There has been no tiptoeing around opportunities to include a combat sport with the suit-and-tie ambiance of the Blair County Convention Center.
"Cassius Clay [Muhammad Ali] and Joe Frazier fought under chandeliers in plush casinos and men would wear suits and ties to watch them," Blair County Convention Center General Manager Barry Kumpf said.
Kumpf has capitalized on the rising popularity of mixed martial arts in the Altoona area.
Mirror photo illustration by Hannah Frank/Courtesy photos by Rob Lynn
Greg Jones blocks a kick from Joe Capauno while participating in the mixed martial arts Iron Will Fighting Championship at the Blair County Convention Center in April 2011.
The convention center ballroom will be the setting for a Saturday mixed martial arts event conducted by a local promoter.
Complete Devastation III will be the fourth fighting event conducted by Go Time Promotions at the convention center since Kumpf assumed his role as general manager in July.
The convention center's handful of MMA events conducted in the last year have each sold roughly 1,500 seats, just 300 people shy of ballroom capacity.
If you go
What: At least five of the 17 fighters to be featured in Complete Devastation on Saturday are from the Altoona-Johnstown area. They include NCAA Division II wrestling champion Shane Valko of Johnstown, LaRon Williams of Johnstown, Charlie Gathers of Altoona, Levi McCord of Clearfield and Gregory Jones of Blairsville.
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Blair County Convention Center
Details: Ticket prices range from $20 to $100 and are available at Snap Fitness locations and Go Time Promotions.
Mixed martial arts, a combination of wrestling, boxing, kickboxing and judo, is gaining national popularity due to the sport's leading promoter, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Nationwide, public response to the UFC brand has resulted in Fox Television Network air time and a growing fan base.
The rising interest in MMA among people in the Altoona area may be attributed to local promoters organizing fights for local athletes, trainer Jason Dignan of Dignan-Brumbaugh Mixed Martial Arts of Altoona, said.
"There is a wealth of talent here, and promoters are supporting amateurs going pro. Athletes can get experience and get noticed by fighting at the convention center," Dignan said.
"People come in from all over the country for this local promotion."
Before the Pennsylvania Legislature legalized the sport in 2009, local athletes traveled to fight out of state, which discouraged many fighters.
When current UFC fighter Charlie Brenneman of Hollidaysburg started his career at Cambria County Martial Arts Academy, he and trainer Darcy Regala traveled to Ohio and New Jersey to build his amateur fighting resume.
"It's great that these guys can fight in front of their friends and family without having to travel five hours away from home," Brenneman said in a phone interview from his home in northern New Jersey.
The Blair County Convention Center was built deliberately not to be a sports venue because the Bryce Jordan Center was built at the same time, nearly a decade ago, former Blair County Commissioner Donna Gority said.
"I'm not a fan of mixed martial arts, but the conference center is there to serve a wide variety of needs in the community," said Gority, a newly appointed member to the Blair County Convention Center and Sports Facilities Authority. Hosting MMA events is also a way to compete with other conference centers in Altoona, Gority said.
Jason Davis, owner of Go Time Promotions, has conducted fighting events at numerous venues including the Johnstown Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
"The people in this region really enjoy watching mixed martial arts fights. They like the fact we are a local business that focuses on local fighters. Money we get from our shows gets spent in our local area," said Davis, whose businesses include Snap Fitness.
Fighters are paid, and Davis said if ticket sales continue to increase, then pay will increase.
Davis' research shows the demographic that attends mixed martial arts fights are people 18 to 49 years old. Forty percent of those who attend fights are women, Davis said.
Mixed martial arts has broadened the convention center's use to the community, Kumpf said.
"The board and management team challenged each other to think outside the box," Kumpf said.
That resulted in thinking inside the cage, where there appears to be no turning back.
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O'Reilly is at 946-7435.