Changing the face of mixed martial arts

By Amanda Hu

After a night in fight club, everything in the real world gets the volume turned down,” writes Chuck Palahniuk in his cult novel, Fight Club.

This sentiment rings true for the real-life mixed martial arts fighters who face opponents in head-to-head battles that test will and resolve to an extreme degree.

Mixed martial arts emerged in the early ’90s as a way to compare various different fighting disciplines in the competitive arena. The sport’s popularity peaked, in part, due to organizations like Ultimate Fighting Championship, which premiered in 1993.

Though its origins stem from the comparison of different marital arts, MMA has melded into its own sport, combining the best of all worlds of fighting. There are two main categories of technique, striking and grappling, which encompass all the tools a fighter should need to attack and subdue their opponent. Fighters, themselves, come from all fields and backgrounds of combat and work with various specialists to hone their technique and create a well-rounded knowledge and ability.

Calgary is home to a young-but-flourishing MMA community that hopes to produce a new crop of well-rounded fighters. Those involved in the sport say that the city provides many unique opportunities for improvement.

“I think Calgary and Alberta have been good for mixed martial arts because there’s a fairly hands-off approach to other people’s conducts,” says Beamer Comfort, MMA coach and a former Dinos wrestler. “In the earlier days, mixed martial arts was more taboo and people weren’t jumping to sanction [the sport]. Alberta and the other governments had a kind of laissez-faire attitude and said, ‘If they want to fight, we’ll make it as safe as possible so they can do it.’ It had a chance to get a head start in things.”

As an attempt to move away from the dark, underground connotation that has, to a certain extent, stigmatized MMA, the sport has been working with municipal and state governments in Canada and the U.S. to regulate and sanction the fights, similar to wrestling and boxing. This results in fully legal and safe fights, contrary to how they are sometimes portrayed in mainstream media.

Calgary is home to two main organizations, Hardcore Fighting Championships and Legacy Fighting Championships, who take on the responsibility of hosting and promoting fights throughout the year. While able to take hold of the MMA community in the west, LFC owner Scott Birkby says that the tough regulations make the city a challenge to work in, despite making the sport more safe for fighters.

“The reason I started in Calgary is because no one else was doing it and the rules are so tough and the commission is so tough on promoters,” he explains. “As far as the fighting in Calgary, the rules fall under the Nevada state commission, so there are a tonne of [them] for the sport. There’s a lot of preparation that goes into it by the fighter before they even let them fight, so they screen out a lot of people. They don’t have amateurs going in there.”

Throughout all the organization and regulations, the Calgary MMA scene is propelled by fighters’ continued interest in the sport.

U of C student Max Dalsin is preparing for the second professional fight of his career Apr. 5. Strongly based in jujitsu, Dalsin, who transplanted himself from Victoria to Calgary a few years ago, sees his involvement in MMA as something that just made sense.

“I used to fight a lot in hockey and everything else,” he says. “I was pretty good and played at a high level, but I found that, whatever sport it was, I was fighting at the end, so I might as well just stick with the fighting.”

He moved to Calgary to attend university and hone his kickboxing skills with coaches Dan Miller and Don Boswell, accomplished fighters in that discipline, as well as further his ground fighting skills, training with the wrestling community and athletes like Comfort.

What probably seems surprising to the unassuming onlooker is Dalsin’s priority to finish his degree before pursuing his sport at a higher level. He and a new generation of athletes are hoping to change the stereotypical image of MMA fighters.

“We have guys who are university students, master’s students and they fight,” says Comfort. “It’s not just about violence. It’s one of the purest ways to test your will and what you’re made of.”

But despite the changing connotations, the realities of being a non-varsity athlete still make training and recognition harder for many university students involved in activities like MMA.

“The off-campus student athlete has a lot of obstacles in the way because they don’t get the same kind of leeway that the varsity athletes get in some cases,” Comfort adds. “Make no mistake, the varsity athletes don’t get a lot of leeway, but you don’t get to train on campus very much other than your random workout, doing weights and cardio.”

In attempts to enrich the MMA community at U of C, Comfort says they are working with campus recreation to formalize a mixed martial arts program on campus. The Students’ Union even sanctioned a club for the sport, which was, unfortunately, disbanded this year.

With the changing face of MMA, the community is trying to find the happy balance between its original marketing style, touting fights as utterly brutal and, alternately, trying to appeal to fans who want to see a plain, old beating and setting a new tone for its perception, one that includes an appreciation for the fighters’ finesse and talent.

“People sort of sell it as something that’s really barbaric, because that’s what sells tickets,” says Dalsin. “On the other hand, it takes a lot more brute strength to do this. You have to be a complete athlete and I don’t think that people get enough credit for the training and athleticism that goes into it. They think we’re going into it to smash each other’s faces in and stuff. There’s just so much going on that the untrained eye can’t see.”

Comfort agrees.

“Honestly, that market is still out there and people will want to come watch mixed martial arts because it’s always going to be violent,” he says. “But ultimately, mixed martial arts is now moving on from being a spectacle to being a sport.”

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