NorCal continues takeover as MMA hotbed

April, 17, 2013
4/17/13
10:55
AM ET
Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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videoCalifornia has long been inundated with mixed martial arts gyms, which isn't the sort of thing that just happens.

The Gracie family settled near Los Angeles in the 1980s, and therefore so did Brazilian jiu-jitsu. After several years, the UFC arose out of an idea centered on marketing and selling what the Gracie family embraced as a value system. This was so successful that competitors flocked to the West Coast with some looking for grappling expertise and others just seeking a fight, of which there were plenty.

Soon the Golden State, particularly its southern half, was regarded as the "Mecca for MMA," especially as events and fighters and camps were covered by a burgeoning press that proliferated on the Internet as the sport struggled to gain traction in more traditional settings.

California approved the first set of codified MMA rules 13 years ago this month. Many of the UFC's early top draws -- from Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock and Tank Abbott to Tito Ortiz and Chuck Liddell -- made their homes there. Anyone who knew anything about MMA is aware of the cultural impact of TapouT, a Southern California-formed company. Most of the MMA fights that took place on Native American lands from 1993 to 2003 were sandwiched between Fresno and the U.S.-Mexico border.

Over the past decade, however, in the wake of regulation and the sport's movement away from underground events, there's been a shift to the North in terms of where the best fighters and camps are located in California.

In 2013, California's world-class training facilities feature some of MMA's best fighters, including seven Northern Californian residents set to enter the Octagon on Saturday in San Jose. And while Southern California continues to hum along, producing a massive amount of talent as it goes, the appearance of vibrant fight teams in the mold of Shamrock's San Diego-based Lion's Den, or Ortiz's crew in Huntington Beach, is more likely a northern phenomenon.

Three major groups have come to represent NorCal MMA: Cesar Gracie jiu-jitsu, American Kickboxing Academy and Urijah Faber's Ultimate Fitness. Their impact on Saturday's card is undeniable. At the same time, SoCal teams have seemingly fallen apart. Shamrock is almost all but forgotten. Ortiz's crew splintered many times over. There are pockets of consistency, including the Inland Empire which features Millennia jiu-jitsu and Dan Henderson's Team Quest affiliate in Temecula. But it's hard to argue against the reality that the North has taken over the South for the state's MMA supremacy, particularly when it comes to raising homegrown talent.

During Saturday's main event on Fox, Gilbert Melendez will attempt to bring home UFC gold to a group of guys who have been together for well over 10 years (a fourth title try in the Octagon for the Cesar Gracie crew in 24 months). The co-feature: AKA's unbeaten rising star Daniel Cormier against former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir. The next chapter in a competitive but mostly friendly rivalry between AKA and Cesar Gracie, camps situated about an hour drive apart, pits Josh Thomson and Nate Diaz. On the undercard, the Faber-influenced trio of Chad Mendes, Joseph Benavidez, and T.J. Dillashaw will get in some work.

Major Southern California promotions aren't happening like they used to -- a product of saturation, fan complacency and promotional indifference -- so events that mattered in terms of finding talent, say those put on by King of the Cage in the early 2000s, haven't been relevant in years. Meanwhile, NorCal gyms cultivated direct pipelines into Stikeforce or UFC.

The competitive shift from SoCal or NorCal can be traced to several factors, none more noteworthy than the emergence of Strikeforce as a platform for Bay Area fighters.

Big California fight camps once synonymous with Orange County or the Inland Empire haven't been for some time. This seems tied to opportunity more than anything else, yet NorCal fighters like to suggest it has as much to do with their grittiness and determination as it does with promotional platforms. SoCal fighters would disagree, but this is how the guys up North view what's happening in the state.

And results suggest they're on the correct side of things.

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