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Blood, sweat and cheers: Mixed martial arts goes from gory nights to glory days

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It's Saturday night at a local pizza parlour, and Marc-Andre Drolet -- a self-described "fight nerd" -- is transfixed on a big screen as two men in a cage punch, kick and pummel the bejesus out of one another live from Las Vegas.

Drolet is jacked. After all, it's not uncommon for the 39-year-old to watch up to six mixed martial arts events a week -- anywhere in the TV or Internet universe where he can find them; London, Dubai, India, Asia. He'll watch them live, too, regardless of the hour, at his home in Lorette.

"I pretty much schedule my life around it," he says. "I don't know if it's obsession or passion."

How obsessive is Drolet about MMA?

"Just ask my ex-wife," he quips.

He's not kidding. "It's my burning passion and anybody who's with me has to understand that."

Drolet's girlfriend, Kathy Spinks, understands. She's sitting next to him in a booth at a Boston Pizza on Regent Avenue, watching the UFC 160 bout, along with friend Rob Tallow, who respectfully contends he's a bigger MMA fan than Drolet.

Tallow will watch events from India, live, that can last up to eight hours -- and that includes pre-fight parades. In the olden days, when both MMA cage matches and the Internet were in their infancy in the early '90s, Tallow and Drolet would follow faraway fights in chat rooms, where play-by-play was in written form.

So the mere fact that UFC 161 will be held for the first time in Winnipeg next week at the MTS Centre -- instantly becoming the most watched event ever telecast out of this Prairie burg -- has Tallow and Drolet literally beside themselves.

"It's still surreal," Drolet says. "It's going to be amazing watching it at home. Can't wait."

Of course they have tickets, despite the fact the event sold out almost immediately. They will be joined by more than 15,000 rabid fans of a sport that has exploded globally despite years being outlawed, ostracized and dismissed as -- in the infamous words of U.S. Senator and presidential candidate John McCain -- "human cockfighting."

Millions more will watch the MTS Centre event -- from Russia, China, Australia, the UK, Brazil and across the United States -- just like these three friends from Canada are watching UFC 160 in a pizza parlour in Winnipeg.

For now, however, Drolet and Tallow are unfazed by the fighting canvas on the screen from Las Vegas, which is beginning to resemble a crime scene that might be found on a CSI episode. As two fighters move around the caged Octagon -- this is the eighth fight on the card -- they take turns standing in large circles of dried blood. Says Drolet: "Someone emailed me earlier and asked me if someone got stabbed."

No, it happened in a preliminary bout, where most of the blood was donated by a fighter who suffered a two-inch gash in the forehead. But now K.C. Noons -- making his UFC debut, and losing -- is adding his own plasma to the cause. His face is a mask of blood.

"This is nothing," Tallow shrugs. Drolet nods, still transfixed.

Drolet explains that blood spilled during UFC fights is most often cosmetic. Small gashes are common. Blood spills. The clean up is a towel and some Vaseline. Good to go.

However, Drolet admits that after watching countless MMA battles, he has grown rather immune to the sight of blood. He tells the story of seeing an elderly woman who fell in a grocery store, opening a cut in her forehead -- not unlike the unfortunate Mr. Noons on the screen.

Fellow shoppers and staff were frantically trying to stem the bleeding.

Drolet remembers thinking, "What's everybody freaking out about? It's just a little trickle."

----

Giueseppe DeNatale is a former IKF World Heavyweight Muay Thai Champion. He won the title in 2005, in what will soon become the second-most watched MMA event held in Winnipeg, before some 3,500 fans at the Convention Centre.

DeNatale's professional fighting days are over now. For the past six years, he's operated the Canadian Fighting Center, a 5,000 square-foot mixed martial arts facility on Wardlaw Avenue. The space has been recently renovated -- new matting, new boxing ring, new paint job. The gym is the antithesis of the grimy, dark boxing clubs of yesteryear.

One wall is lined with photos of the MMA bouts DeNatale has either headlined or, more recently, promoted under the Canadian Fighting Championships. In fact, DeNatale is holding CFC 8 at the Convention Centre on Sept. 13, in a not-so-subtle effort to ride the wave of June's UFC event.

"People are going to be hungry for MMA," DeNatale says. "And we've got a lot of fighters who need to fight. It's going to bring a spotlight to the MMA business. It's going to increase awareness."

"People don't know what MMA is, people don't know UFC," he adds. "This is Winnipeg. Remember when the Jets came back? It's going to be crazy here. That's going to put us on the map. Live from the MTS Centre. Millions will be watching. Everywhere. Russia, China, the States. Australia. All over the world."

All around the gym, evidence of MMA's grassroots foothold in Canada -- currently the second largest UFC market -- is on full display. The gym is bustling. There are classes with beginners, classes with competitive amateurs and pros, classes with women and classes with kids. The classes feature disciplines including Brazilian ju-jitsu, taekwondo, wrestling, Muay Thai kick-boxing, karate and boxing.

At one end of the gym, 10-year-old Connor Church and younger brother Ryder, 7, are practising reverse back kicks, emulating their hero, Montreal-born George St-Pierre, the UFC's reigning World Welterweight Champion and undisputed meal ticket for MMA in Canada.

"I just wanted them to be physically active," explains the boy's father, Jason. "I wanted them to be flexible for hockey. We just fell in love with the sport."

There are about 75 kids in the gym's youth program. Four years ago, there was no youth program.

For the uninitiated, mixed martial arts is the currency of the UFC, the global, multi-billion dollar conglomerate that markets the sport just as the NFL does football or the NHL does hockey. There are other smaller competitors to the UFC scattered around the world, but UFC is the Goliath, with a stable of some 300 fighters under contract. There is no David.

A decade ago, when Derek Campbell started showing UFC fights at his lounge at Boogies Diner on Main Street, he'd get a handful of customers in the bar. Now an average fight draws closer to 100 even with a $10 cover charge. If GSP (George St-Pierre) is on the card, it's usually standing room only.

"It's a real mixed breed now," Campbell says. "It's not just young guys. A lot of girls come to the events and older guys."

Heather Allard, 34, was drawn by the multi-dimensional nature of MMA. "It always felt to me they were holding back," she says, sitting with boyfriend Rob McClaren and fellow UFC fanatic David Rink. "I like to see them go all the way, put everything into it. I love everything about it, and it doesn't ever seem fake."

"And you have to love the blood when someone splits their head open," adds Rink, 37. "That's what gets me going."

Like countless fans in North America, the three were lured to UFC by the ground-breaking Ultimate Fighter reality TV series, now entering its 18th season, which served as a behind-the-scenes glimpse into both the sport and the personal lives of aspiring competitors. They have seen almost every event since, always together. It has become their ritual.

Yet the polarizing nature of UFC is also alive and well, largely due to its inception in the early 1990s as a blood-fuelled, prison fight-like spectacle with only two rules: No eye-gouging, no biting.

To this day, despite the sport's evolution into a vastly lucrative, strictly regulated, wildly popular enterprise (heavily skewed to a 12-34 age demographic), the negative stigma attached to UFC remains, to use MMA terminology, gripped in a guillotine choke.

"We're at cultural awareness," notes Jerin Valel, former MMA professional and current professional referee. "We're starting to get some cultural acceptance. People know what the UFC is, but they still mix up UFC and MMA. They don't know what the rules are. Once we get cultural acceptance we'll get actual support for the sport.

"Unfortunately, people still cringe at a family gathering when I tell them I did it as a professional and I'm still involved in it," he adds. "I think most of us, in our private lives, only bring it up if it comes up.

"We're not there to proselytize to people. If they have questions, we can answer. It's not for everyone and we know that. Our ask is for people to make an effort to understand the unknown. Just because it's unknown doesn't mean it's bad."

Valel's personal story emulates the rise of MMA and the UFC. Now 35, Valel was a former University of Manitoba wrestler who tried ju-jitsu on a lark in his early 20s. His first impression of UFC -- after watching early shows on VHS tapes -- was that "this sport is barbaric. It was too far."

But Valel became intrigued by the diversity and dynamics of MMA. Before long, he was driving 18 hours to Des Moines, Iowa, for his first professional fight. "It was a cage and I was super nervous," he recalls.

Valel is still in the Octagon, but now as the first Canadian to become a certified MMA course trainer. These days, he travels the world flying first class, staying in five-star hotels to oversee and officiate professional MMA cards, including UFC events. He's been to China nine times in the past year alone.

Valel marvels at the transformation of the sport and his place in it. "We all think it's crazy," he says, seated on a punching bag in DeNatale's gym. "We look at these young guys and see how the sport has evolved. (The past) is like old-time boxing. 'Put up your dukes'. If boxing is the sweet science, then MMA is rocket science."

Indeed, it's a long way from Des Moines to the Chinese city of Nanjing, where Valel recently officiated a MMA event in the world's "seventh largest ballroom." There were only some 300 tickets available for $1,000 a pop.

Joe Doerksen has experienced the same awakening. Born in New Bothwell, Man., Doerksen fought his first professional MMA bout in 1999, and has since entered the ring for nine UFC bouts -- the highlight being UFC 113, in front of a throng of 17,000 at Montreal's Bell Centre in 2010.

"The biggest change is when I'd get on a flight (home) after a fight and I had a black eye, people would ask me what happened," says Doerksen, 35. "I'd tell them I was fighting in a mixed martial arts competition. And everybody would say, 'What is that?' Nobody had any idea what was going on. The general public had no clue. And when they did find out about it they thought it was a horrible, horrible thing."

Then came the Ultimate Fighter reality series -- part competition, part intimate life story -- that attracted a broad base of fans not only to the sport but, more importantly, to individual fighters.

"Almost overnight it completely changed people's perception and awareness," Doerksen says. "It went from being an obscure, unknown sport to this amazing, huge spectacle that the entire world knows about. It went from being nothing to being everything."

Doerksen fought four times in his professional debut in Littleton, Colo., winning three and losing one. "Good times," he says.

Nicknamed "El Dirte," Doerksen's prominent beak has been broken four times. The cuts have been too numerous to count. And his career (47 wins, 16 losses) has taken him from Winnipeg to Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Las Vegas to Sydney, to Tokyo and back again.

In September, Doerksen will headline the CFC card in what could be his last pro fight.

"It was a good time in my life, but it wasn't meant to last forever. I'm excited to move forward and start a new chapter in my life. I had my day. I've got no complaints."

It's not just perceptions that have changed. Consider that the former Manitoba Boxing Commission is now called the Manitoba Combative Fighting Commission.

Why? Simple. Professional boxing in Manitoba has gone the way of the Tyrannosaurus Rex.

There hasn't been a pro boxing card in the province in two years. In that time, about a dozen MMA events have been held. In addition, there are about 40 licenced MMA fighters in Manitoba, compared to 10 boxers, and none of the latter compete here.

"I think it's a combination of the public's thirst for extreme sports and extreme reality," says MCFC chairman Dan Vandal. "I don't fully understand it, but there's a thirst for it."

Vandal is both a long-time Winnipeg city councillor and, in another life, a former No. 1-ranked boxer who fought for the Canadian middleweight title in 1983.

Despite his boxing heritage, Vandal can appreciate the evolution of UFC/MMA from back street brawling to -- at the highest level -- disciplined combat.

"The athletes are tremendous, second to none. There's increased technique," says Vandal. "People who criticize that there are no rules, they're dead wrong. There are many rules. People will tell me it's a glorified street fight. Not really.

"Don't get me wrong," he adds. "It's a brutal sport. And it can be a dangerous sport, not unlike boxing or football or hockey."

True, in a world where dead NFL players' brains are being donated to science to study the long-term effects of concussions, the violent nature of MMA -- despite the blood letting and notorious past -- might not seem so "barbaric" compared to what mainstream sports fans deem acceptable today.

In fact, this summer the federal government is poised to amend the Criminal Code, a move that would allow MMA prize fights in all Canadian jurisdictions. At the same time, proponents are pushing for a national amateur body that would oversee the sport, establish regulations and enforce them, not unlike Hockey Canada or Basketball Canada. Provinces could then set up their own amateur organizations under a national umbrella.

"The province has to decide: Do we want amateur MMA and what will it look like?," says MCFC executive director Joel Fingard. "Who would regulate it? And at what age are we going to allow them to participate? That's the key. There's a real aggression in the sport. That's not for everybody. We don't want to see these kids getting concussions or the same injuries as the pros."

These questions only underline how the MMA phenomenon is still molten lava. One on hand, Fingard openly wonders if MMA will run in cycles, like boxing, or become a future Olympic event?

"That's the interesting thing about the sport," he says. "You can't predict where it's going."

This much is certain, however: The sport, in all it's UFC gory and glory, is coming to Winnipeg.

For Curtis Brigham, who operates the Winnipeg Academy of Mixed Martial Arts and trains local bantamweight Roland Delorme -- the only Winnipegger on the UFC 161 card -- the significance of the event can't be understated.

"It's like the Super Bowl of MMA," says Brigham, who recently came out of retirement to re-enter the ring, adding: "It's only going to get more widely accepted. It's not going to be outlawed everywhere. I think we'll lose a lot of conceptions people had of seeing it in the early years of blood and gore."

If the UFC has a challenge, it's managing growth. Between 2006-09, the number of UFC events rose from 18 to 24. In 2011, that number climbed to 27, then jumped to 32 in 2012.

Asked about potential saturation, Boogies owner Campbell replies: "They're at it right now. They're showing so many events. People lose touch of who the fighters are. You're wondering, 'Who is this guy? Where did he come from?' "

In Manitoba, the number of local MMA events peaked at 10 in 2009. There were four last year. So despite the explosion into the mass market, questions remain.

"MMA is new," Fingard says. "Is it going to be around in 20 years? Will something replace MMA like it replaced boxing? Will the MMA become a league like the CFL?"

Hence the UFC's efforts to colonize new markets, with the blueprint of developing local talent to headline events. After all, if Canada was the New World to the UFC a decade ago, then George St-Pierre was the bad-ass Columbus.

"The big advantage we have -- and I'm a huge hockey fan -- is that as much as I'd like to see hockey work in Brazil it's just not going to make it," said Tom Wright in a phone call from Sydney, Australia, where the UFC's beachhead is also expanding. The former CFL commissioner now serves as the UFC's director of operations for Canada, Australia and New Zealand. "The NFL has tried desperately to get a foothold into China, but without any stars or local heroes it's not going to happen. Countries like to be able to root for their own. We have that advantage.

"It transcends race, colour, religion, background, sex," Wright says of the UFC's primal attraction. "And before a basketball was swooshed and a hockey puck went into the top right-hand corner two guys started fighting and a bunch of people clamoured around to watch. It's part of our DNA."

He recalls a meeting with UFC brass in Las Vegas a couple years ago, when he first floated the notion of an event in Winnipeg.

The response around the table was unanimous: "Where is Winnipeg?" Replied Wright: "Go to Minneapolis, then turn left."

How time and perceptions fly. Next Saturday, for one night at least, the eyes of the expanding UFC world will be drawn to a Prairie city most will have to Google to find.

"This will be the most broadly broadcasted event ever to emanate out of Winnipeg," says Wright. "Here you've got 500 people sitting in a bar in Melbourne watching this event (UFC 160) at an arena in Las Vegas. And 20 million people probably saw that. So when this show goes off in (Winnipeg), there's going to be millions and millions of people around the world -- when they hear (UFC commentators) Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg say 'Welcome to Winnipeg, Manitoba,' with a beauty shot of downtown Winnipeg, more people will see this city than have ever seen it before." "You've had some big events," Wright added. "The Grey Cup is awesome. But chances are a lot of Australians didn't watch it."

But perhaps the UFC's most audacious goal yet is to someday see a sport that began with bare-knuckles, two rules and a cage evolve into the next Olympic juggernaut. In fact, Wright, a former executive with Adidas, still chuckles when recalling an incident 20 years ago, when he was riding a ski lift with some sponsors over the slopes at Banff.

Below them, a rag-tag flock of young snowboarders where carving across the slopes. The downhill skiing officials were indignant.

"They were saying, 'Gawd, look at that snowboarder. They're just ruining our sport, they're ruining our hills,' " Wright said. " 'Their pants don't fit. And they probably have pierced body parts and they probably smoke dope. Oh, gawd, what are they doing to our sport?!' "

Flash forward 20 years to the 2010 Vancouver Games, and the two most popular viewed sports on television were... snowboarding events.

"It takes time for these things to happen," Wright says. "It takes time for myths to be dispelled and people to be properly informed. I would like nothing better in my lifetime to go to an Olympic Games and cheer for Canadian competing in mixed martial arts."

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 8, 2013 ??65535

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