The Quebec Chronicles: Challenge MMA – A New/Old Beginning
Five-and-a-half months. 161 days. 17 UFC events in the interim—two locally. After a busy 2011 and a faltering 2012, bookended by SLAMM’s forgettable November event, Quebec’s MMA drought finally ended Saturday with the debut of Challenge MMA in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, southeast of Montreal.
Names and faces were familiar, none more than Steve Bossé, standard-bearer for the province’s sub-UFC scene. This is Quebec MMA after all. Promotions come and go, but local fighters chug along, eagerly offering their services to the latest businessman willing to risk money promoting in the province’s fickle market.
With the memory of once-dominant Ringside growing ever more cloudy, successor Stephane Patry and his Instinct promotion now fellow citizens in the land of the licenseless as of March 31, and nary a peep from Interbox about a second SLAMM event, Gary Chartrand stepped up to fill the void.
Chartrand is Bossé’s manager. Out of local partners after showcasing his Light-Heavyweight in five Quebec promotions (TKO, Ringside, MFL, W-1 and Instinct) since 2008, he finally decided to cut out the middleman. And so was born Challenge MMA—or technically, reborn. An attempt to promote Bossé under the same name in 2011 ended in failure, the card cancelled days before it was scheduled to take place.
Second time was the charm Saturday, with the event unfolding in the hometown of Bossé’s previous career as a hockey goon. The solid 12-bout card featured a pair of UFC aspirants, along with a crop of up-and-coming talents.
Bossé, Garcia march forward
After co-headliner Martin Desilets withdrew with an elbow injury in the lead-up to the event, Michigan’s Caleb Grummet (5-6) stepped in for the short notice bout against Bossé. Now 31, the Boss was last seen in October 2011 putting Houston Alexander to sleep with a standing elbow strike. He unloaded this same weapon Saturday, attacking Grummet early before slicing his forehead open with an elbow.
As Olé, Olé, Olé chants broke out in the crowd and the hometown favourite continued his attack, Grummet’s bloody forehead painted Bossé’s clinched back a deep crimson red. After a doctor checked the cut on Yves Lavigne’s orders, the fight continued. By the time the round ended, Grummet’s inadvertent impressionistic art had puddled heavily onto the canvas and the doctor decided he’d seen enough.
With the stoppage, Bossé improved to 10-1, a win closer to finally getting his call-up to the big leagues. Importantly, he also appeared to escape without injury, an issue that plagued him after his fight with Alexander, contributing to a 19-month layoff. Per Chartrand, calls have been fielded from both Bellator and the UFC. The sticking point appears to be money. Bossé’s drawing power in Quebec affords him a higher salary outside the UFC than he would make with Zuffa’s standard starting contract. Chartrand said he was waiting for THE offer—meaning a better paying one.
The co-main event featured the evening’s most engaging bout, with powerful Dominican Welterweight Alex Garcia (9-1) surviving the toughest test since his sole career loss in 2011. His opponent, 23 year-old Ryan Dickson entered the bout undefeated at 5-0 and, more importantly, had recovered from testicular cancer following a diagnosis in late 2012.
Working from the guard in the opening round after an early takedown, Garcia effectively landed strikes on Dickson. Things took a dramatic turn in the second round, as Dickson, the fresher fighter five minutes in, landed his own takedown, worked to full mount, then took Garcia’s back. After sinking in his hooks, Dickson aggressively pursued the rear-naked, but was ultimately unable to finish Garcia. By the third, both fighters were looking tired. Garcia gutted it out, smothering Dickson once more while attacking him in the guard to pick up the decision win.
A fight earlier, rising local bruiser Strahinja Gavrilovic (4-0) traded bombs with Ben Gallant (2-2) before pounding him out on the ground for a late first-round finish. Gavrilovic, armed with his fan-friendly brawling style and a cocky-brash post-fight attitude, is developing a reputation as an entertaining draw.
Toronto Bantamweight Michael Imperato displayed his slick submission game, improving to 6-1 with his fifth career first-round submission over Dimitri Waardenburg (8-7). Team Legion Lightweight Keven Morin (7-5) pulled out a close decision over his provincial counterpart Derek Gauthier (7-5). Gauthier, 27, and now 2-5 since 2010, continues to struggle after starting his career a perfect 5-0. In the undercard’s most entertaining bout, gritty Featherweight Tommy Côté (4-3) scored his second straight win, escaping multiple submission attempts to tap out Alex Morgan (0-1) in the second-round via rear-naked choke.
Chartrand, an enthusiastic supporter of the sport, could be seen on Facebook the week prior to the event admonishing his fighters for not handing over their ticket sale money on time. Post-event, he admitted his fighters were not businessmen and sounded a note of regret that they were tasked with the lion’s share of ticket sales instead of the sport’s promoters.
I counted, head-by-head, about 1900 people at the arena Saturday, though Chartrand put attendance in the 2500-2800 range. In comparison, Instinct 4 pulled in 1100 fans in June and SLAMM about 1300 in November. Chartrand also claimed to have only comped 45 tickets for the show. With the Regie des alcools, des courses et des jeux (RACJ)’s policy of not disclosing figures, this is impossible to confirm.
When I asked why he thought his predecessors had failed, his answer was simple: “A lot of flash; no cash.” With wealth established outside MMA through his heating and ventilation business, Chartrand said he refuses to promote the sport on an informal basis, or run his promotion at a loss. He added that he’d pulled in $40,000 in sponsorship for the event—all paid up front.
With his first event in the books, he’s now looking ahead. Challenge MMA 2 is scheduled for August 17 in Montreal at the Centre Pierre Charbonneau, where Instinct held its finale back in June 2012. Intending his follow-up as a smaller-budget affair, Chartrand pegged Victor Valimaki (17-8) as the probable next opponent for Bossé, though he pointed out The Matrix’s scheduled bout for July 5 in Edmonton at AFC 19 could complicate things.
Alex Garcia is also scheduled to return, against a new opponent vetted by his Tristar trainers. This underscores Chartrand’s card-building approach: working with managers, instead of a single match-maker (though he did collaborate with Yohann Dagenais among others). Aiemann Zahabi (1-0), younger brother of Firas, and fellow blue-chip prospect Olivier Aubin-Mercier (3-0), should also be on the card. Aubin-Mercier was scheduled to face Theo Toney (2-3) Saturday, but the Poetic Hitman pulled out for undisclosed reasons days before the fight. Per Chartrand, he isn’t be welcome back.
For now, the regional Quebec stage is Chartrand’s, especially in the Montreal region. RACJ head Michel Hamelin confirmed to me Friday that besides the smaller-scale UGC, and the new Ligue d’Arts Martiaux Mixtes du Quebec (LAMMAQ), launching in Quebec City this September, very little is on the horizon. Only time will tell if Chartrand can succeed where so many others have failed.