Competing in one martial art is tough. Competing in mixed martial arts (MMA) is even tougher. That’s according to Keith Azbury, owner of Tooele Martial Arts Academy and MMA head coach for several local fighters.
“MMA is hard,” he said. “If you can do this, you can do anything. It teaches you to set goals; to believe in yourself.”
Practicing MMA has definitely helped 22-year-old Andrew “Boomer” Arellano to believe in himself. He started training with Azbury in 2013.
“I saw a flyer about it and I just came in and started training,” he said. “It definitely builds your confidence.”
Arellano has always enjoyed testing his skills against others.
“When I was little, I always used to wrestle with my cousins and friends,” he said.
Arellano’s debut amateur MMA fight was in the Fierce Fighting Championship’s “Thrilla in Tooele” on September 30, 2017. Arellano won by submission in the first round.
Since then, Arellano has competed in two more fights. In March, he won the Fierce Fighting Championship’s flyweight amateur championship belt.
He’s currently undefeated in his amateur career, and he’s not planning on backing down anytime soon. His next amateur bout is scheduled for Steelfist Fight Night in Salt Lake City on Friday.
One day, he hopes to fight professionally for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
It’s a dream he shares with his teammate, Jocelyn Kaufman. Kaufman, 24, has been training with Azbury for about a year and a half.
Originally from Stansbury, Kaufman played softball for Stansbury High School. She was there when Stansbury captured the state title in 2013. After high school, she went to the University of Providence in Great Falls, Montana, where she continued her softball career.
That was where she discovered boxing.
“The college did a fundraiser amateur boxing match,” she said. “I ended up doing it and fell in love with it. … I got into MMA when I moved back to Tooele.”
Kaufman’s favorite thing about MMA is its difficulty.
“I like that it’s a challenge and every day you can learn something new,” she said. “It’s also the only sport I’ve been a part of that you have this much respect for your opponent.”
As an amateur MMA fighter, especially a woman fighter, Kaufman is constantly battling misconceptions about what the sport is all about. One big misconception is that MMA fighters often get injured, especially in the head.
“People who see MMA think we just beat each other up in the gym, but we’re smart about it,” she said. “Outside of the one fight you’re fighting every three months, we never hit each other in the head. Sure, accidents can happen, but they can happen in any sport.”
She added, “I’ve got more injuries playing softball growing up than fighting, and that’s what I tell my family.”
Another misconception is that MMA fighters are fiercely competitive, both inside and outside of the cage.
“I think that’s another huge misconception, because they (people) see MMA fights where people are arguing, but I think it’s important for the public to realize that it’s a sport and we’re all different individuals,” Kaufman said. “A lot of times, we have more respect for our opponents than the people watching. I’m proud to be part of it.”
Kaufman is very supportive of her fellow fighters, especially the other fighters who train with Azbury.
“We go to each other’s fights; we’re very supportive,” she said. “A lot of times, we’ll fight on the same card because it’s easier for our gym and our coaches if we’re fighting on the same card.”
Kaufman’s road to UFC started with her debut amateur fight in September 2018, when she was defeated by knockout in the second round. Since then, she’s earned two wins, including one for Mountain Force that netted her the women’s flyweight amateur championship belt.
Her next fight will be Friday at Steelfist Fight Night. She and Arellano are fighting on the same card. Both will be competing for an amateur championship belt in their class.
Kacee Cummings is one of Azbury’s newest MMA students. While she isn’t necessarily aiming for UFC, she loves the challenge of fighting.
“I’ve been studying martial arts for two years,” she said. “I decided I wanted to learn to box so I came here. I got introduced (to MMA) and liked it. I don’t have a goal; I just love doing it and I’ll keep doing it until I don’t want to.”
She added, “There’s no pressure … (but) I’d like to have a belt on the wall before I quit.”
Cummings’ debut amateur fight is scheduled for September 21.
Life is busy for an amateur MMA fighter. During the day, Arellano, Kaufman and Cummings take jiu jitsu and wrestling classes. At night, they attend Azbury’s “fight camp.”
Fight camp typically starts about eight weeks before the fighters’ next matches. It’s a mixture of physical training and mental preparation, Azbury said.
“I’m kind of like the chef — they bring me the ingredients and I come up with the game plan,” he said. “We watch videos on all of our fighters.”
The camp takes place every night at 8 p.m., Monday through Friday.
“Every night … we come in and train for everything (every style) together like an MMA fight,” Kaufman said.
Setting aside so much time for training takes a lot of dedication. All three fighters have other jobs: Arellano works at Big Five Sporting Goods, Kaufman is a teacher and head softball coach at West Jordan High School, and Cummings is an emergency room nurse at Mountain West Medical Center.
“It’s almost like we live a double life right now,” Kaufman said. “We do it to supplement our income until we can do it (MMA) full time.”
This week’s fight camp will mostly focus on mental preparation, Azbury said.
“Because it’s fight week, they’re not going to do much,” he said. “They’re already in shape. We’re just going to get a good little sweat in. The hardest part about fight week is their nerves. This is when they’re most nervous and their brains lie to them the most. They feel like they need to be running wind sprints when in reality, they just need to relax and leave it all in the cage on Friday.”
Azbury knows what it’s like to fight for a dream. He went to high school with Court McGee, a professional MMA fighter who fights for UFC.
“I literally used to sleep on Court’s couch,” Azbury said. “I went to his wedding and he went to my wedding. He was just a normal dude with normal parents who had a dream. I try to drill that into these kids’ heads.”
While McGee achieved his dream of fighting for UFC in 2010, Azbury recently accomplished his own dream.
“For six years I worked two jobs, working ridiculous hours, to try and get this place (Tooele Martial Arts Academy) off the ground,” he said. “This is the first year I’ve been able to work here full time. This is my dream.”
Anyone who’s interested in attending Steelfist Fight Night on Friday can buy tickets for the event on www.mixedmartialarts.com. The fights will take place at the Union Event Center, 235 N. 500 West, in Salt Lake City.
More information about the Tooele Martial Arts Academy is available at www.tooelemartialartsacademy.com.