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Fight promoter's next bout is in courtroom

Published December 13, 2010 1:01 am

Utah's biggest promoter of MMA may lose license after '09 strip club brawl.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The video shows Mike Stidham's arms spread.

The bouncer, Jacob Alba, pushes Stidham in the chest. Then the video shows Alba turning and punching Stidham's companion in the face then swinging at Stidham.

Stidham grabs the bouncer around the head and tackles him to the floor. Other bouncers from the Southern X-posure strip club run over. Stidham's two companions join in the fracas, too. In seconds the video frame is a jumble of bodies.

At one point, somebody swings a shiny object. Stidham's lawyer claims the object was a knife that cut Stidham's head, and it was swung by a man helping the bouncers.

But only Stidham and his two friends were charged with crimes. It wasn't his first fight. Stidham, 43, used to be a mixed-martial arts combatant, and he remains the biggest MMA promoter in Utah.

Stidham's promoter license, not to mention his freedom, will be in serious jeopardy if he is convicted in the assault trial scheduled to begin Tuesday. Meanwhile, Stidham's lawyer argues South Salt Lake police and prosecutors failed to consider that Alba and others at the strip club may have been the ones who committed a crime, and nobody has ever produced the knife that may have cut Stidham.

"Jake is clearly the aggressor, and the prosecutors acknowledge that," said Stidham's attorney, Tyler Ayres, who plans to argue self-defense at trial.

The Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office remains confident it is trying the right people, said Paul Parker, a prosecutor and spokesman for that office.

"We just don't see it the way the defense sees it," Parker said. He declined to discuss specifics.

Stidham, and his companions that night, MMA fighters Salvador Sanchez, 29, and Aaron Sawyer, 31, are charged with a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Ayres, who also represents Sawyer, said prosecutors on Friday offered to let the three plead to class A misdemeanors, which would likely place them on probation. Ayres did not know if his clients would accept the deal.

The three were part of a group that went to Southern X-posure on Jan. 11, 2009. Stidham said the group was celebrating receiving new recruits into his MMA league. By early evening, only Stidham, Sanchez and Sawyer remained.

Ayres played surveillance video from that night for a Tribune reporter. It shows Alba walking up to a woman employee who was working the front door and casually asking what was going on.

"There's some ass——- in there you can mess up," the woman can be heard saying.

Seconds later she told Alba, "I double-dog dare you."

Stidham believes the dancers didn't like him and his friends who had been sitting at the stage for hours.

"Some of these guys aren't the best tippers," Stidham said in an interview this month with The Tribune.

In his interview with a South Salt Lake police detective, a recording of which Ayres also provided the newspaper, Alba said a stripper complained the three customers were being rude. Alba said he went to the stage to ask the men if there was a problem.

Both sides agree that Sanchez reacted by taking his finger and flipping Alba's name tag then arrogantly telling Alba to go get them some drinks. Alba asked if Sanchez wanted to fight.

But Alba told the detective he never intended to fight. "I just wanted to get them outside of the club," he said.

Alba, Stidham, Sanchez and Sawyer left the stage and began walking toward the door. Video shows the four men stopped in a hallway that separates the stage area and the foyer. That's where the fight began.

Stidham claims he grabbed Alba by the head and arms and took him to the floor to de-escalate the fight. Stidham was a sheriff's deputy in Tooele and Salt Lake counties for 11 years and said he used a technique designed to neutralize Alba.

But when Stidham and Alba hit the floor, others joined in.

One person is seen running toward Stidham and Alba, extending his right arm and swinging it and holding a shiny object in his hand. Stidham says it was a knife that cut the top of his head.

"I see a flash and suddenly I'm gushing blood," Stidham said.

But Stidham says at the time he did not know the shiny object was a knife or from where he was bleeding. He thought Alba had struck him in the face. So, Stidham said, he began punching Alba.

The melee lasted about two minutes before bouncers and others were able to break it up. Then Stidham, Sanchez and Sawyer swiftly walked out the door while trading insults with the club staff.

Two women called 911 during the fight. On the recording, one of the women is heard saying there was a knife.

"They just put it down on the ground and it landed on my feet," she told the dispatcher.

After the defendants left and before police arrived, Southern X-posure staff and patrons are seen on the video beginning to clean blood from the floors. There's also one man on the grainy video shown picking up what Ayres believes was the knife.

In court motions, Ayres has asked for police and prosecutors to produce the knife as evidence. A prosecutor responded in a written motion that police had no reports of a knife and no knife was collected as evidence.

"We don't have any information that this knife played any role in the fight," Parker said in an interview last week with The Tribune.

Ayres contends the knife is important because it shows why Stidham and his co-defendants defended themselves. In one court filing, a deputy district attorney said prosecutors plan to show "the defendant's behavior was not justified."

In court papers, Ayres has accused Codie Carver of being the man who wielded a knife. Carver is currently serving a 30-month sentence in a Minnesota federal prison after pleading guilty to a Sandy bank robbery that occurred almost two months after the fight.

Prosecutors have argued in written motions that none of their witnesses has implicated Carver in stabbing Stidham.

The defendants originally were charged with first-degree felony aggravated assault, which carries the possibility of life in prison. Prosecutors reduced the charge to a third-degree felony when Alba's injuries turned out to not be as severe as first thought, Ayres said. Alba declined an interview request last week.

Also, Stidham was also charged with a misdemeanor count of lewdness. Women employees in court papers accused Stidham of exposing himself at the stage, but that charge was dismissed when no witnesses at the preliminary hearing could testify to seeing the act.

It is unclear how a conviction would impact Stidham's promoter license and MMA in Utah. The state athletic commission lists a misdemeanor or felony conviction as grounds for revoking or refusing a license. Commission director Bill Colbert said if Stidham is convicted, the commission will have to look at the facts before deciding what to do about his license.

"I don't know of any other license holder that has had charges like this brought before him," Colbert said.

Stidham said the charges have already cost him. The U.S. Army, one of Stidham's biggest financial supporters, ended its sponsorship with him after the charges were filed, he said.

Stidham, who intends to testify, isn't worried about a trial.

"There's so much compelling evidence, I can't see being convicted of this," Stidham said. "But I've seen stranger things happen."

ncarlisle@sltrib.com —

What's next?

P The trial of Mike Stidham, Salvador Sanchez and Aaron Sawyer begins Tuesday in Salt Lake City before 3rd District Court Judge Ann Boyden. The third-degree felony assault charge carries up to five years in prison.






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