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Spokane MMA trainer and promoter Rick Little returns with Saturday’s Conquest of the Cage at Northern Quest

Feb. 2, 2023 Updated Thu., Feb. 2, 2023 at 9:23 p.m.

In this 2021 photo at her home gym in Mead, Julianna Peña and trainer Rick Little show off the UFC title she earned by beating Amanda Nunes in Las Vegas.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
In this 2021 photo at her home gym in Mead, Julianna Peña and trainer Rick Little show off the UFC title she earned by beating Amanda Nunes in Las Vegas. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo
By Charlotte McKinley For The Spokesman-Review

Rick Little’s quick exit from inside the mixed-martial arts octagon two decades ago hasn’t stopped him from becoming a force outside of it.

Little, whose career lasted just a handful of fights “because it wasn’t fun,” has trained dozens of MMA fighters over the years – including Spokane UFC champion Julianna Peña and longtime title contender Michael Chiesa.

The owner of Spokane’s Sik-Jitsu Fighting Systems and Excitefight MMA has also been expanding into promotions over the years.

That continues at 7 p.m. Saturday when Little stages his next Conquest of the Cage at Northern Quest Resort & Casino.

Little is confident his fighters will put on a terrific show.

“Everybody I’ve been contacting, I feel like I’m helping out or trying to help out or giving him an opportunity as a promoter and I enjoy it,” Little said. “If you excel on Rick’s show, then you’re probably going to the UFC, so I have a lot of fighters I want to fight on it.”

Little’s fight promotion started in 2007 in the now-closed Crazy 8’s nightclub. From there, it grew to other venues such as the Coeur d’Alene Casino, Northern Quest and Muckleshoot Casino Resort, with many of the events boasting sold-out seating.

Revenue is not the main drive behind the promotions, Little said. He wants to provide an experience better than the ones he had when he first started.

While Little’s fighters have ample opportunities to take fights throughout the nation, fighting on his Conquest of the Cage events is special to his students, as many of his fighters have not only started there but have moved on to the UFC from those experiences.

“My Excitefight shows constantly produce two or three UFC fighters,” he said. “No other show around here can say that – they just produce money in their pocket. I feel like that’s a problem that these fighters that are very bright will see.”

Growing up, Little said he was “fairly decent in sports” but not good enough to compete at the collegiate level. After he watched Royce Gracie in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, he was inspired to start his martial arts journey.

“I was just so motivated by him because he was smaller and (showed) that regardless of size, you can win,” Little said. “It made me want to learn jiujitsu and martial arts and keep my sporting heart alive.”

Not long after, Little stepped into a gym and started training. He soon had his first mixed martial arts cage fight and subsequently realized that fighting was not for him.

“I definitely got out of fighting pretty quick,” he said.

Being a fight promoter, however, seemed right up his alley.

“I observed what was going on with promotions and local promoters … and I decided this is simple,” he said. “I can come into this and make fair matches and find out who the real athletes and winners are and bring them along.”

After taking control of what he saw as a need, Excitefight MMA and Conquest of the Cage were born.

“One thing for me was my heart was in the ethical instead of the monetary way of doing things,” Little said. “(That’s how I) became a coach (and) promoter.”

Little started training out of his home before transitioning to a full-time location. In recent years, Little has taken his gym back to his garage where classes for youths, amateurs and professionals take place.

MMA hopefuls kept coming to Little for his coaching, among them Peña and Chiesa. There was something different about the way Little coached – straight to the point and without elaboration, according to current student and MMA athlete Ashton Charlton.

“It’s the real stuff that works,” Charlton said. “It’s not like we don’t care about flashy kicks or stuff that looks cool. We just care about what works in a real situation in a real fight.”

There are three ingredients in a stable fighter-coach dynamic, Little said: Trust in the fighter, trust in the coach and a coach who knows what they are doing.

“I’ve been in this longer than everybody and I know what I’m doing,” he said.

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