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 welcoming.
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 chairs.
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 UFC.
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 and Paul 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 plans.
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 promotions.
“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 brand.
“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 TV.”
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 show.
“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 plans.
“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 fill.”
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 horizon.