There is a big event taking place in the world of MMA on Saturday, June 7, and honestly, if you are not really dialed in to the sport, you probably have no idea it is going on. So, prepare to be enlightened. Tuff-N-Uff, the sport’s premier amateur MMA promotion, is hosting its 20th anniversary show at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas.

Formed by the late Barry Meyer and his brother Jeff, Tuff-N-Uff began promoting combat sports events in 1994. What began in the gym of a local high school in Chicago has grown into the best amateur MMA promotion in the business. Fighters such as Roger Huerta, Jon Fitch, Ryan Couture and UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey all got their start fighting for Tuff-N-Uff.

Being in business for 20 years is an accomplishment in any industry, but it is almost unheard of in the world of MMA. Only three organizations have been involved in the sport longer than Tuff-N-Uff: Shooto, Pancrase and the UFC. Jeff Meyer, the co-founder of the organization, has been through it all in the business, but turning 20 in the sport is something that is hard to put into words.

“I’ll be honest, I have mixed emotions,” Meyer told The MMA Corner. “[I’m] kind of excited, nervous. I’m sad, obviously, about not having my brother here to celebrate this momentous occasion. I think the honest answer is different things, but mostly excited.

“Any promoter would be lying if they said they weren’t nervous before an event, but I think the nerves are a little bit less this time around because it’s such a big deal, our 20th anniversary, so we are offering it to the community of Vegas for free.

“I’m excited. I really think it’s going to be a tremendous event—really great attendance, awesome fights. We have some of the most talented amateur athletes in the nation fighting on this card. Seven states are actually represented. I’m really more excited, but there are all those other emotions that go along with it to.”

Considering that Tuff-N-Uff got involved in the sport almost at its inception, Meyer credits his brother, Barry, for having the foresight and passion to recognize the opportunity that was MMA. Having both grown up as martial artists, the brothers already had a passion for the fight game, but there was just something about MMA that drew them in.

“How and why, I really have to give credit where credit is due. It was my brother who started Tuff-N-Uff, and I was following in his footsteps for most of my childhood,” Meyer said. “He was a karate kid and he got his black belt at age 12. So, being his little brother and let’s call it his ‘punching bag,’ I learned pretty quick if I wanted to defend myself, I needed to take some martial arts classes, too. So we were both kinda karate kids growing up. As a karate kid growing up when we did…I’m 40 years old, so when I was growing up we didn’t have MMA. There was boxing and kickboxing and WWF.

“So, when we first saw the very first UFC 1 advertised, we were lucky enough to catch the advertisement for it and watched it live on pay-per-view. That very first fight of the very first UFC, we kinda realized as martial artists, this is legit. It truly shows who the superior martial artist is. If you remember, the early UFCs were advertised as karate vs. wrestling and jiu-jitsu vs. this, so it was which martial art was the superior martial art. And we all saw that Gracie BJJ was the superior martial art back then. We were always fans of martial arts and grew up watching all the karate movies and martial arts movies, but then when the very first UFC came on to pay-per-view, we realized this is something that is just so life-changing for us. A light bulb went off and, as my brother always said, ‘It was love at first fight.’ So we just knew we had to be involved somehow, and I’m lucky that he had the foresight and the vision to get started so early.”

Over the course of 20 years, many promotions have come and gone. There are very few that started at the beginning and are still around today. It is a hard sports industry to make it in, and even some of the most successful business men in the world couldn’t make it work. Yet, Tuff-N-Uff is still plugging away today and growing. The secret to success is simple: be honest and treat people right.

“Another thing my brother used to always say was, ‘How do you make a small fortune in MMA? Well, it’s easy you just start with a big one,’” Meyer said. “So many billionaires have come in this space and just decided, ‘Hey, this is my tolerance for pain. I don’t want to lose any more money.’ You have to be passionate about it. If you do something you enjoy, it’s not really work,and I think you find that you put so much more of your time and energy into it.

“You have to be interested and passionate about it, but at the same time you have to treat people right. I believe in karma. It a pretty big thing in my life, and we’ve always lived by the golden rule. You want to treat others the way you expect to be treated. I think in the course of so many years you’ve been doing events, luckily we’ve been referred to as honest, respectable and caring promoters, which may or may not be the case with most promotions, but for Tuff-N-Uff that is the secret to our, let’s call it, limited success. We try to treat everyone in the same way we want to be treated.

“Now, of course, there’s going to be competition that comes and goes or who knows, but I don’t feel like we really have to worry about it as much, because, while I do worry if you do right by people, it comes around and keeps people that are fighting for us and that are fans of ours, keeps people happy and loyal. Ultimately, it’s nice to be able to come to a Tuff-N-Uff and have a bunch of happy people watching people getting beat up.”

Tuff-N-Uff started off in the sport promoting both amateur and pro fights, but Jeff’s brother identified a real gap and need in the industry. He realized that it was the amateurs who needed nurturing. It is the amateur game where fighters cut their teeth and hone their skills, and Tuff-N-Uff has become the pinnacle of amateur MMA and the most highly regarded amateur promotion out there.

“It wasn’t something that we thought and planned as being the end game for us,” Meyer confessed. “My brother realized that there was a need for amateur athletics in Nevada because, look, you can’t just go [to pro MMA] from college wrestling or judo Olympian or something like that. What are you supposed to do, just jump into a pro fight? That’s not really fair.

“So we decided—well, I mean my brother decided—his mission was going to be to lobby the state of Nevada athletic commission in order to get amateur MMA approved here in Nevada. When we did our very first all-amateur show in 2008 here in Nevada, I remember my brother was like, ‘The commission approved it, and we are so excited, and what do we do different?’ because we were doing pro events at the same time.

“We kind of decided together nothing really [would be different] except for the rules. We’re still going to treat the fighters like pros, in that we will give them rooms and meal passes if they are from out of town and really try and take care of the fighters. Bring in a professional production crew, bring in the most professional sanctioning body, which is the ISKA, so when these athletes come to Tuff-N-Uff I think that they are treated great and they have such an overall positive experience that we are hoping we will ultimately groom them for that next level when they do go to some bigger promotions maybe on the pro level at some point. Hopefully, maybe they’ve gotten that experience fighting in front of a couple thousand people at a Tuff-N-Uff where they have kinda seen and heard the whole routine before, and hopefully it will prepare them for that next step.”

As a promotion, Tuff-N-Uff has seen all the ups and downs of MMA. The organization was involved in the early days, when it was more spectacle than sport. It was there struggling for acceptance when the sport was all but banned in the United States, and it is still here today as the sport continues to reach new heights. Along the way, there have been many obstacles for the sport to overcome, but there’s one that stands above the rest.

“I would say the public perception,” Meyer said. “Unfortunately, you know, we were forced to trading tapes underground on the internet forums and stuff like that, so thank God for the internet. The public’s perception has been our biggest challenge, and, for Tuff-N-Uff, well, we ride the wave of whatever the industry is doing. What I mean by that is we always try to stay on top of and in front of the curve, so to speak, in regards of amateur athletics across the country. Tuff-N-Uff had the exact same problems as the UFC in the dark ages. It was difficult to convince people—whether it was a fan, a sponsor, maybe it was a fighter’s parents— it was difficult to convince folks that, hey, there are less injuries in our sport if you compare it to boxing, that it’s admirable to tap out and sometimes fights end in submission. Those were the biggest challenges we as a company and our industry has faced as a whole.”

Although MMA has come a long way over the years, the sport still has a long way to go. The next frontier—one the UFC has been very aggressive on—is the international growth of the sport.

“I think globalization is the future of the sport as a whole,” Meyer said. “Obviously, you see the UFC and other major organizations that are in Asia. They are trying to make a foothold in India. In an ideal world, it would be nice to see the sport in the Olympics. If that happens, well then, it’s just a natural progression that we call it the ‘battle of the planet’ or something.

“Looking down the road, what’s the landscape of our sport? I think it is going to be international expansion and growth in these emerging markets like China and India and some Latin American countries, where they are just now being exposed to a disposable income for the first time in generations. I think that is where the future of the sport is heading for the big organizations.”

Tuff-N-Uff already has a strong presence in Las Vegas, and the organization continues to look for new promotional opportunities. In fact, the promotion will be hosting an event in Hawaii in September. Going international is a big move, but Meyer feels like it could be a real possibility for the amateur giants.

“We are hoping to bring the brand outside of Las Vegas,” Meyer revealed. “We’ve discussed with a couple groups outside of the United States. One in Canada, one in Mexico and one in the Cayman Islands—that one would be a fun one to do. I think it’s not down the road in the near future, but it might be a couple of years out.”

Sadly, though, the man who started it all and built the promotion into what it is today will not be there on June 7 to enjoy the momentous celebration of Tuff-N-Uff’s 20 years. Barry, Jeff’s older brother and mentor, passed away last year. However, his memory will live on through the sport and through Tuff-N-Uff itself.

“I think that he is remembered as a very honest, generous and kind-hearted man,” Jeff said as he fought back tears. “I’m glad to be able to talk about it, because he’s changed so many people’s lives, including mine, for the better. My goal in life with Tuff-N-Uff is to honor his legacy. Hopefully, he will be looked at as a visionary for amateur athletes in our sport who needed a safe environment to fight in and showcase their skills. I think and hope that he will have a long-standing legacy in our sport, one of an incredible man with great morals. He was the ultimate promoter. He ate, breathed and slept Tuff-N-Uff. I really hope that he is remembered for a long, long time.”

If you live in Las Vegas or you happen to be in the area on June 7, you can head down to the Thomas and Mack Center and enjoy a night of fights while supporting amateur MMA and the Tuff-N-Uff organization. As fans “Pack the Mack” on Saturday, Barry might not be able to stand alongside his brother and celebrate Tuff-N-Uff’s 20th anniversary, but his spirit will live on with every punch thrown that night by those amateur fighters, and with every knockout and submission. He’d be proud of his little brother, who not only tries to honor his legacy, but continues to gives amateur fighters the platform to succeed in this sport that so many of us fell in love with at first fight.

About The Author

RJ Gardner
Content Coordinator

RJ Gardner is a rabid sports fan and a long time MMA enthusiast. After watching UFC 1 at ripe old age of 11 RJ was hooked and his passion for the sport has continued to blossom over the years. RJ has been covering MMA since 2007 and has had work featured on Bleacher Report, SI.com, CBSSports.com and UFC.com. RJ is also a Petroleum Transportation Operations Manager during the day.