Every athlete has to start somewhere, and it takes hard work and dedication to reach the highest level of any sporting endeavor.

In baseball, it starts with Little League. Then it’s high school, college ball and, for those that are lucky, the minor leagues. Finally, the hard work pays off with a shot at the big leagues.

It’s a similar story in football, where talented Pee-Wee League players turn into blue-chip high school prospects and All-Americans in college. Only a select few earn their chance to compete in the NFL.

The sport of mixed martial arts is no different. However, unlike sports that have been established for longer periods of time, MMA doesn’t have a clear structure for advancing to the UFC’s Octagon.

For the longest time, the only option for fighters has been to fight in their own backyard for a regional promotion and string together enough wins to earn a fight in another nearby organization. Some would catch a break and garner the attention of UFC matchmaker Joe Silva or Sean Shelby, but there was never a defined path for what would earn a fighter a contract with the world’s largest promotion.

Over the last two-plus years, a resolution to that flawed, “regional” system has emerged. In late 2011, the Resurrection Fighting Alliance (RFA) was created to give not only talented prospects a place to compete, but veterans that are working hard for a second chance on the biggest stage.

Initially, the RFA started like so many regional shows, hosting multiple events that were separated by a few months in a small, humble venue—in the RFA’s case, it was the Viaero Event Center in Kearney, Neb. The cards had recognizable names like former UFC champion Jens Pulver, The Ultimate Fighter winners Efrain Escudero and Joe Stevenson, and women’s MMA legend Tara LaRosa. The promotion was able to secure a broadcast deal with AXS TV and joined its lineup of Friday-night regional shows.

Then, in 2013, the RFA began to separate itself from the group of regional organizations. Whereas other AXS promotions have largely focused on one state (or small region), the RFA has significantly expanded its reach. In fact, its recently announced 14th event, scheduled for April 11, will mark the eighth different state in which the promotion has held an event. Many organizations that have been around for longer than the RFA can’t claim that sort of expansion across the United States.

However, it’s more than the event location that has allowed the promotion to stand out from the pack. Due to his management role with fighters like Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida, RFA President Ed Soares has given the promotion a strong relationship with the UFC. The promotion was given permission to use the trademarked “Octagon” for its cage. More importantly, the RFA has established that its fighters can leave their contracts for a shot at the UFC. That has made the promotion an easy choice for fighters looking for an inside track to the big show.

Other promotions have started to follow suit, as the relaunched Titan FC has announced the same clause in its contracts. It’s certainly a change in direction from most regional shows—instead of trying to lock up fighters in hopes of a big buyout from the UFC, the RFA (and now Titan) are making it easy for the UFC to acquire new talent.

That strategy has paid dividends for the RFA and the UFC numerous times already. The UFC roster features a plethora of RFA alums, including Tim Elliott, James Krause, Derrick Lewis, Jessamyn Duke, Chris Holdsworth, Dustin Ortiz and Brandon Thatch, as well as former champions Sergio Pettis, Pedro Munhoz, Mike Rhodes and Zach Makovsky.

Instead of trying to carve out its own independent share of an already saturated MMA market as a regional show, the RFA has put itself in position to be the UFC’s farm system. Much the way that Triple-A baseball teams or college football programs provide players to Major League Baseball and the National Football League, RFA is doing the same for the UFC and fighters.

Even with the success that the RFA has had in differentiating itself as a true development for MMA, there are still obstacles to overcome. The pay structure is still on par with regional promotions. For fighters living fight-to-fight, the temptation of an extra $1,000 may trump the added benefits of exposure.

Certainly, other promotions still exist and fighters can still work their way to the UFC by being the biggest fish in a small pond on the regional level, but with options like the RFA, fighters don’t need to go that route. It’s a model that has been proven time and again with the NFL. Instead of being the star player at a NCAA Division II school, most players would rather be part of a well-established Division I program that has been a clear path to the sport’s highest level. Although it may still be too early to compare the RFA to an Alabama or USC, the promotion certainly isn’t a Nebraska–Kearney or New Haven.

Furthermore, the RFA’s affiliation with AXS TV may cause casual fans to group the promotion with the channel’s regional roster. That is expected to change in 2014, though. AXS has already cut ties with the XFC, the CFA and the aforementioned Titan FC. This will allow RFA to hold more events without having to compete for air time and, as a result, it will allow the promotion to further establish itself as a true development league.

Although there is still room for the RFA to continue to grow into its role as the last stop before the UFC, it’s clear that the promotion has paved the way for fighters to get to the big show. Now, it’s time for everyone to ditch the “regional” moniker when describing them.

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