In Quebec and Alberta, mixed martial arts is a big-money business. But in most of B.C., it’s an underground endeavour where rules are sometimes optional, blood flows freely, and fighters go unpaid to get around the law.
UFC 97 will fill Montreal's Bell Centre with 22,000 paying customers on April 18, but in B.C., most of the mixed martial arts scene is restricted to first nations reserves, small towns and unpaid amateur events with varying standards of safety and security.
CHILLIWACK, B.C. - In the middle of a packed concert hall stands a well-worn boxing ring, covered with a tattered brown canvas that bears a “Valleyfight” logo and is dotted with bleach stains where blood has once fallen.
A referee in the ring examines the broken nose of Scott (Beetle) Hebert, which juts at a right angle and is streaming blood. Convinced the injury won’t be fatal, the ref motions for the fight to continue. Beetle is promptly whacked in the face by his opponent as a woman with a one-year-old girl on her hip jumps from her seat, runs to ringside and yells, “Kill him!”
Welcome to the underground.
As the law stands in B.C., if you hold a professional mixed martial arts event at GM Place, with millions watching on pay-per-view and local hotels filled with tourists, the police could charge the participants with prizefighting.
So some promoters, such as Valleyfight’s Paul Daniel, have to work around the law by holding events on reserves, or staging amateur cards.
Daniels’ venue of choice is the Sto:lo nation’s Tzeachten Hall in Chilliwack. He regularly sells 750-plus tickets at $40 each out of Corky’s Liquor Bin, and local police say the fans have never caused more trouble than you’d see at a minor-league hockey game.
But even the best laid plans can go awry when there’s no regulatory body to answer to.
A Vancouver city report recently featured a quote from the city police department stating that if mixed martial arts events remained unregulated, the VPD “would be concerned that the increasing popularity of MMA may result in promoters holding events underground where no controlling force would be in place.”
This is already happening.
“I have heard that there was an illegal event downtown the night after our council put off regulating MMA,” says Vancouver NPA councillor Suzanne Anton, “so clearly what’s happening isn’t working. Not regulating the sport doesn’t stop it, it just makes it more dangerous. You do drive a sport underground if you don’t give people an above-board way of doing it.”
Hebert, age 20, would go on to win his Chilliwack bout on April 3, taking his record to 1-1, but did so despite obstacles not often seen in the highly paid and regulated world of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. An accidental eye-poke stopped Hebert briefly, but only for the 10 seconds the ref gave him to regain focus. When he clawed his way to the ring ropes, hoping for a break after being brutalized on the ground, the ref instead grabbed his legs and dragged him back to the centre of the ring, where the beating continued.
Hebert’s nose, which was broken early in the contest, bled throughout. The promoter’s girlfriend drove him to the hospital afterward.
“When they asked me what happened I told them I was in an MMA fight,” Hebert said. “The nurse gave me a blank stare. So I sat there and told her about mixed martial arts and she wrote on the form ‘He got boxed in the nose,’ which made me laugh.”
Hebert’s injury wasn’t the worst on the night. T-Ong Komany from Abbotsford had his elbow dislocated when his opponent, Abdul Majin, a trainer in Burnaby’s Columbia Gym, held on to an arm-bar submission hold for eight seconds after his opponent had quit. As Komany tapped furiously and the ref pounded on Majin’s arm, the part-time trainer lay back and bent the elbow backwards until, in Komany’s words, “it cracked a few times.”
A disqualification victory wasn’t what Komany wanted out of the fight. He wanted a dislocated elbow even less, but with no oversight body in place, Majin can break rules almost with impunity.
Dan MacIver seems to know that. The Maple Ridge fighter who won the main event on this recent Friday night beat his opponent with a barrage of blows on the ground. But as the ref pulled MacIver off to end the fight, the slugger jumped back on the fallen man and delivered another few blows, shouting loud curses as he was dragged away.
When asked why he felt the need to keep fighting, MacIver, a youth worker, sneered dismissively, “Sometimes you just have to send a message.”
Said promoter Daniel: “I think you picked the wrong night to come out. A couple of people were just out of control tonight. But they won’t be back.”
This doesn’t happen in regulated MMA, where fighters are licensed, ranked, and know that breaking the rules means mandatory fines and industry-wide suspensions. Drug-testing, blood-testing, background checks and mandated recovery time are strictly enforced.
While Daniel can hand out fines and suspensions for rule-breaking, he can’t enforce them outside his organization. He could ban MacIver from Valleyfight for life, but there’s nothing stopping him from fighting elsewhere —even the very next night.
Amber Grant, for example, lost her bout, suffering a significant beating in the process. But afterwards the 26-year-old Burnaby fighter let slip her plans for later that weekend.
“I’m fighting on a card in North Vancouver tomorrow,” said Grant, explaining she felt “okay, got some bruising, but I’ll be all right.”
The woman who beat her, Chilliwack’s Sarah Moras, thought her opponent’s plans were “pretty crazy. ... I did hit her in the head on the ground a lot.”
Grant didn’t tell the North Vancouver promoter, Mike Hammoud, that she’d fought the night before. But she was happy to be given a pre-fight pregnancy test, saying she hadn’t been asked for one the night before.
Fight consultant and trainer Paul Lazenby, who was at the the North Vancouver Top Rank event, points out that in regulated MMA, fighters are forced to take time off between fights. He told Hammoud that Grant was coming off a loss the previous night, but the promoter let her fight anyway.
“The girl isn’t young, nobody can convince her to fight, so she made her own decision,” says Hammoud. “If I say she can’t fight, she’ll say, ‘Why are you picking on me?’ So I heard about it, but this is insulting to say I should stop her from fighting. She’s not a young kid where if we push her too far she can’t stop. The doctor said she’s okay, so she’s okay.”
Did the ringside doctor know she’d been punched in the head repeatedly the previous night?
“She didn’t tell us,” Hammond said. “But in amateur martial arts tournaments, they fight maybe four or five times in a day if they win. How do I know if a fighter had a fight in a bar the night before? I can’t do everything. She knows if she can fight.”
Mike Pattenaude has been working to get a municipal athletic commission set up on the North Shore for several years, but met bureaucratic roadblocks along the way. He says he has talked to Hammoud since the Grant fight and “straightened him out” on the danger of ignoring such issues. “The lesson has been learned,” he says.
If there’s one common refrain heard from the Valleyfight and Top Rank promoters, it’s that they value fighter safety. Both have doctors at ringside, paramedics nearby, police at the doors, and a stack of contracts and waivers and medical documents to be filed for each fighter. Top Rank even pays to have the International Sport Combat Federation (ISCF), an independent fight-sanctioning agency, oversee its events so that mistakes don’t happen.
It doesn’t always work that way. ISCF representative Jim Tessman was at the Top Rank event but says he wasn’t initially sure if fighting twice in 24 hours was a problem or not.
“If she didn’t get knocked out the night before, then maybe it is okay,” Tessman said. “I would have to defer to the person in charge of the ISCF, I’m not sure. That’s getting deeper into the rules.”
Tessman admits Grant mentioned on her paperwork that she’d fought the previous night, but says he missed it until the next day.
“Her coach should never have let that happen, nor should the promoter, but I can’t fine her because she was honest about it,” he says.
Pattenaude points to the Canadian Boxing Federation as an alternative oversight option for promoters. Hammoud works with both, just to be sure, yet Amber Grant slipped through the cracks.
Pattenaude admits it doesn’t look good, and says mistakes such as that could kill MMA locally.
“You do everything you can, you do all the paperwork, you work for years to get the local council to say, ‘Okay, you can have an athletic commission to set rules and standards in place,’ so that it doesn’t all come down on one guy covering all the bases, but you really need someone to tap you on the shoulder sometimes and say, ‘You need to fix this,’ and we don’t have that right now. [Hammoud] is basically on his own.”
Tessman points to the irony that Vancouver Athletic Commission members have actually been feeding him contacts and information so he can do the job that city council has prevented him and others from performing since 2007. “They’re equipped to run the show in Vancouver right now. They’re just not allowed, so we do our best to fill the gap.”
Back at Valleyfight, as Paul Daniel tries to track down a pair of gloves for a competitor, he admits he’s fighting a losing battle sometimes.
“I know we’re missing things because it’s just me trying to keep 22 fighters and 750 fans happy,” he said. “I’ve never had to think about what to do with a guy who doesn’t let go of a submission hold before. Now I have to rewrite the rules.”
He has other issues to address too: Representatives of Ink Boy Tattoos passed out flyers at the Valleyfight event featuring the message, “In loving memory of World Extreme Fighting,” referencing the Abbotsford fight club run by drug dealer and Independent Soldiers gang associate Joe Krantz, who was fatally shot in the stairwell of his gym last year.
When Daniel saw the flyer, he was horrified. “Stuff like that undoes a year of hard work getting the gangs out of here. That’s just stupid.”
And the woman with the toddler bouncing on her knee? “She’s been told to leave three times before,” said Daniel. “She’s with one of the Columbia trainers so it’s a sticky situation. It’s definitely not a good look.”
In contrast to the gritty scene on Sto:lo land, 21,000 people will cram into Montreal’s Bell Centre tonight to watch the latest pay-per-view extravaganza of the Ultimate Fighting Championship: UFC 97. The hotels will fill up, millions of dollars will pour into city coffers, and that city will be seen around the world by a TV audience of millions. Seven Canadian fighters will be featured, and many of them, like North Vancouver’s Denis Kang, have moved to Montreal to train, in part due to the problems with the MMA scene in the Wild West.
Quebec has embraced MMA as an industry and is making a small fortune. So too have 39 U.S. states, Calgary, and Edmonton.
But back in B.C., MMA is desperate for a governmental lifeline.
Arriving back at the arena with his nose in bandages, Beetle Hebert was oblivious to the regulatory battle going on around him, but by the time he left the hospital, he’d won his nurse over.
“I gave her my usual rebuttal about how it’s added so many years to my life, and how when I started two years ago I was 220 pounds and literally couldn’t make it through warm-ups. Now I weigh in at 145 and win athletic competitions. We both agreed if I broke my nose every fight of my career, it was probably worth it.”
BY CHRIS PARRY, VANCOUVER SUN