So you’re an aspiring mixed martial artist with dreams of making it to the big time. You’re probably wondering how to get there — how you can appear on the radar of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and other major promotions.
While there’s no sure way to get noticed by the UFC and finagle your way onto one of its cards, some paths can give you a better chance than others. Perhaps the best is to headline a Ring of Combat show.
An East Coast organization run by Lou Neglia, ROC holds five pro MMA shows a year, primarily at the Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City, New Jersey, with a helping of pro kickboxing and amateur MMA matches scattered throughout New York and New Jersey the rest of the year. From those events, Neglia has sent 80 fighters to the UFC. Eighty! Among his alumni are former UFC champs Matt Serra, Frankie Edgar and Chris Weidman, Black Belt’s 2014 MMA Fighter of the Year.
A former kickboxing champion, Neglia began staging kickboxing matches in his home of Brooklyn, New York, back in the 1980s, both to stay close to the sport and to provide his students with a venue to compete. When MMA came along in the ’90s, he sprinkled in matches and saw the fan interest jump. Having promoted kickboxing in New Jersey, he eventually approached that state’s athletic commission about doing a sanctioned MMA show at one of the Atlantic City casinos. But the state was leery to give its blessing to a sport that was still known as “no-holds-barred fighting.” Neglia offered to modify the rules to mesh with what eventually became the standard for MMA bouts. He got the green light, and Ring of Combat was officially born.
“I think having the fights in a little bigger and more glamorous venue in Atlantic City helps prepare my fighters to go on to the larger shows,” Neglia says. “I’ve seen a lot of guys who succeeded in smaller shows step up to the bigger events and just fall apart from the pressure.”
Neglia is quick to point out that the key to his success lies in the quality of the competition. “I take pride in providing good matchups,” he says. “You won’t see any mismatches or easy fights in my shows. When people come to Ring of Combat, they always get competitive fights. They know they’re going to have action.”
Such competitive matchmaking doesn’t just bring the winners to the attention of the UFC; it gives them the experience necessary to stick around at the higher levels once they get there.
Weidman fought his first four professional matches for ROC before moving up to the UFC in 2011. He credits his experience there for his successful transition to the sport’s top level.
“It definitely helped prepare me for the big leagues, so it wasn’t that much of a culture shock when I got there,” Weidman says. “If I didn’t have such tough fights [with ROC], I would have had a much tougher [time] when I got to the UFC.”
Aspiring professional fighters are well aware of the connection between ROC success and a chance at the big time, and Neglia gets queries from mixed martial artists around the world. Sifting through the calls and emails he receives from fighters, he looks for those who are most likely to succeed in the sport. Rather than just an undefeated record, he wants fighters with the heart and desire to make it.
“I hear from guys who want to pick and choose their opponents or who tell me how much they want to become millionaires from competing in MMA,” Neglia says. “Those are generally the guys I don’t get back to.”
As a former fighter himself, Neglia looks for athletes who are willing to sacrifice and persevere — not just inside the cage but outside it, as well. If you’re the kind of fighter who has to cancel a match because you just broke up with your girlfriend, you probably shouldn’t bother calling him. But if you’re the kind who has an obstacle in front of you and, as Neglia likes to say, is willing to grind your teeth and soldier on no matter what, he’ll have a spot for you in his promotions. What’s more, he won’t stand in your way if you outgrow him.
Although it might be a promotional taboo, Neglia is more than willing to tear up his contract with a fighter — even if he’s a reigning ROC champ — if said fighter gets an offer from a bigger promotion.
“I had a fighter under contract for one more match when he got called from the UFC to go fight on one of their shows,” Neglia says. “Now I could have stopped him or told the UFC they have to pay me if they want to use the fighter, but when he told me the UFC wanted him, I said, ‘As of this minute, your contract with me is null and void — go fight for them.’
“I enjoyed doing it. I’m proud of him. This is more a passion than a business to me.”
(Photos courtesy of Lou Neglia / Ring of Combat)