Blood Sport | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly
Support the Free Press | Facts matter. Truth matters. Journalism matters
Salt Lake City Weekly has been Utah's source of independent news and in-depth journalism since 1984. Donate today to ensure the legacy continues.

News » Cover Story

Blood Sport

Brutal games in the MMA world



When Mike Stidham announced his plans to revamp his mixed martial arts cable show, The Ultimate Combat Experience, he told the fighters, several of whom were felons, to behave themselves outside of the fight arena. Act responsibly, he told them. Don’t provoke any fights.

That same night, Jan. 11, 2009, Stidham went out with his fighters to a South Salt Lake strip club to celebrate a new chapter in his struggling weekly show. The program had made fight promoter Stidham, also the show’s producer and presenter, a dominant force in Utah’s thriving mixed martial arts (MMA) scene, but in recent years, both the show and Stidham’s standing in the MMA community had become increasingly embattled.

According to security video footage from that night, as a bouncer escorted the promoter and fighters out, the bouncer threw a punch at one of Stidham’s companions and a fight broke out. Stidham, a former kickboxing champion, wrestled the bouncer to the ground, only to be stabbed in the head by another assailant. “I inhaled my own blood,” Stidham recalls. “I panicked.” He hit the bouncer repeatedly in the face. Now, looking back, he says he was “stupid. I should never have been there.”

Stidham was convinced that since the bouncer initiated the melee, an assault charge he faced stemming from that night would be dismissed. But 3rd District court judge Ann Boyden saw it differently. She found him guilty, and on March 28, 2011, sent him to the Salt Lake County lock-up for 30 days.

Word of 44-year-old Stidham’s downfall was greeted by some in Utah’s tightly knit MMA community with glee. “He should be in prison,” snarled one fighter, walking into an interview about Stidham with another promoter. Others, however, saw tragedy in Stidham’s rise-and-fall saga. “We’ve all stumbled and fallen,” says West Valley cop Loren Brumley, who fought several pro mixed martial arts bouts.

Mixed martial arts, which combines stand-up muay thai boxing with jujitsu-based wrestling skills, “is the purest form of fighting,” says Charlie “Vanilla Gorilla” Kent, another West Valley cop and former MMA fighter. “Just a referee and two guys—one saying ‘I quit’ when they tap out. It’s a form of domination.” Unlike Brumley, however, Kent is not a Stidham fan. “He’s done more for MMA, because he’s been doing it for years.” But only beginners have benefited, he argues. “That’s where it ends with Mike Stidham.”

When it comes to Stidham, many in the community have an opinion, and some are far from favorable. Stidham knows he is a polarizing figure. “You either love me or you hate me,” he says. Indeed, while some fighters and rival promoters revere him for taking MMA mainstream in Utah, others paint him as a “shady” opportunist who, as one gym owner says, “made dimes on the back of fighters.”

What is undeniable is that Stidham forged a grass-roots empire that shaped the early careers of numerous nationally known MMA fighters, including such giants as Josh Burkman, DeMarques Johnson and Court McGee. But charting Stidham’s rise to godfather of the local MMA scene and subsequent fall to felon isn’t easy, especially given his undoing, says Hank “The Vice” Weiss, one of the few fighters to remain loyal to him. It is as much about self-inflicted injuries as the ingratitude of fighters with “delusions of grandeur” who started out with Stidham but eventually turned against him.

While Stidham’s tempestuous, bridge-burning personality alienated fighters and other promoters, it also led to a confrontation with the Pete Suazo Utah Athletic Commission (PSUAC), whose five part-time commissioners and one full-time director license, regulate and sanction professional boxing and professional mixed martial arts fights in Utah (read more about the commission and its controversial history here). While the commission is charged with protecting fighters, some argue it favors promoters’ interests over those of the men and women who fight. But in Stidham’s case, he is the one who feels he is being victimized, accusing the commission of “killing the coolest thing in MMA in Utah,” namely his TV show. Former city prosecutor turned defense attorney Lorenzo Miller represented Stidham in an administrative law hearing before the commission. “Mike’s argument and beef is he is being singled out as a fledgling commission grapples with issues facing ultimate fighting as it moves to the next decade,” Miller says. “People like Mike sometimes get burned in that process” of introducing regulation to an unregulated world. “Sometimes intentionally, sometimes incidentally.”

In the past year, the outside-the-ring skirmishes between Stidham and PSUAC director Bill Colbert—between “Mr. MMA” and, in essence, Mr. Regulator—all but consumed the two men. Stidham alleges Colbert and commissioner Rich Montanez want to close him down, something both men adamantly deny. Colbert says he just wants Stidham to follow the rules and regulations.

Stidham thought he had the upper hand with Colbert after he discovered in June 2010, he claims, that Colbert knowingly overcharged him $2,000 for his fights in the months running up to his conviction by Boyden. The tables turned after Boyden found him guilty of assault in mid-December 2010, when the commission declined to renew Stidham’s promoter license. Six months later, Stidham and the commission faced off in a hearing before an administrative law judge, although it was the commission that would decide Stidham’s professional fate.

A.J. Stidham initially thought her husband paranoid when he told her the commission wanted to close him down. “I asked him, ‘Mike, are you sure this is not all in your head?’ ’’ she recalls. But after he went to jail and she promoted several Ultimate Combat Experience fight cards, she says she found herself battling with Colbert. “Now I say, 100 percent, they are after Mike,” she concludes. His critics see it differently. Absolute MMA gym-owner Rob Handley says, “The one common denominator in all of his problems is himself. As many fingers as he is pointing at everybody else, that many and more are pointing right back at him.”

Stidham’s business instincts were honed at a young age. He promoted keg parties and bands from when he was 14. But his brother John Stidham says Mike’s impetus “was earning money to try to help” their terminally ill mother, buying her a color TV and a microwave, luxuries his family could not otherwise afford.

After 11 years as a police officer in Salt Lake County and Tooele, Mike Stidham ended up suing Utah’s Peace Officers Standards and Training, claiming an agency official, intent on denying him positions in several police departments, had spread false rumors about him, notably that he had raped a young girl. If his police career had careened off the rails, his Kearns-based karate gym, the U.S. Black Belt Academy, was very successful, he says, boasting around 1,000 students by the late 1990s.

Stidham put on mixed martial arts bouts at nightclubs and bars from 2001 onward that he filmed as hour-long episodes of The Ultimate Combat Experience. Every two months, he would hold a big event at the then-named E Center, where the winners from the club fights would compete. Stidham bought space on the local UPN channel and sold advertising around weekly Sunday evening transmissions of his show.

With the local exposure the TV show provided, John Stidham says “everybody wanted to fight for Mike. A lot of guys who don’t like him now, worshipped him back then. I don’t think that was good for him.” Weiss admired Stidham’s “unique” model, he says. “He mass produced MMA experience.”

The halcyon days for Stidham’s show came after Tony Saiki and his wife, Laura, joined Stidham as his production crew just as fighter Johnny “Little ball of hate” Riche switched from pounding opponents to being Stidham’s co-host in 2003. Stidham and Riche had a natural on-camera chemistry that flourished into friendship.

Mike Stidham, A.J. Stidham (who matched up fighters), Riche and the Saikis formed an ad-hoc family bound by the hectic schedule of producing fights and a TV show 52 times a year.

In 2004, Mike Stidham faced new rising costs as the Pete Suazo Utah Athletic Commission began regulating professional MMA. The commission wanted promoters to pay for fighters’ insurance. While that was manageable for promoters who put on bi or tri-monthly shows, Stidham, with his weekly schedule, was faced with having to find $1,800 a week to insure his fighters.

Riche argues Stidham “burned many bridges” in the process of producing his show, including fighters angry at what they saw as dubious matchups by a promoter desperate to fill a weekly fight card but unwilling to pay fighters what they thought they were worth. Riche says, “It’s always been the No. 1 bitch about his show that he don’t pay the fighters jack.”