Why BAMMA must rebuild with urgency

BAMMA

If you clicked on this article hoping to find leaked emails or the inciting of a witch hunt against BAMMA, then I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. Likewise, this isn’t an acquittal of their shortcomings either, with a variety of unnecessary blunders leading to the most uninspiring period of their 11-year existence.

Despite their history as one of the UK and Ireland’s premier combat outlets, their teetering limbo can be revisited through a series of mismanagements. Explicitly, their mass talent exodus to the newly formed UK and Irish arm of Bellator MMA, and a high-profile contract dispute with reality-star turned professional fighter, Aaron Chalmers.

With more than five months between their last match card, BAMMA World Cup Fight Night on June 28, and their Dublin event slated for Sunday, December 9, it is a lack of activity, as well, which hinders their position atop the industry. With torches at the ready; albeit not totally merited, BAMMA must urgently rebuild by recapturing the spark which led them to prominence.

A taste of BAMMA history

It may be harder to recognise their influence on the circuit with a dark cloud looming above them, but BAMMA’s past achievements certify their acclaimed status. This includes an excess of fighters whom they have helped develop, sending the likes of Tom “Kong” Watson, Jimi Manuwa and Leon Edwards (among others) to the UFC. It’s this linear passage; although not as straightforward as Cage Warriors’ link to the UFC, which has helped BAMMA assert themselves as one of the prominent British feeder leagues.

Indeed, their market leverage comes from their well-established broadcast expertise and they still hold the record for the highest televised viewership for a live MMA event in the UK. An audience of 865,000 tuned into Bravo TV on September 10, 2010 for the highly anticipated fight between Katie Price’s then-lover, Alex Reid and middleweight champion, Tom Watson. The fight; which exceeded all expectations with a five-round thrill-ride, really helped establish BAMMA in the public eye, and will forever be remembered as the key moment which elevated their UK presence.

This television-first approach instilled by CEO David Green has been a fruitful strategy over time, enjoying deals with SyFy, Channel 5, 5Spike, Dave and ITV4 at various points. A newer willingness to adopt non-traditional trends has also served them well, working with the likes of FITE.tv, UniLad and The Sun to distribute programming digitally.

More to the point, they also deserve credit for embracing improved safety regulations. In 2013, BAMMA voluntarily implemented new SAFE MMA standards alongside Cage Warriors and UCMMA, to help improve overall athlete medical safety and to form a network for uniformed medical suspensions. More than five years later, the universal adoption of SAFE MMA in the UK remains a distant dream, but those like the above mentioned are still abiding to the highest degree.

This was seen further following the untimely death of Portuguese fighter, João Carvalho on April 11, 2016 in the Republic of Ireland. With immense pressure from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, mixed martial arts screeched to a halt in Ireland whilst the investigation ensued.

Due to this, BAMMA 26; scheduled for the 3Arena in Dublin on June 4, was shifted to September 10. To appease bureaucratic pressure, they adopted further safety standards for all their shows; not just in Ireland, with the introduction of pre and post-fight MRI & MRA scans.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of things which BAMMA deserve credit for, as for the better part of their 11-years they have provided fighters and fans on the UKMMA scene with a fertile product. This does not completely excuse them, however, for recent decisions and mishandlings; headed up by Green and MD Ashley Bothwell, with choices which have alienated a portion of their fan-base, and more problematically, fighters and managers.

Risk vs. reward: The BAMMA Word Cup Fight Night

One particular situation which saw Bothwell and Green’s BAMMA come under fire was their decision to promote an event coinciding with the FIFA World Cup. Between June and July every four years, audiences are absorbed by the international football fixtures as the best XI in the world are determined through a rigorous, month-long tournament. With one of the finest lineages in sports, the World Cup is guaranteed to bring broadcasters incredible viewing figures, and 2018 was no different with the FIFA World Cup Final between France and Croatia averaging a combined peak audience of 13.7million.

Justifiably, BAMMA tried to capitalise on this by promoting their World Cup Fight Night event from York Hall, Bethnal Green on June 28, the day of England’s final group fixture against Belgium.

Announced on four weeks’ notice; reportedly due to delays from ITV4 to sign off the event, it was a short amount of time for BAMMA to fully promote the event, especially with World Cup fever imminent, but it was a risk which the brass was willing to take.

On paper, it was a stimulating premise. The fact it was on a Thursday night; during an England game, negated any chance of BAMMA drawing a decent gate outside of fighter’s friends and family and that was proven by the dismal attendance. That would have been excused, however, had the event achieved what it was designed for and that was television success.

Had BAMMA’s gameplan to use the World Cup as a lead-in to boost numbers paid off, the promotion would have been credited for their perceptiveness. Unfortunately, the event failed to deliver the viewership BAMMA had evidently hoped for, averaging 102,900 and peaking at 144,800 viewers on ITV4, per BARB. This was their lowest since BAMMA 30 on July 7, 2017, which averaged 138,900 viewers on Dave.

The numbers weren’t complete dross, though, and despite the promotion failing to better any of their previous numbers on Dave or ITV4, their World Cup Fight Night viewership was only bettered by three live UFC events between 2017 and 2018, according to BARB. This included UFC Fight Night: Thompson vs. Till on May 27, which averaged 108,000 viewers. It was also substantially higher than Cage Warriors’ highest figure during the same period. It should be noted that BT Sport is a subscription channel unlike BAMMA’s free-to-air option, and CW is also available to fans on digital subscription service, UFC Fight Pass, whose viewing figures are not publicly available.

Coincidently, the event served as the final event of BAMMA’s contract cycle with ITV4, with a source indicating that the promotion is currently in negotiations with several networks for their next rights tenure.

And it wasn’t just BAMMA’s gamble on the broadcast which seemed highly risky, with their decision to pit welterweight champion, Terry Brazier against the much younger, lightweight titleholder, Rhys McKee presenting an equal amount of agitation.

The present meets the future, that’s how the MMA circle labelled the match-up, with Brazier dropping to lightweight following his 170-pound title win over Alex Lohoré at BAMMA 35.

That fight signified the end of Brazier’s contract with BAMMA, a source close to the situation confirmed, but the NFM Windsor trained fighter and BAMMA were able to agree on a one-fight extension leading into the World Cup Fight Night.

Despite Terry’s contract situation and the possibility of him leaving the promotion as duel-champion, he was placed in the headline spot, handed a level of trust which was leveraged by the viewership of his welterweight title win, averaging 224,800 viewers on ITV4 just three months earlier.

Regardless of McKee’s potential, the Northern Irishman was unable to counteract the superior experience of his foe, losing the fight by unanimous decision. Brazier, as Bothwell and Green already knew, retired from the promotion following the fight, signing to Bellator MMA a few weeks later.

McKee, according to a reliable source, remains under contract with BAMMA.

Mistakes on the battlefield

The departure of Brazier meant that in just half a year, four BAMMA champions had departed for Bellator MMA. Brazier joined bantamweight champion, Daniel Crawford, lightweight champ, Ryan Scope, and middleweight titleholder, Michael Shipman, to fly the nest.

As frustrating as it was for the promotion to lose four of their premier figures, high-profile departures have become part and parcel of the UK and Irish MMA scene, with fighters almost certainly expected to graduate to UFC or Bellator MMA if they have proven their worth on the domestic circuit. It’s indicative of why strong brand presence for promoters is so important, with a constant revolving door of talent hindering weight division continuity.

Conversely, the endless exits of fighters is revealing of their financial and meritorious desires. Whether they will admit it or not, fighters generally aspire to be able to compete full-time in MMA and to be able to live off their earnings, as professional sports indicates. They seek to do this without having another job as their main source of income, but unfortunately, this is a rarity.

I delve into this in the accompanying article ‘UKMMA Enters The Upside Down’, which explains the growing battle between domestic promoters and their invading competition. Thus, loyalty cannot be expected; although there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be, as fighters hop around like mercenaries to the highest bidder.

BAMMA have been on both sides of the coin, and there are numerous instances over the past year, where external politicisation and internal negligence has thwarted them.

By the same token, there were two key malpractices: disgruntled athletes who felt they were being misused and squandered potential signings.

Here are some of BAMMA’s most significant mishandlings:

  • February 25, 2017: Norman Parke blames the promotion for missing weight by 0.8lbs for his fight against Redmond at BAMMA 28. Despite having one-fight left on his deal, he has yet to return to the promotion and has since signed with Bellator MMA.
  • August 20, 2017: Coach Andy Ryan says his fighter, Paul Redmond will sit out the final two fights of his contract due to poor treatment from BAMMA. Redmond has not fought on BAMMA since the dispute.
  • November 10, 2017: Daniel Barez win the BAMMA flyweight title from Andy Young. Since then he has yet to be offered another fight, multiple sources report.
  • March 21, 2018: Three months after winning the lightweight title, Ryan Scope departs for Bellator MMA, claiming the promotion would not offer him a fight.
  • March 22, 2018: Dominique Wooding is given a one-fight release to fight Dean Garnett on ACB, a fight approved by BAMMA. Following a rumoured dispute between Wooding’s management team and BAMMA, Wooding signs with Bellator MMA.
  • June 7, 2018: After a breakdown in talks between Adam Proctor and BAMMA, the top welterweight prospect, Adam Proctor opts to sign for Cage Warriors.
  • July 11, 2018: BAMMA announces the signing of ‘Magic’ Myles Price only for Bellator MMA to confirm Price as one of the 24-fighters acquired to a multi-fight contract on July 30.

Believably, one would look to put the blame on former Head of Talent Relations, Jude Samuel, for these incidents. In some instances, he may be responsible, but with the structuring of events being collectively decided by a matchmaking committee, reportedly, it is difficult to pinpoint whose shoulders carry the burden.

BAMMA and Aaron Chalmers

Another liability which currently haunts BAMMA is their forthcoming court case with Aaron Chalmers.

Signing to BAMMA on April 21, 2017, the UKMMA circuit immediately slandered the brand for their decision to bring in the partygoer turned fighter, which is funny, as Chalmers’s reputation is much healthier now after four professional fights. Six-days after this, BAMMA announced a television deal with UKTV broadcaster, Dave. These announcements could be associated, but that is purely speculative.

Accordingly, BAMMA hit a home run with BAMMA 29, their Dave debut, averaging 245,100 viewers according to BARB. On that card, Chalmers fought for the first time with 4oz gloves, submitting Greg Jenkins in the first round. The next event he featured on, BAMMA 31, did even better numbers. On this card, headlined by bitter rivals Alex Lohoré and Nathan Jones, Chalmers stopped Alex Thompson inside of one round. This show drew an average of 264,000 on Dave.

In what would prove to be Chalmers’s (seemingly) final fight with the promotion at BAMMA 33, the North East fighter dispatched of Karl Donaldson in his hometown of Newcastle, once again in round one. This was BAMMA’s first event on ITV4, drawing 153,100 average viewers. All in all, it seemed like Chalmers and BAMMA were perfect partners.

So where did things turn sour? At first, there was no indication of any disagreement, with BAMMA confirming in a letter to the press on March 14 that the former “Geordie Shore” star had been granted ‘a conditional one fight release’ to compete against Ash Griffiths at Bellator 200 on May 25.

Just over a month before the fight, though, rumblings emerged of a disagreement between Chalmers and BAMMA heads Bothwell and Green. In a column for The Sun on April 11, Aaron said, “I have left BAMMA, a few things went on, they said they would release me but they haven’t so my solicitor is sorting it out through the courts.”

That fight at the SSE Arena, Wembley came and went; with Chalmers picking up his fourth professional MMA win, but clarity of his reported five-figure per fight contract remained unverified. Subsequently, the Bellator 200 broadcast on 5Spike drew an average of 117,000 viewers, according to BARB.

The main dispute, as Aaron claimed during his appearance on the Helwani Show, on August 20, was that BAMMA had communicated to the Chalmers camp that he would be granted his release.

On the Helwani Show, Aaron said: “I was told I was going to be released from my BAMMA contract after the fight with Bellator, that didn’t happen.” A source close to the situation indicated that this communication had taken place well before Bellator 200.

DreySports approached BAMMA for a response to this claim, but the promotion respectfully declined in the wake of the official proceedings.

With the legal case between Chalmers and BAMMA set to begin on Wednesday, August 29, there is great anticipation of a swift resolution, albeit unlikely.

Why BAMMA must rebuild with urgency

With a tempestuous series of events over the past six months, it is more than apparent that BAMMA needs to begin their rebuilding process with urgency. The UKMMA landscape is transforming at a drastic rate, with competitor promotions broadening their clasp on the marketplace, and if the BAMMA heads delays their rejuvenation, they run the risk of falling too far behind to reclaim their significance.

As we have seen, the large majority of Bellator MMA’s recent UK and Irish signing have emanated from BAMMA, signifying the brand’s significance for athlete development. With some of their most touted names being snapped up; including Terry Brazier, Kiefer Crosbie and Ion Pascu, BAMMA must now restructure their talent department. For the first time, though, BAMMA will have to do this without the help of Jude Samuel, the man who left the promotion and instigated the mass fighter exodus. When the dust settles, that may turn out to be Bellator’s biggest coup of all.

Rebuilding will be a challenge, of course, with Bellator’s introduction to the market snapping up fighters at the top end, and Cage Warriors’ Academy affiliates in key regions locking up some of the country’s most promising young athletes.

Whilst strategizing this, BAMMA has recalled one of their most influential fighters, signing former middleweight champion Tom Watson to a multi-fight deal. No return date has been announced, but Watson is expected to fight at welterweight, robbing fans of a potential past vs. future showdown between “Kong” and Fabian Edwards.

Similarly, Edwards is still under contract but is without an opponent for his return on December 9, according to a source. What makes this more frustrating is that after four straight wins for the promotion, a title shot seems nowhere in sight, even though the middleweight strap is vacant.

That show was announced by the promotion on July 3. Tickets for BAMMA’s return to the 3Arena, however, have yet to go on sale and not one fight has been announced, despite further events for the venue on February 8, May 17, September 7 and November 2, 2019, being confirmed. Interestingly, multiple sources have cited that Bellator is considering an event in Ireland on Friday, December 7, two days before BAMMA.

Notwithstanding this uncertainty, BAMMA has already announced 10 events across 2019. The press release from June 18 noted Dublin, Ireland, Birmingham, Newcastle and London, England as the four markets for their 2019 campaign. With BAMMA’s history as a product for television, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that these teased dates are noteworthy for a potential linear broadcast deal.

Nonetheless, it feels like mixed signals are being emitted at BAMMA towers, with a future calendar pencilled without the roster to fulfil these shows, but there are plenty of things which need to be sorted before then, putting an urgent time scale to their rebuilding. As the leaders of the organisation, Bothwell and Green must take responsibility for recent happenings, learn from this, and steward BAMMA into a ‘new age’.

Once their legal battle with Aaron Chalmers is over, I expect BAMMA’s future to be more transparent. They are not down and out, and the long-term credibility attached to their television acumen all but guarantees they are nowhere near to being finished.

What is indisputable, though, is that the promotion must subdue their shortcomings, and if their lasting reputation is to survive, improved relations with fighters, new scouting strategies and better clarity of their operations are essential to sustain their status during the most volatile period in UKMMA (and Irish MMA) history.