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.
“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.
“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.
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.