Josh Gross
Friday August 29th, 2008

As Tropical storm Gustav churns its way toward the Gulf of Mexico, images and memories of Hurricane Katrina flash back.

Reminders are hardly necessary for the ravaged Gulf Coast region. Three years ago Aug. 29, Katrina -- the costliest natural disaster in the nation's history, left in its wake more than 1,800 dead and the homes of thousands torn apart to shreds.

"It's as bad as you could ever imagine something," recalled Rich Clementi, a 31-year-old mixed martial artist out of Slidell, La.

Clementi, perhaps the best MMA fighter to come out of the region, counts himself among the fortunate few during Katrina's punch -- even though the storm left the first floor of his home, which stood six feet above ground, swamped.

"There are still places to the west of me -- of course, they say the way a hurricane turns, the west side is always the worst -- you can drive through and it's absolutely 100 percent abandoned," he said.

Of little concern at the time to Clementi, and those like him with direct ties to MMA, was the impact of Katrina on the sport. There were more pressing things, like where to find water and shelter.

Fighting wasn't much of an option for Clementi at the time anyway. Recovering from knee surgery, he was more focused on his fight-promotion business.

"I had four casino-level shows lined up that I couldn't do because the casinos weren't even there anymore," he said. "They were totally destroyed by the hurricane. I was able to shift gears and get back into fighting, because if I was just depending on the promotional business, I would have been in a lot of trouble financially."

Other fighters in the area, such as Freestyle Fighting Championship promoters Lee Coates and Rob Brannif, found success in the Biloxi, Miss. waterfront casinos. As the UFC tasted its first fruits of television exposure on SpikeTV, FFC fancied itself a Southern alternative.

"We were in every desirable casino that you could be in throughout the South and other parts of the country," Coates said. "The South served as a nice little home base for us. We had regular events, and that's what kind of fueled our growth around the country."

Though their cities, neighborhoods and homes were badly damaged, Coates and Brannif moved forward with plans for a Las Vegas event on Sept. 14, 2005, which featured Roger Huerta, Matt Wiman, Josh Neer and Jason Lambert.

"The saying is 'You'll never go broke making a profit,' but we actually did," Coates said. "We were profitable, but when we didn't have the South to fuel the growth around the country, because there just weren't any venues available for a year-and-a-half, we had trouble getting traction anywhere else. And we didn't really have the funds to get out there and market ourselves the way we needed to at a time when the UFC was spending millions and millions of dollars to keep their name out there."

MMA in Mississippi disappeared until January 2007. The state commission, a special-fund agency that derives its money from a 6-percent tax at the gate, "had to cut back tremendously on spending and just go into 'recruit mode,'" said Jon Lewis, chairman of the Mississippi Athletic Commission. "Katrina put the commission into a mode of [going] out and [getting] some business. We had to go out and hunt it and make it and get on the phone and call some people to get something going."

Without venues to support the growing MMA industry in the region, recruiting didn't come easy. Lewis estimated that for every 10 promoters he speaks with about coming to venues in the state -- venues that are largely relegated to the northwestern area of the state -- only one organization would bite.

In February of 2007, EliteXC made its debut on Showtime in Tunica, Miss., a town known for its multiple casinos. Few major promoters have followed into the Deep South, though Lewis said the UFC was close to finalizing a date last year.

Because of the sport's nationwide growth spurt, people wanting to promote MMA inundated Lewis. He said most who tried were denied licensure because they were ill equipped to run an event. Some passed the test, though, and lately there's been an upturn in the number of events throughout the state. Last year in Mississippi, 20 cards took place. And that number is expected to be eclipsed by the end of 2008.

"It's chased people inland, and what you see is a lot of local shows," said Coates, who, with little money to be made in smaller events, has chosen not to promote FFC again until the casino industry is revitalized on the Gulf Coast.

"It's nothing like it used to be," he said. "You'd get a phone call asking if you were interested in doing a show on a date, and we'd say 'yes' or 'no.' Then you'd start negotiating on what they would pay us right out of the gate."

Where meals would be comped and site-fees paid, today -- "that's gone," Coates said. Now, casinos wonder how many rooms a promoter will occupy.

Still, optimism remains high.

"Of course, we got hurt for two years," Lewis said, "but I do believe a lot of the coastline is being rebuilt with bigger and better things. You had a lot of hotels at the time that were built right after Hurricane Camille. It's just a typical cycle that a coastline goes through after a hurricane [comes through]. It's built better and far beyond what it was in the past."

The region has also started to showcase more of its talent, especially in big-budget events, like the ones promoted by Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC and the WEC.

"Louisiana has always been a powerhouse in terms of hardcore, grassroots MMA," Clementi said. "I think in the last three to four years we've gained a lot more respect. Including myself, we can hang with the best of them anywhere. It seems not even a hurricane could stop the tidal wave of mixed martial arts."

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