In 2021, Italian MMA hopes to see some much-desired light after several dark months.
The first Italian promotion to break the ice in the new year will be The Golden Cage, which will hold its third event on Feb. 6. The event will go down behind closed doors at the Heaven Fight Arena, the home of the Aurora MMA team, and it will be headlined by a welterweight championship clash between Leonardo Damiani and Marco Saccaro.
Sherdog spoke with the two minds behind the upcoming Golden Cage event. The first was Luigi Perillo, the founder of Icon Holding. He recollected that his adventure with MMA started after watching UFC 1 on videotape, instantly falling in love with the sport. Over the years, his passion for MMA grew into a business opportunity called The Golden Cage.
"The Golden Cage is a concept that I developed with two of my former business partners,” Perillo said. “We took the idea of a traditional MMA card and added some musical interludes. The final result was a sort of Cirque du Soleil-esque event where there were no dead moments, and the public's attention was high. The general audience welcomed this format, but many insiders and hardcore fans criticized it. We aimed to bring new people to MMA using different ways of entertainment. Do you know what’s funny? Now I see big MMA brands doing the same thing, inviting rappers, influencers, celebrities to increase the public.”
The Golden Cage appeared to be an excellent opportunity to enlarge the scope of mixed martial arts in Italy. In the past, some of the country’s more famous rappers took the stage to perform. While its sophomore event fell short of selling out the 4,000-seat arena, it delivered a card that rivaled 2016’s Venator FC 3, which is considered the quintessential Italian MMA production.
“As a Fortune 500 businessman, I dealt with the upper segment of finance managing some large corporations, including Tandy Corp., RadioShack, Hitachi,” The Golden Cage co-promoter Steve Dapper said. “I come from a highly speculative business world. When Luigi talked to me about his idea, I thought it needed some structure to be more relevant in an international setting. He showed me numbers and things I needed to know for me to develop a strategy, which grew up a series of initiatives that, from time to time, we started putting forward to achieve our goals. I wasn’t into MMA at all at first. I needed to learn how it worked, its politics, the dirt in it, and all of those crappy things that make up every business. There’s no difference between MMA and any other business. When there’s money involved, there are interests.”
One of the essential steps in Perillo’s career was taking a break to focus on politics.
“After the second card, I applied to join the International MMA Federation,” Perillo added. “I saw that there was an opportunity to create an official MMA Federation in Switzerland, and I took it. Steve and I went to Bahrein and joined the IMMAF, funding the brand new MMASF. In the remaining of the time, I worked to build some relationships with many national IMMAF sections, including FIGMMA, the Italian one. We don’t want to take over anyone, but to work together to achieve big things with half the effort.”
The official recognition came in no time, and Perillo became the MMASF president, with Dapper serving as vice president.
“All the federations in the sporting world are in Switzerland. If you want to do something with international relevance, you have to do it here,” Dapper explained. “We saw the opportunity, and we built up the federation, signing with more than 200 gyms. You need to have the territory, critical mass, but you also need to provide a service. This service is what MMASF does with the amateur under IMMAF. The institution was keen on accepting us as a federation. We managed to do so in a short time for our merits alone. I say this because we worked hard, and they understood that we are serious people.”
In addition to promoting events and heading a sanctioning body, Perillo and Dapper manage a stable of fighters through Superbia Management. Given that there is no official European law that forbids this conflict of interest, it is fairly standard that a manager maintains a promotion where they can exhibit their fighters. Other such European organizations with similar arrangements include Cage Warriors Fighting Championship and Intensiti Fighter Management, or Ares Fighting Championship and MMA Factory.
“We help our athletes with everything and follow them on a fiscal level, a psychological and a financial one,” Perillo added. “We pay for their maintenance, their rent, groceries, and we send them abroad for their camps. Over the years, we signed some deals with the best teams in the world. We have an apartment at the SBG Ireland headquarters. When our athletes go there, they have just to think about training and improving, and the same goes for our structures in Sacramento and Los Angeles. We don’t talk. We make facts.”
2020 was a year that saw one of the more important victories in Italian MMA history, when Marvin Vettori upended Jack Hermansson at UFC on ESPN 19. Unlike Vettori, many other Italian athletes struggled to deliver good results throughout major MMA promotions. For example, Mara Romero Borella was cut from the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Alessio Di Chirico is currently riding a three-bout skid and Alen Amedovski has yet to score his first victory under the Nevada-based promotion’s banner. During the recent Bellator MMA events in Milan, the local fighters notched only two wins amidst seven losses. The situation gets even worse for Italian prospects when looking at the regional European scene.
“I said this with the utmost respect, but Italian fighters are being made fun of. They are used as lambs for slaughter by big international organizations,” Dapper said matter-of-factly. “That’s enough. Why is this happening? It’s not because Italian MMA can’t produce talent, but because they don’t know how to value themselves. They don’t know how to talk the business talk. I am Italian, so if I talk bad about Italians, I do that to myself. It’s time to work hard and value ourselves. It’s been 20 years that everyone tries to make value out of this country, but no one succeeded. How come? We managed to do in six months what others couldn’t do in 20 years. There has to be a reason, right?”
In their attempt to help Italian MMA reach new levels, Dapper and Perillo will promote their events on every television channel, including those popular among younger audiences. That’s where “Chill House” comes in handy, a common house they created filled with Italian influencers. Those influences will live together, and among other things, will have the chance to train MMA inside the house.
“Should we rely only on Italian hardcore fans, we wouldn’t have enough money to buy a pizza,” Dapper continued. “We are aiming for the mass market. After surveying with Italian and Swiss agencies, we discovered that most MMA fans in this country have between 15 and 24 years. Chill House is a real house in Milan with a gym, an MMA cage, and professional MMA coaches who will train every day the ten most known Italian TikTokers and influencers. They are going to show their followers what MMA is really about since many people have many preconceptions about the nature of this beautiful sport. We are talking about 40 million followers and an engagement rate of more than 63 percent. We bet that their followers will first subscribe to UFC Fight Pass, purchasing the member pass, and then they will come to our events, when it will be possible.”
Even though The Golden Cage has only held a small number of events, some promising up-and-coming MMA talents across Italy have already appeared. If the current global pandemic allows it, Perillo and Dapper plan to have 10 to 12 events per year across Italy, Switzerland and Malta.
“The first ones will be behind closed doors,” revealed Perillo. “We already secured some locations that fit our needs. We have three IMMAF-certified cages. All the athletes will be tested thanks to our working team, who has already been trained for the task. We are going to do radical work concerning matchmaking in Italy. We want to show our best talents and to give a chance to all the athletes who deserved it. They deserve some visibility! When the chance comes, you have to take it.”
Recently, UFC Fight Pass announced that The Golden Cage would be joining its library, where future events will be aired live on the service. The upcoming Golden Cage card will feature multiple fighters out of Aurora MMA, as the event is going down in their gym. Besides the main attraction of Damiani-Saccaro, the show will feature UFC and Bellator alum Danilo Belluardo, who will face off against Dragan Pesic at lightweight.
“It’s been a long and complex negotiation, but we are the first Italian promotion to air on the Fight Pass,” Dapper proclaimed. “This contract is a part of a bigger agreement that I can’t reveal right now. I can tell you that we have a multi-year and multi-event contract. It’s a rich schedule with events for every month of the year. We have total creative control over those events, and there might be other sports included, not just MMA. We can bring all the combat sports we want, provided that they have some characteristic of production, quality and audience.”