PHOENIX – An MMA event at Celebrity Theatre is not unusual. Pairing that competition with a cannabis expo is.
That was the case Saturday when promoter RUF 44 hosted “RUF, Puff & Rumble, the first time the two industries have collided in the Valley.
Marijuana and sports have often had a precarious relationship. Within combat fighting, various state commissions have looked down on the plant in years past, handing out suspensions of up to five years for repeated positive tests of THC, the psychoactive property within marijuana. Times have changed however, as the Arizona State Boxing & MMA commission adopted the UFC model of testing, allowing fighters to consume marijuana freely until fight day, making more events like RUF 44 possible.
Dr. Joel Lopez, the CEO and Founder of RUF Nation, first thought of teaming MMA and marijuana two years ago but his vision finally came into fruition once Trap Culture Promotions, a local organization promoting cannabis-related events, reached out to Lopez. From there, the two sides met and turned what was once an idea into a reality.
“So I went to their office. First we passed around a good smoke. Alright, what’s up? And they’re like, `We got an idea,’” Lopez said. “This is what we do. We go to social events, mainstream events, and we provide an event itself. They go to like arcades and just provide full consumption areas. I’m like, what? Holy crap. I got it: RUF, Puff & Rumble.”
Recreational cannabis was legalized in Arizona after voters in November passed the Smart and Safe Act, or Proposition 207, legalizing marijuana use for people 21 and older.
Although the event with MMA was two months in the making once the logistics were laid out, RUF 44 still was one of the most attended events in the promotion’s history, receiving massive support from fans and vendors alike.
“And the feedback we got from the vendors from the people, people coming in from Tucson, Las Vegas, California … they were like, `This is gonna blow up,’” Lopez said.
And so it did as dozens of vendors gathered under the Arizona sun to showcase their line of products ranging from clothing apparel to glassware to even CBD merchandise for pets. Organizers hoped the event would allow the rapidly growing industry to gain more social awareness and acceptance.
But for some, like Coltyn Turner and Rita Valenzuela, it was a chance to combat the war on prescription drug use and find more healthy alternatives for healing.
“I started when I was 14,” Turner said. “And I’ve been in remission using cannabis for my Crohn’s disease since 2014. And it’s been a crazy journey and there’s just a lot of people that can benefit from cannabis.”
Valenzuela, a nurse, started making cannabis oils and creams in response to trauma she sustained from a car accident a few years back, citing the hypocrisy that medical professionals exhibit with the push of prescriptions.
“Nurses don’t even use the s— they’re prescribing,” Valenzuela said.
This hits home for Lopez, the RUF Nation CEO, as he is a semi-retired psychotherapist who said he consumes the product to combat back pain. However, his first exposure to the plant came at an early age as his great grandmother used cannabis as a healing product, rubbing it into the aches and pains of her clients, giving Lopez a medicine-first perspective from the start.
“It was more for me, medicine always. As I became more aware of what it was and what it was not, I became more comfortable with it. And in my late 40s, I started to use it,” Lopez said.
The change of heart has helped Lopez reconnect with his son, Nathan, who is also in the cannabis industry. They see it as a way to connect to their past.
“It’s almost like going back to our native roots, you know, before smoke and tobacco would bring people together,” Lopez said, “And the same thing, we share the smoke together. And we talk about everything. And it definitely has brought us a lot closer, because I understood what (Nathan) was trying to tell me this whole time. And it was me that was close-minded.”
Aside from the personal reasons, Lopez feels it is time for more people to step forward about cannabis use and awareness, seeing it as only beneficial for fighters and other athletes.
“I think that it is a tremendous idea. I don’t think that it should be treated as a performance enhancing drug like it is in most sports. It really is a medicine that will help the effects of concussions,” Turner said. “Imagine how much better it would be for athletes that are undergoing a lot of physical stress and damage. There’s so much that cannabis can heal from that.”
Lopez has seen substance restrictions loosen though, as he estimates 90% of fighters use a form of cannabis to medicate.
“They go hand in hand. And that’s why we’re able to capture that culture and bring more awareness to what we’re doing,” Lopez said. “(We need) more backing from experts and professionals, who are courageous enough to say something about it, and not be afraid to lose their job over it.”
Lopez and RUF Nation hope to capture the culture once again as the promotion is planning an even bigger RUF, Puff & Rumble event on Dec. 12 at Celebrity Theatre.