Jeff Osborne likes to say he survived MMA. That may seem funny to hear from a man with 23 years in the game, but the way he figures, there are thousands of others who weren’t so lucky. Fighters, coaches, promoters — flameouts who lost it all betting on a bloodsport to propel them into society’s one percent. But not him. He endured in a space where few others could. And whether people realize it or not, his mark on the sport is forever indelible, broad bold strokes upon the canvas of modern MMA.
The 47-year-old promoter can’t put a total on the number of fights he’s run since his pioneering MMA show, HOOKnSHOOT, first invaded some old gym parking lot in Boonville, Indiana in 1995. Less than 400 people showed up that day to see the spectacle. Osborne’s attendance figures ballooned to more than tenfold that size as the game grew over the next decade, cresting from the mid- to late-aughts, when the revolution of The Ultimate Fighter galvanized the mainstream behind a once-vilified craft and cagefighting became the cool thing to do.
And sure, that bubble eventually burst for HOOKnSHOOT, but it did so for most promotions of that first era, and Osborne slowed down accordingly.
“I look at it like a Forrest Gump kind of life,” he says, chuckling. “That, I kind of lucked into everything and meeting all these people. Some dude who works in a comic store who plays with toys for fun and has met all these people and done all these things — it’s just surreal.”
This past September, Osborne ran a quiet show in his old stomping grounds at the Evansville Coliseum in southern Indiana. Afterward, he told the Evansville faithful that the event would be HOOKnSHOOT’s swan song.
It was a classic Osborne move, a nonchalant goodbye from the man who excelled at promotion but forever shunned self-promotion. But people made a big fuss about Osborne not making a big fuss, and so he agreed to do one more. One more chance to get the old gang together and celebrate the army of Hall of Famers who found their calling in the bowels of the Evansville Coliseum, or the legion of young women first exposed to the beauty of women’s mixed martial arts simply because of an Indiana kid who was convinced WMMA was more than just a carnival sideshow.
“I think Jeff Osborne is the reason women’s MMA exists in America,” says Julie Kedzie, a former HOOKnSHOOT champion, current executive of the all-female Invicta FC, and one of the early winners of Osborne’s legendary women’s tournaments. “There could have been this fight and that fight before HOOKnSHOOT, but I know that’s what kept it going. He was the one giving women a home and a place to fight. He’s the reason that there is female MMA in America.
“Of course things have progressed and I’m biased towards Invicta being the home for women always, but I don’t think there would be an Invicta if there wasn’t a Jeff Osborne. I don’t think there would be women in Strikeforce if it wasn’t for Jeff Osborne, and thus women in the UFC. Because there had to be a launching point. Granted it’s not the first generation of women out there fighting now, but they built off of the people below them. Every generation is kind of like a layer, and he was the one who allowed for it to flourish in the way that it did.”
Look around today and Osborne’s influence is ubiquitous, whether it’s fighters, coaches, trainers, or promoters who cut their teeth in his countless events across the Midwest. But the feat Osborne remains most proud of is the rise of the women’s game, because it actually happened, and now there’s no going back. Three of the last six UFC events have been headlined by women, as is one of the next two Bellator events. Against all odds, stars like Ronda Rousey, Cris Cyborg and Joanna Jedrzejczyk have risen to be genuine lead players in a testosterone-fueled arena, and that wouldn’t be possible had Osborne not built the foundation for WMMA at a time when few in the west would, often to own financial detriment.
“I never, ever doubted myself on that,” he swears. “Didn’t care if I lost. Didn’t care. I wasn’t going to go down without a fight. I was going to fight for women’s MMA until I couldn’t fight anymore. I wouldn’t have changed a thing, other than maybe adding an extra 600 people at our shows.”
Kedzie still remembers the first time she saw one of HOOKnSHOOT’s fabled all-female tournaments. She was at a party, and someone replaced the mundane misery of Shamrock-Gracie II with a DVD of HOOKnSHOOT: Revolution, the landmark 2002 tourney that debuted Osborne’s grand vision and featured a cadre of pioneering names like Debi Purcell and Tara LaRosa.
“I was just like, holy shit, that’s the kind of fighting I want to do,” Kedzie marvels. “Not whatever I watched with Shamrock-Gracie. No, I want to fight like these people. They look like me. They’re muscular like me. This is what I want to do.
“It was a huge thing. You can never underestimate the impact of people like Gina Carano and Ronda Rousey in the sense that their visibility brought out this in other women. And we didn’t have women with that visibility when I was starting out. The platform wasn’t there. So just representation and visibility was so important. It was so important for little girls to see a woman fighting, and to realize: that’s not off the table for her. That it’s her choice to pursue that or not.”
Osborne never doubted the necessity of the platform. He often headlined women over men in an era when that just wasn’t done, running star-studded all-female tournaments throughout the 2000s. He lost thousands of dollars on many of those shows, sometimes up to $40,000 or $50,000 from his own wallet, just to give trailblazing women like Purcell, LaRosa, Kedzie, Megumi Fujii, Molly Helsel, Erica Montoya, Miesha Tate and countless others the stage he was certain they deserved.
“If women didn’t know that other women fought in 2002 and 2004, I think we would’ve still been in a situation where it would’ve taken a couple more years longer,” Osborne says. “Where we wouldn’t have found a Ronda Rousey, or this may never have happened. Maybe Dana (White) and the Fertittas would’ve sold and they would’ve never entertained the thought of women’s MMA right now, or it could’ve never happened. I’m glad to be a part of it.”
“There was a weird, cool bond about it,” says Kedzie. “Because back then, martial arts was gaining mainstream acceptance, but really, MMA was still a very taboo sport. And women in that sport were even more taboo. It was just like, okay, well the guys want acceptance, they’re going to do it… UFC is going to make it… but, we don’t want the girls to do it too.
“And so the girls who were actually doing it and doing the sport that they loved — I don’t know how to explain it, it was so special. There was such a strong bond, especially among HOOKnSHOOT fighters, especially people who fought for that show, because we knew the pressures that were on Jeff, and we knew the opportunities that we were being given. I made some really good friends from there. If any of those girls showed up on my doorstep today, it’d just be like, yeah, come on in.”
HOOKnSHOOT wasn’t a job for Osborne in those days. He traveled the world for free and did what he loved to do. Things were simpler. Fighters just wanted to fight. No one cherry-picked cupcake opponents just to catch the eye of a big show. Interest skyrocketed to a point where Osborne was turning down 50 to 70 fighters a month simply because he didn’t have room on his cards. And even on the men’s side, the list of names to pass through the Midwest was ridiculous — Frank Mir, Dave Menne, Yves Edwards, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Chris Lytle, Jeremy Horn, Aaron Riley, Hermes Franca, and dozens more. The first time Nogueira’s legendary brother, “Big Nog,” competed on U.S. soil was at the inaugural ADCC North American trials — the same trials set up by Osborne.
That all of these things went down in Evansville, this small Indiana town becoming the center of the world for these brief flashes in time, it still blows Osborne away.
Alas, HOOKnSHOOT’s 23-year run will come to an end on March 4 when Osborne holds his final show at the Coliseum.
The Godfather of North American WMMA admits he’s nervous about an event for the first time in years. He’s never had a problem on the mic, he explains, but now he’s starting to think a lot about things, and when the time comes, he doesn’t really know what he’s going to say. Talking about himself has never been one of his strong suits.
“I don’t think anyone’s really going to come in for something like this,” he says sheepishly. “Even though I had a lot of people wanting to. [A friend of mine] always told me to kinda stand up and mark my territory, and I’d tell him a story about how Mask from Tapout would call me on the phone. That’s when they were doing the Tapout show, and he would say, ‘hey man, can we come shoot your women’s tournament?’ And I’d be like, yeah, if you want to, it’s up to you.
“I didn’t want to be a burden to him. And Mask said, ‘man, why do always choose to make history silently? You should be telling people about it.’ I always flash back to that, and kinda regret that I never tooted my own horn until it was [too late].”
Osborne says the end of HOOKnSHOOT was inevitable. In an era of weekly UFC shows, the appetite for local MMA just isn’t there anymore. Plus, he reckons, “the thrill is just kinda gone.”
Over recent years, Osborne took to telling his fighters before events that he would throw them a bonus if they could show him something he had never seen before. “And hey, it happened one night,” he says, laughing. “A guy was winning the fight, had the other guy mounted. Puked all over the mounted guy’s face, and then he tapped out on his own. So I’m like, hey, never seen that before in 20 years. I’m going to give him $100. Not only are you losing the fight, but your opponent pukes on you while you’re mounted? Then you win the fight because he taps out because he’s sick? That’s definitely a win-lose situation.”
There are thousands of these stories, tales of bizarre and unpredictable nights in the American heartland. But after more than two decades, Osborne is ready to move on. Last year, he opened up a retro comic book and video game store in the middle of Evansville called Secret Headquarters, dealing in old-school Super Nintendos, full-fledged arcade cabinets, the works. He enjoys it. It’s a different kind of feeling, but somehow a familiar one, one he says he hasn’t felt in awhile — waking up to something that doesn’t seem like work.
“There’s a reason why billionaires are selling a company like the UFC,” Osborne says, “and the minor leagues, such as my shows — there’s even shows way, way better than mine that deserve recognition for producing pro fighters that go to UFC now — those are kinda dying off and dying down. It’s harder and harder to keep those companies in business. It’s not financially feasible for me to do this anymore.”
Through it all, the highs and lows and ebbs and flows of 23 years, the historic nights and five-figure disasters, Osborne says he only has one big regret.
“The only thing that would’ve made me happier is if all of this (the rise of women’s MMA) happened, maybe, six years sooner,” he says. “So that people could’ve appreciated some of the women who paved the way. I wish some of those women would’ve gotten these UFC opportunities in their primes and stuff like that. That’s the only thing I would’ve changed — just, I wish it would’ve happened sooner. I understand why it didn’t. I understand that we had to develop a good 20 or 30 solid, high-level women fighters before we could get to where we are now, and that was going to take a few years.
“And people tell me the same thing: ‘you kept this alive during its darkest days.’ But if you think I liked calling these women and saying, ‘hey, would you fight for $500? I totally understand if you don’t want to for this money,’ ... I mean, God, I just look back and there’s no way I could’ve paid them what they were worth. They were priceless to me.”
Osborne says it’s a shame that women like Purcell and Helsel aren’t household names and LaRosa and Kedzie aren’t multi-millionaires. Kedzie selfishly agrees, but she’s also damn proud of what she and Osborne and the throng of HOOKnSHOOT alumni accomplished.
“Jeff launched a ship,” Kedzie says. “He did. Something really happened, something very special for women in the sport.
“To be in the UFC, to be in Strikeforce, to be in EliteXC, to be in Bodog, all of these things, these were such great opportunities. But they never would’ve been there for me without HOOKnSHOOT. Never. Not in a million years. They would never be there without Jeff Osborne.”
A few years ago, the UFC approached Osborne to purchase his massive HOOKnSHOOT video library for UFC Fight Pass. He was genuinely surprised by the price they offered. Osborne still doesn’t think it brought his total earnings over the years back to zero, but it certainly made this end of the road a bit more palatable. He only hopes the UFC will someday use the footage to put together video packages that his fighters could show-off to their children, highlight reels of all the craziness mom got into when she was younger.
And in the meantime, Osborne marches on, setting the stage for one final show among reflections of the hundreds that have come before.
For his last stunt, the one-time aspiring pro wrestler has vowed to cameo as a HOOKnSHOOT ring girl on March 4th, complete with the full ring girl get-up. It’s the only job he hasn’t done in MMA, Osborne figures, so he might as well cross the last item off his list. He’s also inducting three more people into the HOOKnSHOOT Hall of Fame: Helsel, one of his first female pioneers, Jason Walls, a local kid who won eight straight fights in the early days, and Kedzie, one of his all-time favorite champions. She says it means the world to her. Then there will be fights. Then 23 years of memories and milestones will fade into exactly that, memory, and all of this will be over.
It’s an end of an era in Evansville, but Osborne is glad to have played his part.