Three years ago to this day, YAMMA Pit Fighting debuted and disappeared. Since then, it has become the butt of many jokes in the MMA world and joined an army of one and done companies. Yet, this show has lingered on in the back of the minds of many hardcore MMA fans for a variety of reasons, some good but mostly negative. “I survived the YAMMA” was the slogan of people who saw the show, and I did not just survive it, but was there in person taking photos and soaking it all in. Little did I know what it would come to represent for the sport.
The majority of fans remember the YAMMA for its’ lackluster advertising, bizarre fighting surface, mediocre fighters with little name power, and super fights between old-timers, as well as the poor production value and grating announcing done by Scott Ferrall. But was the YAMMA really as bad as we remember it being? Let’s take a look back at this strange show and break down the events leading up to it, the outcome, and give it an unbiased assessment with all the facts on this, the third annual YAMMAversary.
YAMMA was the brainchild of Bob Meyrowitz, who was the original owner of the UFC and sold the company to Zuffa for the sum of two million dollars during the dark days of the sport. Meyrowitz, who began his entrepreneurial career with “The King Biscuit Flower Hour” TV show (ask your parents), was not done with MMA yet and teamed with advertising partners LiveNation (who had never advertised an MMA event prior to this and have not since) on his next attempt at making the next big MMA pay-per-view event would begin. Meyrowitz decided to revive the one-night eight-man tournament format that popularized the original UFC, as well as create an innovative place to hold the fights in. The mystery of just what the YAMMA was was kept under lock and key, which may have stirred more trouble than interest. Rumors swirled about just what it was, including that the cage would have hydraulics! But in reality, the peculiar name gave away what the company was all about.
In Russian, “Yama” means a bowl or pit, and in Japanese it means a mountain, both alluding to the interior of the cage which had a 24 foot diameter with a three-foot wide with a 19-inch incline around the edges of it, about a 20 degree slope. The exterior was a round cage, which was also relatively new to MMA at the time, although the World Combat League kickboxing organization had already been using a round sloped surface for their matches, difference being that the uncaged slopes did not contain the fighters but rather resulted in them sliding down and out of the area. The concept of the slope was meant to “funnel” the action into the center of the ring and keep fighters from stalling by clinching on the fence. The “pit fighting” part was meant to reinforce the sloped interior, but instead caused bad press by bringing back memories of illegal bare-knuckle underground fights or worse, dog fighting. The choice to use that as part of the name turned into a marketing nightmare, but the name would be the least of their problems.
Early concept art of the YAMMA pit
With a new surface to hold the fights, Meyrowitz set the date for April 11, 2008, to take place at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. Incidentally, the Taj was where I saw my very first live MMA event, which was the IFL debut show, and it’s not a particularly large venue. Now it was time to assemble the tournament and the fighters. The NJSAC was not too keen on the idea of a one-night tournament in 2008, so to placate them special rules were implemented. The first and second rounds of the tournament would all be one-five minute round each. After each fight, the winners would be looked at by doctors to determine if they are able to advance. Once the field of eight was whittled down to two, the finals would be contested under the typical three five-minute round structure, to determine the first YAMMA champion. Otherwise, unified rules were in effect and nothing else was unusual… other than fighting in a sloped pit that is.
Unseen footage of Don Frye’s promo reel to promote his fight against Oleg Taktarov
Outside of the tournament, the show was headlined with two super fights in their “Master’s division” that featured older veterans of MMA. The first was a bout between Gary Goodridge and Butterbean, and the main event of the night would have been Oleg Taktarov against Don Frye. This was where most of the craziness really began. Don Frye pulled out of the event, citing a shoulder injury (although some suspected Frye had been offered a better deal to work with Elite XC, which never materialized either). This left Oleg without an opponent. So, Patrick Smith (veteran of UFC 1 and K-1, and a few other MMA shows) was called in to fight Taktarov. The curse of the YAMMA kicked in, as Smith was arrested days after the announcement after he was caught recklessly speeding 130 mph on his motorcycle, and also in possession of drugs. In his place, Maurice Smith stepped in, but 24 hours later pulled out due to an illness. Mark Kerr was offered the chance to fight Taktarov, but first had to get sanctioned to fight as he was under suspension as well, which he eventually did and came out on top and cemented his spot on the card.
Meanwhile, on March 30, Goodridge fought against Choi Mu Bae in South Korea and lost by knockout. Due to this, the New Jersey State Athletic Commission was forced to suspend him from competing on the YAMMA card, as their regulations state a fighter can not compete for a duration of time after being knocked out, even if there is no permanent damage per se. This left Butterbean without an opponent in the show as well. Who did they call? After taking care of his legal matter, Pat Smith found himself back on the card to face Butterbean. In between this time, Kerr was able to have himself removed from the suspension list and set himself up to meet Taktarov.
The big reveal of just what the YAMMA pit was
Most of the drama surrounding the card came from those super fights and their rotation of fighters. However, the entire tournament itself was under scrutiny when some of the competitors also were forced out of the competition. One of the men entered was Strikeforce veteran Rex Richards, who withdrew from the event and was replaced by Kevin Jordan. Jordan also withdrew from his spot and was replaced by another fighter, although it should be noted that about a year later, Jordan met Pat Smith at the inaugural American Steel Cagefighting event in Salem, New Hampshire, which he won by unanimous decision.
The field of competitors ultimately included UFC veteran Ricco Rodriguez (who was also fresh out of rehab), MMA journeyman Travis Wiuff, Sherman Pendergarst, Alexey Oleinik, BJJ specialist Marcelo Pereira, Chris Tuchscherer, Tony Sylvester, and George W. Bush. Not the president, a fighter with the exact same name. Tuchscherer came into this event undefeated, as did Bush, but most of the entrants in the event were untested up and comers. The one glaring omission that was noticeable immediately upon checking fight footage was that most of these men came from wrestling backgrounds, and not one was a striking specialist. This would later turn into a major criticism of the first event, but we will get to that in a bit.
Another point of contention for many fans was the cost of the event, which was $34.95, the same price of UFC pay-per-views. During this time, fans could also watch free events courtesy of Elite XC and the IFL on TV with more recognizable fighters. Many fans did not feel right to be charged that amount for a debuting show that lacked the star-power of a UFC event, and this surely hurt their sales and views, which were never publicly reported.
April 10 was the day of the weigh-ins, which went off without a hitch as everyone competing was a heavyweight. Also in attendance was Ron Waterman, who was called in as a last-minute backup in case any one in the super fights withdrew on last minute, and he later provided commentary during the show. On the subject of commentators, Meyrowitz brought back the original best pre-Zuffa UFC announce team, which consisted of Bruce Beck and Jeff Blatnick. Also joining them to provide color commentary was John Perretti, former UFC and Battlecade matchmaker. Doing the ring announcing was radio personality, Scott Ferrall, who brought his trademark scratchy voice to the cage to start off every fight. If you have not heard his voice before, consider yourself lucky. Just imagine how you would sound if you smoked two packs of cigarettes every hour, and drank a glass of razor blades each night before sleeping. Then imagine that you rock back and forth like a recovering drug addict, and that sums up the announcer.
After the weigh-ins, each fighter was allowed their first look at the YAMMA Pit and were allowed 30 minutes to give it a try. This was something fans at home never got to see, especially during the event itself, as the fighters looked to use the slope to give themselves an advantage. Tournament alternate Bryan Vetell worked with his coach Igor Gracie on using the slope to gain an advantage for single leg takedowns, while Ron Waterman used the slope to aid in his ground and pound skills by pushing his training partners against the slope to give him a straight line to their faces with his fists and elbows. Rodriguez even worked on using the dip to gain momentum for superman punches, and it seemed that the slope might have just added some new elements into the fight after all. The fighters also learned that pushing another fighter against the fence completely exposed their opponents legs and made it incredibly easy to take them down.
Fast forward to fight night, and the ticket sales were not too great. It did not take long for the venue to begin handing out free tickets to just fill up the arena. Although the total amount of tickets sold were not disclosed, my estimate would be around 1,200 people roughly. It was more filled up than the IFL event I had gone to, but still had many empty seats. Outside the venue doors, Butterbean’s name was being pushed to draw casino-goer’s into the show, although it seemed like the word MMA may not have been pushed as much as the moniker of a 400 lb. toughman contestant.
The first preliminary fight (which was also to determine the first alternate if needed) was between Lamont Lister and Oleg Savitsky, who currently owns the Zealous Nation gym in New Jersey, which ended in 33 seconds by TKO, exciting the live audience. However, this was where troubles at the event began with the next between Antwain Britt and former IFL New York Pitbull member Bryan Vetell. Believe it or not, the problem had nothing to do with the surface bothering the fighters (at least yet), but rather the incline made it impossible for fans in attendance to see what was happening. The cage was elevated off the ground, and with the addition of the pit inside it, once the match went to the floor ticket buyers were forced to watch the in-house monitors to see the fight progress.
At 10 PM Eastern, the live pay-per-view began, as Beck welcomed viewers to the event and Blatnick did his best to explain what the YAMMA was from within the center of the beast:
“I am now standing in the YAMMA, and it is broken up into distinctly two parts; a white circle fighting area and an orange warning track which is at a slight incline. MMA has evolved. The fighters are no longer single discipline, they are multi-disciplined and multi-skilled. And if the fighters have evolved, so should the fighting structure, and that is what YAMMA is designed to do… fighters will be challenged. They must adapt or they will become extinct.”
Chilling words from Blatnick. The first fight on the live card was Sherman Pendergarst, who before this actually lost a fight in Ring of Fire to future UFC heavyweight star Shane Carwin. On this night, he faced Alexey Oleinik, and that was where the fun with Scott Ferrall began. “Are you ready to shake it oooopp! YAMMA Pit FIghting is in your face!” Without further ado, enjoy some of the many insane quotes from ring announcer Scott Ferrall, who must have forgot his reading glasses and began to adlib all of the fighter entrances.
“And standing in the red corner, Vicious is his middle name…”
“Standing 6’2″, 264 and pacing like he hasn’t eaten in a week, he’s goin’ to the electric chair at 11-0-and 0 in his MMA career…”
“Standing in the blue corner, at 6’3″, 219 and LIVID, steaming mad, at 5-0-and 0 in his MMA career…”
“Staring him down with a nasty glare in the red corner, at 6’3″, 242 and LACED WITH TATS,…”
“Give it up for Travis the Diesel, gimme a room with a (view) Wiuff.”
“A muay thai, wrestling BADASS, say hello to George W. Bush the third, he runs the country better than our regular president, give him a little love tonight.”
“You’re ready for some more, aren’t you, can you feel it?! Kevin Mulhall will be our referee for this beautiful matchup of warriors and freaks ready to pound and dance…”
“Are you ready, Fight-Fans, for what you’ve been waiting for all night long? Bring in the Big Boys! In charge of the leverage tonight in the YAMMA Pit, once again, Big Dan the Man, how can I be the Man if you’re the Man, Dan, Miragliotta.”
“Here we are, after the tournament and 2 victories apiece for these badasses and warriors, ready for the heavyweight title and grabbing that YAMMA Pit belt, the Strap-On. This is what it’s all about at the Taj, Are you ready to dance, shake it ooooppp?”
If you want to read more of his insane quotes, check out this old Sherdog thread I found with all of them. Not to be outdone, color commentator John Perretti had his fair share of moments, with drew much ire on the forums later, as he spent most of the night complaining about the show he was paid to work, whether he was calling Superman punches stupid or telling the viewers at home that doing technique X never works.
Empty arena at The Trump Taj Mahal, before the doors opened. Once they did open, there were people in those seats, but most did not pay for them. Photo by Esther Lin.
We all remember the uninspired commentary, the production value that left a lot to be desired, and Scott Ferrall making our ears bleed. But what about the fights? Considering the event was booked with primarily wrestlers, the fights themselves were not bad. If you came into this show expecting top level fighters, you were watching the wrong show, plain and simple. In terms of the tournament fights, every single one of them went to a decision, but that was to be expected with the restrictive format. Tuchscherer versus Sylvester was a decent brawl with the future training partner of Brock Lesnar using his wrestling to control Sylvester and grind him out, while Rodriguez had his way with physically smaller Bush. Wiuff played it safe in his match against Pereira, opting to fight within the Brazilian’s guard and pound away at him when the opportunity presented itself.
Travis Wiuff being inspected after his first fight against Marcelo Pereira by doctors from the NJSAC
The semi-finals were more exciting, as tournament favorite Ricco Rodriguez met Travis Wiuff, who did to Ricco what he had just done to Bush in the last round. Rodriguez VS Wiuff could have been a main event in any other company, but in YAMMA it was just the semi-finals, it’s just a pity it was only a single round. On the other end of the brackets, Tuchscherer had a much harder fight against Oleinik, whose submission abilities constantly kept the wrestler moving and on his toes. In the end, Chris advanced to meet Wiuff in the finals. But before we get to the final fight, let’s take a look at the super fights.
First up was Oleg Taktarov against Mark Kerr, and this was one of those fights that was better live than on TV. Of the two super fights, this one was far superior and one of the better fights in the twilight of both of these men’s careers. The two veterans came out fighting immediately, throwing combinations at each other and testing the waters. Kerr scored with a single leg takedown a little over 30 seconds into the bout, but was unable to hold Taktarov on his back for long. Following that, shades of vintage Kerr showed up and a solid right hand buckled Taktarov long enough for Kerr to snatch another takedown. Taktarov recovered from the hard shot and as Kerr hovered over him, somehow snuck in a kneebar that swept Kerr off his feet. From there, Oleg transitioned into an alternate kneebar, switching legs and attacking the other leg and ending the fight soon after.
After the fight, both men laid on the mats, Taktarov still woozy from the punch and Kerr dealing with the pain from his hyperextended knee. In my humble opinion, this was one of the best kneebars Taktarov had done in his career. The attack came out of nowhere, and switching legs was nearly seamless. A good fight for two old-timers that seems to be forgotten compared to the other super fight, which was the one people remember the most.
The infamous Butterbean VS Pat Smith match that forever marred whatever good memories you may have had of the YAMMA. Butterbean tipped the scales at 400 lbs., outweighing Smith by 175 lbs. However, the weight difference was far from muscle, as Esch lumbered around the YAMMA, swiping his arms towards the general direction of his opponent. Smith kept his distance and chopped at Butterbean’s leg with inside low kicks. Esch never landed anything of importance, and did little to look good in this fight, especially when for the first time in his career he threw a kick. Words can not describe it, so make sure you watch the video above to truly experience it.
About 90 seconds into the fight, Smith made Butterbean collapse to the floor with another unchecked inside low kick. Butterbean fell to the floor as Smith continued to wail on Butterbean for another two minutes with Esch barely defending the strikes and not trying to get back to his feet. Eventually, the referee ended this travesty giving Smith the win and giving viewers at home another face palm moment. With Butterbean’s downfall, it should be noted that the live audience, many of whom were handed out free tickets, began to file out of the area thinking this was the main event. In reality, there was one fight left to go, and that was the tournament finals between Travis Wiuff and Chris Tuchscherer.
“Slick. I couldn’t really get no movement on it. Real slick because it’s brand new, that’s why.” – Pat Smith during post-fight interview
The actual main event of the night was more interesting than the record books tell us. Early in the fight, Wiuff broke his hand from punching Tuchscherer, an old injury he suffered in 2007 that returned half way into the first round. “It was after I had knocked him down and was trying to finish him that I broke my hand,” Wiuff said in a post-fight interview. “That’s why I couldn’t use it much in the second and third rounds. Every time I threw it I felt it, so I relied on my jab, takedowns and elbows on the ground.” Scheduled for three rounds, Wiuff now had to survive 15 minutes in the cage with the hungry Tuchscherer, who still had the ability to use both of his hands. This was one of those matches were you had to be there to feel the drama, and those still in the arena crowded around the pit to get as close as they could to this exciting back and forth match.
Wiuff bloodied the face of Tuchscherer, but Chris was able to use his size and his own wrestling to battle back and give Wiuff a harder fight than he and the entire audience expected. In the final 90 seconds, the two banged-up fighters began to trade shots, hoping to land a knockout punch and end with fireworks. Whatever energy these two men had left, they left it all in the ring and went to the bell. After three rounds of action, Wiuff was announced as the winner by unanimous decision and became the first YAMMA Pit Fighting Heavyweight Champion.
Bob Meyrowitz’s interview with Greg Savage from Sherdog after the event
“Two stars were created tonight,” Meyrowitz said. “Travis Wiuff is unbelievable; [Tuscherer] is unbelievable. That last fight is what warriors are all about. That’s what the tournament is all about.” Meyrowitz told to Franklin McNeil after the event, who at the time was working for the New Jersey Star Ledger (he also said similiar things in the interview above). “But I will tell you this: Pat Smith looked great, Oleg Taktarov, too. And there is more to come. I want to build new stars. That’s the future of this sport.” Perhaps Meyrowitz spun things a bit hard in the interview, but he had a point when it came to building the future. During the broadcast, Blatnick and Beck announced that June 21 would be the date for the sequel event which would feature a middleweight tournament and also a women’s superfight in addition to another battle in their “Master’s division”, with the location to be determined. That location was never revealed, as YAMMA collapsed soon after their debut.
Travis Wiuff with his YAMMA championship belt and broken hand. Photo by Esther Lin.
Since then, Tuchscherer made it into the UFC where he went 1-3 against some tough opponents and continues to train with former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar. Travis Wiuff has continued fighting around the world, and if you feel ambitious, track down his fight against King Mo from Sengoku 5 to hear the Japanese ring announcers reference his YAMMA title in what must be the only time the company got any international notoriety. Ricco Rodriguez continues to fight but has yet to make it back into any of the big leagues. Alexey Oleinik ended up in one of Bellator’s tournaments in season three, while his first round opponent Sherman Pendergarst continued to… suck. Bob Meyrowitz has yet to return to MMA since the YAMMA, but we should never rule that out.
Overall, if you treat YAMMA as a regional level show, it was a pretty good debut but one with many bumps. If YAMMA 2 ever happened, changes would have had to been made, such as finding a way for the audience to see the action better and improving their video production. The tournament format worked but with only one round in the opening and semi-finals, the fights lend themselves to being won by wrestlers. If you think of YAMMA as another company attempting to make it big and push themselves, they were a failure financially and in execution of their show. Ultimately, the greatest mistake the YAMMA made was hyping itself up as the next big thing before seeing their concept in action.
Was YAMMA Pit Fighting the worst event in the history of MMA? I would say no, since you must have forgotten about a certain debacle called K-1 Dynamite!! USA 2007, but we will get to that another day. While the broadcast of the YAMMA left much to be desired, the live show was decent. This is a problem other companies have suffered, such as Moosin’s Massachusetts show in 2010 and even the two Affliction shows. Live sports broadcasts are difficult to begin with, and combined with limited resources and a budget, it can make even the best live show look like trash on TV. The fights were decent (with the exception of Smith VS Butterbean), with the best bouts being the finals of the tournament and Taktarov VS Kerr.
Believe it or not, YAMMA did a lot of things right. Meyrowitz picked up mostly undefeated heavyweight prospects, something that the UFC has been doing for years in all their weight divisions. He brought in name power to help launch the younger guys and draw public interest. Sadly, it backfired due to the reasons you read above. Had YAMMA survived to do a second show, there was no reason they would not have offered an improved product.
The IFL folded around the same time of year, leaving most of their roster open to compete. BodogFight was also on life support at this time and ripe for the picking, and with Pride FC dead, many of their top talent were already finding jobs elsewhere, along with recent UFC outcasts. Affliction picked up fighters from all of these companies when they did their show months later, and despite having equally poor production value (having spent most of their budget on overpaying their fighters and Megadeth) put together tremendous matches. Furthermore, the lighter weight class for their next tournament would lend itself to more use of the slope potentially and more exciting matches in general.
YAMMA was not quite the worst show ever, but it ranks up there as a lesson to future promoters. Gimmicks rarely work and if they do, not for long. Meyrowitz recognized the fact that a budding company must build its stars from the ground up, much like he did with the UFC. He also knew that you needed name power to help sell the card so people will watch the up and comers. Unfortunately, he missed his mark with some of the match making and the pit itself was an unnecessary thing tacked on in an attempt to stand out more. With all the odds stacked against him, Meyrowitz pushed on and kept fighting for what he believed would be the next evolution in the sport. Just like in fighting, we learn from our losses, and the YAMMA is a testament to that which I hope promoters learn from never do again. I survived the YAMMA, and I will never forget it.