On July 31, 2010, the Mixed Martial Arts Sport Federation in collaboration with Team Z Martial Arts came to Bridgeview, IL’s Toyota Center for the international amateur MMA competition Team USA vs. The World. With such a prestigious sounding event on the pass for amateur fighters, MMA Gospel absolutely had to attend. When I arrived, I found a very unusual animal indeed. The production reminded me of a 1970’s boxing event, complete with shills in the crowd raising chants for the home team and an early focus on the accolades and achievements of promoter Rob Zbilski. Each team was brought out one at a time to hear the presentation of their respective country’s national anthem, after which three separate martial arts masters took turns introducing the promoter before he made a short speech. The overall production of the fights was nothing short of top class, but there were a few elephants in the living room that I feel must be addressed.
First, there were several record keeping errors involved. I understand that with amateurs it’s easy for one promotion to say a fighter is 2-4 and another promotion the next week has him listed 7-3; it’s the nature of amateur MMA especially in unregulated states. But for a promotion to have, for example, a fighter listed as 3-2 on one of its websites, 5-2 on another, 4-1 on the fight cards handed out to the media, and then have him announced in the ring as 7-0 is a serious lack of quality control and, quite frankly, makes the promotion look very unprofessional. Second, the sanctioning body, MMASF, is formed from Team Z and a second old school kickboxing dojo out of Omaha, NE which, coincidentally, provide the training and coaches for Team USA. I know that a large number of amateur promotions are run by gyms who train the majority of the fighters on their cards and I also realize that many of them do so in a fair manner. However, I also firmly believe that it’s preferable to fight on a card without even a possible accusation of favoritism and I am certainly wary of any organization that provides not only the fighters, but also the referees, judges, and sanctioning officials for its own promotion. Third, there were some reports of, lets say, questionable information exchanges from several of the international coaches. As for the handling of the amateur fighters themselves, let’s hear from MOMMIE.
Medical: The medical situation at Team USA vs. The World was a step below what I would recommend but is still better than many amateur promotions. The doctor, Grace Akiens, is a local family practice physician. While she is not a sports medicine specialist, she does have a fair amount of experience as a ringside physician for kickboxing events and provided full physicals both before and after the fights for every fighter. She was, however, completely unassisted. The first aid station for potential injuries was set up no less than 30 yards from the cage with no clear path through the crowd and worse still was on the opposite side of the arena from the likewise obstructed ambulance. Had there been a serious injury, it could easily have been a disastrous mess of fighting through the drunken crowd to reach the emergency supplies and a second harrowing journey through the same pack of drunks to reach the ambulance. How much of this is the fault of the venue has yet to be determined. Overall, the medical team was under-staffed and obstructed but what was there was qualified and the pre/post fight care, exemplary.
Grade: C+ Dr. Atkins was more than qualified to handle her post but I would ask anyone to show me a doctor who is qualified to be ringside doctor, nurse, EMT, and cut man all at the same time. Paramedics were present as was an ambulance but they were no where near the cage and that was a serious issue. One good doctor cannot make up for the lack of a complete medical staff.
Officiating: As I said before, the show was sanctioned and promoted by the MMASF. The same MMASF that trained and sponsored Team USA provided all of the officials for the event. Despite this, I found the judging to be fair and the referees unbiased even though it looked bad on paper. Judges scored the bouts spot on for the most part and both referees allowed fighters from both sides of the pond the same considerations in regards to enforcement of the rules and stoppages. The only issues I took involved two seriously late stoppages and one seriously early stoppage, all on the part of referee Scott Fischer. In two bouts, he allowed the losing fighter to take twice as many unanswered blows as any fighter, pro or amateur, should be allowed. This is forgivable in a professional bout where a man’s livelihood rests in the balance, but for a referee to allow blows to rain undefended on an amateur to the point where he is visibly rocked several minutes after the stoppage as in the case of Team USA’s Matt Bentley is inexcusable. The only early stoppage, a TKO victory for Team Z fighter Dan Darby, looked incredibly shady as the referee is one of his trainers and had shown a penchant for late stoppages earlier in the night. This quicker stoppage may have been a result of a request from the doc following the previous late stoppages, but the fact that this sudden change favored a fighter who trained under the referee doesn’t look good.
Grade: C- The judging was spot on throughout the night but the errors on the part of referee Scott Fischer cannot be excused. His early stoppage in the Dan Darby/Damian Merlinger fight was suspect but his multiple late stoppages were more than just poor officiating, they were unquestionably negligent of the referee’s number one duty: Fighter Safety. As an unpaid and inexperienced amateur fighter, a referee who stops the fight in a timely fashion is an absolute must.
Matchmaking: In spite of everything that argued against it, the fights by fate or design were fairly even with no real obvious mismatches. All of the fighters faced men of roughly equal size and build and the fighters reported that weigh-ins were a fair and open proceeding. The coaches of all three international teams reported that they had initially been told the Team USA fighters had four or five fights apiece only to find out less than two weeks out that not only did the Team USA fighters have much larger records, but that some of the USA fighters actually had professional fights. (Example: Australia’s Jeremy Wharerau at 2-1-1 faced Shawn Jackson, a 10-1 fighter who had been previously reported to Jeremy’s coaches as 4-1) Andy Ryan, Team Ireland’s coach, put it best, “We did find out about 10 days out that many of our opponents were a lot more experienced than we had been told before, but these guys [Team Ireland] are here to fight and I think they’ll do fine even against fighters with 10 or 12 more fights than them.” Whether or not the same quality of information is given to fighters stateside looking to earn a spot on Team USA has yet to be determined.
Grade: C There was some misrepresentation of fighter experience on the part of the promoter but the fighters were paired well and no weigh shaving or fight switching happened. Everyone fought the man they were scheduled to face weeks out and everyone faced an opponent who fit well in their chosen weight class.
Media: This is where things get a little less clear. The MMASF dumped a huge sum of money into local media coverage of this event, televised the fights in all three visiting countries, and forked out the money to have an outside promotions company do PR work for the event. Unfortunately, this event was horribly advertised. Of the approximately 20 local MMA gyms/promotions/camps I contacted prior to this event, only two had any idea that the fights were taking place. In fact, one of those two was a local amateur fighter/journalist who only knew about it because he saw a flier for it in a night club bathroom a month prior to the event. I’ve heard two numbers on the official gate including all fighters, personnel, teammates, officials, media, give-a-ways and ticket sales: 1800 from promoter Rob Zbilski and 2500 from promoter/referee/trainer Scott Fischer. The venue, Toyota Park, was incredibly difficult to deal with, refusing to even answer questions regarding what promotions they used to give away tickets to the event. Between staff photographer Mallory Mejia and myself we estimated the total crowd at around 1100 fans, which was the estimate Rob gave us for tickets sold. All things considered, a show of this magnitude at a venue this size should have easily doubled that number. All in all, the outside media coverage of the promotion was excellent, but it appears the members of the media were the only ones the fight was strongly advertised to.
Grade: B The fights were televised in three countries and there were several MMA media outlets, both local and international, in attendance. The fight did have poor attendance however. This was due to a combination of poor advertising, high ticket prices, and restrictions place on the promotion by the venue itself.
Insurance: MMASF offered a completely comprehensive insurance package that left no burden on any fighter injured on their card. This is a critical point that I can not stress enough to amateur fighters: In most states, insurance for the fighters isn’t required at all and even when it is, the minimum to satisfy the commission won’t cover even 25% of your costs. Take it from a guy who shelled out $800 of his own money AFTER the insurance company for the promotion I was injured fighting for paid their share: MINIMUM INSURANCE ISN’T ENOUGH. MMASF provides top class event insurance that guarantees amateurs really are fighting for free. You won’t end up paying a pro fight purse to a doctor if you get hurt on an MMASF show and for that they deserve all the respect in the world.
Grade: A+ MMASF provided the best insurance money could buy. For a fighter who is more than likely fighting for free with insurance that won’t cover a combat sports injury, this is of paramount importance.
Exposure: This is another gray area. The fights received a decent amount of local media coverage and were televised in three countries, so the exposure was definitely there; the only problem was that all the attention was focused on the teams, not the fighters. As a fighter, getting recognized as an individual is critical and on Team USA, you have to hope you do something particularly memorable to get recognized amidst all the hype built around the team. The considerable exposure is 90% for the promotion and 10% for the fighters; the question is whether or not the 10% MMASF gives you is greater than the 50% you can get elsewhere. For many fighters in smaller camps the answer is yes. It provides the exposure that ensures that if you do something spectacular, you will get noticed, but if you’re just good, you’ll get lost in the shadows around the promotion’s spotlight. The biggest letdown in the exposure department is the fact that MMASF doesn’t handle records properly. Not only does it fail to report results to major outlets like mixedmartialarts.com, but it fails to get its own records right. A perfect example is main event fighter “Dangerous” Dan Darby. His record is listed as 3-2 on Team USA’s website, it’s listed as 1-1 amateur 0-1 professional on mixedmartialarts.com, and it was announced as 6-0 in the cage on fight night! In fact, every Team USA fighter is suspected to have had serious record padding including everything from altered/fictitious fight results to one and done promotional titles that sound much more impressive than they are (i.e. 2009 WAKO MMA National Champion Anthony Goodwin, a fighter listed as 5-1 officially and 16-2 by MMASF holds a title that the World Alliance of Kickboxing Organizations has absolutely no mention of on their website)
Grade: B MMASF provides considerable exposure for Team USA. While the exposure for individual fighters is next to none, being associated with a well promoted team allows a fighter to draw of the teams accomplishments and even hide their own failings. After all, if you lost the two bouts you had as a member of Team USA, you can still tell that pro scout that you were part of the international competition team that went 10-2. The only fighters that get burned by this are unfortunately the ones good enough to stand out on their own.
All in all, MMASF is a solid promotion that provides a chance at quality exposure, provided you can get invited to try out for their team. Rob Zbilski stated that open tryouts for Team USA would be held in the near future. The pros of being on Team USA are fairly obvious if you’re a member of a small camp: it gives you built in exposure you might not otherwise get, it gives you something sellable to put on your resume, and it gives you a regular fight schedule. Knowing that you have a fight every three months or so with a familiar promotion is a very valuable commodity and knowing that you aren’t being jobbed out to a fighter from a more prestigious camp is invaluable. The cons are more obvious as a member of a more established MMA school: the spotlight is on the team, not you, and if another opportunity arises from a different promotion, you may very well be obligated to fight for Team USA already. For the fans, MMASF puts on an excellent show that is both professional and entertaining. For the fighters, it’s really a take it or leave it kind of promotion. If you want a regular fight schedule and are looking to build your record and an impressive sounding resume, then Team USA and the MMASF is for you. If you want the freedom of picking and choosing your opponents and prefer the spotlight to be focused on yourself and not the pageantry surrounding you, then I would recommend you fight elsewhere.
Overall Grade: C MMASF does a good job of promoting the Team USA concept and takes good care of the business side of their organization. They do fall short on several key areas concerning the fighters directly. This is a great show for the fans but unless you are a fighter from a very small camp who has little opportunity to gain exposure otherwise, its a less that desirable company to fight for.