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MMA should have Olympic chance on an equal footing

By Dan Palmer

If you stay in a hotel with MMA fighters, you might see some different things.

Take my visit to the swimming pool during last month’s International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) World Championships in Abu Dhabi, when I bumped into Bahrain’s super heavyweight Pasha Kharkhachaev.

The two-time and back-to-back world champion was the only person in the water and the man-mountain was an imposing sight. 

As I swam slowly past, he began shadow boxing the air, demonstrating the huge punches which have earned him so much success.

Earlier that day, Murad Dzhamaldinov had been on the receiving end of those iron fists as Kharkhachaev began his bid for an unprecedented third world title.

Dzhamaldinov was rocked early, and a pantomime style atmosphere developed as the crowd encouraged the champion to unload more lefts and rights.

After a doctor had checked his opponent and allowed the fight to continue, Kharkhachaev chose a different path.

He seemed unwilling to risk seriously hurting his rival and instead took the fight to the ground, deploying an earth-shattering suplex on the way.

Kharkhachaev looked unbeatable and was still wearing the gold kit given to all defending world champions when I saw him in the pool.

But, less than 24 hours later, he was out of the competition. 

A lacklustre and tired performance in the semi-finals against eventual gold medallist Shamsutdin Makhmudov proved to be his downfall as the dream of three wins evaporated.

The Bahrain man’s two displays could barely have been further apart in their quality, and highlighted how quickly fortunes can shift in amateur MMA.

Take Norway’s Cecilie Bolander, an athlete I heard nicknamed the “arm collector” after her tendency to win by armbar submissions.

She looked to be in excellent form but, when coming up against Bahrain’s title holder Sabrina Laurentina De Sousa in the women’s featherweight final, the Norwegian was taken apart by a punching clinic.

Bolander could not engineer the fight for her favoured armbar as she was out-boxed from the very start. 

It was a reminder that in MMA it is the fighters such as De Sousa, who flourish in a number of different styles, and can adapt to every situation and opponent, who flourish.

Both Kharkhachaev and Bolander’s stories are examples of the twists and turns that sport conjures up, and how athletes can unforgivingly tumble from the very top to the bottom in a matter of moments.

But for years IMMAF has been struggling to have MMA recognised as a sport at all – a strange situation to get your head around after witnessing a World Championships featuring 56 countries and 422 athletes.

In December, IMMAF finally became a signatory of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Code after a six-year process that even involved legal action.

This was a significant landmark, but the organisation has still not been accepted by the Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF), a body which new President Ivo Ferriani has said could be disbanded.

GAISF membership is essential if MMA one day wants to join the Olympic programme. 

It is also needed by many National Federations which want to become recognised by their National Olympic Committee or Sports Ministry. 

Recognition like this unlocks the potential for funding, and all of the benefits this could bring.

IMMAF President Kerrith Brown hopes the appointment of Ferriani will boost his organisation in the same way Witold Bańka’s rise to the Presidency of WADA has.

The governing body is still pushing ahead with a fresh application for GAISF membership, despite the looming threat to the umbrella body’s existence.

“If you look at the criteria for GAISF it’s well documented that I think we’ve surpassed that,” Brown said to insidethegames.

“I have to say GAISF was dismal in terms of its response to IMMAF. 

“We’ve been waiting for information and we’ve been stonewalled, but that’s the old regime. 

“We have a new President and he’s made a statement that they want to disband it. 

“We’re not privy to those conversations. 

“What I’m hoping for, is like how Bańka has come in, he’s [Ferriani] going to clean the process. 

“We just want a fair shot with the information that is provided, and a fair review that we meet the requirements. 

“And that’s all we’re asking for. 

“We don’t want any favours. 

“We don’t want to have an advantage by having someone else put in a special word for us. 

“We want to be handled fairly throughout the process and, if we meet the requirements, to be recognised.” 

Brown, an Olympic judo bronze medallist, has made no secret of his belief that “factions” within sport are lobbying against further recognition for MMA.

Combat disciplines already on the Olympic programme are perhaps wary of the rise of a sport which attracts millions of fans through events like the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), and could believe that their places are under threat.

“It’s well documented that there are political factions pushing against MMA,” said Brown. 

“I totally understand that in terms of MMA being one of the fastest growing sports. 

“But to me that’s the fanbase. 

“In terms of the growth of the sport, it’s still new. 

“It’s unusual for a sport to be born upside down. 

“It started with the promotions like UFC and Bellator, which have been dominating our sport, and the growth of that is phenomenal. 

“People have access to the sport of mixed martial arts and it has created legends and superstars out of that. 

“But not only that, it gives the opportunity for the combat sports, those top five per cent of athletes who finish their careers and have nowhere to go, they can then showcase their skills in a new discipline and can make some money out of it. 

“Coming out of it as an amateur and having a platform to showcase your skills, whether that’s karate, judo or wrestling, or any of that, it’s a positive.

“But the problem was there was no foundation for amateurs. 

“With IMMAF, our job and our remit is to build that infrastructure, and to build a confident International Federation that is transparent, that is fair, and that is built on values. 

“There are core sports that don’t want to see us get any form of recognition. 

“At WADA we’re a non-Olympic sport, a non-recognised sport, that has gone to the highest rating of the new WADA Code. 

“So what does that tell you?”

MMA also has to battle against the perception that it is a brutal sport which results in numerous injuries.

Some will know it simply as “cage fighting” and believe incorrectly that it is dangerous.

The truth is that the sport is no more harmful than other martial arts, and there are robust safety protocols in place as well as education initiatives. 

Amateur events are also a world away from the trash talking and theatre often found in a promotion such as the UFC, which might not seem in keeping with the Olympic Movement.

The World Championships felt the same as a flagship event in any Olympic sport – with athletes proud to represent their country and doing so in a competitive yet sporting manner.

Some in amateur MMA circles have started to speak more positively about one day appearing on the Olympic programme.

With the International Olympic Committee (IOC) placing emphasis on sports that appeal to younger generations, you would have thought that IMMAF would already be in a strong position.

Climbing, surfing, skateboarding and breaking are among the sports put forward by the IOC to tick the youth box, but, with the greatest respect to these, surely MMA has a greater share of young people’s attention than any of them.

UFC events, for instance, attract huge audiences and coverage in media publications around the world. 

None of the new Olympic sports can boast the same buzz surrounding their flagship competitions, and their fanbases are tiny in comparison.

Yes, the MMA athletes appearing at the Olympics would likely not be the very big names who have turned professional.

But there would certainly be interest in watching new stars of the sport, and the future major champions, as they emerge. 

You only have to look at the list of Olympic boxing gold medallists to see how impressive the production line could become.

At the very least, MMA deserves its chance to bid for an Olympic place on an equal footing to other sports, with the presence of GAISF observer Donato Milano at the IMMAF General Assembly perhaps a positive first step towards that.

Incorrect perceptions about the sport, or existing Olympic martial arts worrying about being overshadowed, should not be a barrier, and it seems daft that the fast-growing phenomenon of MMA is not represented within GAISF when more than 120 other sports are.

 “We’ve got to get past the first hurdle,” Brown said on potential Olympic inclusion.

“We’ve got to get recognised.

“Olympic Games is a ‘nice to have’ – it would be great. 

“The next generation, it’s important to educate. 

“So they understand about this sport and about all the other areas which are important, to make sure that the sport is represented as a gold standard.

“So, if the Olympics presents itself, we’re ready.”

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