It’s been called human cockfighting, so why is the province making ultimate fighting even more dangerous by forcing it underground? NOW goes inside the world of mixed martial arts – from the UFC to illegal cage fights on Indian reserves – to find out.
Ground and Pound
Ohsweken Reserve – Chris “the Matador” Vorano has an electric-green faux-hawk and some sick jiu-jitsu skillz. That he’s on an Iroquois Indian reserve sporting that haircut is an irony likely lost on the 24-year-old UFC-wannabe from Barrie, here to compete in the third Iroquois Mixed Martial Arts Championships (IMMAC), aka Rumble On The Rez, April 26.
Trading punches with Mississauga’s John Pirone in the early moments of the illegal cage fight outside Brantford, the 185-pounder sees an opening. He shoots low, like a wrestler, tackles his opponent and drives him to the mat. He straddles Pirone, pinning him on his back, and begins driving his fists into Pirone’s face as Pirone raises his arms in a futile effort to protect himself.
Ground-and-pound. In the world of mixed martial arts, it’s the equivalent of carpet bombing. A downed opponent is hammered with fists, forearms, elbows and shoulders until he’s unconscious or, more often – as happens with Pirone – the referee steps in.
It’s the one aspect of mixed martial arts – a Molotov cocktail of striking arts like boxing and Muay Thai kick-boxing and the sneaky grappling-oriented groundwork of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and wrestling – that still causes shock and awe, and that reinforces the sport’s reputation as a barbaric blood sport.
The display – at once exciting, horrifying and sickening – gets the crowd on its feet.
But to a true mixed martial artist it’s also the least satisfying way to win. It doesn’t deliver the graceful finality of the knockout punch or kick, and it lacks the technical mastery required to apply a submission hold that forces your opponent to tap out – MMA’s answer to crying “uncle.”
When you win by ground-and-pound, you haven’t tested yourself, haven’t bettered an equal. You’re just a schoolyard bully.
Grumble on the Rez
Past cig shacks selling cheap rollies and rundown trailer homes with decaying cars in the driveway, the Ohsweken Six Nations reserve, once home to actors Graham Greene and Jay Silverheels (that’s Tonto to you Lone Ranger fans), is a world away from the big leagues of mixed martial arts, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. That multi-million-dollar spectacle run by a couple of casino billionaires and an obnoxious ex-boxercise instructor boasts its own hit reality TV series and fighters who are treated like rock stars. Thanks to the UFC, mixed martial arts has become the fastest-growing sport on the planet.
When I pull into the ILA Sports Arena – a venue built for an activity many consider more dangerous than mixed martial arts, lacrosse – a couple of hours before the fights, the parking lot is already half-full.
An Ontario Provincial Police roadblock on the main highway is forcing fans to take a lengthy detour, which might explain why attendance is down slightly for this event, about 1,500 compared to the 2,000-plus who came out to the first two Rumble On The Rez fights in November and February.
Maybe it’s only a coincidence that the cops chose today to make a nuisance of themselves.
But many locals, including fight promoter Bill Monture, have another word for it: conspiracy.
“It’s all part of their intimidation tactics,” Monture tells me. “They’re trying to discourage people from coming to the fights.”
He points out another “coincidence”: every boxing ring in the province, which regulates prizefighting, was unavailable for tonight’s fights. Not that it mattered, since Monture was shipping in a cage from Ohio.
Ontario is loath to sanction MMA events. It’s the only province in Canada that refuses to do so (although Vancouver has halted fights there while it re-examines the matter). Safety is the issue most often raised. The sport’s reputation as a smorgasbord of blood and brutality is well earned.
But supporters and naysayers alike contend that by refusing to sanction events and thereby enforce the rules and regulations that will make the sport safer for participants, the province may end up pushing it further underground, where no one is safe. Much hinges on an application filed by the Ontario Mixed Martial Arts Association with the Ministry of Health Promotion. But it seems unlikely that the occurrence of reserve fights, no matter how well run, will change the government’s mind.
Inside the ILA Arena, no alcohol is allowed, but the concession stand is doing a brisk business in hot dogs, pizza, popcorn and pop. Guys in yellow security T-shirts appear to outnumber the fans, although they will have little more to do tonight than point the way to the washrooms.
Shonie Carter, a UFC veteran better known for wearing Speedo-sized “mandies” during bouts than for his knockout ability, was supposed to be the main event until an injury sidelined him. Now, looking superfly in all-white (shirt, pants, shoes, sunglasses and calf-length coat), he’s busy shaking hands and signing autographs.
Meanwhile, the fighters, from as far away as Atlanta, San Francisco and Amsterdam, gather to receive last-minute instructions from the referee: no elbows on the ground, no grabbing the cage for leverage, and on and on.
They’re mostly in their late teens or early 20s and mostly inspired by their UFC heroes. There are lots of Tap Out and Affliction logos, shaved heads and bad tattoos. Lots of gaunt faces, too, partly from cutting weight, partly from nervousness.
The mood is sombre, quiet, like the calm before a storm. There’s the occasional tale of past fights: “And then I locked a guillotine choke on him...” and “The blood was getting in my eyes, but I just kept kneeing him....”
A trio of ring girls finish spackling on their makeup while workers install protective corner pads – sponsored by Wahta Springs bottled water and Village Pizza – in the six-sided black cage that sits menacingly in the centre of the arena floor, like a Don Jail holding pen.
BJJ is not a dirty word
I watched the first Ultimate Fighting Championship on pay-per-view back in 93 with some buddies from my dojo. Fresh off the mats from what we thought was a hard day of kicking ass and breaking boards, we were pumped to see this martial arts showdown seemingly inspired by Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Bloodsport.
The event, held in Denver and inspired by Brazil’s vale tudo (“anything goes” in Portuguese) competitions, was billed as a no-holds-barred brawl. (There actually were a few rules: no eye-gouging, no biting, for example.) Victory, the hype promised, could only be earned by “knockout, surrender, doctor’s intervention or death.”
The fights took place in the octagonal cage that has since become synonymous with “ultimate fighting” and which the UFC has trademarked, leaving other organizations to stage fights in traditional boxing rings or cages with something other than eight sides.
UFC 1 promised to answer the kinds of adolescent questions martial arts fans have always wondered about: Could Bruce Lee beat Muhammad Ali? Would a ninja beat a Shaolin warrior? What about a sumo wrestler versus a kick-boxer? And how badly would Steven Seagal get his ponytail pulled in a real fight?
What we got instead was a soft-spoken Brazilian in a white gi not so different from my own karate uniform who dragged opponent after opponent to the ground, wrapped himself around them like a boa constrictor and forced them to give up. Brazilian jiu-jitsu, also called Gracie jiu-jitsu after the art’s founding family, had arrived, and martial arts would never be the same.
“BJJ is a soft, gentle art that people don’t recognize if all they ever see is guys in the octagon doing the ground-and-pound,” says Rio-born Cesar Rezek, Toronto’s highest-ranking BJJ black belt. At Budokan BJJ, he teaches the art derived from judo and designed to defeat much larger, stronger opponents with the least amount of effort.
Gentle or not, BJJ is just one component of MMA, and in the early days, when brawlers like Tank Abbott specialized in “the ancient martial art of kicking ass,” the sport earned a nasty rep for violence not seen since the heyday of the Roman Coliseum. Indeed, it closely resembled the most popular sport of the ancient Olympic Games, pankration, a savage form of wrestling in which anything but eye-gouging was allowed and some competitors preferred death rather than surrender.
Perhaps most damaging, it was called “human cockfighting” by U.S. Senator and now Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who lobbied to have the sport banned.
But thanks to savvy marketing and a few new rules (28, up from the original three, including no hair-pulling, groin shots or kicking the head of a downed opponent), the UFC finally succeeded in having the sport sanctioned in New Jersey in 2000. Other states followed – 32 so far.
London’s Mark “The Machine” Hominick, who’s fought in the UFC, is fond of saying that everyone in MMA has a screw loose.
“There’s something different about fighters,” Hominick says. “Otherwise, we’d play tennis.”
I know what he means, although I can’t really explain it.
I train in mixed martial arts. As I type this, I’m wearing my Got Jiu-Jitsu? toque. There’s no UFC contract in my future, but if it ever did happen I’ve decided that my entrance music will either be LL Cool J’s Momma Said Knock You Out or Culture Club’s Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?
I grew up on Chuck Norris movies and trying out the Karate Kid’s crane technique on my sisters. I’ve always studied something: karate, tae kwon do, aikido, kung fu, Jeet Kune Do, Filipino stickfighting....
I don’t have a Napoleon complex. I’m 6-foot-2. I don’t come from a broken home. My parents have been married for more than 40 years. I was never abused. Dad was a police officer (go ahead, let your mind wander), and he coached my baseball team and drove me to track meets. I was a skinny, nerdy kid with thick classes and good grades. I had a smart mouth and a bit of a temper, but I wasn’t running around beating people up. I was popular in elementary school, picked on in junior high and ignored in high school, so maybe there’s something in your Psych 101 textbook about that.
Seeing Royce Gracie win the first UFC opened my eyes. Now, most days you can find me training in Muay Thai or Brazilian jiu-jitsu or boxing or submission wrestling. The guys I train with are regular Joes (and a couple of Janes), mostly. We’re not Bay Street biznobs getting our thug on Fight Club-style.
We’re martial arts geeks. We get a kick out of kicking each other. And out of being kicked back.
While my co-workers at NOW come to the office showing off their new tattoo or their latest piercing, I’ve got another black eye, another broken nose, a sprained thumb, a separated shoulder, a cracked rib, torn ligaments, a fractured shin, enough bruises to play connect-the-dots. No cauliflower ears yet, but I’m hopeful. Invariably, I’m limping or having trouble breathing.
And I love it.
I’m sure I could dig up some Lao-tzu quote to explain why, some fortune-cookie wisdom like “He who defines the terms of battle defines the terms for peace.” But mostly that would be bullshit. I’m not some reluctant karate kid learning to fight so I don’t have to. Again, though, it’s not like I’m running around beating people up.
“It’s not about fighting so much as getting to learn all these exquisite skills,” says John Sheil, a pro fighter at my gym. “There’s no malice involved.”
People tell me they hate mixed martial arts, that it’s barbaric. Fine. You don’t like it, you don’t approve, go watch curling or synchronized swimming, like my mom does.
MMA is getting better. It’s no longer 10 monkeys in a room trying to figure out how to pull off an arm-bar, but it’s still a bit of an experiment. It’s evolving. If violence in sport is a reflection of the society we live in, then perhaps what critics are most afraid to confront when they see bloodied combatants going toe-to-toe in a cage is the brutal reality of the world we’ve become staring back at them. Now, there’s a kick in the head.
The Wrath of Ken
You can watch live MMA fights pretty much anywhere in Canada: King Of The Cage in Calgary, Terror On The Tundra in Yellowknife, Brawl At The Border in Amherst, Nova Scotia.
But not Ontario.
Here, one man stands in the way.
So who’s the villain in all this? The Khan to MMA’s Captain Kirk? Or perhaps more appropriately, given the reserve fights and the fact that many in the MMA community would like to see him shot, the General Custer?
Ontario Athletic Commissioner Ken Hayashi. It’s Hayashi’s job to govern professional sports in the province. And while he might be a karate black belt with more than 40 years of experience in martial arts, he has no love for MMA.
“It’s breaking the law anywhere it’s happening,” Hayashi says matter-of-factly.
Hayashi’s talking about Section 83 of the Canadian Criminal Code, which states that all “prize fighting” is illegal, with the exception of “boxing contests.”
Never mind that the law was written in the 1930s. Or that other jurisdictions have interpreted “boxing contest” more broadly. In Quebec, for example, MMA is often referred to as “mixed boxing.”
But Hayashi says it doesn’t matter how others view the sport. “Federal law supersedes provincial law,” he says flatly. “Mixed martial arts is not a boxing contest.”
And neither is kick-boxing, according to Section 83, yet it has been sanctioned in Ontario both at the amateur level for Muay Thai, which allows knee strikes and kicking to the legs, and the pro level for Western-style kick-boxing, which allows kicks only above the waist (which seems ridiculous, considering that’s where a person’s head is usually found).
Both styles are contested in a traditional boxing ring and require the use of boxing gloves, unlike the smaller, open-palmed gloves MMA fighters wear to allow for gripping. (Muay Thai did have to overcome a 2000 Ontario court decision that banned the sport because it was deemed “inherently dangerous” and contravened Section 83.)
In a move that feels an awful lot like shovelling snow on your neighbour’s lawn, Hayashi says he needs to see amateur MMA establish a strong safety record before he’ll reconsider sanctioning professional MMA. The curious twist for MMA proponents is the fact that amateur sports fall under the jurisdiction of a different government office, the Ministry of Health Promotion, which has given “provincial sport organization” (PSO) status to 59 sports, including combat sports like judo, karate, tae kwon do, boxing and Muay Thai.
“We allow two grown men to get married in this province but we don’t allow two grown men to fight. It’s ridiculous,” says professional MMA trainer Sam Zakula, who has worked with the likes of the UFC’s Carlos Newton, Mark Bocek and Jason “Mayhem” Miller. “But apparently, people think we’re rushing things even though we’ve been doing MMA in this province for more than a decade.”
“Ken Hayashi wants to take a baby step, see a safety record, a coaching and refereeing system, before he approves professional MMA, and that’s what we’ll give him,” says Marco Antico, a Toronto accountant by day and Muay Thai instructor by night who serves on the board of both the Ontario Mixed Martial Arts Association and the Canadian Mixed Martial Arts Association. “If the province will let us.”
The OMMAA’s PSO application is currently under review by the ministry, although Antico has heard through the martial arts grapevine that it will be denied.
“I’m not surprised,” says Terry Riggs, OMMAA board member and instructor at Warrior MMA in Newmarket. “When we had a meeting with some of the people looking at our application, one of them said flat out, ‘Your whole sport disgusts me, but I’m here to discuss your application, and that won’t influence my decision.’”
Cage fighting has a distinctly gladiatorial two-men-enter, one-man-leaves aesthetic. It’s as bloody as any street fight. But as proponents state with evangelical conviction, the sport is safer than boxing. Hell, it’s less dangerous than hockey when headhunters like Todd Bertuzzi are on the ice.
How many football players have died during practice? How many race car drivers? How many people have died running the Toronto marathon? The answer to that last one is five in the last six years.
There have been 1,029 boxing deaths in the last 80 years and only one death from a sanctioned MMA fight.
A study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine two years ago stated conclusively that MMA fighters suffered only a fraction of the injuries that boxers do, and most of those were superficial cuts to the face and head.
“Look at the statistics,” says Dr. Paul Medve, the IMMAC fight doctor who brought his school-aged son and daughter to watch the fights. “It’s far safer than boxing. The fighters don’t experience the repeated head blows, the repetitive striking of the brain that boxers do. A boxer can get punched in the head more times in one fight than an MMA fighter will in his entire career.”
A boxer can receive hundreds of blows in a single 10- or 12-round fight. An MMA fighter receives only a fraction of that in the course of three- or five-round bouts.
If a boxer gets knocked down, the ref stands him up and gives him an eight-count before sending him out for more punishment. MMA offers no such temporary reprieve. If a fighter can’t defend himself, the ref stops the fight.
“MMA might look more wild and dangerous because of the kicks and the grappling on the ground, and there are more cuts and bloody noses, there’s more blood,” says Medve. “But in terms of actual serious injury, it’s ridiculous that boxing is considered safer.”
Girl Guide Cookies
Back on the Ohsweken reserve, referee Rob Pelletier stops Vorano’s ground-and-pound after a dozen punches despite Pirone’s insistence that he wants to keep fighting.
Afterward, Pelletier leans over toward fight judge Phil MacIsaac. “Let’s see Hayashi have a problem with that,” says Pelletier. He’ll make similar remarks after another fighter takes three successive kicks to the head, and again when a fighter appears to be unable to defend himself against the cage and a third is unable to continue when he breaks his thumb punching his opponent’s head.
“They’re really going overboard with the safety here,” MacIsaac whispers to me after another stoppage.
A couple of days after the fights, Pelletier sends me an e-mail out of the blue to explain why he stopped the fights he did: “Can you imagine the field day Ken Hayashi would have if there were serious injuries? Someone would have to restrain him trying to run up the steps of the court building... [It’s about the] protection of the sport, not the moron who thinks he’s tougher than he is – fighters, when it comes to pain, are stupid.”
Look at Quebec. In the early days of MMA, fights were also held on reserves there, and participants were often arrested afterward. But as the sport’s popularity grew, the provincial athletic commission adopted the view that it was better to sanction the sport so it could be properly regulated than risk fighters’ safety.
“It’s great for these fighters to be able to compete in front of a hometown crowd at an event like this,” says pro MMA fighter Jeff Joslin. “My first fight was kind of like this, in a bar in front of 500 people, with go-go girls in cages.”
The question remains whether illegal reserve fights will be enough to pressure Hayashi to change his mind on the sport. Even MMA advocates are split on the issue.
Says Muay Thai instructor Antico, “They could take the approach Quebec did, but I really don’t see anything positive coming out of them except for the chance for fighters to make a little money. I believe it’s safe, but we’re not selling Girl Guide cookies. If something were to happen, no insurance company is going to be there for an event the province says is illegal.”
UFC fighter Mark Hominick has similar concerns.
“I worry there are fighters in there who shouldn’t be, who aren’t ready,” he says. “There are a lot of critical eyes on MMA right now.
Enter the Warrior
IMMAC III almost marked the return of Hamilton UFC fighter Jeff “The Inferno” Joslin.
Plagued by injuries the last couple of years, Joslin spent most of the night doing colour commentary with Shonie Carter and conducting post-fight interviews inside the cage. After Amsterdam’s Noufel Amellouk lost to Scarborough’s Josh Powell due to referee stoppage – Powell pinned the lanky Dutchman against the cage with a flurry of punches that opened his nose like a water fountain – Amellouk tossed a bloody rag at Joslin, who whipped it back. Words were exchanged, Amellouk motioned that he was ready to fight, and Joslin quickly assumed a fighter’s stance in the centre of the cage, bouncing lightly on his feet and raising his fists until Powell pulled him away.
While it would have been exciting to see Joslin throw down on the Dutch punk, it would have been bad for everyone involved, especially the event’s promoters, who are already in hot water with the long arm of the law.
Tonight’s fights are the third Rumble On The Rez MMA event Bill Monture and his partners have held. And while it was sanctioned by the Grand River Athletic Commission, which Monture founded, and organized by the Grand River Athletic Corp., which Monture also founded, and it’s okay in the eyes of the band’s chief, Monture again, it still occupies a gaping legal grey zone.
A few days before the fights, Monture and four others were charged under Section 83 of the Criminal Code. The charges stem from the first event held back in November, after Hayashi notified Six Nations police. They could each face up to six months in jail and/or a $2,000 fine.
“For the Ontario Athletic Commission to say it has jurisdiction over a reserve territory, which is a sovereign nation, oversteps its authority,” says James Procyk, who was among those charged. “And it becomes even more distasteful in light of land claims issues that have been going on and the troubles with nearby Caledonia the last couple of years.”
“It’s all just a piece of paper to me,” Monture says of the charge. “I’m going to fight it.”
While a court challenge could bring about legalization, it could also set a precedent that affects how MMA events are run in other provinces – if they can be run at all. Not that that’ll stop Monture, who already has his next event scheduled for June 21 – Aboriginal Day.
“I don’t understand the government’s position. This is a chance to open the doors on MMA,” says Chuck “The Grand River Bad Boy” Monture, Bill Monture’s son. Sporting a black Team Iroquois T-shirt and looking a bit like MadTV’s Will Sasso, Monture will earn a controversial first-round win over Cayuga’s Randy MacDonald in the 205-pound class tonight.
“The days of bare-knuckle brawling are over,” adds the part-time Brantford police officer, who also teaches martial arts to children on the reserve who can’t afford lacrosse or hockey equipment.
While the fights are going on inside the ILA arena, Albert Doxtator and two of his MMA fighters from the Oneida Nation south of London are at the Palace of Auburn Hills, home of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons. His fighters will finish the night with one win by knockout (knee to the head) and one loss.
Doxtator, who is the subject of a new Global TV documentary called The Real Fight Club (airing May 17 at 7 pm), organized the province’s first reserve MMA fights in 2006 in a 400-capacity community centre.
His Fighting Spirit Challenge hosted 15 cage fights sanctioned by the Oneida Indian Nation Sports Commission and endorsed by the Oneida Nation’s elected council and chief. He’s since staged two more fight nights, which he’s organized out of his backpack, he says, and he’s planning another one as soon as he can scrounge a few sponsors and raise $12,000 for a new cage.
The OPP investigated Doxtator’s fights, but no charges were ever laid.
“It was a great night for us, both the fighters and the community,” says Doxtator proudly.
“I have 11 athletes, including a couple of former addicts and alcoholics, who train with me,” says the 30-year-old. “Having something like this MMA has become an important part of our community. It brings business into my community, it breaks down stereotypes of the drunken Indian or that we’re all out in our yard smoking deer hides and living in teepees.
“We are creating warriors. That doesn’t mean balaclavas and camouflage and AK-47s, but warriors in the sense of fathers who are strong and providing for their families and their community.”
The New Rock Stars
The fighters on the reserve, banging away for a few hundred dollars and a few minutes of glory, are a long way from UFC fighters, who can earn anywhere from a couple of thousand to several hundred thousand for a fight.
Tickets for UFC 83, held in the 21,000-seat Bell Centre in Montreal, sold out in record time. (My $250 nosebleed seat could’ve sold for 10 times that on eBay.) Total gate for the night is an estimated $5 million, among the UFC’s most lucrative events, while the economic spinoffs for Montreal have been estimated at upwards of $50 million.
And even though les Canadiens were playing a crucial playoff Game 6 against the Boston Bruins, the only person in the city who seemed to care was favourite son Georges St. Pierre, who watched some of the game intently in the locker room prior to beating mouthy New Yawker Matt Serra for the UFC welterweight title.
Tens of fight leagues (EliteXC, Gladiator Challenge, World Extreme Cagefighting, Bodog Fights and Quebec’s TKO among them) all wrestle with the UFC’s stranglehold on the sport. In Canada in 2007, eight of the top 10 live pay-per-view events were UFC fights. The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC-produced hit reality series on Spike TV, has demystified the sport to outsiders – ultimate fighting isn’t Michael Vick in his backyard with a pair of pit bulls – and made celebrities out of its young fighters.
“It’s the Vince McMahon-WWE theory,” says “Showdown” Joe Ferraro, a Toronto MMA broadcaster with Sportsnet and the Fan 590. “Each episode of The Ultimate Fighter is like a commercial for the next pay-per-view UFC, and every UFC promotes the show with commercials and interviews with the next season’s coaches.”
CBS will air events by UFC rival EliteXC during prime time on Saturday nights beginning May 31. NBC offers late-night Strikeforce bouts, and BET has the curious blend of MMA fighters and rappers like Nelly and Ludacris on Iron Ring.
Mike Garrow, founder of three-year-old Toronto-based The Fight Network, which is seen in more than 5 million homes across Canada, likens MMA’s sudden mainstream popularity to the explosion golf enjoyed when Tiger Woods turned pro.
“The fighters are starting to carry their own brand weight,” he says.
In other words, they’re becoming superstars, not unlike the Sidney Crosbys and Kobe Bryants of the sports world.
“Even if you’re not in the sport you still want to wear the gear, the Tap Out and Affliction shirts,” says Joel Gerson, owner of Revolution MMA in Thornhill. “It’s what wearing Sean John or G-Unit used to be.”
Going to the Extreme
While finding Montreal’s Bell Centre was simply a matter of following the throngs of MMA poseurs and muscle-bound GNC poster boys in Affliction T-shirts, the Southside gym is a little harder to locate.
Buried among Scarborough’s strip malls, the Muay Thai and grappling school shares a low-slung warehouse with a kung fu club, an aikido academy and the Canadian Table Tennis Association.
Last Saturday morning, a dozen or so aspiring fighters gathered for the Proving Ground pro MMA tryouts. As promoters from various fight leagues take notes, the fighters spar lightly in the ring or pound away on heavy bags wrapped with duct tape. Others shadow-box in front of a wall-sized mirror that will end up smashed before the day is done. Some of them make “pow-pow-pow” effects noises as they punch the air.
At the centre of it all is Rob Pelletier, the referee from the Iroquois fights. Pelletier, whom everyone calls “Coach,” barks out drills and bon mots (“Mirrors are for ring card girls”) in equal measure.
Pelletier used to work in the film industry, recruiting martial artists as stunt players in such films as Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Maximum Risk. Now, he’s recruiting them for pro fight leagues.
He’s concerned that local fighters could be exploited if Ontario ever opens the door for the UFC.
“I’m trying to uncover the best untapped talent in the province – find it and protect it,” says Pelletier. “The UFC doesn’t care where the fighters come from, and it would be very easy for some of them to end up as punching bags on some fight card.”
“I’m looking for athleticism, some personality and some skill, not just weekend warriors,” says Freedom Fight’s Peter Rodley. “You gotta remember: these guys are auditioning to fight in front of 4,000 people in their underwear.”
Among those with big MMA dreams is Gavin Clark, a boyish 18-year-old from Oshawa. “I want to go fight in the Shooto league in Japan,” says Clark, who admits his mom “would probably prefer I was in a band instead.”
This is PeaceFire Maji’s second pro tryout. “Laziness, weakness, fear – there are all kinds of reasons not to do it,” says Maji, who will go home with a broken nose and an even stronger desire to land that pro contract. “It’s the journey that makes it interesting.”
Resting in one corner is Sam Osman. He’s 28, 205 pounds and a jiu-jitsu champion. And he knows better than most about this bloody sport. Next month he writes his board exam to become a doctor specializing in hematology.
“I’ll be doing research studying bone marrow deficiencies and leukemia,” says the Toronto native. “But right now I’m focusing on getting a pro contract, get a few fights under my belt and then one day opening my own MMA school.”
Seems just about every karate school is cashing in on the MMA craze by offering some sort of program. And that concerns a lot of gym owners.
“There are a lot of McDojos out there,” says Shah Franco, who trains pro fighters like Japanese Shooto champ Antonio Carvalho out of his basement gym at Yonge and Lawrence. “But there are only a few places in the whole country that can really train top-quality fighters.”
In fact, very few people who train MMA have any desire to fight professionally. At Revolution MMA, Joel Gerson says most of his students are working moms and dads and their kids. He even offers a munchkin MMA program for children as young as three. A video on his website shows the tykes doing double-leg takedowns and practising jab-cross-hook combinations.
“Kids have been taking karate and tae kwon do lessons for decades, and this is no different,” says Gerson. “It’s taught very traditionally, with a lot of emphasis on self-defence. It’s not like they’re putting little gloves on and duking it out in a playpen.”
Still, Toronto has a deep talent pool. “We could have our own Georges St. Pierre within three years with the right kind of training,” says Showdown Joe.
That training could come from places like Franco’s or Salvosa BJJ. But it’s just as likely to come at Xtreme Couture, the new mecca of mixed martial arts that will open in the city’s west end later this month. It’s the first of five-time UFC champion Randy Couture’s gyms in Canada, a 33,000-square-foot facility, with a full boxing ring and octagon. Instructor Antico calls it “the Canada’s Wonderland of MMA.”
And it’ll boast some of the best MMA talent in the country among its coaching staff, including Hominick, Toronto’s Mark Bocek, who fought in UFC 83, and national wrestling coach Dave Mair, who will turn his attention to MMA full-time following the Beijing Olympics. “MMA is where the future is,” Mair says.
Although, as Showdown Joe points out, “it’s ironic that the best MMA facility in the country is in a city where MMA is illegal.”
Knocked out by all the jargon? Read NOW's mixed martial arts dictionary.