Risk vs. Reward in a Battle for Uniformity
The following is an MFC Press Release:
In late December 2008, mainstream mixed martial arts (MMA) was headed back to Canada nearly one year after it debuted in Montreal.
In his first appearance across the northern border since 2005, MMA superstar Georges St. Pierre disposed of Matt Serra in front of his fellow countrymen and set a North American attendance record for the sport at 21,390 people.
In fact, with the addition of 185-pound deity Anderson Silva, the upcoming fight card scheduled for a return trip on April 18, 2009, was expected to surpass those numbers and bring an estimated $10 million to The Bell Centre and local businesses, leaving cities like Vancouver little choice but to consider reintroducing MMA regulation.
MMA, it seemed, was on the precipice of a Canadian explosion.
Then a funny thing happened on the way to Quebec. Well-traveled veteran heavyweight James Thompson took a flight to Canada in response to a small promotion that was looking to satisfy the hunger of MMA fans who couldn’t wait until April to get their fight fix.
On February 6, 2009, at Mel’s Studio in Montreal, the upstart promotion wanted to stage an event that featured all striking, prohibiting any grappling or striking on the ground.
Simply put, they wanted to play by their own rules.
Unfortunately the Quebec Alcohol Racing and Gaming Commission (QAC) would not approve of the fight format because it did not follow (what was thought to be) the currently sanctioned rules of MMA. The deal was have a full-fledged MMA show, or have no show at all.
The promotion continued with their event by following the established rule set, but maintain the fighters had a “Gentleman’s agreement” to keep the action standing.
Apparently everyone was told about the alleged agreement except Thompson. Or if he was told, his corpulent ears (deformed from years of in-ring abuse) might have prevented him from hearing it.
In the main event against Steve Bosse, “Colossus” immediately went for a takedown and rattled off some textbook ground and pound. The crowd reacted violently in disapproval, showering the cage with bottles and debris. The show was halted and both fighters (and veteran referee Yves Lavigne) ran for their lives.
In the aftermath of that disastrous event, the QAC was forced to re-evaluate the rules that govern the sport of mixed martial arts within the province. As it turns out, Director of Communications M. Réjean Thériault informed a disappointed fan base that the current rules were actually in violation of what had been previously established and would require modification.
The Quebec regulations, which had been ignored for over seven years, did not allow elbow and knee strikes, judo throws, slams and even called for a downed fighter to get a chance to recover with his opponent sent to a neutral corner. There was little effort to enforce them, as the old administration of the QAC was reportedly tolerant of the use of North America’s “Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts.”
And they never needed to be revisited, until the debacle at Mel’s Studio.
Changes were coming promised the QAC, including a smaller cage, banning elbow and knee strikes and requiring a referee to stop a bout when a fighter got knocked down to make sure they were able to continue.
Those rules were essentially taking the “mixed” out of the martial arts and creating a fight model closer to the kickboxing style that has become a Japanese mainstay.
The QAC further stated that the any promotion looking to hold a major pay-per-view event would be forced to comply with any and all proposed rule changes should they desire to bring mainstream MMA back to Canadian soil, regardless of their initial success.
As expected, Anderson Silva and the rest of the April fight card was rebooked for Las Vegas before promoters made a last ditch effort to stay the execution, meeting with QAC officials and pleading their case.
With millions of dollars at stake and thousands of ticket holders who already purchased their admission in advance, an exception was made and the show was permitted to continue, breaking the previous attendance record by drawing 21,451 fans.
Afterward, promotion executives named Canadian fans responsible for 15 to 20 percent of their business, its largest per capita success story.
Not surprisingly, the success of that show and the financial gain that accompanied it led the local city council to recently pass a two-year “trial” period to regulate MMA in Vancouver. Mainstream promoters wasted little time in booking the GM Place for June 2010.
Once again, MMA was on the precipice of a Canadian explosion.
And once again, a smaller promotion is looking to capitalize on that success and play by its own rules.
In conjunction with the Edmonton Combative Sports Commission (ECSC), a local Canadian promoter announced his intention to introduce a new set of rules a show in Edmonton, Alberta.
The rules in question, established by Japanese MMA promotions in the late 1990’s, are currently in use overseas for International events.
In stark contrast to the Unified Rules of MMA, the “Japanese Rules” permit knee strikes to the head of a downed/grounded opponent, kicks to the head of a downed/grounded opponent (when both fighters are down/grounded), the allowance of a Gi/shoes to be worn during a bout, the absence of a “ten-point must” scoring system and lastly, two round fights (ten minutes/five minutes).
To no real surprise, existing Canadian fight promotions are livid, as the dangerous new endeavor of the local fight promoter looking to import the Japanese Rules could jeopardize the mainstream presence of MMA in Canada.
So too, is the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC), who sent a letter to Pat Reid, the Executive Director of the ECSC, encouraging them to reverse their position on the acceptance of Japanese Rules and illustrating the importance of uniformity in today’s still-evolving fight scene.
To date, neither Pat Reid nor the promoter who is trying to implement them have shown any indication that they intend to comply.
As a fan of mixed martial arts for many years, I’ve come to have a certain affection for the application of Japanese Rules in a mixed martial arts contest. I once had a conversation with veteran referee Steve Mazzagatti about the allowance of offensive moves (like head kicks) in a sanctioned MMA bout.
Greater offense will encourage greater defense, we concurred.
However it’s important to understand the complexities of Japanese Rules as they pertain to a North American audience. Defenders will point to the lack of serious injury in a sport that allowed said rules for over a decade and while they are correct, they overlook not the how, but the why.
Japanese promotions had over ten years to perfect their established rules. Fighters competing in the “Land of the Rising Sun” spent the duration of their career training for and adapting to the intricacies of the broader offensive attacks. So too, have the Japanese referees been expertly trained in the ability to identify danger zones and react accordingly.
Having said that, MMA rules are not something that can be swapped in and out like a car’s transmission. If you don’t have the right parts, the machine won’t work. Is it reasonable to think a fighter that has trained for most of his career under the Unified Rules of MMA can adapt to Japanese Rules in the span of one fight? Two?
Being cognizant of an incoming head kick or knee to the face while in a vulnerable ground position is not something you can “figure out” on the fly. Neither is the ability to fight for ten minutes straight. An exhausted fighter is more susceptible to being knocked out, as the body betrays them with a marked decrease in speed and reaction time.
In short, North American fighters are ill-equipped to deal with Japanese Rules without serving time in a Japanese fight promotion. I’ve heard the argument that professional fighters can adapt to the new rules, even if they’ve never had to adhere to them in the past.
They’re pros, right?
Ever see an American League Pitcher go to bat during inter-league play?
I’ve listed fighter safety first because it’s the most important. But I would be remiss in my argument if I failed to anticipate the public’s perception of Japanese Rules. Las Vegas promoters and other fight organizations have worked hard and spent millions of dollars to reverse the Scarlett letter bestowed upon them after the violent orgy that was MMA in the 1990’s.
What was once reprehensible is now acceptable, but only to a degree. Part of the public’s tolerance has come from the ability of promotions to market fighters like George St. Pierre. These are not savage bar room brawlers beating each other into Alzheimer’s, they’re well-conditioned athletes competing in a sport.
With that tolerance and (ultimately acceptance), promotions are able to bring millions of dollars into new markets, which is one of the primary reasons why mainstream MMA will come to Vancouver in June 2010. I mentioned that Vancouver was regulating on a “trial basis,” with a close watch on the outcome of upcoming events.
How damaging can a local promotion be to the future of MMA if it implements Japanese Rules for its February 26 event? Imagine the uproar if a combatant is carried out on a stretcher after sustaining several blows to the head while grounded. That damage would pale in comparison to the after effects, as today’s networked world would likely watch the grisly incident get hours of airtime on YouTube and other media/social outlets.
MMA detractors are like hungry wolves. Why throw them a juicy steak?
There is no question that most of this is predicated on a “what if” scenario. And truth be told, it’s possible that a local event contested under different rules could go off without a hitch and potentially deliver a night of entertaining fights.
I’m sure that was the intent when James Thompson was signed to fight in Montreal.
I’ve mentioned the ability of fighters and referees to adapt to Japanese Rules. Even the public. But what about the ringside officials? Does anyone want to make an argument in favor of the integrity of MMA judging?
The judging in mixed martial arts has become a punch line. Forget Lyoto Machida vs. Mauricio Rua. If you want to understand the problem with MMA judging, re-watch Mike Easton’s “victory” over Chase Beebe at the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Virginia, back on October 3.
How can we expect officials to tackle a new set of rules when they are unable to competently enforce the ones already in place?
Growing the sport of MMA, much like training for the sport of MMA, takes several years and multiple events to master. We’re not there yet. In fact, we’ve only scratched the surface. Our goal should be to master the current product by producing the best fighters we can being judged by the best officials we have in the best promotions that are available.
I am not opposed to implementing Japanese Rules in the future, as I think different leagues can add an element of excitement to the sport and continue its global appeal. However, there is still work to do on the forefront. The current model embraces uniformity and that model has led to the success and sanctioning across North America.
If we’re to continue that growth, which equates to better opportunities for fighters in addition to more chances for fans to see live shows in new markets, we must continue on that pre-existing path. We can be different promotions, but we must be one sport.
Under one set of rules.