By Grant Greabell | July 12, 2021
RUF MMA, the country’s only Native American-owned fight promotion, is getting its due.
It recently inked a deal with ONE Championship fight promotion, which is considered the “UFC of Asia.” ONE Championship’s vice president is Rich Franklin, an American retired mixed martial artist who competed in UFC.
The partnership is a win-win. ONE Championship is looking to get its foot in the door of the U.S. market, and RUF MMA is helping with that.
Concurrently, partnering with a promotion as big as ONE Championship only points to positive signs ahead for RUF MMA.
“Our focus has been on creating a quality product,” says RUF MMA matchmaker Jason Martinez.
“We pride ourselves on our relationships with our fighters, gyms, coaches and our community. That work ethic of ours translated into us getting the exposure that got us the attention from ONE Fight Championship.”
Founded by Joel Lopez, a Tohono O’odham Native American, and his cousin, Adrian Romo, as a boxing promotion, RUF MMA slowly transitioned to MMA from 2007 to 2010.
“RUF MMA is a 100% tribally owned fight promotion out of Phoenix,” Martinez says. “The deep relationship with local gyms, local fighters, UFC fighters, stars, media, city-state tribal councils and leaders is really instrumental in our quest to grow the promotion outside of Arizona and potentially global.”
While other promotions were forced to shutter or are just getting their feet back, RUF MMA did its work early and has held three events this year.
“Even though we weren’t doing events at the time, we were planning on events the entire time,” Martinez says. “We were working on having fights as soon as we got the green light. We were ready to grow into a bigger venue and then the pandemic kind of put everything on pause. So now, we are ready to make that leap into the Celebrity Theatre and get that place filled up.”
RUF MMA has been growing for the past decade in Phoenix. That doesn’t mean it sits complacent. It’s ready to take on new challenges whenever it gets the call to do so.
“We have entertained interest to go out of state, but for whatever reason it hasn’t materialized yet,” Martinez says.
Historically, RUF MMA was a casino-only promotion thanks to its strong ties with the tribal councils and casinos here. They have come a long way since then and only continue to grow.
The brand is growing, but the staff only has four people running the show — Martinez, Joel Lopez, Adrian Romo and Cj Pitman.
“There are four of us on the administrative team,” Martinez says. “If you were to come to one of our live events, you would not even believe that it was run by four guys who just hang out with each other all the time.”
That’s not to say they do it alone, though. Without fighters, coaches and trainers, there would be no show. RUF MMA shows have a sense of unity, or even family. There’s a good reason for that.
“When we do events, our wives, our kids, our cousins, our nephews — that’s our staff. The family atmosphere that we have in this promotion is bar none,” Martinez says.
RUF MMA has helped elevate fighters to the UFC or Bellator over the years because of its quality shows. While it’s happy to do so, it wants to be on a larger stage as well.
“We are really at a point where we could blow up and become a major competitor,” Martinez says. “It would be really awesome, and I feel like we are just right on that doorstep. We are already in direct competition at some level with promotions like the UFC and Bellator because we have, over the last few months, been in contract debates over very specific fighters.”
During the next few years, RUF MMA hopes it can continue its upward trajectory as an MMA promotion.
“We are ready to host events in other states. It’s about finding a venue and a commission to support it and then we’re good to go,” Martinez says.