Saturday, February 26, 2011

The triumphal tale of TFC1

[A disclaimer - I won't be talking about the fights here, more about my experiences in watching the event come together.  If you want the details of the fights, Fight News Australia has an excellent story on those.]                     

[Another disclaimer - I grew up in Launceston.  I've spent enough time running like hell from mobs in City Park when trying to get home from a night out or getting bailed up by four guys with knives to have earned the right to be at least slightly rude about my childhood home.]           

Nothing makes you sound like a complete spanner more than shilling for something with an awful name.  Back in the nineties, the venue was called Elphin Sports Arena.  It's the home of a women's semi-pro basketball team - the Launceston Tornadoes, as well as some local volleyball and badminton leagues.  At some point, that obviously changed.  Gone is the innocuous venue name, replaced not with an awful piece of corporate branding, but with the title: "Action Packed Stadium".  I don't know about you, but watching solid fundamentals of basketball or badminton on display isn't really what "Action Packed" is all about to me.  So on Saturday the 19th of February, when the Tasmanian Fighting Championship held their inaugural show there and I ended up sitting at the commentary desk, having to use the phrase "Action Packed Stadium" made me flinch.

In fact, there was a lot of flinching going on in the lead-up to the event.  It seemed that up until the moment that the first strike was thrown that the show may not go on.  But let's go back to a quieter time - the afternoon before on a quiet Launceston street.  I'd flown back to the city where I grew up in the hopes of getting some MMA judging experience.  Tasmania doesn't have a commission, while my home state of Victoria does.  And the Victorian commission is violently protective of it's domain.  In order to get licenced as a judge, I needed experience judging.  In order to get experience judging, I needed to be licenced as a judge.  So when I heard that Tasmanian Fighting Championship was coming up I contacted the promoter, Heath Ewart of Launceston Combat Club, directly in the hopes of being able to do some shadow judging.  When I was offered a slot as a judge I jumped at the opportunity.  Training would apparently, be provided prior to the event.

So, last Friday I flew down to Launceston and made my way to the weigh-in venue, Extreme MMA (a MMA speciality retailer) where the diversity of MMA fans, enthusiasts and participants could be seen (at least if you're not Bob Arum).  I recognised some faces from BJJ tournaments and other events, but primarily it was faces that I recognised from my twenty plus years in Tasmania.  As more and more camps arrived (many of whom I'd not heard of before) I was impressed by the variety of gyms who have developed in Tasmania in the past decade, not to mention the mix of people who were either competing or supporting.  I'd tell you that there were shoulder and sleeve tribal tattoos on a good percentage of these folks, but you've probably guessed that much anyway.  As I had never met the promoter face to face yet I introduced myself and asked one of the guys in a Launceston Combat Club top if he could point him out.  "I've got no idea where he is.  He just left a few minutes ago to do something."  This line was repeated to most new arrivals who were eager to check in.

True story: there's a Muay Thai/MMA team in Launceston called Abaddon's Legion. 
Their logo also feature Cthulhu for extra win.

As I looked around the room, admiring the diversity of MMA clothing available (skulls and chains - now available from five different brands) I noticed that everyone was avoiding a point in the centre of the shop.  I then realised that the weigh-in scales were sitting in the middle of the floor.  On the carpet.  This may set me apart as being overly nit-picky, but it immediately put the wrong impression into my head.  The fact that they were on the carpet was hardly as much of an issue as when guys did start weighing in, they were so excited that they could wait for the scales to calibrate between each person leading to some guys initially weighing in thirty kilos underweight.  Thankfully, the right eyebrows were raised by this and after the over-exuberance of the weigh-ins causing multiple delays everyone tipped the scales just right.

Stuart Dare initially weighed in as a sub-flyweight.

It was now time for me to be trained as a judge.  Pete Hickmott, who had been brought in to be the lead official and referee went over the rules and judging criteria and then, apparently satisfied with my knowledge, put on a few fights to watch asking me at the end of each round for my score and reasoning.  For the first time, my statements regarding how a round was scored and why counted for more than just postcount on the interwebs.  This was why I had come.  This was what I wanted to do.  An hour later, the seminar ended.  None of the other judges had attended, they all being notable personalities in martial arts around Launceston and not needed the anointing.  There was nothing left to do, but grab some food and wait for fight day to roll around.

Action Packed Stadium was certainly action packed when I arrived on the Saturday afternoon - the lighting and sound rigs were still being finished, the seating was being sorted and the fighters were generally milling around looking a little lost.  Most notable though was the ring.  The ring rose like a monolith in the centre of the venue.  I stand 6'6" and the canvas was only just below my eye level.  As I eyed off the ring ropes and posts, I contemplated the kind of damage that would be caused by someone falling out of that ring.  Needless to say, the fighter briefings by Peter Hickmott featured some impressive language on the dangers of putting someone through those ropes and the penalties that would ensue.  This towering setup necessitated having both sets of entrance stairs stacked on top of each other to form one larger staircase in order to allow people to climb into the ring.  This might sound terrible, but in reality, what it meant was amazing pro-wrestling style exits of the ring by cornermen and cameramen who needed to get out quickly and couldn't make it to the neutral staircase.  An unintended consequence, but a great one to be sure.

Remember when I said I was 6'6"?  This was my eye-level at ring-side.

As with the weigh-ins there was a lot of confusion as to where the promoter was.  Heath was once again jumping feet first into the last minute organising, apparently trying to organise numbering for the seating, and then as the night went on, disappearing out the door with a grimace on his face on a mission find bandages and tape, ice and I'm sure at some point a moment to try and regain a bit of sanity.  Eventually all the fighters and their coaches arrived the fighter briefings began.  During the pre-show fighter briefings I caught my first glimpse of a man I initially assumed was a farrier who had come into the wrong building. When he was introduced as the physician for the evening my heart skipped a beat.  "What if someone does a Corey Hill?"  I thought, "Will he know what to do, or will he just set up the screens in the ring and then make the long slow walk up the stairs with shotgun under his arm?"  

The doctor is in.

As the fighters made their way past the doctor for final check-ups and onto their dressing rooms to prepare, I made myself comfortable along a wall and watched as the crowd began to trickle in.  I'd been told that they had sold a little under 900 tickets in pre-sales, a fairly impressive number for a debut show in Launceston.  And as the crowd filled the seating it was clear that this show was going to be a success for TFC in creating a local brand.  Even at this late stage the identities of the other two judges were still unknown to Peter and myself and he set off to find Heath and get the judging situation sorted.  It was ten minutes until the curtains were scheduled to come up.  A few minutes passed and Heath came over to me: "How do you feel about doing commentary?"  I hesitated for a moment.  I'd come here with the express intent of getting some judging experience.  But I had done all those years of community radio.  "I liked the way you broke down those fights we watched last night.  Give it a shot."  And with that, I was the commentator.  After overcoming my momentary shock I chased down Heath, "Is there a second commentator?"
"OK, I've got a friend here, is it alright if I grab them?"
"That's fine."
"What kind of commentary do you want?"
"Just go with what you feel like."  And with that Heath took off again.  I grabbed my friend Gerry from the crowd and we made our way over to the production tables to find out more about what we were going to do.  With the crowd nearly all seated, the music pumping and the officials all in place around the ring, it seemed that TFC1 was actually going to happen.

And then the building's fire alarm sounded.

Turns out that having smoke machines going for about half an hour in a stadium without great airflow tends not to end well.  Heath, on hearing the call from the building's manager that the place had to be evacuated at the very moment of his presumptive triumph looked the closest I've ever seen in reality to someone ready to Hulk out.

Heath about 30 seconds after the alarm.

Thankfully, no one must have been setting fire to stolen cars in Ravenswood because the Fire Brigade response was swift and even before the evacuation had been completed the crowd was being turned around to re-enter.  Gerry and I received a quick briefing on the equipment, where we learned much to our relief that there was not going to be any live commentary and that it would all be edited in during post-production on the DVD.  The lead producer gave us a quick brief on where the commentary would be inserted and said that we needed to plug the sponsors when we could.  "Who the fuck are the sponsors?"  The producer could only give us one name.  Gerry ran off on the first of his fact-finding missions and returned with a list of sponsors, some of them phonetically spelt because he couldn't be certain what the actual name was he had been given.  But at least after just five minutes notice, we were ready.

As we sat at the desk though a sudden realisation dawned.  "Who the fuck is fighting on this card?"  We scrounged around and came up with a list of the fighter names and their match-ups.  A few minutes of running around his contacts in the local martial arts scene and Gerry had a partial list of their gyms as well.  That was it.  My 3G connection was spotty (gee, thanks Vodafone) and so we couldn't reliably access the Fight Finder or event Google in time to get details on most of the competitors.  For the most part we were scrawling notes on the back of a snaffled scorecard or in a tiny notebook as the ring announcer introduced each fighter.  Thankfully there was a Pride style walkout prior to the first fight so if we missed them the first time, we had a chance to get these details when it came to their fight.  Sometimes we had a clue who they were.  Sometimes we just didn't.  And sometimes they both had amazing nicknames - case in point: Andrew "Big Sexy" Nash v Colin "Stinky" Finger.

Let's be honest with ourselves, who can hate on a Kevin Nash reference?

By the end of round 1 of the first fight there were furtive glances exchanged amongst all the judges tables (we shared a table with one of the judges).  We all had the same problem - even with the tables a good six feet back from the ring we still couldn't see a lot of the action, such was it's Cyclopean splendour.  As one, the judges tables we shuffled back another few feet until we sat directly in front of the first row of seating.  Now capable of being able to mostly see the fights without having to stand up the call continued.  In the interlude between the first and second fight we had pizza and ice cold water delivered to the commentary position.  It was a bounty which we had not expected and looked forward to savouring as soon as we could go off mic at the end of the next fight.  Then in a long range mission designed to deny the enemy resources and comfort, which David Stirling himself would have been proud of one of the other judges snuck over and stole these precious victuals from under our noses.  Knowing this judge's background, Gerry advised we let the matter go and asked one of the waitresses if we could kindly have some more water please.

Not pictured: our goddamn pizza.

A few more fights passed and the crowd was truly pumped.  We were encouraged in the commentary position by a life-affirming Bas Rutten re-tweet.  And thus far, the fights had all been solid.  And then the action paused for the first time to allow a charity auction.  As we were to find out, this was going towards a good cause, but we hadn't really expected it.  To be honest I don't think the ring girls had either.  The strain on their faces as they carried around the boxing, MMA and AC/DC memorabilia in frames the size of them was evident.  Especially as the bidding on some items dragged on.  Whoever selected the items for the event had a keen grasp of the intended audience.  And it seems that the intended audience was people who wear motocross t-shirts, because I'm pretty sure that everyone who bought something that night was wearing one.  A later interlude provided a chance for Heath to take a mic himself and thank everyone who had helped bring the Tasmanian Fighting Championship to fruition.  He gave an over sized novelty cheque to charity and then he proposed to his girlfriend in the middle of the ring.  When his proposal was accepted, we had what I'm pretty certain was the biggest cheer of the night.  

As the final brace of fights occurred, we realised that we must have been sitting in front of the 10th Planet section, because some people in the crowd were clearly getting blazed.  In a space were 6 of the ringside tables had apparently been bought out by the Tasmanian Police I'm not sure how bright this particular move was.  Nevertheless, as the final bell rang after an textbook armbar it was evident that the audience had by and large been well behaved.  For all the mullets, rats tails and back-hawks in attendance at an event in Launceston, the fighting had remained  within the ring.  Impressive though that fact was, what was more impressive was the Tasmanian Fighting Championship 1 had been a success.  As the crowd emptied out of the building and everyone grouped together to discuss the outcomes of the night it was all positive.  The crowd had a great time, the fights were impressive and, well, it happened.

Sure, there were no UFC champions crowned (in fact there were no TFC champions crowned either), but what it exposed was a wealth of local talent.  There were gyms and academies that until the weigh-ins I'd never heard of.  Hell, there were gyms that even some of the other fighters and trainers hadn't heard of.  MMA in Tasmania is exploding at the moment, with not just academies springing up, but also with multiple promotions running in a state of just 500,000 people.  There are so many schools now producing fighters who have the opportunity to fight locally now to test themselves before moving up to the larger shows such as CFC.  This can only be a great thing for the local scene and I hope that Tasmanian fighters will be given the right opportunities to develop.  Also, for any promoters out there, there's a commentary crew who would like some opportunities to develop too.

Thanks to:
Heath Ewart of Van Demon Fight Gear & Promotions, Tasmanian Fighting Championship and Launceston Combat Club, Peter Hickmott of RINGS Toowoomba, Hybrid Training Centre, Kaos Dojo, Team SKB MMA, Tasmanian Wing Chun Academy, Huon Valley MMA, Abaddon's Legion Muay Thai ...  And I'm sure I've forgotten some of you, but thank you for making this such a great event.