Arrow-right Camera

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Tuesday, August 20, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Clear Day 56° Clear
News >  Business

Local gym owner finds calling in martial arts

Rick Little, owner and head coach of Sik Jitsu Fighting Systems, watches as local fighter Mike “Maverick” Chiesa, left, works on kicks with fellow fighter Julianna Peña, aka “The Venezuelan Vixen,” on Thursday at Sik Jitsu Fighting Systems in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Rick Little, owner and head coach of Sik Jitsu Fighting Systems, watches as local fighter Mike “Maverick” Chiesa, left, works on kicks with fellow fighter Julianna Peña, aka “The Venezuelan Vixen,” on Thursday at Sik Jitsu Fighting Systems in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland)
By Michael Guilfoil Correspondent

The phone rings.

It’s Rick Little, fight promoter and owner of Sik Jitsu Gym, 7823 N. Market.

“I’m going to be late for our interview,” Little apologizes.

“We had a little training incident. Someone got hurt.”

Injuries are common in mixed martial arts fighting. But Little insists serious ones are rare.

“I’ve had one surgery on my knee and two on my shoulder,” he said, “but not from fighting. Those injuries were from football and basketball.”

Little’s passion for mixed martial arts – or MMA – was inspired by Brazilian fighter Royce Gracie, who used his jiu jitsu skills to defeat larger, stronger opponents en route to three Ultimate Fighting Championship titles in the mid-1990s.

UFC contests were conceived as a way to settle the debate about which hand-to-hand fighting technique – boxing, wrestling, karate, judo, etc. – was most effective in real combat.

Initially there were few rules beyond no biting or eye-gouging, and bouts tended to end quickly with knockouts, technical knockouts or submissions. But as the sport gained popularity, it was forced to develop a more palatable code of conduct to win sanctioning by state athletic commissions. Now more than 40 percent of UFC’s televised bouts end with decisions by judges.

That being said, last weekend fans worldwide watched via pay-per-view as American Ronda Rousey floored Brazilian Bethe Correia in 34 seconds, and millions more have seen the replay on YouTube.

Two local pros who train with Little – Michael “Maverick” Chiesa and Julianna “the Venezuelan Vixen” Peña – won top honors on UFC’s “Ultimate Fighter” reality TV show.

During a recent interview – after Little determined the above-mentioned “training incident” caused only minor damage – he talked about his career as MMA coach and promoter, what lies ahead for his sport and his business, and the stories behind his fighters’ nicknames.

S-R: What high school did you attend?

Little: Shadle Park.

S-R: What were your interests?

Little: All sports, but especially football.

S-R: What did you do after graduation?

Little: I still wanted to be an athlete. I’d seen Royce Gracie win bare-knuckle fights humanely on TV, and thought, “I want to learn that.” So I loaded all my stuff into my little Geo, drove to Torrance, California, and studied with him for a year.

S-R: Later, when you started training fighters, you named your gym and your technique “Sik Jitsu.” Where did that come from?

Little: Jiu jitsu is my favorite martial art. And back when I was competing and showing my friends jiu jitsu, people would describe my moves as “sik,” meaning really cool. So I named my personal system “Sik Jitsu.”

S-R: What was your fight record?

Little: Four and one.

S-R: Do you still fight professionally?

Little: I do not. I’m a lot smarter now.

S-R: Smarter?

Little: When I got into this, I was 19 and missed running into people in football, and elbowing people in basketball. I’m 39 now, and don’t have those same urges.

S-R: How has the sport evolved during the past two decades?

Little: It’s about as different as playground football is to the NFL. The UFC has the best officials, the best doctors, the best cut men – the best everything.

S-R: How did you get into promoting events?

Little: Early on, fighters were routinely lied to and taken advantage of. I’d show up expecting to fight a guy like myself – a 145-pound beginner – and my opponent would be a 200-pounder with muscles bulging out of his shoulders. After one event where a couple of my students got the crap kicked out of them, I went up to the promoter and said, “What are you doing? You promised me these would be fair fights.” He threw us out, yelling, “This is a hard job. If you think you can do it, I dare you to try.” So I did, and I’ve never let off the gas.

S-R: Was he right about it being hard?

Little: It took forever to find a venue that would accept my idea. Eventually, Swackhammer’s (in north Spokane) gave me a chance in 2005, and that show sold out. Now I put on about 15 events a year all over the Northwest – at Tulalip Casino (north of Seattle), Mill Bay Casino (in Coulee Dam), Wild Horse Casino (in Pendleton), and four or five at Northern Quest. The next one here is Aug. 21.

S-R: What’s you’re role?

Little: Besides promoting the events, I control most fights in this area. By “control” I mean I decide who fights who, which is very important. If you don’t match people up right, someone can get hurt really bad.

S-R: How much do professional fighters make?

Little: Maybe $500 to $1,000 at a local venue. But if you get to the UFC, you can make millions. My UFC fighters average about $100,000 a year.

S-R: Do women get paid as much as men?

Little: Probably more. They’re a more valuable commodity, because they’re a scarce resource.

S-R: Professional wrestling has a reputation for orchestrating bouts, yet some pro wrestlers have competed in UFC fights. Is any of this orchestrated?

Little: No. UFC’s motto is “as real as it gets,” and that’s true, especially as professionals move up the ladder.

S-R: Given that MMA is a contact sport, are injuries routine?

Little: If you know what you’re doing, you might lose a fight, but you probably won’t get seriously hurt. Same with professional football. If your technique is good, you’ll still get bumps and bruises, but you’re not going to get messed up.

S-R: Do people have to be reasonably athletic to try this sport?

Little: Definitely not. When Julianna showed up, she was straight-legged, knock-kneed and overweight. Now she can hit hard, kick high and run fast. She’s a world-class athlete.

S-R: Do you have a business philosophy?

Little: When you come to my shows, you always see fighters who are evenly matched and know who they’re going to fight. One of them will lose, but they can never say I BS’d them.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Little: I like everything about it. The best part is that I’ve taken normal people with no athletic background who believed in what I teach, and now they’re making careers out of this. Nothing is more satisfying than that.

S-R: Tell me about your fighters’ nicknames?

Little: Some, like “Insane” Dave Courchaine, are nicknames that rhyme with their real names. Lyle “Fancy Pants” Beerbohm – one of the meanest fighters I ever saw – got his nickname because he insisted on letting his mom make his clothes.

S-R: Do you give fighters nicknames?

Little: Sometimes. I gave Julianna her “Venezuelan Vixen” nickname because she is the toughest female on Earth – I truly believe that – she’s pretty, and she has Venezuelan roots. She could have the whole country of Venezuela behind her.

S-R: Did you have a nickname?

Little: No. Back when I fought, they didn’t care what my name was. Sometimes I would show up and all they’d have were some ropes in a dirt field. It was like a blind date.

S-R: What’s ahead for you?

Little: I’m building a new gym from the ground up.

S-R: What’s the business outlook for this sport?

Little: It’s incredible. I’ve been to Rio, Japan, Sweden, and every arena I’ve been to overseas has sold out. I believe this is going to be bigger than soccer.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at
Wordcount: 1340

Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter

Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.

You have been successfully subscribed!
There was a problem subscribing you to the newsletter. Double check your email and try again, or email