SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Sanford Health took a big step into the world of combat sports this week, announcing on Monday, Sept. 23, it will sponsor a team of about 40 mixed martial arts fighters.

The move marks a deepening investment for the Sioux Falls-based regional health system into the world of mixed martial arts. Sanford doctors and facilities have worked with fighters in the past and conducted research into concussion and other concerns, but Sanford officials and the sponsored fighters say a team sponsorship will strengthen research and raise Sanford's profile in combat sports and sports medicine more generally.

"It's a culmination of several years of putting an effort into MMA and getting ourselves in a position to enhance the sport and to also work with world-class athletes, which is what we've always been about," said Dr. Brad Reeves, a sports medicine veteran at Sanford who will serve as the team's exclusive medical director and physician. "This announcement proves our commitment, that we're going to do our part and we're going to be partnered with the kind of people that we think will be great ambassadors for Sanford Sports."

The Sanford Mixed Martial Arts team include about 40 fighters, notably former Ultimate Fighting Championship Welterweight Champion Robbie Lawler and South Dakota native Logan Storley, a standout college wrestler who signed with Bellator MMA and currently has a 10-0 record.

"It's a big deal, " Storley said. "For me growing up in Webster, S.D., not too far from here, and then being on a team with these guys, being with Sanford, and coming back to South Dakota with legends and having one of the best fight teams in the world, it's a dream come true for someone like me."

Lawler was one of the earliest MMA fighters to get involved with Sanford. He said Sanford's involvement is a step forward for fighter health and to boost mixed martial arts, generally considered one of the fastest-growing sports.

"It's just an awesome opportunity to have a medical staff around us, making sure everyone is healthy and making sure when guys go in there to fight everything is running on all cylinders, let alone after the fight making sure guys are recovering, getting the treatment they need," Lawler said. "it's going to be an awesome atmosphere for our fighters and hopefully help build the sport."

South Dakota has become an unlikely nexus for mixed martial arts. South Dakota was one of the last states in the country to create an athletic commission to regulate combat sports in 2013, and it took another two years before Sioux Falls lifted its ban on MMA bouts. Since lifting the ban, the city and Sanford's own Pentagon facility in the Sanford Sports Complex, has hosted multiple MMA events.

Noted MMA agent and manager Dave Martin, a local and University of South Dakota graduate, manages many MMA fighters. And the Sanford Sports Science Institute is working on research into mixed martial arts concussions and other projects related to performance, hydration and injury prevention.

"This is another step in the right direction for this state, to really get behind a sport that is just blowing up," Martin said.