On Friday night, when the Victory Fighting Championship (VFC) hosts its 49th event from Baxter Arena in Omaha, everything that takes place in its square cage will be streamed live on UFC Fight Pass. As a Midwest regional show, the promotion is all about mining talent in the landlocked states, giving them experience, and then — with any luck — catapulting them to the UFC.
VFC is one of the thriving "feeder" leagues going in mixed martial arts. It’s a developmental promotion with the express purpose of preparing fighters for the cage with eight walls. And being a farm system as a business model doesn’t diminish anything that Victory’s owner Ryan Stoddard is trying to do.
In fact, it just deepens the talent pool.
"Every single major baseball team in our nation has either one or multiple AAA teams that feed them talent," Stoddard told MMA Fighting. "Why would the UFC be any different? Why would I be upset with being the show that helps develop these kids to go to that next level?
"Tecia Torres fought for us as an amateur in like 2013. And now to see her one fight away from a potential title shot in the UFC, to me that’s awesome. That’s an individual that I got to see come up through the sport in such a positive way, and know that we had some kind of hand in developing that individual? I love that about what we do."
In the landscape of MMA promotions, the UFC has long been established as the preeminent league, with others such as Bellator and the World Series of Fighting challenging the leader as they can. With a regional promotion that runs shows in places like Nebraska (where its hub), Iowa and Kansas, Victory had to make a decision early on — compete against bigs, or help provide a service.
"From a business perspective, what else can we do?" Stoddard says. "I mean, nobody’s going to compete with the UFC. No one. You look at some of these other organizations that are out there that have these network television deals, what is their business model? What are your plans? Where are you going? What is the future of your business? What’s the end game?
"Developing talent is a great business model to take on because it’s needed. We would rather be at the forefront of that endeavor than playing catch-up like everybody else in the near future."
In the main event of Friday night’s VFC 49 card, MMA veteran Dakota Cochrane will take on Valdir Araujo. In the co-main, former UFC fighter Rob Emerson will fight Alonzo Martinez. The top of the card helps to sell out the Baxter, which has about a 4,500-seat capacity. That’s a big-time draw for a regional show, something that Victory regularly does. And with tickets ranging from $25 dollars, the experience is affordable.
But it’s the prospects on the card — people like Raufeon Stots, who trains at Duke Roufus’s gym in Milwaukee and fights William Joplin on Friday night — that serve the larger purpose. Any eyes that fall on the more name brand guys also fall to Stots (4-0). Victory is all about identifying talent and giving people a platform to segue into the UFC. With Friday’s show being the third to stream on Fight Pass, already a couple of its fighters have been signed by Zuffa — Elvis Mutapcic (who appeared in WSOF a couple of times, too) and Anthony Smith, who was slated to face Mutapcic in the headlining spot at VFC 47, which was the first to appear on Fight Pass.
Stoddard predicts another 10-15 of his fighters will have signed contracts with Zuffa by the end of the year.
"Truthfully, I’m a big believer in athlete development," Stoddard says. "I think it’s something that’s missing in our sport right now. People haven’t really taken it seriously as they should. Kids at a younger age that are first coming into the sport at the amateur level, taking that talent and really teaching them how to take the proper fights, or how to build themselves. You get so many guys nowadays that aren’t in the gym between fights trying to get better. They say, I’ve got to go to camp, and I’m like, you’re a 3-0 pro — you should always be in camp.
"If you have any long term goals and ambitions in this, then you’ve got to take it seriously as a professional athlete. No different that guys eat, sleep and breathe football, basketball or any other major sport."
(Victory Fighting Championship)
Victory began in 2002 by Jay Schneider, and held its first show in Council Bluffs, Iowa, at a speedway. Stoddard took over in 2010, and has been doing around eight shows per year — drawing a little over 4,000 through the gates on average.
He says it’s been of mutual benefit to team up with Fight Pass, with VFC’s fight night production getting enhanced, which then enhances brand partners coming aboard, which then circulates more money to athletes. In other words, it’s a professional place to gain exposure and "cut your teeth" if you’re pursuing a career in MMA, as Stoddard says. The enhanced media coverage doesn’t hurt either.
It’s also a landing spot for fighters who might have bitten off more than they can chew when breaking into the sport initially.
"That’s part of the reason I went and signed Jason Jackson coming out of The Ultimate Fighter [season 21]," Stoddard says. "You have an individual who has a ton of talent, a ton of potential, he’s young, and he just doesn’t have the necessary fights needed to compete in the UFC yet. You’ve really got to cut your teeth and learn on that lower level of a show, and more or less just getting ring time. You know he’s in the gym, he’s at the Blackzilians every single day training with some of the best. It’s just ring time, and you’ve got to develop that talent.
"And I knew that he was a kid that they liked coming off of TUF. He was one of the first people when we got our Fight Pass deal, I got a hold of Glenn Robinson down there and I actively pursued him."
Though he combs the country for talent, Stoddard says he pays closest attention to the fighters waiting to be discovered near his home base.
"For me, I’ve got to go find that talent for myself here in the Midwest," he says. "Some of the smaller shows that we do, we literally go out and find amateurs that honestly have potential and then develop them. There’s a kid we put in the UFC a couple of years ago named Jacob Lindsey. You go back and look at his amateur career, he fought for us as an amateur. I would have never found him had I not done a show in Kansas."
VFC streams live on Fight Pass at 10pm EST/7pm PST.