was $50. Ringside was $150.”

MMA pits pairs of martial artists — frequently in cages, but also in more traditional rings — who fight using the four major disciplines of the sport: boxing, wrestling, kickboxing (also known as Muay Thai) and Juiu-Jitsu.

In addition to Pryme Time Promotions, the county is home to at least four MMA gyms. Specialized MMA gyms teach all of the sport’s disciplines and come equipped with cages for students to train in.

In Ventura County, such gyms include Elite MMA in Westlake Village, co-owned by Bas Rutten, one of the most internationally renowned figures in the sport.

The Dutch-born Rutten said there is a healthy degree of interest in MMA locally, noting the Wednesday night class he teaches every week is packed with as many as 50 students.

“There really is a lot of enthusiasm for the sport, like everywhere else,” said Rutten, a former heavyweight champion for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and a three-time King of Pancrase, a Japan-based MMA promotion.

The Las Vegas-based UFC is MMA’s premiere promotion and through its high-end pay-per-view broadcasts and Spike TV reality show “The Ultimate Fighter,” is largely responsible for transforming MMA from an underground fringe sport to one with an increasing mainstream acceptance.

“We were thinking about going to a bigger place” to better accommodate student demand, Rutten said, “but since I’m almost never there, I don’t know if that’s good.”

Other obligations, including color commentary on MMA cards broadcast on HDNet and co-hosting the cable channel’s weekly “Inside MMA” show, prevent Rutten from teaching at the gym more often, he said.

Rutten does train at his gym in the mornings, “and guys out here who want to train with me, well they train with me, and I don’t ask for money for that.”

Professional MMA fighters, including former street brawling Internet sensation Kimbo Slice, who Rutten took under his wing, have trained at Elite MMA while preparing for bouts. Late last year, the gym was one of only two worldwide to hold tryouts for “Ultimate Women Combat,” a new MMA reality television show that is being shopped around.

West Coast Jiu Jitsu in Oxnard opened about nine years ago strictly offering, as its name indicates, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. But due to the growing popularity of MMA, it started offering a full MMA curriculum about five years ago, said Alex Lemus, who owns the gym with her husband Brian Espinoza.

Lemus said interest in MMA training at the gym is most intent among younger males, reflecting the sport’s key fan base.

“They want all of the MMA, but they know that it’s hard, so they want to start either with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Muay Thai kickboxing or wrestling, which are the fundamentals to get up to be a mixed martial artist,” she said.

Lemus said many times it’s the parents of the school’s students who have MMA dreams for their children.

“The parents see the UFC and they’re too old, so they want their kids to start doing the sport while they’re still young,” she said. “And the kids get really excited to see our gym because it’s all caged up.”

Trinidad Savala, a Muay Thai instructor at Hostility MMA in Ventura, said MMA “is the thing that’s in right now.”

“So there’s a big-time interest in MMA,” Savala said. “People come up to me all the time, because I have advertising on my vehicle, ‘Hey, where’s the school at?’ ”

Even so, he said, the recession has taken its toll on enrollment at the school, which has been open for about two years.

“The school’s doing good, but it could be doing better,” he said. “So we’re trying to come up with other promotions, advertising, to market the business.”

Another MMA school is the Danger Zone MMA Fight Club, run by the Charvet Martial Arts Academy in Port Hueneme.

Carranco said because of the success of he and his partner Armando Renteria’s March 5 show, Pryme Time Promotions plans to put on regular MMA cards every two months at the Hyatt Westlake Plaza.

“It was a huge success for the hotel, as well, and they’re going to merge with us as far as co-promoting the events,” he said. “The Hyatt is a beautiful, elegant location. People love to enjoy time there.”

The show was Pryme Time’s first MMA card, though Carranco said he and Renteria put on a previous MMA card in 2006 at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center for a different promotion. Carranco said the Oxnard show wasn’t as successful as the Westlake Village promotion because of the location and the fact MMA has grown significantly in popularity since 2006.

Because of that surging popularity, Carranco said Pryme Time Promotions, like many other fight promoters, has largely dropped boxing, converting almost exclusively to MMA.

“We just have to go where the demand is,” he said.

Written by Mike Harris

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