The Quebec Chronicles: Instinct MMA 4 Edition
Stephane Patry’s Instinct promotion was back in Quebec Friday with an 11-bout card headlined by a previously delayed Welterweight tilt pitting heavy-handed standout Brandon Thatch (8-1) against equally KO-minded Martin ‘the Hammer’ Grandmont (12-7). After the original Steve Bossé – Babalu Sobral main event fell through in early May, Instinct’s Montreal debut was forced to take place on a smaller scale than originally planned.
Overall, the evening did not lack for intrigue in or out of the cage, with solid submission and KO finishes punctuating the card, and the appearance of a police squad mid-event, which did not interfere with the fights.
The event occurred the same day a report appeared in Montreal daily La Presse outlining Instinct rival Ringside MMA’s inability since April to get licensed, owing to an extensive ongoing investigation and audit by the provincial police.
With the Quebec stage currently to himself, and his show one of the few held both in the province and in Eastern Canada this year, owing to a large-scale slowdown in promotional activity, it’s worth taking a look at what happened Friday – the good, the bad, the rest, and where Instinct and the Quebec scene are headed. (Don’t know what happened Friday? Take a short detour to the Top MMA News (TMN) quick results or play-by-play.)
- Brandon Thatch: In his first two appearances, ‘Rukus’ (8-1) took a combined 33 seconds to earn lightning-fast KOs. At Instinct 4, the rising Welterweight took a bit longer (1:55) to earn his eighth career 1st-round finish, landing an early takedown and quickly locking in a rear-naked. Friday was the last fight on Thatch’s Instinct contract, and promoter Patry stated re-signing the “future of the Welterweight division” was a top priority, which could occur as soon as this week. Ever the hyperbolist, he went on to claim that “there’s a lot of guys right now who are in the top two, three, four, five in the world that I don’t think will even get out of the first round with him,” subsequently adding with a straight face that “you put Nick Diaz in front of Brendan Thatch today, it won’t last a round. He’s going to knock him out.” Regardless, the Trevor Wittman/Grudge Training Center product is an impressive MMA specimen who consistently delivers the goods. What remains unclear is whether he can become someone who brings fans to the box office so far away from his native Colorado.
- Fight of the Night: Technically sound, the Middleweight bout between Strahinja Gavrilovic (3-0) and Saskatchewan’s Derek Parker (1-1-1) was not. But as far as fights went Friday, this sloppy battle was the clear crowd favourite. Hobbled and welted by an onslaught of leg licks in the opening frame, then assaulted from every angle in the second, Gavrilovic overcame Parker’s full mount position and dropped him decisively with a right as the fight got back to the feet in the third. As he finished with a few ground shots, the crowd, at first simply wowed by the cumulative punishment Gavrilovic absorbed, rose to their feet, directing their rapturous applause at the Bosnian transplant, who now calls Quebec home. As Patry pointed out in the post-fight presser, it was the third time Gavrilovic had overcome a bad start to score the W. His skill set unquestionably needs work, but with gutty performances like that, the 25 year-old Middleweight has the potential to emerge as a bankable asset for the promotion – Quebec MMA fans love a good scrap.
- Oulmoudene Najebe: A new entry into Quebec’s thin Heavyweight division, the Tristar fighter looked impressive in his pro debut, dispatching 7 foot giant Radu Spinghel (0-1), a former Muay Thai champ, in 43 seconds with a solid right hook. Though he’s already 31, having the UFC’s Georges St-Pierre and Francis Carmont in his corner is a reminder that ‘Will’ trains in prestigious company, suggesting he could be an exciting prospect to watch.
- Other Notables: Several other fighters looked good Friday. Denver’s Cody Donovan (7-2) choked out the previously undefeated Tap Star/Sam Zakula student Peter Nolan (4-1), and Scott Marckini (2-0) moved up two weight classes on short notice to finish crowd favourite Pascal Chambodie (0-1) with an arm-bar, after twice escaping the submission himself. Handed what could generously be called a can, one who missed weight by eight pounds, Remy Bussieres (2-0) exacted his frustration by crushing Dave Delorenzi (1-4). Tap Star’s Michael Karkula (4-0) also remained perfect, finishing with his fourth first round submission.
- Yves Lavigne: By far and away Quebec’s most competent and experienced MMA referee, Lavigne had not been called on to officiate bouts in his home province in quite some time. Saturday he was finally back in a Quebec cage. The fewer main events the blundering Philippe Chartier gets, the better.
- Production: Saturday’s arena wasn’t top of the line or modern, but Instinct nonetheless offered fans solid production values, a pre-event dry ice smoke overload notwithstanding. Large video monitors, a well-lighted cage, an entrance ramp, and pre-fight video packages that introduced fighters and put bouts into context were all welcome, especially given the lack of name recognition for many non-UFC fighters in the province.
- Bigger weight divisions: Hard to say how profitable it is, given the thin roster of Quebec fighters north of Welterweight, but the chance to consistently see bigger weight divisions in action is a welcome addition to the provincial MMA scene.
- Lost main card bouts: Something like a dozen fights fell through prior to Instinct 4 taking place, the most notable being Bossé–Sobral. Less than a week out from the card, the event also lost its co-main event when Jens Pulver (26-16-1) pulled out of his match-up with rising Bantamweight Stephane Pelletier (6-1), also owing to a training injury. A bummer for fans, no question.
- Lost prospects: The lower portion of the card also suffered, with the highly-touted Mandel Nallo (0-0) and the hard-hitting Alex Laramée (1-0), among others, losing their opponents late in the game and falling off the card, resulting in more potentially exciting performances being lost to the rampant MMA injury bug and an inability to get medicals in order.
- Martin Grandmont: After a tough loss to Pete Spratt in December at Instinct 2, the Hammer’s dream of finally getting to the UFC dimmed. Looking virtually helpless as Thatch took him to the ground Friday for the submission finish, it came very close to conclusively going out. Vocal about his desire to face the red-hot Thatch, he looked unready when the fight left the feet, where he usually excels. A disappointing turn for Grandmont.
- Police Presence: Never a plus for the image of Quebec MMA. Halfway through the main card, a squad of about ten cops showed up and began scoping out an individual in the VIP section. Gradually closing in, the cops eventually pulled aside the unidentified muscular, silver-haired, middle-aged man. Three cops talked to him for a few minutes before letting him return to his seat. The squad, from the Montreal Police’s Eclipse division,usually tasked with squelching gang activity, stuck around for a while before leaving without arresting him. Asked about the presence post-event, Patry said “I saw a few cops, but it happens every show,” adding that he didn’t know who they’d been looking for.
- Attendance: Not a knock against the crowd itself, but while Patry can promote more aggressively and cohesively than his sidelined provincial rival, it isn’t yet clear he can consistently outperform them at the box office. With a larger arena than Ringside 13, and a bigger fight card, Instinct 4 managed to pull in, by my head-by-head count, about 1100 fans (Patry claimed 1800-1900 post-event). I counted about 1200 people at Ringside 13 in March. While the tickets sold to tickets comped ratio remains a mystery in Quebec, denying real clarity to this performance metric, the gargantuan scope of Patry’s ambition likely needs more box office business to be sustainable.
- Thierry Quenneville: After a voluntary two years on the shelf, the 32-year old Surgeon (16-9) made his comeback Friday, moving from the Instinct announcing table to its cage. Looking relaxed coming in, Quenneville earned a unanimous nod over UFC vet Luke Caudillo (17-17). The bout itself came off a bit flat, with Quenneville moving more quickly on the feet and throwing repeatedly, but the fighters never really engaging over 15 minutes, and no real sign of a near-finish. Quenneville expressed interest in fighting again post-bout, but not immediately.
- Georges St-Pierre: Quebec’s most famous MMA fighter was present Friday to corner his teammate Oulmoudene Najebe. His presence was noteworthy, not only because of his public backing of Instinct rival Ringside last year, but also due to the terminated relationship between GSP and Patry, his manager and promoter at the start of his career. All this, and Patry’s claim that GSP personally contacted him to sell him on Najebe, is a reminder that MMA is a small world, and that options aren’t overflowing for new fighters in the province, the result sometimes being former business partners looking past old issues.
- Missing in Action: Two other notable Instinct prospects weren’t in action Friday:
- Todd Stoute: With controversy surrounding his name since the emergence of gruesome details related to his criminal past, the Black Hulk (4-0) hasn’t been seen since Instinct 2, though he was for a time on the Instinct 4 card. Patry remains steadfast in backing his powerful prospect. “He’ll back on the next show. I think we’ve all done mistakes in life. It was 5-6 years ago, he knows what he did was wrong, and I’m 100 per cent behind him. He’s a great athlete, he’s a great person, and I like him a lot.”
- Jason Courchesne: The 2-0 Welterweight, easily one of the most promising Quebec prospects to go pro over the last year, hasn’t been seen in action since Instinct 1 in November. Friday he filled in for Quenneville in the announcing booth. According to Patry, he should be back in the cage this fall.
- Patry was also diplomatic about the end of his relationship with former primary Instinct investor George Papamikidis following Instinct 3, stating their business break-up was cordial and probably for the best for both of them, also implying that Papamikidis did not have the time to get sufficiently involved in Instinct’s business operations given his other interests. (A previous attempt by TMN to contact Papamikidis for comment in May was not answered). He added that he plans to bring in new partners as he moves forward.
- With his main partner gone, Instinct 4 marked the first event Patry promoted under his own license, granted to him by the ‘Régie des alcools des courses et des jeux’ (RACJ) in late May. He previously promoted Instinct under licenses obtained by Papamikidis’ Leodari Entertainment Group, and Bossé’s manager Gary Chartrand. Patry claimed the delay in his licensing was the result of the Strikebox debacle in 2010, which was in fact mentioned prominently in the government’s licensing decision.
- Concurrently, the promotion’s name shifted subtlety from Instinct MMA to Instinct Fighting starting with this event, which Patry attributes cryptically to a “desire to do something with a few different angles for combat sports.”
- Angered by one of his bouts falling through due to medicals not being in order, Patry now plans to stipulate in his contracts the removal of bout purse percentages for not only missing weight (20 per cent), but also not having medicals in a week prior (20 per cent), or arriving late to the weigh-in (20 per cent).
- On internet rumours that Jens Pulver pulled out of the card because Patry couldn’t actually afford to pay him his purse, the promoter countered that a few fighters on Friday’s card (he declined to specify), were paid more than what Pulver would have made.
- On the current misfortune of his Ringside rivals: “It’s never good to have bad stories come out about the sport,” Patry stated. “But at the same time, all those things this article stated about Ringside, is things they were saying about me. I went through every single step to get my license – SQ (Sureté Quebec) investigation, the commission – I went through everything.”
- A reminder of how long Patry has been in the business of promoting MMA: 12 years on, Friday’s show marked a return of sorts for him. In June 2000 he held his first UCC event at the same Centre Pierre Charbonneau, featuring the pro debuts of David Loiseau, Shawn Tompkins (fighting, not coaching), and Wagney Fabiano.
- On an amusing note, the press table I shared with my TMN colleague Don Wilson had one more name tag on it – Ariel Helwani. Needless to say, the Montreal born-interview specialist didn’t show.
- Though no specific date is locked down, Patry plans to be back in August for Instinct 5, in a location outside Montreal, with a rescheduled Stephane Pelletier-Jens Pulver match-up the likely main event.
- As of now, Patry plans a busy fall schedule with Instinct 6 in October in Montreal, Instinct 7 in November in Drummondville, and Instinct 8 back in Montreal in December.
- A major hitch in these plans is the recovery of Steve Bossé’s injured hand, which continues to play a large role in Instinct’s event scheduling. While Patry claimed his most valuable Quebec asset could start training in early August in time for a rescheduled October fight with Babalu at Instinct 6, a conclusion Bossé’s manager echoed, in a forthcoming interview with TMN’s Don Wilson, a thicker-looking Bossé was non-committal on a return date, stating he was not setting any definitive deadlines for himself. Patry noted that the contract with Babalu will expire in mid-October. As such, the certainty of the fight taking place this fall is far from absolute.
- Patry also plans to add titles to his organization at Instinct 6, with a champion in every weight division crowned that night. Match-ups will be made from within the organization’s roster, with the winner then going on to face the number one contender in his first defense.
Looking more broadly ahead, Patry publicly offers a rather clear vision for his promotion. “I want to make Instinct twice as big and twice as exciting as TKO was,” he said Friday. He also added that he wanted to avoid a mistake he made in the TKO era, where he let many of his fighters leave for the UFC without resistance. His ambition is to turn Instinct into an alternative to the UFC (though admittedly never as big), by holding on to his talent.
For a promotion four events in, this is massively ambitious. Instinct has many exciting fighters across multiple weight divisions that Patry is willing to match up against each other, often with exciting results. The question remains to what extent he can sell it to the paying Quebec public. Plans like these don’t come cheap, and like any other promoter working in-province, he faces the current Quebec MMA conundrum:
Non-UFC promotions, especially new ones, don’t yet have their name associated with consistent quality in the eyes of the public. As such, most tickets sold for regional MMA promotions are not at the box office, but through the fighters on the card, mainly to family, fans, and friends, thus requiring a promoter to use local talent.
As a fighter’s talent level increases, most Quebec mixed martial artists tend to start training, at least part time, at Montreal’s Tristar gym in order to gain access to better sparring partners. In turn, these fighters are usually unwilling to face their new teammates, depriving promoters of bankable Quebec vs. Quebec match-ups. This requires promoters to go out of province to find good opponents for top draws, with Ontario currently being the most popular source.
Since at least the beginning of 2011, Ontario fighters have won an overwhelming majority of their bouts against Quebec opponents. Local fighters losing makes it harder to promote them.
The left-over options are then either finding lower-level opponents for most Quebec fighters somewhere else, though their sustained success often means losing burgeoning stars to Bellator or the UFC, or finding a way to sell out-of-province athletes, like a Brendan Thatch, to the Quebec public. It should be noted this conundrum isn’t absolute, as some Quebec fighters have had success against out of province opponents.
Finding a way to successfully promote in the province over a sustained period of time remains a tall, but not impossible, task, for Patry, Ringside, or anyone else who steps up to give it a shot. The non-stop boom times of MMA are for the time being a thing of the past, leaving a smaller window for error.
Stay tuned in the coming days for ‘Big Win’ Don Wilson’s exclusive post-fight interviews with main event winner Brandon Thatch, and Thierry Quenneville, plus an update with Steve Bossé.