The coronavirus has taken its toll – on life, on the economy, on sports, and on MMA.
While the UFC has attempted to maintain the promotion’s event schedule, the majority of the MMA world has come to a screeching halt. For those promotions who aren’t backed by billions, there aren’t the same resources.
For MMA’s regional organizations “Fight Island” is not an option. Even if it was, many promoters are hesitant. With so much uncertainty in the world, now doesn’t seem like a time to put on an event, they say.
One of the longest-tenured organizations in MMA history, Shamrock FC, is owned by Jesse Finney, a former professional fighter. The Missouri-based promotion has held 328 straight events without a cancellation. Last month, that changed.
“We’ve been doing this for 22 years in July for us,” Finney told MMA Junkie. “We’ve never been through anything like this ever. I also think we’ve never ever canceled an event. We’ve had 328 events. We’ve (recently) had to postpone two, and we canceled one. It was the first time ever we’ve canceled an event. I always take a lot of pride in the fact we’ve never canceled an event.”
“This isn’t a Shamrock FC problem,” Finney continued. “This was a global problem. My kids are 8 and 6 years old. This is about safety. God forbid I would give it to my kids or someone would get it and give it to their grandparents? It’s not moral along those lines. That’s what was going through my mind more than anything else.”
Matt Frendo, a promoter for rising promotion Lights Out Championship, though he had seen it all in MMA. From a business perspective, Frendo believes fighters have much more to lose than promoters. That puts the promoter, who holds all of the power, in a tricky position when making a decision based on health and safety.
“Dealing with MMA, I’m pretty much prepared for anything in life now because of the other ever-changing business of MMA,” Frendo told MMA Junkie. “Things getting (changed), last-minute dropouts, hours before a show, a board breaks in your cage – I’ve dealt with everything possible in the sport, but never something like this. It comes down to being told I can’t do a show. Even if we were told right now we could do the show, you have to take a look at morality at that point. Is it even smart to do the show with what is going on?
“Thankfully for me, I’m in a position where I’d never put profit over fighters, fans, and staff. I don’t have a crazy overhead. … For me, a shutdown doesn’t hurt me or help me. It is what it is. It’s definitely halting business, and it sucks for the fighters that can’t make a living. They can’t fight or progress their careers at all. We have a ton of guys here in Michigan that are right on the cusp of getting the call to the UFC. They might need one or two more fights, and I’m not able to give that to them right now. It sucks.”
Though promoters may not suffer as much as the fighters who rely on them, second-generation New England combat sports promoter CES MMA’s Jimmy Burchfield Jr. said there will be challenges for him and his fellow higher-ups. Burchfield had to postpone CES 61, as well as a recent boxing event.
“That’s going to be the challenge now, right?” Burchfield told MMA Junkie. “You take that window of opportunity where we’re going to lose, at minimum two, three, or four events. It’s going to be a huge challenge to get all of these fighters the fights they need in a shorter window for time. It’s going to put a lot more pressure on companies like us that are always balancing the cash flow versus the resources to put on these events. That’s definitely going to be a challenge. … We’re at a lost revenue. Fortunately for our organization and the way we run, we’re running lean and mean. It’s not like we’ve got a huge cash flow. We’ll be OK.”
The losses in regional MMA even snowball beyond the fighters when a promotion suffers. Just ask top Western Canadian promotion Unified MMA’s head Sunny Sareen. Along with fighters, officials, gyms, and setup crew are the ones who hurt the most.
“People don’t know how much goes into promoting an MMA show,” Sareen told MMA Junkie. “It just keeps going from athlete to production crew to the hotels you’re booking, the marketing guys. It’s tough for everybody to see.”
How damning is the coronavirus pandemic for fighters? Sareen indicated he thinks it could be devastating financially, for many. It really depends on the duration of inactivity.
Regional MMA heavily relies on ticket sales. Unlike the UFC, streaming fan-less events on UFC Fight Pass or FITE TV doesn’t have the same viability. It may be a while before the regional scene returns.
Sareen said certain boxes have to be checked in order for his matchmaker to start booking fights again. Canadian health experts have to be OK in order for him to be OK.
“We’ll just run our decisions on science and facts,” Sareen said. “We’ll follow the Alberta Health Services guidelines. If they see a decline in this virus or they’re flattening the curve, we’re going to need to see it’s safe. There’s safety for the fighters. There’s safety for the community and the fans coming into the event. Then, we’d love to move forward with an event.”
At the end of the day, Finney, Burchfield, Sareen, and Frendo echoed the same positive sentiments, despite the difficult hand dealt by nature. They were overwhelmingly optimistic and hopeful, yet realistic. Most importantly, they feel confident in their survival – even if there are bumps in the road.
“We’re going to be here for a long time to come,” Finney said. “This is just a hiccup for everybody. This is more than MMA. This is more than canceling an event. This is about life – life and death. I know for me, when my back is against the wall, it’s usually when I do my best work. We’re going to be fine. … We’re going to get through this. It’s just a hiccup.
“In a weird way, I think it’s God’s plan so everybody gets grounded again. I really do. It’s an unfortunate time, but we’re going to get through it.”
The regional scene doesn’t rake in heaps of money, like the UFC. It doesn’t have a full roster of fighters recognizable to fans all over the world. Most regional promotions aren’t broadcasted internationally. But the regional scene is the foundation of the sport – MMA in its rawest form. Almost every great fighter emerged from a largely unknown regional promotion from a local gym.
Luckily these promoters are confident they’ll be OK.
But if the foundation cracks, what does that mean for the rest of MMA?