Tuff-N-Uff? Sure, but not always skill to match

This is where the dream begins, far from sold-out arenas and pay-per-view dollars and famous fighters who delivered mixed martial arts into the mainstream for good.

It is the beginning for most.

And, mercifully, the end.

It is defined by the hopes of Ridge Marsden, a 19-year-old from Boulder City who dropped out of school in the eighth grade and who sees the one opportunity for a successful life being earned through fighting.

“The only thing I want to do,” Marsden said. “I want to get to the UFC, have a career and help my family.”

They were everywhere at the Orleans Arena on Saturday. Hopefuls. Dreamers. Fighters — I use the word lightly — with a plan. A few showed promise. A majority showed it would be wise not to give up the day job.

If the Tuff-N-Uff amateur show indeed represented a proving ground for the sport’s professional ranks, inside two arena floor rings during the afternoon session existed far more rookie ball types than Triple-A prospects. The gathering was sparse, more a family and close friends assembly than anything.

“It gives fighters an opportunity to be in front of a crowd and see if they want to pursue this,” Tuff-N-Uff president Barry Meyer said. “They can find out if it’s something they want to dedicate their lives to.”

Is fighting a requirement for all of us? Maybe. Whether it is through words or fists, we have bodies constructed for conflict. Some just like the exhilaration of physical contact more than others.

Ben West fits the mold.

He is 24 and drove 36 hours straight from Atlanta to make his 220-pound fight. It took his opponent, Don Johnson, less than 10 seconds to knock West out with a right hand that shattered his nose.

Minutes later, blood gushing from both nostrils and a large balloon protruding from the bridge, West spoke about his first MMA fight.

“I want to start actually training,” he said. “I’ve been in quite a few street fights. I exercise. I’m between jobs. I’m pretty poor. I just feel like I would enjoy doing this a lot more.

“That, and I am crazy.”

Perhaps. But is the same true of those who climb mountains and ride motorcycles at ridiculous speeds or who spend their free time cave diving? Fighting to many of the 100 who competed Saturday is simply their way of obtaining the adrenaline rush we all seek at some level.

Funny thing, amateur MMA fights. They tend to end much quicker than those of the pro variety, mainly because the skill is often so unbalanced between those slugging and kicking away.

Mike Thompson, whoever he is, didn’t show up. Officials walked through the arena calling his name over and over, hopeful his opponent in a 155-pound bout wouldn’t have to accept a winner’s medal without throwing a punch.

But all others couldn’t hide their passion for fighting and their aspiration for doing so at the highest level. It won’t happen for most. The Ultimate Fighting Championship always will remain an unreachable aspiration.

How to explain such odds to a kid like Ridge Marsden? It’s difficult. He had one fight before now, and that was 18 months ago when some guy was bothering his friends and Ridge knocked him out with two punches. He won Saturday on a first-round stoppage.

Marsden never has sparred, and his training consists of a punching bag at home, some weights and the roads he runs in Boulder City. But he dreams. He can tell you everything about the world’s best in his weight class.

“B.J. Penn, Kenny Florian, Joe Stevenson,” Marsden said. “I saw this card and signed up for $35. Maybe it will be easier to get fights now. I don’t have any money. All I can do is fight. I want to make something out of it.”

For every winner like an impressive 170-pounder in local Dustin Chevalier on Saturday, there was a poor soul like 135-pounder Shigeki Matsuda, who got hit more than Rocky and Apollo combined and at times seemed to purposely faint rather than continue getting pummeled.

For every standout like Paige Zio of Oakland, Calif., and her 30-second knockout of Suzy Clayton, there was a Ben West.

They saved the best action for the evening session, when five American fighters were scheduled to engage five from Mexico. But nothing told the story of amateur MMA better than the guy who drove for nearly two days to get cracked in less than 10 seconds.

And as the blood poured from West’s nose, a thought emerged: Mike Thompson, whoever and wherever he is, might have been the smartest of all.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at 702-383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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