The Black Eye – Robin Talks the Ontario MMA Gold Rush
A true MMA obsessive, Black is an Analyst and On Air personality for The Fight Network and The Score, a color commentator for English broadcasts of Sengoku and DEEP as well as Ringside, CFC, AFC, MFL, The Score Fighting Series and other shows. He has also ring announced and done post-fight interviews for WRECK, CFC and other shows, and is a writer for TheNationalPost and Maxim Canada. In addition, Black manages a stable of 18 athletes (and growing) as managing partner of Black and associates Fighter management.
Black even stepped into the cage as a pro MMA Fighter fighting eight times and compiling a ‘not-quite-stellar’ (his words) professional MMA record of 3-5.
Remember back when there was no legal Mixed Martial Arts in Ontario? Back in the dark days before late 2010? Ontario fighters used to have to head out to distant lands like Winnipeg, Montreal and Edmonton to ply their trade.
It was a simpler time.
I had always heard how hard it was for Ontario fighters to get fights elsewhere, but I never found that to be true. Sure, I knew I could personally get fights because I was that weird guy who wore make-up in a band and was on MuchMusic, I had a good manager, and people were interested in seeing me get beat up, especially at first. I’m talking about getting fights for other fighters. I really did not find it that hard to find fights for guys outside of Ontario.
It was challenging, yes, but very do-able.
But there just was not the professional infrastructure in Ontario to help make it happen for most guys. There were no managers. Fighters themselves, fighters’ coaches, fighters’ friends were trying to get fights. There was no one who looked at management, real professional management, as a hard learning-curve business with a real skill set to study and develop.
And it is a real skill set, a real job, a real business. You have to learn it like learning boxing or jiu-jitsu. And you have to dedicate time to getting better at it. To learn from mistakes.
And that is something strange that I am finding about ALL the professional MMA roles in Ontario. The lack of infrastructure. For some bizarre reason, people in Ontario decide to get into the MMA biz with no experience, with no experienced partners or employees, and figure they are the first people working in a “new” business and just start working without learning.
Sure, everyone who starts anything starts with no experience. However, the smart ones try to learn from experienced people.
Now, before I go on, I am far from an expert in any of this business. I have only been working in various areas of the MMA world for around 5 years, maybe trying to analyze and research for only a couple years before, so I have a LOT to learn. But I do realize the importance of recognizing that every job or career comes with its own requisite group of skills, knowledge and experience, and recognizing that in all likelihood if I am someone starting something new I do not yet have these skills, knowledge and experience. So I need to research, develop, and learn from people who have been there for double that time. That seems like a smart and logical way to approach a new business.
Strangely in MMA, especially in a new market like Ontario, people seem so ready to assume that they know all they need to know and just run headlong into a business that they have no experience in.
In Canada, there are four or five very, very good matchmakers. Guys like Marc-Andre Drolet in Winnipeg, Alex Caporicci or Joey Benoit in Montreal, and Darren Owen in Victoria. These guys have spent YEARS developing the nuances of matchmaking, and have successfully matched dozens and dozens of cards. Learned the hard way. Learned from failures as well as successes. Learned enough to learn what they DON’T know, and start working to know it.
There are massively experienced MMA promoters in Canada, guys like Guisseppe Denetale and Nick Castiglia and Keith Crawford and Mark Pavelich (who is a character but has consistently and successfully promoted the highest level live US televised MMA for a dozen years).
There are MMA promotion people and MMA ring announcers and MMA publicists and people with 10 and 12 years of MMA experience in all business roles.
If I was starting an MMA business in Ontario, I would hire some of these people or pay them as consultants or, at the very least, pick their brains over lunch.
Not in Ontario MMA. For some reason Ontario guys want to go it alone.
And make no mistake, attempting to put on an event with 20 fighters (you will have to deal with 55 fighters and 30 coaches and friends to get down to the 20 fighters you need) that requires publicity, venue, marketing, ticket sales, advertising, legal contracts, medical staff, promotion, live performance experts, non-stop emergency problem-solving, and dealing with a government athletic commission in place to set rules and guidelines for fighter safety and event quality is a BRUTAL and THANKLESS job for the whole team. Each role is hard (and underpaid if paid at all) and each role relies on the other. The promoter cannot advertise and sell tickets until the matches are signed, and the matches could get rejected by the commission, and a million things can go wrong, and a million things always WILL go wrong. Each role in the promotion team is brutally hard.
Now, there are new people, if they are smart and committed and driven to learn, that can fit any of these roles. But you would want most of these roles filled by experienced people, people who have successfully run MMA shows many times before, with a peppering of new talent. But you certainly do NOT want an entire team, a matchmaker, promoter, publicist, broadcast, live talent, organizer team made up entirely of inexperienced non-MMA people.
But that’s what we’re seeing pop up right across Ontario. And that’s scary.
Now there are some guys in there from pertinent fields, guys like Brad Jones (who is putting on a number of Ontario shows starting with London and Windsor) who has 20 sterling years in the concert and event promotion business, and Dave Mair who has been involved at the Olympic level in wrestling and is a smart hard working guy who doesn’t like compliments or attention (so that’s all I’ll say about him), and Tony Lee who has a natural promoting talent and Rob Wynne in Kingston who has fought and been involved in MMA. And others.
But, in a dozen new Ontario shows coming up, there is only one single promoter or matchmaker who has ever successfully run/matched/promoted a single MMA event – Mark Pavelich from the MFC. His show will run smoothly, successfully and painlessly. Because he’s done 30 of them and made and learned from all the mistakes. He knows the business, knows its pratfalls, and is a workhorse.
That is changing with the second wave of Ontario MMA shows. There is a team out of Ottawa/Gatineau, WRECK MMA, who are very successful and run a quality proven product. They will be promoting in Ottawa this fall I understand. And Pete Rodley who is promoting in Sudbury in September has done events before. And The Score Fighting Series will be bringing their proven, successful team to The Hershey Centre in Mississauga this summer.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not shitting on anyone here. Some of the guys I have dealt with every day for my fighters or researched for The Fight Network are impressive individuals who are making things happen.
All I am really saying is how shocking it is to see a dozen new people try to go from 0 to 100 without hiring anyone who has ever put a MMA show on. I mean, if one of these guys spent 4 or 5 grand on an experienced guy who has put on 8 or 10 shows, they would immediately cut their workload in half. The good people they do have would get to work more effectively, because they would be following a proven organizational model. As it is, the good people they have must re-invent the wheel, a wheel that has been refined over 10 years.
The good news is, its looking like this first wave of shows should be really successful in many ways. Ticket sales for the first few shows are very high. Some of the guys doing different roles have turned out to be very smart and competent (like the aforementioned Jones, Mair, etc). Imagine what these guys could do if they had someone who had successfully run 10 or 15 shows working closely with them?
Its rare, but here are some examples of new guys who have come in with no experience and thrived. The guys at Aggression MMA in Edmonton had no experience at all, but on day 1 they brought in Bobby Karimi-Busheri, who has solid matchmaking experience, and involved other experienced people in the MMA world, and worked hard to learn from every mistake or challenge, and now run a high quality show that is improving every event. They are solid evidence that it can be done.
But I can tell you that, due to not having people involved who have produced and reproduced and reproduced the complex details of an MMA show before, the new Ontario guys will be working 3 times as hard as they need to be. These hard working people will be working day and night, down to the wire, to get these shows to fly because they are learning as they go.
People need experienced people so that a system, a proven step-by-step task list system, is in place so that all jobs and tasks are done at the time they are needed, in the order that works, so that the complicated puzzle of a quality fight card comes together.
There have been many moments where, as someone who is insanely passionate about and now makes their living in MMA, I have been scared to see where MMA is going in Ontario.
Too many shows too soon. Not enough Ontario fighters. Half full cards changing daily. So many new promoters with no MMA promo experience. No experienced Ontario matchmakers. A brand new commission doing their best to make it work. Medical requirements for fighters that are double what other provinces have. Its like The Wild West out here. Its too much too soon.
But, because there are some good people involved, people that are willing to work to the death, and a built-in Southern Ontario rabid fan base, its starting to feel like many of these shows will start successfully. And that is great great news.
People keep talking about needing to see home-grown fighting talent develop.
For the survival of MMA in Ontario, we will really need to see some home-grown match-making, promoting, live hosting and MMA business people develop. Either by bringing in experienced people or trial-and-error-ing our way through it until half these shows are gone and the other half develop.
I hope they all make it. I hope the growing pains are short and tolerable for all of them, and we see more and more MMA across Ontario. Man, if you’re like me, you can’t get enough.
BUT, if anyone out there reading this is thinking about jumping into the MMA game in Ontario- DON’T DO IT.
Let the smoke clear for a year and a half. Research, assess and learn in the meantime. See how the landscape develops after the big gold rush. Then test the waters.
I am closing out this blog by saying ‘Thank You’ and wishing nothing but success for all the people out there putting on MMA shows here in Ontario. Humbly, if I or anyone I work with could ever help in any way, if our odd skill collection of skills or experience or contacts or whatever can help in any way, never hesitate to call. You guys are the risk takers, and I truly hope with your risks come great rewards.
There’s definitely great rewards in store for the fighters and fans in Ontario.
Robin Black loves to hear from you and gossip with other fight fans. Please always feel free to leave comments, good and bad, or email Robin anytime at Robin@TheFightNetwork.com.