Monday, March 26, 2007

Roar of the crowd says it all

By Adam Richardson

Mixed martial arts is a sport – deal with it

It was one year ago this month when Peter Martell and Combat productions held a press conference to promote the first mixed martial arts show in Nova Scotia.

At that conference, journalists questioned the sport’s safety, a tone that would foreshadow the controversy hovering around this athletic, and at times violent, in-ring spectacle.

In the weeks that followed, mixed martial arts was a hot topic in Halifax. Everyone had an opinion, yet nobody really knew much about the sport. Some feared injuries. Others feared deaths.

When the show sold out in late April, some classified those in attendance as bloodthirsty morons hoping to see someone seriously injured.

Our paper even ran the headline “Bloodlust” on its front page the day after ECC 1.

Well, a year has now passed from that opening press conference. It’s time for those who called this event “legalized dogfights” to admit they were wrong. They overreacted. It may not be for a sport for everyone, but really, what sport is?

It’s hard to deny that Combat Productions used its steel to carve out a pretty fair corner in the local sports market.

No event has sold out since that first show, although attendance seems to have settled in the 3,000 range — essentially placing it second only to the Halifax Mooseheads in terms of most-attended sports for this region.

The injuries haven’t happened like naysayers predicted, and while most would be thrilled with the inroads Martell’s group has made, the promoter called it an “up-and-down” year.

“We’re getting exposure for our athletes, while at the same time exposing the public to a fantastic new sport,” Martell said. “At the same time, some people can’t let their misconceptions go about mixed martial arts. That first night (April 29) at the Halifax Forum, the press basically showed up to see a horror show, and I think it surprised them.

“It seems you need to twist people’s arms to get them to come out to a show, but once they give it a chance, they love it.”

If mixed martial arts is a sport — and it is — then Combat Productions can, in some ways, be compared to the minor leagues of other mainstream sports.

One fighter, New Glasgow native Jason MacDonald, was residing in Calgary and competing all around North America when Martell put in a call for ECC’s first show.

MacDonald won the main events of the first two Halifax cards, and a few weeks later got a call to compete in the UFC, the “big leagues” of mixed martial arts world.

Also, the shows featured homegrown talent like Fairview native Roger Hollett. He’s been dominant thus far and is 4-0 in his young career, including a 36-second knockout win over Edmonton Eskimos fullback Mike Maurer in Edmonton.

If Martell is correct, Hollett will be in UFC in the coming years. If that’s true, get your tickets now, because Martell says mixed martial arts shows are very expensive to stage, and his Combat Productions can’t compete with the UFC brand when it comes to fighter’s contracts.

“Nobody’s getting rich off this,” Martell said. “We’d love to put on a show at the Metro Centre and sell it out, but that’s just not in the budget.

“We’re happy to give our guys the start they need and a place to fight, then watch them go on to big things in UFC or other pride-fighting leagues.”

Possibly the biggest day in Nova Scotia’s brief mixed martial arts history was on a day without a steel-fenced ring.

Last Nov. 16, the province named Hubert Earle director of combat sports in Nova Scotia, a position within the Nova Scotia Boxing Authority. The NSBA had sanctioned the first few shows, but the creation of this position was full-fledged recognition, at least politically.

Earle, a former referee-in-chief and chair for boxing, officiated matches in Halifax’s second show.

Suddenly, mixed martial arts made a friend in boxing, a sport some would see as a potential competitor.

This resolution might have surprised some people, such as Wayne Gordon.

Gordon, a longtime local boxing competitor and coach, told The Canadian Press at the time of the first event that permitting mixed martial arts bouts was “legalizing cockfights or dog fights, and added that in mixed martial arts, “you want to scar your opponent, you want to cut them, you want to knock them down — it's just like seeing a car wreck.”

Gordon still hasn’t seen a mixed martial arts show in person, but plans on checking one out when he has the time. He says his biggest concern all along is that fans would confuse the sport with boxing, a logical conclusion when both are combat ring sports governed by the same authority in this province.

“Ice hockey and field hockey aren’t the same thing, and neither are boxing and mixed martial arts,” Gordon said. “It seems like the most popular part about the cage fighting is when they stand up and strike each other, and isn’t that basically boxing? I guess boxing isn’t violent enough for some people. I really think the (mixed martial arts) athletes are well-conditioned and hard-working. The two sports are separate, but there’s room for both in Halifax.”

Extreme Cage Combat 5 will hand out the promotion’s first title belts this Saturday at the Halifax Forum. While the belts are basically created by the promotion and likely handed out as a gimmick to further promote the stable’s fighters, it’s impressive to think that in the spring of last year, I walked into the Forum expecting to give details about a bloodbath. This Saturday, I’ll show up and cover it the same way I reported on last Saturday’s professional boxing card, or a high school hockey final, for that matter.

It’s a sport. Deal with it.


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