The Quebec Chronicles: Challenge MMA 2 – A New Hope?
David Loiseau is not Steve Bossé. This is the cold hard truth when promoting MMA in Quebec. That one is a former UFC title contender and the other remains perennially a good win away from the big show does not matter, for the simple reason that Bossé’s aura of violence taps into something that Loiseau’s more measured approach cannot and does not match. Not in these parts. So when the former pulls out of his headlining slot and the latter fills in, an event changes. Attendance, the media’s fickle attention, and that intangible edge-of-your-seat ambiance borne of an anticipated skull-thumping finish all suffer.
Heading into Saturday’s Challenge MMA 2, such diminished expectations were on full display, with a minimal media presence on hand (assisted by the UFC’s Shogun vs. Sonnen card that same evening). Deprived of its original Victor Valimaki-Steve Bossé headliner after The Boss pulled out, the promotion forged ahead with an event decidedly lower key than its debut three months ago. But beyond the smaller crowd (about 1000, down from 1900* in May) and sparse pre-fight buzz, the fourteen-fight card loaded with local, mostly-Tristar based prospects delivered in spades, suggesting a potentially viable future for the promotion, with or without Bossé.
Inside the Cage
Fighting on his native soil for the first time since 2010, David Loiseau (22-10) moved up to a 195 pound Catchweight to face Michigan’s Caleb Grummet (5-7). Last seen having his forehead split open by Bossé, Grummet looked utterly overmatched against The Crow, who showcased a newfound enthusiasm for wrestling by repeatedly taking his larger opponent to the ground. Looking more comfortable than in recent performances, Loiseau also found time to attempt a few spinning attacks on his feet, on way to a clear-cut decision. Speaking to ‘Big Win’ Don Wilson post-fight, Loiseau, now 33 and 13 years into his pro fighting career, sounded as excited as ever about the sport and determined to prove himself worthy of a fourth crack at the UFC.
In the co-main event, Tristar Welterweight Alex Garcia (10-1) took less than two minutes to steamroll American Chris Heatherly (5-1) after connecting against the cage with a knee to the noggin, getting the takedown and locking in a rear-naked choke. Coming off a tough win over Ryan Dickson (5-1), Garcia hinted post-fight at frustration with not having faced a tougher challenge Saturday. Up next for the Dominican Nightmare is either trying out for The Ultimate Fighter Nations (if he can get his Canadian passport in time), or directly seeking a fight with the UFC. If neither pans out, expect him back for the next Challenge card.
Looking as calm and collected as he did his first three times in the cage, Quebec Lightweight Olivier Aubin-Mercier (4-0) scored his fourth consecutive rear-naked choke submission, all under two minutes. Up against his toughest opponent to date in Score Fighting Series vet Jason Meisel (4-2), Aubin-Mercier connected with a short uppercut before getting the takedown with a short Judo trip and finishing only 98 seconds into the fight. Given his consistently dominant performances and background as a former member of Canada’s Judo team, Aubin-Mercier is a prospect to keep an eye on.
In other main card action, Welterweight Loyd Galindo (4-3) bounced back after losing the first round to Nabil Khatib (11-11), repeatedly connecting with his hands on way to a gritty 29-28 decision. Jiu-Jitsu wizard Ryan Hall (2-1) wasted little time taking his bout to the ground, scoring his first career submission via rear-naked choke. Mario Pereira (3-0), a promising Featherweight and teammate of Aubin-Mercier, followed up on his impressive handling of Adrian Vilaca (1-1) in May with a dominant first-round submission.
Over eight fights, the undercard was also loaded with high-octane performances. Gatineau’s Eric Nadon (1-1) earned Top MMA News’s (TMN) Submission of the Night with a violent win over Sacha Maheux (0-3). Because no Quebec card is truly complete without referee Phillipe Chartier demonstrating his tenured incompetence, the bout’s end came only after Nadon rained down with punches on a covered up Maheux from mount for almost 15 seconds. With a clear view of the action, Chartier chose not to step in, forcing Maheux to aggressively arch his opponents head back with a rear-naked choke, finally forcing an end to the bout.
Tristar Bantamweight James Mancini (1-0) put an exclamation mark on his debut, landing a spectacular German suplex early in the opening frame, followed up with a few shots to finish. Maxime Dubois (4-1), the most soft-spoken and unassuming fighter I’ve ever interviewed, continued to display a killer instinct inside the octagon, knocking self-KO sensation Dan Lariviere (1-1) to the mat to open the third round before unloading with an onslaught of ground-and-pound to earn the stoppage. At only 20 years of age, Dubois is another burgeoning Featherweight talent to watch.
In TMN’s Fight of the Night, debuting fighters Jonathan Roblin (1-0) and Karim Ranni (0-1) spent 15 minutes moving forward and swinging, in the open, in the clinch and against the cage, much to the crowd’s delight. Despite TMN scoring all three rounds for Ranni, the split-decision was awarded to Roblin. In other undercard action, two more Tristar fighters successfully debuted, with Louie Sanoudakis (1-0) and Tariq Ismail (1-0) earning decisions. Ottawa’s James Kouame (2-1) came within a hair of blowing a 29-28 split decision win (he did on TMN’s card), with an ill-advised and completely flubbed capoeira kick in the third. Opening the night with a bang, Aaron Cook (1-0) took only 15 seconds to flushly connect with a head-kick KO, earning TMN’s Knockout of the Night.
Post-event, Gary Chartrand stated Challenge would be back for a third event November 9 in Montreal, which came as a surprise to quite a few people I’d spoken to Saturday. Best known within Quebec’s fight scene as Steve Bossé’s long-time manager, Chartrand’s creation of Challenge earlier this year appeared to be nothing more than a means to an end for booking the Boss following Ringside and Instinct MMA’s demises in 2012.
Prior to Saturday, word broke that Chartrand and Bossé professional relationship had ended (on good terms), prompting many to assume Challenge MMA 2 would be the promotion’s swan song. (Reached for comment Sunday, Bossé confirmed the split, but would only say that he’d be back in the fall to announce his next fight and new management team).
Not so, Chartrand insists. Independently wealthy via his ventilation business, the 63-year-old fight fan seems willing to invest in Quebec MMA now that no one else in Montreal will (besides Ali Nestor’s smaller-scale UGC). After being forced by Bossé’s absence to scale back from his May debut, Chartrand’s challenge (pardon the pun) going forward will be to sustain, or, however unlikely in this post-boom era of Canadian MMA, grow a promotion with the exciting talent pool at his disposal, which, it’s worth noting is mostly identical to the ones Ringside and Instinct previously utilized and failed with. Which brings us to the next point.
Chartrand says he refuses to operate at a loss, claiming he broke even on Saturday’s event, which he pegged as costing about $90,000 to promote. The impact of his cost-controlling approach was visible in the understated build-up to the card. A number of fighters and coaches mentioned to TMN that the promotion was disorganized in their pre-fight dealings, while voicing irritation that Chartrand was posting their personal ticket sale figures on Facebook. Fights started 45 minutes earlier than the time advertised on the tickets Saturday.
Promotion for the event also felt much lower-scale than Ringside and Instinct’s past efforts, with most tickets being sold through fighters. TMN’s three-man team represented 60 per cent of the media’s presence at the event, where frills were few and far between, with a very basic presentation and minimal staff on hand. As such, public awareness of the event appeared to be limited to fighters’ immediate circles, who may hold little interest or loyalty to the Challenge brand itself beyond the fighter they support.
Can Challenge survive with its combination of controlled spending and exciting fights? It will definitely require Chartrand to build new (ticket-selling) stars out of his roster, a skill he will need to develop. Chartrand indicated to me that Bossé could fight again for his promotion, but even if he does, his time left on the regional scene is likely limited. Ditto for Alex Garcia, though there are no guarantees in this sport.
If Saturday’s action-packed fights were a litmus test, Challenge is definitely doing something right. SLAMM promoted a single Tristar-focused card last year that I criticized for its baldly one-sided matchmaking. Saturday, Tristar-affiliated fighters went 7-3, many of them winning in impressive fashion. Unlike at SLAMM however, few of the bouts were quick, unsatisfying one-sided finishes lacking engaging back-and-forth. Part of the reason may be that Tristar had a less direct hand in the matchmaking this time around. Some quick math illustrates the point. Tristar’s opponents at SLAMM had a combined 37 per cent winning percentage. Saturday, the figure was 64 per cent. That extra 27 per cent appeared to contribute to a far more interesting outcome.
While Yohann Dagenais handled most of the matchmaking for Saturday’s card, Chartrand’s stated intention moving forward is to get more involved, with an eye on matching up more Quebec fighters and reigniting the tradition of intra-provincial rivalries. It’s an interesting idea he’ll likely have trouble pursuing. Tristar continues to draw in a lion’s share of the province’s best talent and has expanded to new locations. Its fighters remain unwilling to fight each other. (I previously discussed this matchmaking problem at the bottom of this article.)
As a final note, Chartrand’s brief monopoly on Quebec talent is ending. Quebec City-based Ligue d’Arts Martiaux Mixtes du Quebec (LAMMQ), which debuts October 5, has put together a solid card packed with local talent. With Chartrand not keeping any of his fighters under contract, his roster is also potentially available. Headed by former amateur MMA promoter Yohan Bérubé, LAMMQ also has veteran TKO-XMMA-Ringside matchmaker Joey Benoit working behind the scenes.
For the moment, the two promotions have their respective cities to operate in, though LAMMQ is apparently interested in moving into the Montreal market down the road, hinting at a potential new rivalry. Or not. All this assumes that Quebec MMA begins to stabilize, casting aside the promotional boom-bust cycle of the last two years.
* The attendance numbers I provide in this and every other article are based on my own head-by-head count of the room during the main card. As such, I firmly stand behind the figures. They are, however usually lower than the ones promoters provide me. Quebec’s athletic commission (RACJ) does not make public the numbers promoters report to them, making it is impossible to properly confirm them.
** All photos by Mike Fischl.