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Quebec’s fastest growing sport: MMA

Quebec’s fastest growing sport: MMA

Why we Fight (a podcast featuring Ian Perron, Lenard Terrance, Neil Sheppard, and Stephane Pelletier)


On any given Saturday, somewhere in Quebec, come night, chances are young men are fighting. Though it usually takes place in a ring, it isn’t boxing. It’s mixed martial arts, North America’s fastest growing sport.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is the world’s largest MMA promotion. Its success has inspired hundreds of young men in Quebec to begin cross-training in the sport’s multiple components.

They are all miles behind the province’s dominant star, Georges St-Pierre. He is the UFC’s welterweight (170 lbs) champion, and possibly the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. At worst, he’s number two. He topped the UFC’s 2010 declared pay list, earning a healthy $900,000. His success is something up and comers can strive to replicate, and the youth seem eager to engage.

After fighting for much of his 20s, Stephane Vigneault now trains fighters, and is President of Fightquest, Quebec's largest amateur promotion.

After fighting for much of his 20s, Stephane Vigneault now trains fighters, and is President of Fightquest, Quebec's largest amateur promotion.

“Most of these young guys realize Georges St-Pierre is a phenomenon,” says Stephane Vigenault. Now 28, his career as a fighter is already over. After building up a professional record of 12-5, a detached retina suffered in training forced him to retire. Two surgical procedures couldn’t fix the damage.

On top of training young fighters, he is also the President of Quebec’s largest amateur MMA promotion, Fightquest. His shows pull in in as many 900 fans. He works to keep his fighters’ expectations realistic, encouraging them to stay in school, and complete their studies.

Today’s MMA no longer features the random violence associated with the sport’s early days, when weight classes and time limits were non-existent, and crotch shots and eye gouging legal. Even former US Presidential candidate John McCain has backed off his former stance comparing the sport to ‘human cockfighting.’

To truly succeed today, a fighter must not only be physically fit, they must also master martial arts as varied as boxing, Muay Thai, a striking martial arts from Thailand specializing in kicks, elbow and knee attacks, wrestling, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a ground based submission-focused fighting style. Being comfortable and deadly both standing on the ground is a pre-requisite for success.

In Quebec, MMA has been promoted consistently through various organizations dating back to 2000. Before MMA’s recent legalization in Ontario, Montreal held the record for the largest UFC event crowd with over 23 000 fans last December.

Young men entering the sport are not ready for UFC-level opponents.  It’s why an amateur version of the sport, known as ‘boxe-mixte,’ was created. Amateur promotions hold fights somewhere in the province almost ever weekend, whether in Montreal, Laval, Brossard, Sherbrooke, Quebec City, Drummondville or many other locations. The promotions, on top of Fightquest, sport names like Summum MMA, Gladiator MMA, and Ring Extreme. Fighters are typically in the 16-24 year old range.

Firas Zahabi is a former Canadian Muay Thai champion. He is now head trainer at Tristar, eastern Canada's top MMA gym.

Firas Zahabi is a former Canadian Muay Thai champion. He is now head trainer at Tristar, Eastern Canada's top MMA gym.

“Before, when guys would fight, they were all 0-0, ” notes Firas Zahabi, Georges St-Pierre’s head trainer. “Now you’ve got guys who’ve been doing it for ten years. How can you learn fighting in a league like that? You need somewhere where the rules are safer, the rounds are shorter, you get your feet wet, go back to the drawing board, you now what you’re getting in to. You go straight to the pros, you’ll get your head ripped off.”

The rules differ from the professional sport, aiming to protect fighters, who as amateurs are not paid. Knee and elbow strikes are banned, rounds are two minutes instead of five, and fighters wear bigger gloves. Fights are in a ring, not a cage. Technically, amateur MMA, known as boxe mixte for legal reasons, exists in a legal grey zone.  Though the Quebec government continues to allow events to operate along the agreed upon rules, it refuses to fully endorse it.

Prompted for a reason why rules are altered for beginners, promoter Joey Benoit explains it simply. “This isn’t a butcher shop. These fighters aren’t being paid. I can’t ask them to take knees to the face.” On top of his job promoting amateur MMA, he is also the fight maker (known as match maker) for Ringside, Quebec’s dominant professional organization. Keeping an eye on amateurs helps him find the next generation of stars. “I look not only for fighting success, but also at their comfort in the ring,” he says.

On top of promoting Summum MMA, Joey Benoit is also matchmaker for the next level up, Rising Star, where fighters make their professional beginnings.

On top of promoting Summum MMA, Joey Benoit is also matchmaker for the next level up, Rising Star, where fighters make their professional beginnings.

Ringside has a sister promotion called Rising Star, reserved for fighters with five or less professional bouts to their name. It’s where amateurs will likely make their debuts in the future. It’s the first level of competition fighters must dominate if they are to make it farther.

Most amateurs will never get past Quebec. Less than a dozen of the province’s fighters have ever made it to the UFC. Regardless, the dream lives on. Amateur ranks continue to swell with fighters, as young men continue to find the challenge of MMA an intriguing one, both physically and mentally.

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Pro wrestling in Montreal

Pro wrestling in Montreal

Looking for a place to take out your new date? Somewhere quiet where you can listen to each other talk about your passions, enjoy a good glass of wine and maybe some fresh tapas. You’re looking for a place lit with chandeliers where you can listen to classic jazz sink into a comfortable red satin banquette? I have the perfect place for you.

Photo: Jean-Philippe Marquis
Photo: Jean-Philippe Marquis


At the venue I’m proposing here, you are more likely to hear more obscenities than you would in a jail, have hyper-active kids spilling their energy drinks on you knees, distorted metal and the mixed smells of chicken-dogs and sweaty chests. Those are my memories of a night spent at the Northern Championship Wrestling (NCW), the largest independent pro-wrestling federation in Montreal right now.

After reconsideration, an amateur wrestling gala might not be the safest choice for a first date.

Wrestling has always held an important place in the Quebec sport scene. In the 1950s, Montreal was considered the “Mecca of Wrestling” and it was common that fights would gather crowds of more than 20,000 people, which no other sports would come close to. At that time, wrestling was by far more popular than ice hockey.

The Montreal Forum was the main venue and with the appearance of television, the sport was religiously broadcast every week on Radio-Canada. Quebec has produced a lot of international athletes and families of athletes who may be unknown to the younger generation, but surely ring bells for anybody over 40 years old. Test it out – ask your parents if they ever heard of the Rougeaus, the Vachons, or names like Yvon Robert, Gino Brito, and you’ll be surprised. For a feeling of the wrestling nights of the time, you can watch here the documentary, La Lutte, by Michel Brault, on the National Film Board website.

With the advancement of bigger American federations such as the WWE and the WWF, wrestling stopped being broadcast in Quebec in 1987 and since then, the sport has become more quiet, but surely not dead. You can still attend great fights every week-end thanks to some independent federations such as the NCW.

The NCW holds a gala every Saturday night in a communal center next to the St-Barthelemy church. Wrestling rings in Quebec have never been very far from churches. Their huge basements and their central locations offered the perfect spot to organise events, especially in rural Quebec, where other large spaces were rare. The Church has always been happy to open its door to the wrestlers and their fans, who would generate some revenue and help pay the bills.

Photo: Jean-Philippe Marquis
Photo: Jean-Philippe Marquis

Don’t get me wrong, though. There is nothing Catholic about wrestling, except for the Good vs Evil side of the show. If you’re not a native Quebecer and are looking for an occasion to improve your french swearing vocabulary, you should definitely bring along a notebook to the next wrestling fight. People of all ages pour their hate out on men wearing leather Speedos for reasons that even God ignores.

Wrestling is one of the rare sports where the public is literally part of the game. Booing the fighters when the show is getting boring, bitching at the referees, making insults for the sake of it, and even offering their shoes or chair to a wrestler to use on his opponent, crazy fans will make sure to make their $10 worth it. You will see old men with hate in their eyes screaming at wrestlers as if they were facing the murderer of their own child.

The truth is that the crowd often cheers for the bad guys, as the good ones have the tendencies to boast and be arrogant. In wrestling, if you’re too shiny, too clean-cut, or without enough tattoos, you won’t be loved. I guess they take the place of all the annoying winners in real life that you can’t swear at.

The quality of wrestling offered at the NCW is quite good. It’s a different style than what you’re used at the WWF, but that’s for the best. There’s less talking, less showing-off and more sport – more actual fighting and acrobatics. The show draws fans from Ontario and the US every week, in addition to the local crowd. International athletes are sometimes invited for special events. Superstars such as Necro Butcher, Kevin Steen, or Abdullah the Butcher have fought in the NCW. Discovery Channel made a documentary on the NCW that you can watch here.

Necro Butcher, who appeared with Mickey Rourke in the movie The Wrestler was the special guest of the 2010 Christmas Gala in a “street fight” against Mobster 357 where they hit each other in the face with DVD players and other weapons they would find under the tree. Fans had been promised a bloody Christmas and they got it.

Photo: Jean-Philippe Marquis
Photo: Jean-Philippe Marquis

Sometimes between two fights, you will see the staff tighten the ropes and cover the ring with the old duct-taped blood-stained carpet. The public knows what it means and they go completely nuts. This is the sign that the evening is taking a hardcore turn: weapons will be used, the wrestling will take place outside of the ring, chairs will fly in the air and you’d better move if you don’t want to get one in the face.

“So wrestling is basically a sausage party,” is what you’re saying.

No! The NCW is the first league in Quebec to organize female-only events called “Femme Fatale” and draw athletes from all over North America. And those ladies know how to fight. Here is an interview with LuFisto, who in the last nine years has been named eight times as the best female wrestler in Quebec by the Hall of Fame .

The NCW isn’t the only venue for wrestling in Montreal. Here is a map of Montreal with four other independent federations – four other addresses where you can bring your next date.

Afficher Montreal wrestling venues sur une carte plus grande

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