NEW PORT RICHEY - On June 13, nearly 400 mixed martial arts fans turned out to watch 10 amateur matches at the All Sports Arena. The matches, which included two title fights, were scheduled for three rounds each and were sanctioned by Global Fighting Solutions. More than half the fighters came from Tampa, though some traveled from as far away as Miami and Tallahassee.
Matt Garry, the arena's owner, put on a Las Vegas-style show, complete with a professional announcer, a first-rate sound system and models who circled the cage. Between matches, current and former MMA champions stepped into the cage to say a few words and display their belts. Later, they signed autographs and took photos with the youngsters.
One of the local fighters making his debut was Jerad Hayes, a former Mitchell High wrestler. Thirty five of his family and friends were at ringside to cheer for him.
"I've trained hard and it's going to show tonight," Hayes, 24, said before the match. "MMA is a sport that is growing and is challenging to compete in. It's going to be a great feeling to win and to have everyone cheering."
During high school, Hayes took an interest in MMA. In addition to wrestling, Hayes learned to box from his uncles. For the past three years, he has studied jiu jitsu and earned a blue belt, plus received MMA training from the Gracie Tampa School in Oldsmar.
Before entering the cage, the fight supervisor examined Hayes from head to toe. His opponent, Stephen Barker of Tampa, was also making his debut. As soon as the horn sounded, Hayes became the aggressor, jabbing and kicking his opponent. Twenty two seconds into the match, Hayes landed a solid punch to his opponent's head. Barker retreated, protecting, trying to recover. As the crowd's cheers grew louder, Hayes unrelentingly battered his opponent against the side of the cage. Sweeping his leg, Hayes was able to get the stunned Barker down on the mat, and a few seconds later at 1:17 into the match, Hayes was declared the victor by submission.
His fans rushed the cage to shout congratulations. As he was led back to the dressing room, Hayes raised his fist to the crowd, which gave him a thundering ovation.
"I was focused and confident," Hayes said afterward. "To me, this is wrestling with a few punches and boxing with some wrestling moves. I plan to continue training every day and hope to turn pro within a year."
Another victory that evening was Garry. It was his third attempt at hosting an MMA event and this one was, by far, the most successful.
"Saturday's event went great," Garry said. "With more sponsors and local fighters, this could really rocket to the next level. We plan to promote MMA every 6-8 weeks. With a few more title fights and some better name fighters, we could easily bring in 1,000 or more fans. Plus, we give local fighters like Jerad a chance to start his career. With his skills and good looks, I expect to see him on ESPN someday."
Correspondent Cliff Gill can be reached at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter@ReporterCliff.