STOCKHOLM – While UFC officials on Thursday continued their promotion for this weekend's UFC on FUEL TV 2 event, the wold's largest MMA organization also took a moment to publicly support the efforts of the newly launched International Mixed Martial Arts Federation.
The new federation, which seeks to organize the amateur ranks of MMA around the globe in an effort to eventually bring the sport to the Olympics, officially launched early Thursday morning.
UFC exec Marshall Zelaznik praised the new organization for its efforts, and MMAjunkie.com took part in a Q&A session with IMMAF president August Wallen, the former head of the Swedish MMA Federation. Read on to find out more about the IMMAF's plans.
"The UFC is behind and supports the work that August and his team are doing on the federation," Zelaznik said at today's press conference. "We're excited to be aligned with them in terms of their vision for what MMA can be in the world.
"It's a pretty significant moment, we believe, in the growth of this sport."
A long-discussed nonprofit body aimed at furthering MMA around the globe, the IMMAF is based in Sweden and promises to remain a democratic, nonprofit organization. Consistent application of rule sets and safety measures are among the IMMAF's key goals, as well as the establishment of potential world championships, and ultimately, official recognition of the sport from SportAccord, an umbrella organization established in 2009 that strives to "unite, support and promote its member international sports federations and organizations," according to its charter.
While the IMMAF would not have any direct involvement in the professional side of the sport, by establishing individual national federations, the company could aid the UFC in its global-expansion efforts.
"In the U.S., you have governments that regulate sport," Zelaznik explained. "In other parts of the world, the government also gets involved, but in many more parts of the world, you actually have these independent federations that are non-profit bodies that actually sort of manage the sport.
"In places like Europe or throughout Asia, where you don't have government oversight, these federations are very important. And so, when you see a group that develops a federation like they've done here, an international federation that we see is a well-intentioned, meaning group that is going out with a vision to organize, if you will, and benefit the entire sport the way a government might do it around the world, for us, we're hoping to just put a little wind in the sails of the international federation so they can go out and create this vision that they have as it relates to not only the amateur space, but also the development of oversight of a professional MMA."
Following today's pre-UFC on FUEL TV 2 press conference in Stockholm, MMAjunkie.com and two other reporters spoke with IMMAF president August Wallen. Here is the conversation:
MMAjunkie.com: This will obviously be a tremendous undertaking. What's the motivation behind taking on such a huge project?
Wallen: I think it's a burning passion for the sport. We have been working to make it legal (in Sweden) and be able to ultimately hold UFC in the Ericsson Globe Arena. That's been a process in Sweden for many, many, many years. I would say we would like to keep this moving.
We get a lot of questions from other countries. Some countries, like Finland, for example, have an MMA federation that is more or less functioning. Most countries do not. If we want to see amateur or professional events in some countries, there needs to be national federations, and they need to be recognized by an international federation.
If you take France, for example, to get a permit in France, you need to have a national federation. To have a national federation that is recognized by the states to have a permit, you need to have it be recognized by an international federation. If there is no international federation, then it is impossible to get a permit. So you have that side. If you want to arrange a professional event in France, you need to have an international federation. Then we have to be recognized to be recognized as a sport by SportAccord to be a true sport. To do that, we have to have an international federation. We need to have international competitions, like a world championship.
MMAjunkie.com: Obviously the UFC is lending their support, but what does that actually mean in terms of you and the IMMAF? Is the UFC going to be offering any input into how you operate, how you move forward, or are they simply saying they're here if you need them?
Wallen: As it looks, they have functionaries that could help out. Marc Ratner, for example, is very, very, competent. In that sense, we'll have support and know-how, which is important. They have also said they will also make financial support, and then they'll endorse and support us, officially, and because it's the biggest and most dominating MMA promotion, that means a lot. All the fans and all the fighters are looking to the UFC.
We are totally autonomous, of course, and we take donations. We're not sponsored or anything. It's donations, and we handle the money according to our guidelines. But this means that we will be able to work faster and harder toward our goals. I think it's really what's needed right now.
Reporter: How does your federation relate to the UFC or the numerous promotions in Europe and elsewhere?
Wallen: Obviously, the IMMAF is democratic and non-profit. The association is registered in Sweden. Formally, we have no ties to any promotions whatsoever. Any promotion is very welcome to donate to the federation, which we hope that promotions that have passion for the sport will do. We think and hope and are very thankful that the UFC will do it.
Reporter: How hard is it going to be to accomplish all you want to?
Wallen: It's extremely hard. No one has been able to do it, so far. Since there is no true international federation right now, I think it has been really, really hard. I think some have tried, and we have to analyze why they failed. Maybe they didn't have the financial backup. Maybe they didn't have the correct people. Maybe they were into making profits. There are federations going out making press releases, but they actually come into this to make profit. This is independent, non-profit and democratic. That's very important.
We have to see. Our biggest challenge, I think, is to work with people and unite all the time.
Reporter: How many countries are involved right now?
Wallen: To start with, we start from scratch. Zero. Nothing. That's actually the purpose. We want to start from scratch because if we start with Brazil, Brazil has six federations right now. If we took one of those federations and took their side, we would fragment Brazil even worse. Italy, I think, has three federations. Sweden has one. Finland has one, but there is one called Shooto, as well, so there's more or less two. So instead of taking sides, instead of taking one of the Brazilian federations, we're going to sit down with all six and ask them, 'Could you, together please, could you form one Brazilian federation?'
So we start from scratch by taking no sides. Our goal is to unite and not fragment even worse. Today, we received an application from the Swedish MMA Federation that they want to join. We have contact with others, but they will have to announce that themselves, of course.
MMAjunkie.com: The creation of amateur world championships could potentially mean the extension of amateur careers. MMA supporters always talk about the safety of MMA vs. boxing, but in boxing, fighters have much longer amateur careers. Boxers also seem to show more signs of brain damage at the end of their careers. Have you given any thought to any bad this new system could create?
Wallen: You're thinking about doing many, many, many fights in a career. An amateur boxer may do 150 career fights. It's the same in Thai boxing. We could go into a discussion where we say, 'What's the more dangerous sport?' We have that discussion a lot in Sweden – boxing compared to MMA or whatever. I think there are big differences between boxing and MMA.
If you look at how much time MMA fighters spend wrestling per minute, how many punches are delivered to the head per minute, how many fights do you have per year, and you take the amount of fights per year times the amount of punches oriented to the head over a year, and you compare that to another sport that no one mentioned, and you take the amount of impact toward the head during training and fighting, I think it's good. I don't think you should go from zero to the unified rules. I think it would be good if you started with submission wrestling and then amateur MMA. You have a solid amateur record of maybe 30 fights – that's just an example – and then you go into pro fighting.
I mean how many hockey players didn't play junior hockey? How many soccer pros did not play soccer before they became a pro? Formula 1 – how many Formula 1 drivers never drove a car before? I think we need to build that, and of course we need to take all the safety into mind and really make a good investigation of the turnout. But I think this will make a big majority of fans and people who train MMA to be able to compete on their level, and I think that's important.
To get to be a recognized sport, you have to have a worldwide amateur circuit. That's what we have to have, and we have to have a world championship. Go to SportAccord and say, 'Hey, we have a lot of professional promotions.' Out of their perspective, that is not a sport. The sport of MMA is regulated by a non-profit federation. Then, of course, there can be professional promotions and circuits, but that's something else.
Reporter: How do you deal with the different sets of rules between different organizations?
Wallen: In the long-run, I think it's inevitable that it has to be streamlined – in the long-run. But our goal is not to go in to any country and say, 'You've got to do this or that.' How you have amateur MMA in Finland, I mean that is up to the Finnish federation, I would say, and their legal situation – if you need to have permits or whatever. The thing is, when we have a world championship, then we must have the best possible set of rules. That has to build on the experience of those who have arranged amateur MMA.
We can see in Finland, how many knockouts did you have? How many injuries? What's the turnout? Sweden has a lot of amateur fights now. How did they turn out? How are the amateur fights in the U.K.? When we have a set of rules for a world championship, when we have that, I think most countries will – I would – start to change and adjust to that set of rules. That's not something you should force. You use the experience from Finland, Sweden, U.K., wherever there is amateur fights, and you use that experience to build a good set of rules that we can unite on an international level.
If you don't want to keep your set of rules in Finland and then you have to change when you come to the world championships, or you want to use the same rules all over, that's up to the international federations. I don't see that we should force anyone to do anything. We want to use the experience.
Reporter: There are other federations, some from wrestling and kickboxing, that have launched international MMA federations. Is that an issue?
Wallen: I know that there are many trying to get into this. I know that there is a big kickboxing organization in the world, and they also founded an MMA federation. The thing is, most people in that federation are not doing MMA. There are federations of other sports, and they want to include MMA. But I think it's important that those who work with an international MMA federation and those that represent MMA in a country are doing MMA – that their interest is MMA, that their total focus is MMA. I believe that is important, that it's someone with passion and interest in MMA – not someone that's doing another sport that's maybe shrinking slowly that's interested in adopting something else to get maybe more members or more support from the International Olympic Committee or whatever.
I think that this sport, MMA, deserves its own federation and that the people with passion for this sport are the one engaged in it. That's my belief.
Reporter: You've openly discussed the Olympics. When could that be possible?
Wallen: In the long-run, I think it's the dream of any athlete to be able to compete in the Olympics. In the long-run, I think it's our goal to put MMA in the Olympics. But that's a long way down the road. What we want to do, at least this year, is totally focus on administration and getting national federations in as many countries as possible and get national representatives so we can form federations quickly. When we have enough countries, I think beginning international competitions is the next step. When we have good world championships, then even more people will want to join, I think.
When we have national federations, membership federations all around the world, and we have world championships that are good, then we can apply for SportAccord – not until then. We need to be worldwide with worldwide competition to apply for SportAccord. When we are there, then you can start looking at the Olympics, but that's all the way down the road.
But you talk to any athlete and say, 'Would you like to compete in the Olympics?' who would say no? That's something we have to have as a vision down the line, but getting a lot of national federations, starting world championships, applying for SportAccord, that's things we can control. When you're going into the Olympics, you have to compete with other sports that want to go into the Olympics. We need to find a country that would like to have MMA as a demonstration sport at the Olympics when they organize it. Which countries would be interested in doing that? Then it comes down to, 'OK, which country will get the next Olympics? Please let it be….' It's things out of our control. We can do our best to be ready for it, but it's things out of our control. We're going to focus on the things that are in our control right now.
MMAjunkie.com: You've stated that you're not taking sanctioning fees right now, but how long is that sustainable? Can you survive off of donations alone? Doesn't there have to be some financial income at some point?
Wallen: Right now, we do all the work pro bono, and we're looking into donations. I think the UFC will donate, and I hope that others will donate, as well. When we have the first general assembly, it will be up to the member countries to decide if each country should pay a membership fee and so on. That's not something that we want to decide for them. They should decide. The more we can keep it down, the better, I think.
There are a lot of federations that want to get sanctioning fees and this and that. This is 100 percent passion for the sport. We're looking into the way other world federations are running sport, and we think that's MMA deserves.
MMAjunkie.com: You've outlined the long-term goals for the promotion, but what's the next step. What happens now?
Wallen: Looking at each country. Just south of Sweden is Denmark. What's the situation in Denmark? Is there a federation in Denmark? If not, are there prominent people who could start that type of a federation? Do they need support? Find them, get them in motion, get them the support they need.
Look at the next country. Germany is just south of Denmark. Go country to country, and hopefully as word gets out, people will start mailing us, contacting us. 'In Nicaragua, we want to …." You know what I mean? In any country, we want to organize ourself. We want to start a federation here. What do we need to do? Then we can give them support.
We will go country to country, as fast as we can, and then we hope that people will be interested in any country and will contact us.
If they get this thing rolling it could be HUGE! A well organized amateur-level federation is so very important if you want a sport to truly go global and possibly be part of the Olympics