The Plight and Prosperity of British MMA
Compact within the confines of a well-made suit, Ian “The Machine”
Freeman appeals for calm from an unresponsive audience.
The deep, authoritative tone of the former UFC heavyweight
contender asserts that the fight will not continue, until respect
is shown and seats are taken.
The hall is half empty.
The half that have attended appear to be relations of a local
fighter, whose Lithuanian opponent has left the cage and is
refusing to return until the partisan crowd are a little more
There are few casual fans. The audience is charged with the
heightened emotion of those about to watch a loved one fight and a
minor scuffle breaks out between the rows of unfixed, plastic
Welcome to the fledgling world of British MMA.
By all measurements, mixed martial arts has never been more popular
on this side of the Atlantic. Media coverage, talent and public
awareness progressively rise, and yet, despite these increases,
domestic promotions are finding it harder than ever to attract the
fans that play the video game, buy the magazines and watch the
On June 2, a press conference held in decadent, West London
surroundings heralded a new dawn for British MMA. The British
Association of Mixed Martial Arts (BAMMA) sought to bring cohesion
to the splintered UK scene with a trilogy of televised events. They
would culminate in an end-of-year card, on which six definitive
British champions would be crowned.
Two months and one event later, BAMMA is on the verge of collapse.
Their website has been taken off-line, their events have been
cancelled and official statements are eerily absent.
When the cessation is confirmed, it will be the third time within a
year that a high profile British organization has chosen to fold.
In March, Liverpool-based Cage Gladiators, proving ground of
current UFC alum Terry Etim
Kelly, ended a run of thirteen events. The British Fighting
Championship -- a conglomeration of promotions including FX3, AMMA
and Ultimate Force -- failed to assemble a single show before a
failed television deal forced them to abort their ambitious
A worrying paradox has developed around British MMA.
The increase in popularity and acceptance of the sport in the U.K.
has failed to translate into support of the domestic scene.
Matt Freeman, editor of leading British magazine MMA Unlimited,
points to the global dominance of the UFC as a possible explanation
for the disparity between popularity and success for local
“With the UFC coming back to the U.K., we have seen an explosion of
interest in that particular promotion but not in the sport,” said
Freeman. “Everyone has heard of the UFC, but not MMA, which could
be construed as negative.
“The top U.K. promotions used to host huge domestic and
international cards, but things have definitely changed,” continued
Freeman. “The trickle-down effect many thought would happen a few
years ago hasn't happened. Add that to the economic downturn, which
has seemingly had no effect on the UFC and British shows have
struggled in my opinion.”
Since April 2007, the UFC has held eight events across the U.K. and
Ireland, filling sizable arenas with ease and forever changing the
landscape of MMA in Europe. November will see the UFC return to the
Manchester Evening News Arena, scene of their triumphant re-entry
into the market, buoyed by the confirmation of a new long-term
television deal with ESPN.
Marshall Zelaznik, UFC U.K. division president, regards the recent
television negotiations as an indicator of the progress made by the
organization in the U.K..
“We used to have to beat their doors down, now they come to us with
requests,” said Zelaznik. “There were definitely more players in
the TV negotiations this time. Two and a half years ago, we had
year-to-year deals, but now companies understand the product.”
Zelaznik also feels that the problems facing some British
promotions are a result of flawed business strategies and
over-extension rather than lack of interest outside of the UFC
“I hope that we are driving awareness,” he said. “There is enough
interest here for smaller promotions but more simplistic business
models are required.
“You can’t oversell, telling everyone you have the best fighters in
the world, when people know that you don’t,” continued Zelaznik.
“They should say ‘We’ve got the best up and coming talent in the
U.K. Come and have a good night out,’ instead of acting like the
second coming of Jesus Christ. There are plenty of shows in the
U.S., that put on compelling and entertaining fights without
Veteran British Promoter Dave O' Donnell takes a similar view to
Zelaznik. O'Donnell's UCUK promotion is one the few domestic
organizations to prosper alongside the UFC, and he feels that his
success can be attributed to his experience in the business -- a
quality sadly lacking in the sudden deluge of aspiring promoters,
ill equipped to contend with the rigors of running a successful
“They come to the show and think, ‘I can do that, I can do this,’
but you've got to look big picture, not small,” said O’Donnell.
“The danger will come when there are too many organizations not
doing it properly. They cut corners like, ‘We'll have one doctor
instead of two,’ or ‘I'll get my brother’s mate to fight,’ instead
of hiring professional fighters.”
Much of the problems facing U.K. promotions stem from the absence
of a nationalized governing body. There is a lack of consistency
from one event to the next, making a definitive British brand
impossible. BAMMA and the BFC both tried to establish such a base
by uniting numerous smaller productions, with no success.
Until unity is found between the plethora of regional shows, the
future of British MMA for the casual fan will rest firmly upon the
UFC, who insist that despite plans to extend the promotion into
Australia and Asia, have the U.K. firmly at the forefront of their
“We still feel that there is work to be done,” said Zelaznik. “Next
year we plan to be more aggressive in our promotion; we are looking
to put on three to five shows in the U.K. Any arena that can hold
in the region of 9,000 throughout the country, we are looking to
As the UFC continues to grow, the future of the British MMA scene
remains under threat. It will take cooperation from regional shows
or the emergence of an outstanding promotion to fully exploit the
increase in popularity that the UFC has generated, and until that
time comes, we can expect many more false dawns on the British
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