‘We’re up for the fight’: How the IMMAF is plotting MMA’s Olympic inclusion

IMMAF president Kerrith Brown reveals MMA's lengthy and frustrating process of becoming a fully paid-up member of the global Olympic movement.

‘We’re up for the fight’: How the IMMAF is plotting MMA’s Olympic inclusion

Last month’s SportAccord convention in Bangkok comprised five days of high-level meetings and discussions under the auspices of the Global Association of International Sports Federations, or GAISF, the umbrella organisation for all Olympic and non-Olympic international federations, full membership of which is a requisite for inclusion on the Olympic Games programme.

Among those in attendance at this year’s gathering was the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF), the global governing body for amateur mixed martial arts (MMA). Like their counterparts at dozens of other international federations, the leaders of the IMMAF had travelled to the Thai capital to lobby for support in their quest for GAISF recognition, having entered a formal application for observer status as part of a process that, they hope, will culminate in full GAISF membership and, eventually, the sport of MMA becoming a fully paid-up member of the global Olympic movement.

Yet it is a process that, as IMMAF president Kerrith Brown explained to SportsPro during an interview at SportAccord, has proved both lengthy and frustrating. Navigating the multi-stakeholder world of Olympic politics is never easy, of course, but with established combat sports like judo, taekwondo and boxing already on the Olympic programme - and with lingering concerns surrounding the credibility and integrity of the sport of MMA - there is a sense that some within the wider movement are resistant to the idea of having the IMMAF join the GAISF party.

Still, the IMMAF is doing nothing if not trying. Having recently forged an affiliation with the World Mixed Martial Arts Federation (WMMAA), a former rival governing body, Brown and his opposite number at the WMMAA, Vadim Finkelchtein, are stepping up their efforts, spurred by the knowledge that MMA is one of the fastest-growing sports on the planet. The merger of the two bodies ensures that the newly unified entity satisfies GAISF criteria concerning rivalry issues and, as importantly, has the required number of recognised national member associations to meet GAISF standards.

For Brown, a retired judoka and former Olympian from Great Britain, the immediate aim is to obtain observer status, which allows international federations to not only be part of the GAISF network, but also to take part in activities including the annual IF Forum and to attend the body’s General Assembly, although they have no vote. Once that status is granted, he says the six-year-old IMMAF can then look forward to its ultimate objective: to get the sport of MMA added to the summer Olympic programme for Los Angeles 2028.

IMMAF president Kerrith Brown (far right) pictured alongside (l-r) IMMAF board director George Sallfeldt, IMMAF chief executive Densign White and WMMAA president Vadim Finkelchtein at SportAccord 2017 in Aarhus

SportsPro: You’re here at SportAccord to lobby for support in your bid for GAISF recognition - and you’re certainly not the only ones. How is that process going?

Kerrith Brown: We’re here to get our sport to an observational status. That process has been in the pipeline over the last three years, so we’ve actually had the application in two years prior. Part of that application procedure is that there are various criteria within that application that we have to meet. We feel that we’ve probably got one of the best applications to date in ticking all the boxes - a good example of that is having 40 countries that meet national Olympic recognition through their own federation within the country.

One of the things that we were asked to do, which is probably just outside the application, was that the word ‘rivalry’ is a constant part of the application for, I would imagine, most sports organisations, whether they’re new ones or old ones. So we had to look after that situation, which we have done with WMMAA and Vadim Finkelchtein. We were able to come to an agreement, an MoU/affiliation, to come to the common goal of the sport.

Obviously our aspiration is to become an Olympic sport and that’s the vision of why we’re driving this in terms of the next generation. We’re fully aware that it’s one of the fastest-growing sports, so the application meets all the criteria, ticks all the boxes, and now we have to go through all the politics to get it over the line.

There are so many federations like yourselves seeking GIASF membership and, presumably, a place on the Olympic programme. How have you personally found the experience of navigating the world of Olympic politics?

I’ve found it difficult, really, and sometimes frustrating in the sense that we talk about there’s no politics in sport. It’s probably an overused statement, really. Taking that on board, we have to get on with the job. We understand the process, we understand the politics, and we understand the dynamics within the different federations.

Probably more frustrating for us, as MMA, is the constant refusal to accept us through the core sports in martial arts, so judo, karate, taekwondo, boxing - all these are obviously very concerned in terms of our rise within the combat element. And we know that the next generation are looking at the sport and gravitating to the sport. We feel we have a social responsibility in terms of looking after the next generation, and also feel that the elders have a responsibility to safeguard the next generation coming through, the athletes, to have the highest integrity in terms of transparency and governance within the sport.

For us, it’s championing all of those causes and then spreading the word, showing all of our core sports that they’re not to be afraid of what we’re currently doing. If anything, we’re helping the sport in terms of its growth. It’s now a platform for individual athletes to transcend into being a professional at a high level. 

In terms of making sure that the sport is safe, that’s ultimately what our goals are and making sure that we deliver a pathway from amateur. We’re the amateur arm of the sport, and a lot of people, especially the older generation, get confused between UFC being the sport, but really they’re a promoter putting on the sport of MMA. That’s the first challenge that we’ve got to overcome.

The older generation remember the sport 15 years ago, probably 20 years ago, as being very barbaric and something that was not deemed to have any values or rules. But as I said before, it’s the fastest-growing sport today and we have a responsibility as the amateur arm. There is a difference between amateur and professional, and really we’ve got to spread that word and get people to understand our process.

I’ve found it difficult, really, and sometimes frustrating in the sense that we talk about there’s no politics in sport. It’s probably an overused statement, really.

What is the current state of amateur MMA commercially and what events is the IMMAF running worldwide?

We have a very strong programme in terms of our events. We have world championships, Europeans, in fact we have events on every continent. We’re starting to see the growth of that as opposed to the first world championships in 2013.

For the last world championships we had, which were in Bahrain, we worked with the Bahrain national federation, which is well funded through His Highness in terms of his support. The last event we had was over 270 athletes that competed over a five-day period. We have every safety protocol put around that to safeguard the athletes. The technical level of that was very, very high. We had over 50 national federations represented at the event, so the world championships are kind of our Olympic Games that we run once a year.

We’re building the pathway for these amateurs to develop their skills and develop their techniques and, at the same time, educate them. We also run an anti-doping programme; we test at every event and we make sure that our referees are qualified, our judges, timekeepers - everybody within the system has to reach a certain standard.

We’re working on every level to ensure that if somebody comes to look at our sport, our sport is ready to be an Olympic sport, and we’re very confident in the format that we currently have at present.

The IMMAF provides a launch pad for fighters wishing to reach the professional ranks

What’s the current size and structure of the IMMAF itself?

We registered in Sweden in 2012. Our head office is in Birmingham. We currently employ six people, so we have a very small staff as it happens. But we have a lot of support from volunteers, who are the very backbone of every organisation, so we cherish that quite wisely in terms of what we have and how we engage with them.

Our current structure is to build the layers of the sport. It’s unusual for a sport to be born upside down. You have this pyramid scenario and we’re trying to tip it the other way round. We’re building the foundations from a grassroots perspective. As I said before, that is obviously our strong arm in terms of getting people to understand the development from a grassroots perspective.

We’re finding now that MMA is a new core sport in the sense that the next generation are looking at the sport and we have coach development, we have a progression scheme that we’re going to launch, like a belt system that we’ll use within the MMA community, and really this is to safeguard coaches. We have a lot of self-regulations within the MMA community where, as an ex-judo player, I could say that I teach MMA and insert myself into that position without any qualifications or anybody assessing me.

As the governing body, we are putting these measures in place to protect the sport, to protect the next generation coming through, to make sure that they’re in good stead.

It’s unusual for a sport to be born upside down. You have this pyramid scenario and we’re trying to tip it the other way round.

With UFC now a tip-of-the-tongue name and ONE Championship doing very well for itself in Asia, what’s your relationship like with those leading promotions and is there a clear connection between the amateur and professional sides of the sport?

UFC are one of our sponsors and they understand the development from a grassroots perspective. If you look at ten, 15 years ago, the old system of an athlete making the transition from a core sport, it could take maybe two years, around 6-0, 7-0. We’re trying to change that from an amateur perspective in terms of pathway.

We don’t believe that an athlete who has won ten matches can make that transition as a professional athlete. If you take the sport of judo, it’s probably taking ten or 15 years to learn your craft, to be at the highest level if you’re going to represent your country at worlds or Olympics. We’re trying to build that model as part of that and the promoters are starting to understand that we have the athletes now that will probably have 40, 50 matches before they make the transition from amateur to pro.

The likes of UFC, ONE and other promoters, we’re working with them, and not only that we’re working with them on the sanctioning side to make sure there’s impartiality at the events, to make sure the referees are neutral and so forth. We’re able to add some quality advice in terms of that and to make sure the sport has full integrity.

We don’t believe that an athlete who has won ten matches can make that transition as a professional athlete.

At the professional level, the UFC and ONE have very different approaches when it comes to promoting themselves and the sport of MMA in general. What’s your view on how the sport should go about appealing to both the Olympic movement and mainstream audiences?

If you take the UFC, they do a great job when you look beneath the surface. They are spending a lot of money on educating the athletes, a lot of money on medical research, a lot of funding around the elite side in terms of sports science and so forth. They look at the wellbeing of the athletes, so they do a great job of making sure that the top athletes are looked after at every level.

There are other sides to the game that we don’t get involved in. We make recommendations to the likes of the UFC, ONE and other promotions in terms of sanctioning. The sanctioning part to us is the most important side in terms of athlete wellbeing, so making sure that the athletes are educated in terms of weight management and so forth. On the amateur side, as the governing body we do a lot of research to supply the medical evidence to make sure athletes are well looked-after when they’re coming through. We try to gather as much data to support the growth of the sport, not only from the top end but also the bottom end.

I think [the promoters] contribute a lot to the sport and there’s a saying that it’s one of the fastest-growing sports in the world today, and you have to support that in terms of drilling down to the bottom to make sure there’s a clear pathway for the next generation. So ultimately you get your heroes and legends that are coming through that, and obviously that’s a reflection of the other core sports as well. Some of these athletes are coming from other core sports so I think it’s important that people understand that.

What’s next in your quest for GAISF recognition and what’s your endgame? Given where you’re at today, is it realistic to expect inclusion on the Olympic programme anytime soon?

Our first objective is get observational status, to be able to go in front of the members and gain full recognition. Once we can meet that requirement, we have a long-term strategy, we have a vision, and that vision is to become an observational sport [at the Olympic Games]. In 2028, we know it will be in Los Angeles and for us, MMA is very strong in America, so to come in as an observational sport would give the sport a lot of credibility in that sense.

We’ll have come through a testing time in terms of demonstrating the integrity of the sport, in terms of its governance and transparency in order to build that pathway. For us, we’re excited. We know there’s a political challenge ahead of us but we’re up for the fight.