A Broken MMA Scene
Canada was once touted as the “Mecca of MMA,” but the GTA has become a bust when it comes to producing mixed martial arts fighters.
You could hear the sound from the hype train long before it pulled into the station. Before legalization occurred in August 2010, Canada was considered the “Mecca” of mixed martial arts (MMA), with Toronto touted as “one of the MMA cities in the world”—and for a few glorious years, it truly was.
Toronto hosted some of the most dynamic, exciting fight cards globally, like the April 30, 2011 record-breaking Toronto debut of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The event, headlined by then UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, notched the largest live audience in North American MMA history with over 55,000 raucous fans packing the Rogers Centre.
Then there was the crop of local stars from the GTA—Mark Bocek, Claude Patrick and Sean Pierson to name but a few—who contended with the best in the sport. Almost everywhere you looked within the city, you could find gyms and fitness clubs that boasted MMA training.
Slowly, however, the tide began to recede, leaving us with the current situation: a missing generation of fighters, a lack of qualified coaching, nonexistent local promotions and a fickle public that has turned its attention elsewhere.
So how did MMA end up almost completely fizzling out in Toronto?
Although MMA has been around since the first UFC was held in 1993, it wasn’t until 2005 when interest in MMA began to surge due to The Ultimate Fighter, a reality show that aired on Spike TV (now the Paramount Network). While there have always been dedicated martial artists throughout the GTA looking for ways to test their skills; this greater mainstream interest created opportunities.
The people who experienced this period have the authority to explain this watershed moment. To this end, I went in search of my old MMA coach, former welterweight contender Claude Patrick. Claude now operates his own gym, Elite Training Centre, in Mississauga.
“I wanted to see what I could do,” said Claude of his motivation to compete in MMA as we sat outside his gym on a hot summer evening. “I’ve always been teaching martial arts and I didn’t want to be one of those guys selling something he’d never done.”
Claude racked up a 16-2 record, having his last professional fight in December 2011. Around that time, attendance for major UFC events in Toronto began to drop, something co-related to lower-quality headliners, as well as the thrill of witnessing a once-banned spectacle now being gone.
He was always wise to the reality that many of the gyms advertising MMA training were simply capitalizing on a trend.
“MMA was the biggest three letters in marketing for a good five-to-ten years. You throw ‘MMA’ on anything, and it was selling,” says Claude. “The proof’s in the pudding. Now you look at it—where are all these prospects for MMA? The proof is gone. Where’s the next generation of guys? It doesn’t exist.”
To be fair, there are Toronto-based fighters such as light-heavyweight Misha Cirkunov (13-4) and middleweight Elias Theodorou (15-2) currently in the UFC. But a closer examination of martial arts academies across the GTA demonstrates why the sport’s development has stalled.
"MMA was the biggest three letters in marketing for a good five-to-ten years. You throw ‘MMA’ on anything, and it was selling"
For starters, many MMA fighters originally emerged from the culture of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), a form of submission wrestling. Jiu-jitsu gradually evolved into a sport that utilizes specialized techniques and tactics aimed at winning competitions rather than preparing athletes for MMA.
“Today’s jiu-jitsu is completely different than anything that is going to be useful for a fight,” says Claude, “Guys aren’t even trying to pretend to be doing anything fight-based at this point. That automatic connect where because you do jiu-jitsu, you can fight, is not there anymore.”
More rarely practiced are takedowns essential in getting an MMA fight to the ground. Emphasis on BJJ tactical wizardry like the berimbolo or various new guards have limited application when your opponent is punching you in the face. The financial incentives for top BJJ players outstrips the compensation afforded to most MMA fighters. This does not even factor in the fact that neither instructing nor competing in BJJ involves nearly the same risks of CTE or concussion that are par for the course in MMA.
So realistically, unless a jiu-jitsu player could bank on becoming the next Ronda Rousey, Conor McGregor or Jon Jones, they are most likely better off where they are.
A trip to Xtreme Couture Toronto, an Etobicoke gym that opened ten years ago, demonstrates just how shallow the current talent pool really is. This massive facility—billed as the largest in the city—is bustling with gym-goers, but most are novices doing boxing and kickboxing training for fitness. Although Tuesday evening’s “Pro MMA Sparring” session, led by Muay Thai fighter Matt Embree, looked promising with over a dozen men—and two women—sparring, just one of them is a professional MMA fighter, Xavier Nash.
As Matt supervises the rounds, Xavier works impressively against the limited opposition on the matted floor of the gym. He lands clean, effective shots and looks good doing it. But with a 3-3 pro record, he’s a long ways from any major promoter’s radar.
The other instrumental factor necessary in the development of new fighters is knowledge. MMA involves three phases of combat: striking, wrestling and submission wrestling; prospective fighters need intensive instruction in all three of those areas. No matter how much desire or dedication any local fighters have, they need qualified MMA coaches to work with them in order to fill in the holes of their game.
“A good percentage of the people with knowledge are not in the area anymore,” says Claude Patrick. “And if they are, they’re not trying to build any new athletes because it’s a pretty taxing venture.”
Therein lies the rub: for the city’s MMA gyms that are still open, it makes more financial sense to prioritize classes and private lessons that cater to moneyed clients more interested in martial arts for fitness or as a hobby.
On the sidelines of Xtreme Couture’s mats, sweaty from a no-gi BJJ class sits a chubby-faced man. It’s none other than Michael Imperato, a 7-3 bantamweight. Michael was signed to the big-leagues of the UFC in 2014, in what must have seemed like a life-affirming moment of his career. It all came crashing down when racist and homophobic slurs he’d uttered on a reality show surfaced and led to him being cut from the organization just one day after he had been announced as competing on UFC Fight Night 55.
Four years later, he’s moved on professionally and no longer views MMA as something necessitating all of his dedication. He knows that his time as a fighter is close to ending, but he remains hopeful.
Says Michael, “[I’d like to get] two or three wins, and either the UFC calls me back or I just retire on a win streak.”
Michael believes that there is good talent in Toronto—but that the best guys simply don’t train together, either because they prefer the safety of their own cliques or find themselves too isolated by the GTA’s geography. This contrasts sharply with other cities like Las Vegas, where pro MMA fighters are highly concentrated within gyms in close proximity and have few qualms about training together.
Another factor in the decline of MMA in the GTA has been the reluctance by promoters to invest locally. When the ban was freshly lifted, promoters rushed to put on shows. But lacklustre financial returns caused in part by overregulation from the Ontario Athletic Commission has crippled the scene, with the number of MMA shows put on in the province dropping to a small handful.
Grant Brothers MMA gym co-owner Neil Forrester, took things into his own hands in promoting his own shows in order to keep local pros active. But Forrester quit after just two shows in 2013 and 2014 respectively.
Although quiet, the local MMA scene is not completely dead. A promotion known as BTC had its third show in Burlington in late June. The arena appeared packed, and the evening’s fighters were well-received.
But for myself, the night ended on a sour note when Gabe Sagman, a former teammate of mine from Toronto BJJ who was once coached by Claude Patrick, ended up being stopped in the second round. Being bruised and needing stitches seemed painful to Gabe all by itself. With the loss, and his record falling to 4-3, Gabe’s hopes of going to the UFC were significantly derailed.
In truth, combat sports is more analogous to the music business than it is to team sports like hockey where there is consistent support for the Toronto Maple Leafs—regardless of results. The MMA scene erupted like grunge music in the 90s, but whereas Green Day and the Foo Fighters are still active, the dangerous nature of the fight game means that pro careers are short, usually consisting of five to ten years of activity.
The men and women attracted to MMA are seduced by a dream of achieving excellence under bright lights. More often than not, they eventually wake up to the harsh reality where there is always someone younger, hungrier and more talented waiting for their own moment. Contenders are coming from unpleasant climates, such as UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov who hails from Dagestan. Can the GTA, a city chocked full of comfort and ease, produce equivalent talent as Russia and Eastern Bloc countries?
Looking at Claude Patrick, he’s somewhat lucky to have endured the trials of the fight game, notched his achievements and walked away relatively unscathed. This is owed to his own self-awareness in avoiding damaging wars within the cage and refusing to be manipulated outside of it. The same cannot be said for others who took their chances and emerged with little more than severe brain trauma, bad debts and limited job prospects when their pro careers ended.
It is both a blessing and a curse that MMA has died down in the city. Other sports like soccer, baseball or hockey, although highly competitive, provide better financial and working conditions for their elite athletes.
“MMA is not an easy life. There’s no hiding behind anything when you step into a cage or a competition or anything because your fallacy will be exposed,” says Claude, “That’s why very few people will choose to go down this road.”
No matter. We will always be able to look back at those brilliant, exciting days from the past when it seemed like anything was possible in this city. Right now, however, we’re like Ray Liotta’s character at the end of Goodfellas: pining for an era that no longer exists, nor is likely to be repeated ever again.