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Tijuana And San Diego A Hub For Popular Mixed Martial Arts

San Diego fighter, Alex Soto, gives some grappling tips to MMA students in Tijuana.
Ruxandra Guidi
San Diego fighter, Alex Soto, gives some grappling tips to MMA students in Tijuana.
MMA Taking Off in Tijuana
MMA Along The Border
MMA Along The Border

Mixed martial arts, or MMA, is one of the fastest growing sports in the world. The fights are intense, very quick, and combine a variety of martial arts disciplines.

For historic, cultural and economic reasons, it has a big following in Tijuana. Many young fighters with a boxing or lucha libre background hope to make it someday as MMA fighters in the U.S.

“When you’re on the freeway, and you see somebody fighting at the side of the road, you’re going to look, right?" said Alex Soto, 27, explaining the sports appeal. "So I think that’s what everybody likes about this sport.”


Soto is originally from Tijuana, but now lives in San Diego. He trains at Chakal Gym in Tijuana. Last year, he won the featherweight title at Ultimate Warrior Challenge Mexico , which launched his professional fighting career and made him a cause célèbre in his native city.

Chakal is an affordable, $40 a month gym, run by an amateur fighter. In the U.S., an MMA gym membership can cost up to $100 a month.

Soto said many other fighters from San Diego cross back and forth into Tijuana to train, learn new skills or to fight. Both sides of the border have things to learn from each other.

“In mixed martial arts, people are still learning different disciplines — some people grew up wrestling and they go into boxing. And they don’t know boxing very well," Soto said. "So they come to where the boxing world is, and that’s here in Tijuana. And vice-versa, Mexican fighters go to America to learn wrestling, so they’re complimentary to each other.”

On Oct. 14 at a Sheraton hotel in a San Diego suburb, muscular guys with tight T-shirts ogled young models in bikinis. In just a matter of minutes, the first of 14 MMA fights would begin, organized by Epic Fighting, one of the biggest MMA promoters in the city.


People here paid between $30 to $100 to sit in front of the octagon — an eight-sided cage where two men use hands, arms, knees, and feet to battle each other in less than five minutes per round.

The emcee summoned Carlos Ortega, a crowd favorite, and his opponent, Ryan Williams.

The two men exchanged punches and soon they ended up against the cage and onto the floor. They use striking and grappling techniques; a mix of boxing, wrestling, kickboxing, and karate.

With the blink of an eye, the fight is over. Ortega wins.

In the 1990s, MMA was illegal in most states. The sport was relegated to clandestine venues or back alleys; and often, across the border in Mexico. In 2005, California legalized the sport, and MMA came up with strict guidelines that protect the fighters. It is now sanctioned in 45 states. At the center of this business is the Las Vegas-based Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), a $1 billion dollar business.

In recent years, new gyms south of the border have tried to capitalize on that growth. There are now more than a dozen registered gyms, scores of informal ones, and at least 10 promising Tijuana-based fighters who compete internationally.

The owner of Chakal Gym's, Javier Martinez, is a 30-year-old amateur fighter. His gym has 65 members, many of them working-class, 14 to 20 year olds.

“We are trying to have as many young guys as we can to focus themselves on this sport instead of being on the streets, or instead of being attracted to some other kind of violence,” Martinez said.

When he was growing up, Martinez's mother would not let him watch contact sports like boxing or wrestling on TV, because they were too violent.

But today, young people like Martinez and Alex Soto are betting on MMA's popularity to help their peers in Tijuana. Today, an amateur fighter south of the border makes less than $100 a fight, but they are driven by the promise of making more than $100,000 if they make it to the bright lights of Las Vegas someday.