Joe Kelly blindly weaves though a pitch-black Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas. The trim 35-year-old CEO of the Titan Fighting Championship mixed martial arts promotion crosses the length of the floor before reaching the switch to the arena lights.
Illumination reveals a couple of hundred blue plastic chairs in neat rows, set up for a high school graduation on the glossy, blond hardwood floor. Friday night, the chairs will be replaced by a hexagonal cage for Titan Fighting's 22nd fight card. Inside the structure, young muscle-bound fighters will try to take the first brutal step toward stardom in MMA's premier fighting league, Ultimate Fighting Championship.
"We consider ourselves the NCAA to the UFC's NFL or NBA," Kelly says. "We're getting the highest-level, brightest prospects before they go on to the UFC."
But Kelly, who has been promoting MMA fights full time for a couple of years, says he's trying to avoid the mistakes that other small promoters have made trying to emulate the UFC's billion-dollar success.
"Everyone wants to be the biggest, the best, the brightest at what they do," Kelly says. "So all these groups have spent so much money trying to compete, to overtake and supplant the UFC. That's not our goal. I'd rather be the successful Jones Soda to [Coca-Cola]."
That doesn't mean he plans to call Memorial Hall home forever.
"We're expanding but in a measured pace," he says. "[We're] trying to hit that sweet spot where we're the No. 1 feeder program to the UFC."
Titan Fighting isn't just a launching pad for fresh, unscarred fighters. Sometimes it's a second chance for competitors whose MMA careers have stubbornly stalled. For fighters who have lost their grip on large purses and big crowds in international bouts, the 3,300-seat Memorial Hall can be the stage for a counterattack on forced retirement.
One-time UFC contender Anthony "Rumble" Johnson is Titan 22's redemption story - fighting in the main event against fellow former UFCer David Branch. Johnson, a 28-year-old Florida native, failed to make weight a few times as a welterweight and middleweight during the end of his UFC run. Dana White, UFC's bombastic CEO, fired Johnson during a post-fight press conference after Johnson missed weight and lost at a January event in Rio de Janeiro.
"The question everybody wants to know is, ‘Is he gone?' " White said. "Yes, he is. Three strikes and you're out."
Titan banks on gathering the UFC's fallen quasi stars. Kelly pounces when the UFC cuts fighters for too many losses or for not being a drawing card or, really, for any other reason. Kelly works out a desirable cash purse (between $1,000 and $25,000) and slaps the fighter's name on top of the card.
Titan draws crowds eager to see somewhat big names up close. The fighters use Titan as a way to pick up wins on less experienced opponents and vault themselves back into the UFC's lucrative good graces. They also relish the exposure because HDNet, Mark Cuban's cable channel, broadcasts the fights.
"What they have in their mind is, ‘A couple fights on national television against good names for Titan, and I'm back in the UFC,' " Kelly says.
Kelly's presence in MMA promotion is a testament to the sport's growth - and to boxing's decline. He speaks thoughtfully about his business and its future. In almost every way, he is the antithesis of the cartoony cliché of a practitioner of the sweet science. But that's where his career began. Between 2004 and 2007, he promoted boxing matches that appeared on Showtime and ESPN. Growth was limited.
"There's an old guard in boxing, kind of a glass ceiling that's very hard to break through, unless you can spend an exorbitant amount of money," Kelly, the father of a 3-year-old, says. "MMA was kind of virgin ground."
Kelly also does promotion for Bellator Fighting, a Viacom-owned fight group that's bigger than Titan but smaller than UFC. The three entities share a mutually beneficial relationship.
"They need people fighting. They need other avenues for these fighters to become famous and to become the stars of tomorrow," Kelly explains. "Someone can't make their pro debut or have their first five or 10 fights for the UFC. There has to be a place for them to go."
Titan is small - it tweeted in search of a 135-pound fighter available for Titan 22 the same day that Kelly spoke with The Pitch - but Kelly says it's time to convert his operation from KCK-centric to a regional promotion.
In a musty, windowless office across the concourse from a beer concession stand in Memorial Hall (which he manages for the city), he discusses his plans for a June fight card in Fort Riley, Kansas.
"UFC does a fight for the troops every year, and this is our first foray into that," he says.
Kelly expects the fight to take place on Fort Riley's airfield. Outdoor shows can be risky, which he has learned from attempting to run shows at CommunityAmerica Ballpark that were rained out. But the Army base left him few choices.
"There's another [indoor] place where we could do it that would have held the requisite number of people," he says. "But they actually have a new top-secret airplane that's going to be in that hangar, so we can't use it."
After the fight for the troops, Kelly wants to bring Titan bouts to Nebraska, St. Louis, Colorado, and Mississippi.
"We won't expand and go to places unless they really fit for us," Kelly says. "We're not just going to say, ‘Hey, California is neat. Let's go do California.' "
Kelly credits Titan's think-small business model for the company's last year and a half of stability.
"We wanted to make sure that the Titan brand had a year's worth of exposure on national television, so when we came to a market, people would know what it is," he adds. "I think we've done that."
Follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.