Long before there was a Ronda Rousey, there was a Christophe Leninger, a judo black belt who competed in an early UFC. And long before he entered the Octagon, Leninger was friends of Jason Feig, who roomed with him at the Junior Olympics in Japan. Feig’s best friend growing up in Chicago was Barry Meyer.
Barry, and his brother Jeff Meyer, came to the mixed side of martial arts through this grapevine. In 1994, not quite a year after the first UFC began to hybridize the martial arts in Denver, they started a promotion which today is known as Tuff-N-Uff, a Vegas-based graffiti-like moniker that operates as one of the most recognized amateur MMA shows around. Tuff-N-Uff has launched dozens of careers, including that of Rousey.
And like most things in MMA, as Tuff-N-Uff gets ready to celebrate its 20th anniversary tonight at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, you can trace the whole thing back to one basic curiosity.
"My brother and I were both karate kids growing up," Jeff Meyer says. "We used to go to all the tournaments, and of course watch all the kung fu movies. We were avid martial arts enthusiasts, so we were always searching for…let’s call it truth in martial arts. So when the very first UFC happened, we realized that, wow, this really shows which martial arts is a legitimate one. We were, as I mentioned, karate guys, and immediately switched over to jiu-jitsu after UFC 1."
Royce Gracie and jiu-jitsu became synonyms after Gracie showcased his family heritage that night in Denver. When the ordinary-looking man won the eight-man tournament, all theoreticals as to what trumps what in hand-to-hand combat shifted to the ground.
"When the very first UFC happened, it was like a light went on. My brother always said it was ‘love at first fight,’" Jeff says. "We had to be involved somehow, so why not try our share at promoting?"
Like the UFC, Tuff-N-Uff went through plenty of variations over the years. The very first show was on June 18, 1994 in Chicago, a pro kickboxing event. There have been many iterations since. The Meyer’s co-promoted with Chuck Norris on his World Combat League. They were involved with the BodogFIGHT shows, and Abu Dhabi Combat Club events in North America, as well as many others.
But the niche that the Meyer’s fought for -- and the thing that ultimately distinguished Tuff-N-Uff from other promotions while cementing them forever as part of the pioneering effort in the sport -- was the amateur circuit.
Since 2008, Tuff-N-Uff has become all about the origins. It has become a springboard for upcoming talent (like Jon Fitch and Chris Holdsworth), a bucket list theater for adventure seekers (like Matthew Polly, who wrote about it called "Tapped Out"), and a pivotal showcase for women’s MMA (like Tonya Evinger and Jessamyn Duke).
"We’ve had our pro promoter’s license since 2003," Jeff says. "We really wanted…obviously it would be great if our sport was in the Olympics. Well, we wanted to have an amateur program where athletes would get a chance to test themselves and sort of groom them to make it to the pro ranks. My brother lobbied in the Nevada Athletic Commission for around a year and was successfully able to get them to approve amateur MMA. And since that happened, in 2008, we’ve never looked back and we’ve only done amateur shows since then."
Though the promotion arrives at its 20th anniversary show somewhat improbably after two decades of gradual enlightenment in MMA, it will do so without its president Barry Meyer, who took his own life last year after a long battle with depression at 42 years old. Barry, who was a black belt in tae kwon do and now belongs to the Masters Hall of Fame, was the spirit behind the whole thing.
And part of the reason that his brother Jeff wants to throw a record-breaking shindig in Las Vegas is to commemorate not just 20 years of shows, but his brother’s memory.
"We’re hoping to pack the place and set the Nevada MMA attendance record of 18,500 people," Jeff says. "If we can do that it would be such a tremendous honor, and I think the biggest honor to my brother that I could ever think of. But the hope is to pack that place by offering free admission, in partnership with the local food bank out here called Three Square, and patron can bring a canned food item and get in for free."
As Tuff-N-Uff is on friendly terms with the professional promotions -- he calls himself a huge fan of the UFC, saying they are the "big brother who is paving the way to do our little tiny thing" -- it continues to operate as a springboard for women’s MMA. The winner of tonight’s four-woman strawweight tournament will be awarded a contract with Invicta, the distinguished pro league for women’s MMA.
And all of this a day after Invicta FC announced that it would be streaming its fights on UFC Fight Pass going forward. One system feeds the next, and that system feeds the next. Tuff-N-Uff will also partake in the UFC’s International Fight Week in July, with a show on July 3.
The one woman that Tuff-N-Uff will be forever associated with happens to be one that the UFC currently calls its "biggest star." That is Rousey, the women’s bantamweight champion, who will defend her belt on July 5 at UFC 175.
Meyer says he recalls Rousey when he and Barry first laid eyes on her.
"I remember it vividly," he says. "My brother was like, yeah this girl, she’s a judo Olympian, and she wants to fight for us because she’s having a hard time finding fights in California. We flew her and her mom out and put them front row to watch a Tuff-N-Uff event, and she was such a nice, sweet girl and really pleasant to be around. And she was very appreciative that we had brought her out, wanting to fight so bad.
"Luckily for our next event, we found her a match-up, and it was so awesome to see. You can really tell when, okay, that person is going to be a star for sure."
That night, on November 12, 2010, Rousey fought Autumn Richardson. She fought in Tuff-N-Uff again – against Taylor Stratford – before turning pro and arm-barring every competitor that has stepped in the cage with her. Rousey, like Duke and Evinger and Fitch and many others, go down as part of Tuff-N-Uff’s lore.
They’ve always been about the origins, and 20 years later Tuff-N-Uff has become MMA’s scaffolding.
"Looking back, it’s interesting to see the history and progression of our sport for 20 years," Meyer says. "And then when you look at the history and progression of our company, Tuff-N-Uff, over 20 years, I think if you would have asked me on the date of our first show on June 18 of 1994, if we would be in Vegas 20 years later at the biggest facility…18,500 people at the Thomas Mack…I would have never believed you."