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Fighting for respect

Mixed martial arts is one of the region’s fastest-growing sports, as emerging talents train in Halifax to take on the world

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Ricky Goodall

Ricky Goodall

Mixed martial arts has become one of the Atlantic Canada’s fastest-growing sports, drawing the region’s top talent to Halifax.

From the time I enter the cage until the buzzer goes, I experience a mix of instinctive responses and conscious thoughts. My focus often shifts from logic to simply a reaction to what’s happening in the fight itself. Typically I’ll always have a general game plan but as Mike Tyson once said, ‘everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’
A plan that’s too rigid can hold you back.

What happens in the fight—both standing and on the ground—is all part of the act. Every subtle movement, shift in weight or simple strike is adding to the opinion in the judges mind, the confidence in yourself and the lack of confidence in your opponent. Although a lot of the time it looks like meaningless scramble there is always a method to the madness. Most times I can determine when I’m about to take the upper hand and turn the fight in my favor in the instant it happens.

—Mixed Martial Arts fighter, Ricky Goodall

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), one of the world’s fastest growing sports, has found firm footing in Halifax. Locally, the sport functions under the Extreme Cage Combat banner, created by promoter Peter Martell. He brought the sport into Halifax’s arenas and transformed it from a misunderstood and illegal backyard scuffle, to a legal and regimented form of combat sport.

“It’s extremely well received now,” says Martell. “There have been ups and downs and we’re always looking to promote local fighters as they come and go. We’re always looking for those special ones that are going to succeed.”

At the top of that list sits Ultimate Fighter Championship (UFC) fighter T.J. Grant. Proving more than just excellent hockey players come out of Cole Harbour, Grant recently defeated Gray “The Bully” Maynard and earned his shot at a title fight against current UFC Lightweight Champion, Benson Henderson. Though Grant was slated to fight Henderson he was forced off the card by a concussion. However, he is now awaiting a date to square off against Anthony Pettis, who submitted Henderson in the first round of Grant’s original title match.

Training out of Fit Plus in Dartmouth, Grant, who is the youngest of five boys, took to MMA after years of watching one of his older siblings venture into boxing. “I started pursuing Jiu-Jitsu at home and when I was 15 I took my first class,” he says. “I love to train and it’s been going well.”

Now a local hero in the UFC world, Grant started out competing as a welterweight, where fighters can weigh near 86 kilograms (about 190 pounds) come fight night. Though he made it to UFC having won his fair share of fights in this class, he “was a very small welterweight—I did OK—but I just couldn’t beat more guys. It’s tough when you’re up against someone who has 15 pounds of solid muscle on you.”

T.J. Grant

T.J. Grant

A risk worth taking, Grant made the change to lightweight and now at 70 kilograms (155 pounds) is a leaner fighting machine who quickly got 21 wins under his slightly tighter belt. “Switching to lightweight made a huge difference—I feel I can use all my weapons and not have to worry about getting stuck on the bottom of a 190-pound man during fight night,” he said. “I’m really happy that I did because everything up until this point brought me here.”

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a full-contact combat sport that allows the use of both striking and grappling techniques, both standing and on the ground, from a variety of other combat sports. The roots of modern mixed martial arts run back to the ancient Olympics where one of the earliest documented systems of codified, full range unarmed combat was recorded. The most common disciplines include Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, Judo, and Taekwondo.

According to Grant, it’s simple, really. To get attention in the sport, you have to win. To win, you have to fight well. To fight well, you must train in all disciplines of this complicated sport. “We have to train in a way more disciplined way compared to any other sport,” he says, “go through what we go through and become proficient in all the elements we have to master—it’s insane.”

He’s held his own while watching the sport grow—allowing those fighters who are hungry to make a name for themselves. “The East Coast of Canada is not the same as being in Montreal or Toronto,” Grant says. “You really have to work to get noticed but it’s about the work you put in. If you work hard and focus you can get there—like I did.”

After 14 years of training at a level seemingly suited for the athletically insane, Grant looks forward to entering the ring knowing that he’s ready to make the best of this opportunity.

“To do well enough to fight for the title—have a great chance to win the title—I can’t say enough about that,” says Martell. “That’s the pinnacle. That’s what everybody dreams about and trains for and he’s done it.”

Working his way up through the ranks is Newfoundland-born MMA fighter Gavin Tucker. With no athletic background, Tucker fell into MMA after discovering Judo. “I enjoy the competitive aspect of it and there’s always something to work on,” said Tucker. “If you’re not in the mood to box you can always do Jiu-Jitsu.”

Taking up MMA in his “later days” Tucker, who fights for the featherweight title against Jesse Gross on October 25 in Halifax, comes from an unexpected background.

“I studied music in school and learned about jazz, which forced me to develop diligence over a long period of time,” says Tucker, crediting his early introduction to regimented practice schedules and performing in front of audiences for his unique advantages in the MMA world. “It kind of helped with the performance because I didn’t have those tremors walking out into a crowd.”

MMA remains illegal in his native Newfoundland and Labrador, so Tucker continues his work in Nova Scotia. He’s also ventured far beyond our region for additional training. “I just got back from Thailand where I spent a long time working on my striking,” he says. “It was a different world—I’ve been there twice now for about a month at a time. The mentality of fighting is very different over there—it’s just another job.”

In Thailand, according to Tucker, there are fights every week. This allows fighters to gain experience faster. While attending training, Tucker received one-on-one professional training attention twice a day. Apparently the dedicated and devotion to the sport comes second to the tradition MMA has built in the country.

“The first thing I noticed about Thailand is their boxing is very spiritual,” he recalls. “They always have a dance or ceremony before the match to pay homage to the emperor.” But the sport is illegal in the country, so organizers bribe police to look the other way when a fight is taking place. Despite that, “[the fighters still] preserve their culture,” Tucker says.

Even in countries where it’s growing fast, like Canada, MMA still battles for acceptance. “The biggest misconception from people is that the guys are caged goons that drink and party and it’s no where near the case,” says Tucker. “I have never come across anything that requires as much discipline and as many sacrifices as this sport. The toll it takes on the body and mind—The people involved are cerebral athletes.”

It’s a problem with “perception of violence,” Tucker says. “There are definitely extremes as to what you see in the cage but more and more people are seeing how deep it really goes. I think the people that don’t except it are the people that don’t give it a chance.”

Grant agrees. “It’s taken years for UFC to really blow up the sport and it’s come so far since then,” he says. “It was a slow process because it is seen as a savage, barbaric sport advertised as having no rules. As a fighter, you figure out a lot about yourself. It’s challenging to get yourself to the point where you really have to dig deep—I feel like you can build a lot of new attitudes but it also allows you to grow. It’s a great sport.”

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