UFC’s search for talent all-inclusive

The shortcut to stardom in mixed martial arts if you were foreign-born started with one name: Gracie.

Royce Gracie, whose family pioneered Brazilian jiu jitsu, won three of the first four UFC events back in the brutal single-elimination tournament days. Nearly two decades later, one of Royce’s nephews thinks going the reality TV route is just as useful.

“It just shows UFC’s attempt to find new talent,” said Rener Gracie, whose father, Rorion, co-founded the UFC. “Guys who can win the regional events and become a belt-holder for the smaller promotions can get noticed. They get a fair chance to make `The Ultimate Fighter.’ It’s become a shortcut that allowed some of these guys to skip some B-class promotions.”

“The Ultimate Fighter,” currently in its 14th season, has discovered several would-be champions and contenders since it was launched in 2005. There are several fighters on the undercard for the UFC on FOX debut on Saturday — including Mike Pierce, Paul Bradley, DaMarques Johnson, Clay Harvison, Pablo Garza and Clay Guida — who were cast members on “The Ultimate Fighter,” and the show is about to begin its international expansion.

“The amount of talent that `The Ultimate Fighter Brazil’ is going to create is going to be phenomenal,” UFC president Dana White said. “And as we continue to go into these different markets and do `The Ultimate Fighter,’ it’s going to get very interesting. My goal is to get ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ running in all these different countries at the same time. Then when you have a winner, we do like the World Cup, where each guys from each country fights each other and you end up with one winner.”

Brazil is already well-represented in the UFC, including by Junior dos Santos, who faces Cain Velasquez at Honda Center for the heavyweight crown in Saturday’s UFC on FOX main event. (Neither Velasquez nor dos Santos were competitors on “The Ultimate Fighter,” but dos Santos served as a coach.) Both rose through the ranks most fighters still do these days: progressing through the amateur and then low-level professional promotions before they caught the eye of the UFC.

“I truly believe that if you work hard and you apply yourself and you’re just a good person that good things happen to you,” dos Santos said last week through an interpreter. “I started training martial arts in jiu jitsu less than six years ago and I’m about to fight for the world heavyweight title on UFC. So I didn’t really doubt myself, I didn’t doubt that good things would happen. I just applied myself and I believe that’s what got me here.”

The rise in popularity of UFC and mixed martial arts overall has led to the creation of dozens of local and national promotions over the last decade. Some have been more legit than others, according to American Top Team co-founder Dan Lambert.

“There are a few shady characters out there trying to just make a buck,” said Lambert, whose Florida-based gym is one of the most respected in the sport. “Still, it can be a good business model.”

Lambert organized his own events for a couple years because he needed to find fights for those who trained at his gym. Now, there’s less of a need with the abundance of successful promotions.

“Not every fighter who tries out for ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ is going to make it,” Lambert said. “It can be a quick path, but it’s difficult to make the show. You need to be able to give guys more chances to build up a resume and work their way up.”

Rener Gracie, an instructor at the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Torrance, Calif., has seen some promotions trying to lock fighters into multiple-fight deals, which can be a negotiating ploy if the UFC comes calling. Such contracts typically include a buyout clause.

“Guys can be pushed and pulled in every direction by promoters,” Gracie said. “Some of the fighters we trained have been offered four-or five-fight contracts, which is ridiculous. Why would you want to be locked down? They’re only paying you maybe $2,000 to $3,000 per fight. We advise those we represent that there’s no need for those kinds of deals. If you’re talented they will find you.”

It still doesn’t hurt to be attached to a famous gym and each region of the U.S. seems to have at least one. Dos Santos, for example, trains with Black House Team Nogeira, a San Diego-based gym that also counts UFC middleweight champ Anderson Silva in its stable of fighters. Velasquez works out at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose.

These gyms provide more than a chance to get noticed; they also give fighters a chance to spar with some of the best in the business.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to your training,” Lambert said. “The major facilities have a bunch of positives, not the least of which is good training partners. It gives guys a chance to not only stand out, but it also helps you become a better competitor. What good is talent if you’re not training properly?”

Internet buzz doesn’t hurt either, although some impressive YouTube videos aren’t enough. (Thank Kimbo Slice for that.) Gracie said while it doesn’t hurt to have your fight videos online, it’s the promoters and agents who really get the word of mouth going. That typically comes with a strong start after turning pro.

“If you want to become visible, you need some success early,” Gracie said. “Once you have four of five fights in, you want to be going for a title at the most mainstream promotion you can find. You have to be selective. You can’t have three losses in your first five pro fights. The UFC will look that record and say, `Who was this guy going against?’”

Many in the sport are in agreement that if you’re good enough, the UFC will eventually find you — even if you’re across the globe.

“It has really spread like wildfire all over the world, and there literally isn’t a country that you could point your finger on the map that we couldn’t get a fighter from,” White said.