Memphian plays part of MMA growth in city

Jeff Mullen holds the pads for one of his students, Alan Weems for kicking drills. 

Photo by J.T. Mullen 

Helmsman sports reporter J.T. Mullen writes about his father, who has been active in MMA and UFC for many years.

Over the last 35 years, Jeff Mullen has helped shape mixed martial arts culture in the city of Memphis.

Whether it was in his time as a UFC judge, instructing at his own school, promoting fights or in his work as the Executive Director of the Tennessee Athletic Commission, Mullen has had an incredible influence on mixed martial arts (MMA) throughout the state.

Mullen got started in martial arts while attending Memphis State University in 1979. He took classes from the university’s martial arts instructor, Bill Wallace—a kickboxing world champion at the time. Upon taking these classes, Mullen discovered his calling in life.

“Right when I started training seriously in 1979, I knew I wanted to fight professionally and one day teach martial arts for a living,” he said.

Under the direction of Wallace, Mullen began working with Wallace’s boxing instructor, Bevo Covington. Less than a year into his training, Mullen began his amateur Kickboxing career, in which he won an amateur kickboxing tournament in two separate divisions. He eventually jumped to professional kickboxing, but ultimately decided to become a trainer himself.

After working at another local school, Mullen opened his own martial arts studio in 1988.

“I worked at another school in the area for two and a half years, but I always knew I wanted to run my own school,” he said. “In 1988, I started Mid South Karate. We taught Karate, but incorporated kickboxing and boxing into our curriculum as well.”

Not long after opening his school, the first Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, took place. Mullen immediately knew he had to get involved.

“I always wondered which martial arts style would win if they were pitted against each other,” he said. “In 1993 the first UFC took place, and I watched it on pay per view. I was hooked. I called Art Davie, the promoter, the very next week. This was the first of many calls to Davie. I would call him before and after each event, to discuss the fights. I was amazed at how easily Royce Gracie defeated the other contestants in the first few events.”

It wasn’t until 1996 that Mullen was given his first shot to get involved with the UFC.

“I was discussing the next UFC with Art Davie, Mullen said. “He was telling me who the officials for the next event were going to be. That’s when I told him he should use me as a judge. The phone went silent for a minute. Then he said he would like to use me. Ultimate Ultimate 96 was the first UFC I judged. Back then, the winners of the events during the year would meet in a kind of Super Bowl in December called Ultimate Utimate. Over the next 12 years, I judged more UFC events than anyone else.”

Mullen explained that even though there was a lot of pressure, his time as a UFC judge was one of the best experiences of his life.

“It was an incredible experience,” he said. “The energy of being there at a live event is like nothing else. Being ringside and being part of it is another level altogether. There is pressure though. Fans and fighters do not always agree with your decisions. You are definitely in the hot seat.”

UFC was not only the first sight of mixed martial arts, or MMA, but Brazilian Jiujitsu in particular was almost unheard of at the time. Mullen was amazed at this martial arts form and helped bring it to Memphis.

“I started trying to learn Brazilian Jiujitsu anywhere I could,” he said. “Back then, there was no one teaching jiujitsu. There were almost no video tapes or books on the subject at the time. I traveled to Chicago to attend a Rickson Gracie seminar. I brought Renzo Gracie to Memphis for a seminar. This was the first Brazilian Jiujitsu seminar in the area. I brought grappling legend, Judo Gene Lebell—now UFC Champion Rhonda Rousey's coach—in for a seminar. After traveling to seminars and sponsoring seminars to obtain knowledge in Brazilian Jiujitsu, I taught the first Brazilian Jiujitsu class and promoted the first Jiujitsu tournament in the area.”

This ultimately led to Mullen teaching the first MMA fighters in the area, and promoting the first MMA event in Memphis.

Mullen not only judged fighters at the highest level, but he also has had much success training fighters and helping them get to the highest level. Mullen was one of Alan “The Talent” Belcher’s first trainers. Belcher (18-8) is currently a middleweight contender in the UFC.

“Alan had trained as a teenager in Arkansas with a good friend of mine, Max Bishop,” Mullen said. “Max was a grappler and that was Alan's primary background. Alan eventually moved to Tennessee to play baseball in college. When he quit school and moved to nearby Memphis, he came to my gym and started training MMA. This was really when Alan first started developing his stand-up game. He quickly improved his boxing and kickboxing skills.”

This wasn’t Mullen’s only fighter to make it to the UFC. Mullen was also the original trainer of native Memphian and former UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.

Mullen explained how Jackson had stumbled upon his school and MMA because he was helping a friend train to compete in the UFC. It wasn’t long before Jackson himself was training in MMA. Mullen could tell from the start that Jackson was talented.

“I knew Quinton was special from the very beginning,” he said. “People would have him in a submission hold and Quinton would physically pick them up to slam his way out. We would have to stop him and say ‘no slamming in the gym.’”

It wasn’t until a fight-card mishap that Mullen realized Jackson’s full potential.

“One night our main event fell through,” he said. “Chatt Lavender was going to fight Mike Pyle. Pyle was beating everyone in the area by submission, in less than a minute. Chatt was also running through his opponents, but he got hurt and pulled out two days before the event. I went back to the class and told everyone that we just lost our main event. I said ‘I'll never find anyone to fight Pyle on two days notice.’ Without hesitation, Quinton said, ‘I'll fight him.’ I said, ‘You will fight Mike Pyle?’ At that time, Quinton had never had a MMA fight. He said, ‘yeah, I'll fight him.’”

Mullen explained that he was surprised Jackson was so quick to fight Pyle. At the time, Pyle hadn’t lost yet, while Jackson hadn’t even had his first MMA bout. Records didn’t matter though once the fight got underway.

“The fight started and submission specialist, Pyle put Quinton in submission attempts over and over again, Mullen said. “Each time Quinton picked him up high in the air and smashed him into the canvas. It was amazing. No one had ever hung with Pyle like this. At the end of the first round, Quinton came back to corner and said, ‘Jeff, I can't go back out there. I'm too tired.’ He was almost in a panic. I said, ‘Quinton, you are going to go back out there and keep doing what you are doing, cause you’re kicking his ass.’ Quinton went back out and continued smashing the undefeated Pyle through the ring on his way to a unanimous decision. I knew after that night that Quinton was destined for greatness.”

In March of 2009, Mullen was named the first executive director of the Tennessee Athletic Commission—a position he still holds today. As Executive Director, Mullen is responsible for regulating professional MMA, Kickboxing and Boxing events throughout the state of Tennessee.

“I have to make sure all matches are competitive,” he said. “I have to make sure all the fighters have completed proper medical test before the events. I appoint the events officials, as well as oversee the event to make sure they are all safe and fair.”

Mullen plans to continue running his MMA school even after he retires from the state athletic commission, but in the meantime his goal is to help bring more and more MMA and boxing events to Tennessee.

“I would like to see more MMA fights of all levels all across the state,” he said. “Right now, there are far more MMA events in east Tennessee than in central and west Tennessee,” Mullen said. “I would like to see more small and medium level shows in Memphis and Nashville. When the UFC comes though, it has always been to Nashville or Memphis. Maybe someday there will be a UFC in Knoxville. I would also like to see large boxing shows come back to Tennessee.”

Mullen considers himself to be very lucky to be able to fulfill his dream on a daily basis.

“Getting involved in martial arts was one of the best decisions I have ever made,” he said. “It has given me the confidence to succeed in all aspects of life. I am one of those very lucky people who get to do what they love to do for a living. I am very proud to have been able to help bring MMA to Tennessee and to help keep it fair and safe.”

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