Transformation of MMA not without a fight

Adam Toohey after his first fight.


Adam Toohey after his first fight.

When ACT amateur mixed martial arts competitor, Adam Toohey, stepped into the cage for his first fight, he thought he knew what to expect.

The fight had been arranged by his coaches and local fight promotion Brace, and he thought he was going up against another debutante. But as soon as the bell had rung, his opponent flew out of the gates with a flying knee, breaking Toohey’s eye socket.

In the following seconds, his opponent landed a bevy of punches before the ref stepped in and stopped the bout. It was only after the fight that something didn’t add up.

“Afterwards I was talking to people and they were like ‘mate, he’s had professional fights in Melbourne’. So, he had professional fights in Melbourne, and then came to the ACT and re-submitted himself as an amateur,” Toohey said.

“I had a two-year lay-off after that because I thought, wow, if that’s what can happen then these waters are way deeper than I realised and I need to be far more developed. I need to be training for six years rather than three.”

What he experienced was the wild west of combat sports – amateur MMA.

Experiences like Toohey’s have prompted some to try to establish stricter regulation and governance to the MMA, particularly to encourage more participation in the sport. But for a sport that was born out of an almost anti-establishment ethos, it is not going to be an easy sell.

Mixed Martial Arts has been on the rise since the ’90s, and it has been growing as both a spectator sport and – for those brave enough – a participation sport. It combines a range of disciplines from wrestling, judo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, karate, boxing and others to create a combat sport with limited restrictions, imploring fighters to use whatever skills they have to win.

The attraction of MMA in its early days was that it was free from the rigid nature and structure of traditional martial arts. Unlike karate, taekwondo or judo competitions where only a portion of these martial arts’ moves are allowed, MMA offered the freedom for martial artists to utilise the full extent of their skills.

Now MMA is only behind boxing as the most popular combat sport for people to watch, but its inherent complexity and violent nature means that it is struggling to become a participation sport.

MMA for the most part relies on professional promotions like the UFC as its main vehicle for competition, with amateur fights appearing in local, smaller promotions. Although not unregulated, amateur MMA doesn’t have any sort of formal competition format.

Since there is no official governing body for MMA in Australia there is no national database on fighters. For people like Adam Toohey, unless they know of the fighter personally, they are most likely going in blind.

Amateur bouts usually happen on the undercards of professional fight promotions, and as Toohey says, at this point in time, there isn’t much difference between amateur and professional MMA. Shorter rounds, a little more protection (in terms of bigger gloves and shin guards) and a slightly altered ruleset are all that separate the two.

When former professional fighter, and owner of CBR MMA, Ryan Gillett asked a promotion for a fight, he was asked if wanted to fight as a professional or an amateur.

“I said to him (the promoter) what’s the difference? He said ‘I’ll pay you as a pro’ – and that sounded good to me,” Gillett said.

Luckily for Gillett, he had a strong background in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and trained with professional MMA fighters for a while before he competed, so he wasn’t out of his depth.

Ryan Gillett in the cage before a professional MMA bout. (Photo: Ryan Gillett)

Unlike other sports, there is no obvious entry point or structured pathway to professionalism. It’s literally turn up and fight, and see what happens. Richie Cranny, the president of the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation Australia (IMMAFA) is trying to change that.

The IMMAFA (the Australian branch of the IMMAF) is attempting to become Australia’s first official MMA governing body. Cranny doesn’t just want to regulate MMA, he wants to transform it. He believes that experiences like Toohey’s should not happen and that MMA needs new, safer competitions with more rules and regulations so participants can learn the sport incrementally.

Cranny and the IMMAFA want to bring belts and grading into MMA as a way to formalise the sport and create a more structured pathway to proficiency.

“We should teach people, and they should be able to compete in a modular way as they grow,” Cranny says.

“If you want to be a Formula One driver you don’t start in a Formula One circuit, you start in a go-kart. It gets bigger and harder and more exciting and dangerous as you go. With MMA, you start in a gym and then it is straight to a cage,” Cranny says.

He also wants a national register of amateur fighters so the IMMAFA can keep track of athletes and reduce the number of potential mismatches that result in competitors being injured. The association also wants to create formal youth development programs.

All these attempts to formalise the sport are part of a bigger push by the international body, the IMMAF, to make MMA an Olympic sport. For this to happen, its Australian arm will need to get national sporting organisation (NSO) status from Sport Australia to be the official governing body for MMA. More importantly, they will need gyms to become members of the IMMAFA so they can roll out their vision.

Cranny says this will change the image of MMA from bloody fighters in a cage to a more family-friendly image and, in turn, will open up more business opportunities for the sport.

“It’s extremely hard to raise money for MMA federations, and it goes back to the image. Companies have rules about who they can associate with. The image of the UFC is so powerful we can’t get around it at the moment,” he says.

Cranny makes a valid point. While the UFC has paved the way for the popularity of MMA, the promotion hasn’t been without controversy.

The early years of the sport were marred with violence as there were no weight classes, no rounds or gloves, and fights often got out-of-hand very quickly. The US Senator John McCain tried to get the UFC banned in Arizona because he saw it as ‘human cockfighting’.

Since then, the UFC has made a raft of changes to its version of MMA just to allow the sport to be legal in every state across America. This meant creating a rule set that disallowed some of the more unsavoury techniques in the sport and involved working closely with legislators to meet the requirements in each state. The sport now has weight classes, gloves, rounds, and a slight limitation of certain moves.

This is how MMA promotions operate in Australia. By working with state-based combat sports authorities they attempt to find the right mix of keeping the sport true to its roots while also getting the tick of approval from those in charge. Aside from meeting government standards, promotions have complete autonomy over how they are run. For some, this is as much oversight as the sport needs.

At the moment, gyms have authority over how they teach MMA. Gyms like CBR MMA have their own philosophy about MMA by teaching its separate components (striking, jiu-jitsu, wrestling) and then offering students a chance to combine them in MMA classes.

If a fighter wants to fight in MMA but isn’t yet ready for an amateur fight, the standard practice is for them to enrol in an amateur bout in one of the sports that make up MMA techniques (like boxing or wrestling) to make sure they are mentally and physically prepared for the rigours of MMA.

Blake Donnelly, who is the Australian Fighting Championship lightweight champion and the training partner of UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski, says this was how MMA started.

“I just came across a guy teaching MMA and he said I had to have at least three boxing fights before I do MMA. That was just his rule. Nine out of 10 times a fighter has had some amateur combat experience before participating in MMA,” Donnelly says.

But Richie Cranny sees this as a problem. He belies that when MMA gyms put their fighters through this process, they’re syphoning money away from MMA by paying to enrol in other organisations. He says having IMMAFA sanctioned competitions would ensure money goes back into MMA to fund IMMAFA’s vision for the sport.

Gyms would also have to sign up to be a member of IMMAFA and follow their processes to be able to access these benefits. For people like Ryan Gillett, and other gyms around the ACT such as Stockade, this is a bit of contrast from the freedom they’re operating with now.

While Cranny says the IMMAFA will make gyms more profitable, there is scepticism about being told how to operate by an organisation that’s only been in Australia since 2015. There is a fear – and not an unfounded one – that by trying to make MMA a more marketable and family-friendly sport, it may in turn take away from the essence of the sport.

As Gillett points out, ever since judo became an Olympic sport a lot of techniques have been slowly eroded from the competition.

“You see how much judo and wrestling have changed since becoming Olympic sports, and the IOC is such a big governing body you worry about the trickle-down effects,” he says.

“I remember Matt D’Aquino was really good at kata-guruma or fireman’s carries, and just before the 2008 Olympics, they outlawed all leg grabs in judo. Now you can’t grab the legs in judo, and the ne-waza or ground game is virtually non-existent.”

Even for those like Adam Toohey, whose experience in the cage was admittedly horrible, he likes the sport the way it is. The high thresholds for athletes to participate is a necessary part of MMA because it is so unlike other sports.

“It’s a bloody hard sport, to mentally prepare yourself to fight someone in a cage. It’s a tough pill to swallow at the start, a lot of people tend to sign up for it and pull out,” he says.

Toohey also says that his gym, Stockade, would not change the way they do things just because there was a governing body. Cranny says he expects this kind of resistance but is confident everyone will come around, otherwise, MMA will never reach its potential as a mainstream sport.

“Whenever there’s a new concept there’ll always be a push back, but we’re just going to be in a dark age if we don’t conform,” he says.

While the sport could definitely benefit from more structure, if the athletes and gyms don’t buy into the IMMAFA they will find it hard to achieve their goals.

If the IMMAFA does get its vision off the ground, it will be a more subdued version of the sport, with less risk and more rules. There may be a reality where it does provide adequate preparation for those who want to pursue a professional career.

But it is a balancing act. They will have to thread the needle between satisfying criteria for the IOC and Sport Australia, while also making sure they keep the essence of the sport intact.