COLUMBIA — When he finally woke up, the doctors told Robert Hulett he would never run again. The doctors underestimated the fight and determination of their patient.
Now, Hulett, 39, never stops running around. As founder of the Midwest Fight League, one of the largest mixed martial arts leagues in the Midwest, and the owner of Hulett House, a Columbia MMA team, he is the engine driving the sport's exploding popularity in the region.
He was 17 years old and the star football player on his high school team in Bethany when the accident happened. The drunk driver that drove his car into Hulett's truck knocked the promising young athlete into a month-long coma and entered Hulett into the first major battle of his life.
It took Hulett seven months to prove the doctors wrong. After waking up from the coma, he spent two months recovering in the hospital. He spent the three months following his release in a wheelchair. Then came two more months on crutches.
"I was always a fighter," Hulett said, "but after hearing you're never going to run again, after that, you have to decide that you aren't going to listen to what other people say."
When Hulett first formed the Midwest Fight League three years ago, people told him MMA was just a brute sport. Venues and sponsors wanted nothing to do with cage fighting. Hulett lost so much money investing in promotions for the Midwest Fight League, he almost had to quit the job he loves.
"About halfway through the second year, I remember saying if I don't at least break even on the next two shows, I'm going to have to stop," Hulett recalled. "Now, it's gotten to the point where I have a really great fan base."
Fans and fighters alike come from all over the Midwest to take part in a Hulett MMA experience. Almost 80 professional and amateur fighters from Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Arkansas and Indiana regularly participate in Midwest Fight League events.
"Robert's fights are always well organized," said MMA trainer Boyd Ballard at the cage-fighting event held Friday night during the Columbia Roctoberfest biker rally. "He is a great promoter. We came here because he planned this fight."
Ballard's amateur fighter Chris Rappa of Edwardsville, Ill., defeated Brent Applegate in the fourth of 12 fights during the night.
Although the cage fighting at Roctoberfest was not an official Midwest Fight League event, it was the second MMA fight that Hulett has organized in the past month. Each event takes five weeks of preparation in order to secure a venue, acquire sponsors and recruit fighters. And Hulett is in the midst of planning another.
He trains members of the Hulett House team five days a week. Three of the Hulett House fighters — Kevin Croom, Eric Ward and Matt Chin — are current MMA titleholders. He occasionally enters himself in an MMA fight "to take care of that itch."
His phone rings at all hours of the night. Hulett has completely dedicated himself to the sport to win a reputation as one of the top MMA promoters in the Midwest.
"When you're a good promoter, people stop thinking of the fight as just an event, and start recognizing it for your name because you have a good product," Hulett said.
Hulett House's top fighter and two-time U.S. titleholder Kevin Croom will compete in the main event at the Battle at the Blue Note VIII on Oct. 24. Not surprisingly, Hulett is the event promoter.
Throughout the Midwest MMA fighting community the sentiment seems the same.
"Rob is very organized," said Cody Chamberlain, trainer of MMA amateur fighter Stefanie Lavender. "If Rob's promoting a fight, we'll be there."