Sunday, 23 August 2020

The Problem with Amateur MMA

I've had a lot of involvement in Amateur MMA over the last twenty years first as a competitor and then as a coach. My first amateur fight was on my coach Fred Rados Pancrase event in London in September 2000. I competed in around 30 amateur matches in events such as Pancrase and KSBO before graduating to pro rules fights.


I competed in MMA to test myself and gauge my progress rather than seeing it as a career. Becoming a professional cage fighter wasn't a viable career option back in the early 2000s, MMA / NHB / Cage Fighting was a freak show sport back then and was still banned in most places.


Over the years MMA has become more and more mainstream. The sport of amateur MMA has also progressed a lot to the point where there are now large international amateur MMA competitions. I think this is great and I would always encourage my fighters to gain experience as an amateur if they are serious about having a successful fight career (I have previously made the point in this article - http://www.dkmmacoaching.com/2019/10/the-importance-of-amateur-mma.html?showComment=1598179230582#c7257568754422585315)


However, there are several problems that I see with the sport of amateur MMA which will need to be addressed for the sport to continue to grow:


Amateur MMA as a Pathway to Professional MMA:


The first problem is that it is obviously not really necessary to compete as an amateur to compete at the highest levels in MMA.


Every aspiring fighter wants to fight in the UFC, Bellator or One FC but Amateur MMA isn't always seen as a pathway to the highest level of competition.


It is unheard in boxing for a fighter to turn pro unless they have had a long and successful amateur career. Almost every top professional Boxer in history was also an amateur champion before turning professional.


If we look at most of the champions or top ten fighters, they didn't compete in amateur tournaments - they came straight from the elite level of other combat sports - wrestling, kickboxing or Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Of the current UFC champions, there are very few that have had any amateur fights before starting their pro career.

Having a lengthy amateur career may lead to the fighter taking excessive unnecessary damage when it could be argued that you would be better just developing elite skills and competing in one of the three areas of wrestling, striking or BJJ and then transferring to MMA. 


There are also arguably even easier entry pathways to make it to the big shows. These include building a  'padded record'. Fights against opponents who are picked specifically to lose so you can get into the big event with an undefeated record or having a flamboyant screen personality and getting there via a reality TV show. 


Obviously, the problem with these last two options is that you will quickly get exposed once you actually fight at the higher levels but nonetheless they do seem like attractive alternatives for the up and coming fighter who is trying to fast track his way to the top.


Not enough fighters to make Amateur MMA worthwhile


As mentioned above many fighters will just go straight to pro or will focus on competing in individual sports such as kickboxing and wrestling so that leaves a smaller talent pool of amateur MMA fighters. This, in turn, makes it difficult to hold worthwhile MMA tournaments or MMA circuits because the best fighters probably aren't competing so even if you win it might be meaningless in the long term.


Another problem is that with amateur MMA there is just never going to be enough fighters willing to step up and compete. At every 'MMA' Gym there will be members training and even competing in kickboxing or grappling but very few training in both & combining styles and even fewer willing to step up and compete, usually citing the reasons that they haven't been doing enough grappling recently because they've been focusing on their striking or vice versa. Of the few that do compete, they will usually only compete once or twice rather than committing to a longer-term amateur career.


One of the reasons for this may be that there just aren't enough regular amateur events to build up the necessary numbers of fighters. Most amateur fighters are lucky if they get the opportunity to fight three or four times per year compared to sports like amateur boxing where you could conceivably fight every weekend.  


The problem of what is the difference between an amateur and a pro?


In most sports, the term 'Professional' usually has connotations of being a super-elite high-level athlete. This is usually the case in sports such as football or basketball but fighting is a different story. Anyone who has been involved for any length of time knows that being a ‘professional fighter’ is usually a meaningless term. Anyone can get a professional fighter's licence regardless of their skill or ability whereas not everyone can become a professional football player. The reason for this is that in combat sports the focus is less on skill level and more on selling tickets.


It is not uncommon to see amateur fighters who are light years ahead of some 'Professional' fighters in terms of skill and experience. This is something that would usually never happen in other sports and for that reason, it makes the entire concept of Amateur and Professional MMA somewhat meaningless.


I think a useful idea in the future would be that fighters aren't granted a professional fighters licence unless they have a minimum number of legitimate amateur matches with a specific winning ratio or have equivalent high-level experience in another combat sport.


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