1 of 3
Michael Brandy, Deseret News
Hank "The Vice" Weiss, left, absorbs a kick from Court "The Crusher" McGee during Jeremy Horn's Elite Fight Night at the Salt Palace.

Fight! Fight! Fight! When called out at school, a party or in a crowd, it immediately draws interest. But what if it is organized?

That is the premise behind Mixed Martial Arts fighting, and just like a spontaneous outbreak, it is drawing plenty of notice.

"It is one of the fastest-growing sports in history," said professional fighter, trainer and event organizer Jeremy Horn. "It is amazing to see how far it has come in such a short amount of time."

Once called too brutal for the mainstream public, MMA fighting adopted some rules and has since taken off in popularity. And Utah has become one of the hot spots during the growing phenomenon.

"I see Salt Lake turning into one of the cities to host the biggest fights," said local fighter Demarques Johnson, who has the reputation, and ability to back it up, as being one of the next fighters expected to make it big in the sport. "We already have a lot of good gyms and a lot of good fighters around here. There is a great following, and it won't be long until we have the best of the best around."

In MMA, the best means Ultimate Fighting Championship. The UFC has the biggest draws, best fighters and largest purses, but even without any UFC fights, Utah has had plenty of fights with a very devoted following. From weekly fights in various bars and night clubs, to bigger events hosted at arenas and convention centers, fighters and followers have been meeting in growing numbers around the Beehive State.

"I love fighting here," said William Brewer, a fighter based in St. George who travels to Salt Lake to fight. "The crowds here are great, and the events there are starting to grow. I see Utah being one of the great locations for fighters to come and train and fight. The competition here is tough, but there are great opportunities."

As one of the ambassadors for the sport, and particularly here in Utah, Horn is one of the most popular and famous fighters not only around the state but around the country as well. He made a name for himself in UFC as a battler, a brawler who had a never-say-die attitude with his specialty listed as Jiu-Jitsu. He has over 130 professional fights to his credit, and made a name in defeating Chuck Liddell, one of the sport's most popular champions for several years.

Horn started training in Omaha, Neb., where he was raised and said his main reason for getting into fighting originally was, "to stop getting beat up by my older brothers."

He has relocated to Utah, where he has a training gym, Elite Performance, in Sandy where fighters such as Johnson train year round.

"I train at least four or five hours every day," said Johnson. "It has to be something you love to do, or you are not going to succeed. I want to be able to do it full time and not have to worry about making a living."

That is Horn's goal as well. His desire to give back to the sport is part of the reason he has put his name and reputation on a couple of recent fight cards that were hosted at the Salt Palace Convention Center. The first such fight card was in April and had nine bouts drawing an estimated crowd of over 2,000.

Horn had a second fight in May, with a card that featured local fighter Travis Marx. The fighter from Tooele had the national television show "Tapout" spotlighting him for the week. It followed the Utah highway patrolman around during the week and showed some of his training regimen at night at Horn's gym, but Marx was upset in his fight. There is another fight night planed for June 28 at the Salt Palace.

"We are working to grow the sport and make the fighters some money," Horn said. "I would like to keep it away from the bars and make it a little more professional atmosphere.

"We try to put 10 or 11 fights on the card. That way, we are pretty much guaranteed to get a minimum of nine fights and can put a good product out there for the people to enjoy."

Just those thoughts alone speak of the tough reality of the MMA fighter. Many would like to make a living fighting. But the possibility of reaching the top levels, fighting too often and getting hurt, or having a chance to make more money by scheduling a different fight, make it an unpredictable lifestyle.

"I love it, but it is tough," added Johnson. "We are trying to get bigger and make more, but you just never know what is going to happen."

Horn's gym has 10 to 15 fighters who are ready to make a name for themselves in the sport. Another 30 or 40 fighters are either just getting started or simply love the training. The popularity of the sport is not limited to those who want to make it a full-time occupation.

"I love the training," said novice fighter-in-training Daniel Heffner. "I am in better shape now and know a lot more techniques than ever before. Except for some bumps and bruises, I can't think of any negatives about it. Plus, now when I go to the fights, I know a lot more of the fighters, and I recognize what they are trying to do in the cage."

It doesn't take much to recognize the passion or the growing following for the sport. Blogs, chat rooms and even a local talk show on sports radio have been overloaded with responses from fans.

"It is great, the fact that the people who love this sport really support it," said Brewer. "They are so passionate about it. There is almost a cult following. It is a culture of fighting that is just growing here in Utah. Soon, it won't be just a strong group that follows it, but it will be a part of the mainstream population that knows all about it."

The ever-growing following is still in its beginning stages, but Horn agrees that there is a future in mixed martial arts fighting in Utah.

"It is an exciting sport,' he said. "It is growing everywhere, but here in Utah it is way more popular than a lot of states. Once people see it, it kind of hooks you in.

"I think we just need to keep growing the sport. If we keep putting out a good product and getting good fights, then with just the nature of the sport, more people are going to be drawn to it."


E-mail: mblack@desnews.com