MMA organizations are similar to the fighters they promote. They often must start off from an amateur level, and slowly build up their reputation and branding to a place where it has legitimate value. Ryan Stoddard, president and owner of Victory Fighting Championship, has led the way in transforming his promotion. Going from a fighting commodity with upside, into a blue-chip prospect with big goals on the horizon. “The future is bright,” says Stoddard.
If your company’s acronym isn’t the letters U, F, and C, it can be pretty hard to be successful in the MMA business. But since 2002, Victory Fight Championship (or VFC) has solidified its place as a relevant source for quality MMA in the midwest.
Based out of Omaha, Nebraska, the company promotes pro-am events (mixed cards with professionals and amateurs) at home, and in neighboring states like Iowa, Kansas and South Dakota. In its short history, fighters like Benson Henderson, Travis Browne, Jake Ellenberger and Tecia Torres have competed under its banner. As its relevance has grown, like the careers of those fighters, VFC has started to fill up venue’s like the nearly 8,000 seat Baxter Arena, in its home state.
Ryan Stoddard, who studied karate as a child and loved films like Bloodsport, started his love affair with MMA like many other fans of the sport. Watching the screen in amazement on an April night in 2005. “I’ll never forget watching Forrest Griffin bleeding profusely from his face, and smiling about it. I just thought that was the coolest thing ever,” he remembers.
It wasn’t long after, that he would frequent International Fighting Championship (IFC) and VFC events in Nebraska, with hopes of one day stepping inside the cage for his local promotion. “That was a show [VFC] I always wanted to fight for,” says Stoddard.
He would eventually live out his dream and fight for VFC. Though, he never had long-term aspirations for a fighting career. Stoddard just enjoyed the training and the thrill of the fight. But, more than anything, being a part of the industry was all that mattered.
“I found any possible way I could to be involved [with VFC]. Whether it was putting up posters, [or] handing out flyers,” he says. “Victory and I have always been attached in some way, since the day I moved to Omaha.”
Stoddard would transition from being a fighter to managing them. Building the relationship for himself, and his fighters, with VFC showed his desire to be a part of the company. That assiduity caught the eye of VFC owner Jay Schneider. “I think he always saw the passion I had for the sport and as well as the brand.” He would eventually be brought on in a management role for the promotion.
Two months into his new role with the organization, Stoddard would get an opportunity to purchase the company. As a long-time fan of the sport and organization, this was dream opportunity. “I spent all my savings, and everything I had and just threw it all into it,” says Stoddard. On October 1, 2010, Stoddard went from being a manager of fighters, and financing manager at a car dealership—his day job at the time—to the new president and owner of Victory Fight Championship.
However, prosperity doesn’t come without diligence. “I honestly have always had a hustle and a grind about me,” says Stoddard. He takes great price in his work ethic and the example it set.
With VFC’s regional success secured, Stoddard oversaw a major step forward for the company–landing a deal to air its events on UFC Fight Pass. VFC was on a short list of promotions the UFC had in mind as a possible addition to the network. Through a connection in Las Vegas, Stoddard was able to get a meeting with a UFC executive, and sell them on why they needed his promotion on the network. In November of 2015, VFC officially added its content to the streaming service.
UFC Fight Pass has since aired several VFC events, and Stoddard believes the marriage between the two has been beneficial for both companies, and fans. “I always knew that if I could get Victory on the right platform, and run the right broadcast the way I wanted to, we could put together something special for the fans. And we’ve been able to prove that so far.”
VFC’s steady growth is noteworthy. And a major part of that is the company’s eye for talent, and nurturing their rise within the promotion. While the VFC doesn’t have a scouting department, they have developed strong relationships with some of the best gyms in the sport. They currently have athletes fighting out of notable camps like Elevation Fight Team (in Colorado), Roufusport (in Wisconsin) and Tri-Star (in Montreal, Canada).
Though, Stoddard speaks glowingly about their recent signings of seven fighters out of Hawaii. “They are honestly some of the best athletes I’ve ever worked with. And they are just so appreciative of the opportunity to be coming to the mainland and fighting for Victory,” he says.
One of those Hawaiian dynamos is VFC welterweight champion Maki “Coconut Bombz” Pitolo. Pitolo has fought three times for the company this year, and had a fight-of-the-year candidate against Kassius “Killa Kayne” Holdorf in July. “If you fight him, you are in for a long night. Win or lose,” says Stoddard when talking about Holdorf. The pair are viewed as two of the top talents in the organization. They will have a rematch of their barn-burner affair at an upcoming VFC event.
Not to be out done, Roufusport fighter Raufeon Stots may have superstar potential for VFC. “He’s special man. There’s just something about that kid,” says Stoddard. “He’s got the look, he’s got the talent, and really, the work ethic,” proclaims Stoddard. Stots won his last bout with a highlight reel knockout. But the fighter was back in the gym the next day. That type of dedication Stoddard can relate to, and prefers in his fighters. “Those are the kind of people I want to work with,” says Stoddard. “I grew up with very little, I’ve worked for everything I have. So I have a great deal of respect for those individuals that do the same.”
VFC plans to have a big finish to 2016, as it plans to present three events in 30 days. While that would seem daunting for any promoter, Stoddard comes across as relaxed when envisioning the process. “The business side of things isn’t that difficult. It’s just being diligent and keeping your mood, and staying on top of things,” says Stoddard.
VFC 53 takes place on November 23 in Waterloo, Iowa. It’s co-headlined by the 6-0 Stots, versus MMA veteran Jeff Curran. VFC 54 and VFC 55 both take place in December in Omaha, Nebraska and Topeka, Kansas, respectively. All the action will air on UFC Fight Pass and six title fights will be spread across the three cards. And one of those title bouts will be the aforementioned rematch between Pitolo and Holdorf. “I think we’ve put together the best collection of fights that we’ve had all year long, in those three events,” says Stoddard. It is shaping up to be an outstanding finish to an already strong 2016 for the company.
With the Midwest already a stronghold for the company, expansion is a realistic possibility. Major markets on the east or west coasts would seem to be likely destinations. But Stoddard doesn’t see it that way. “The reason we’re so successful here in the Midwest is because I’m not contending with a bunch of professional hockey teams, a bunch of NBA teams, a bunch of NFL teams,” he says. So it makes sense not to try and push in to markets full of professional sports teams.
Stoddard wants to go to the markets where people are starving for the unique brand of entertainment that VFC can provide. “I really believe our future is heavy in Canada. But, throughout the central part of Canada,” he says. With that in mind, plans are already being made for visits to Winnipeg, Edmonton and Saskatoon in 2017.
While Stoddard understands and embraces VFC’s place as a feeder organization to the UFC, he has lofty goals for the company in the next decade. “I would like to truly be known as one of the top-five organizations in the world, outside of the UFC,” he says.
They have a product that’s built a strong reputation in the Midwest. Their square cage is unique in a sport of full of octagons, hexagons, circles and rings. They are a expanding their brand globally via UFC Fight Pass. They also plan to take their show on the road to Canada, and maybe even Hawaii down the line. But at the end of the day, putting on a good show and looking out for his athletes, is Stoddard’s top priority. “That’s what’s most important to me. That the fans are entertained. And our athletes are taken care of, and we can produce an event that helps showcase their talents, to help them go to that next level.”
VFC, as a whole, is definitely on its way to that next level.