IMMAF may be left with no choice but legal options
A merger in 2017 with the WMMAA, a former rival governing body, was seen as a significant and necessary step towards recognition by the GAISF, the umbrella organization for all Olympic and non-Olympic international federations, full membership of which is a requisite for inclusion on the Olympic Games. MMA is said to be one of the fastest-growing sports on the planet, but securing a coveted pass into the Olympic club is more than a box-checking exercise. It requires a great deal of lobbying and the arduous task of navigating the complex, often murky world of Olympic politics. Crucially, it also demands support within sport’s highest corridors of power - something that has remained frustratingly elusive for the IMMAF, whose ultimate objective is to get the sport of MMA added to the Olympic programme for Los Angeles 2028.
“It’s politics," said IMMAF CEO Densign White to Michael Long for Sports Pro Media. "It’s not about us, really. It’s not about whether we’re well-governed or not, and what protocols we have in place for athlete welfare and medicals and so on, whether we have good development programmes and competitions and youth development and coach education. All of that doesn't matter - it’s only about politics. That’s what we understand now. There’s a concerted effort, and it’s by the combat sports, in my opinion, who have a conflict of interest, and they’re too influential within the GAISF organization. They’re in key influential positions. It’s a clear attempt to stop MMA from making any progress because we are seen as a competitor, a commercial threat to their sport.
“When they come here [to SportAccord], they’re as one. They have a combat meeting. If we were allowed to go to the congress for the vote - which is what should happen, actually, not this nonsense about observation status, which is just bullshit - we would still have a mountain to climb because we know that the 15 combat sports would still vote against us. We’d still be minus 15 before the vote starts.”
“They’re also influencing the decision of WADA, in terms of our application to be a signatory. GAISF keep telling us that WADA is independent, that they’re making their own decisions, and I made it clear to them yesterday that we both know that’s not true. WADA are doing as you tell them to do. WADA wrote to GAISF and they wrote to us and they said if GAISF allow you to get observation status we will automatically make you a signatory. So obviously GAISF didn’t want that to happen. They could have given us observation status and even after 12 months they could have said, ‘okay boys, you still didn’t make the grade to go forward to be elected for full membership, so now you’re out of the process.’ But they know that becoming a signatory of WADA is not nothing - that’s something important. It’s one of the prerequisites of becoming a full member of their organization, and it also locks out other pop-up MMA organizations.”
Densign White (second from left) and Kerrith Brown (far right) oversaw the IMMAF's merger with the WMMAA, led by Vadim Finkelchtein (second from right), two years ago.
According to White, GAISF’s refusal to grant observer status is also fuelling the creation of other rival governing bodies, thereby stoking discord within MMA.
Last month, Asia’s leading professional MMA promotion, ONE Championship, put its weight behind the Global Association of Mixed Martial Arts (GAMMA), one of several other federations purporting to govern the sport at the amateur level.
Founded as recently as late 2018, Amsterdam-based GAMMA claims to comprise national member federations from over 60 countries. Like the IMMAF, its stated objective is to secure a place for MMA on the Olympic programme, and with ONE’s support it will host its own Amateur MMA World Championships in Singapore this November.
Shortly after the announcement of GAMMA’s partnership with ONE, IMMAF president Kerrith Brown issued a statement saying such groups have “disputable credibility” and do not “serve the interests of the sport nor its bid for recognition”. He added that the emergence of other bodies only creates “unnecessary divisions and the perception of rivalry, which those who oppose our sport may try to use to obstruct us.”
“By not recognising us, they’re allowing this fragmentation of our sport, and that’s what they want because then they can argue that we have rivalry,” White says now. “We already solved the rivalry with WAMMA, and now they’re trying to help these other ones.
“Their intention is to kick us into the long grass and give time to these other pop-ups to grow.
“We’ve had to say to some of our members ‘we’re going with the WAMMA member, and WAMMA have had to say the same thing to their members. So what’s happened now is those disgruntled federations have gone off to this other thing because now they’ve got another home to go to.
“Before they didn’t have anywhere to go - it was either us or WAMMA. Now they’ve got an option. But that could stop overnight as soon as we get recognised by GAISF.”
Our job is not to worry about our competitors. Our job is to build the sport with our national federations.
For Brown, another former Olympic judoka, the IMMAF cannot lose sight of its ultimate objective by concerning itself with other organisations.
“Our job is not to worry about our competitors,” he tells SportsPro. “Our job is to build the sport with our national federations. We’re still growing, we’ve got about 110 members. Youth development is key, and then the competition structure is another key element.
“It’s important for us to continue to drive that agenda, especially when we’re here in front of the IOC and GAISF and the umbrella organisations, to understand that there is an amateur sport.
“That’s the strongest message that we want to put across - we’re amateur, that’s what we represent. It’s completely different compared to the professional sport in its rule-set and the way it’s policed.”
White and Brown say IMMAF competitions are fully regulated.
In contrast to professional promotions, White notes, amateur MMA competitions like those organised by the IMMAF do not permit elbow strikes and knees to the head, while fighters wear heavier gloves and must use protective equipment. The general look and feel of an amateur event is also far removed from that which is seen in the UFC, for example.
“Every year we invite these guys to come because we want them to see what we’re doing. We’re not secretive, we’re completely open and transparent, and they never take it up, they’re always too busy. I think, part of the criteria, if you’re considering a new member to your club, you should make an effort as part of that application process to go and see them before you make a decision. But at the moment they can come up with a multitude of reasons why they don’t want us to be part of the club. We have to lobby more. There is a different perception with some of the leaders that they’re warming to us. They’re engaging, as opposed to last year not engaging, so there is a change in attitude from certain members that have key positions. At the end of the day, it’s political but at some point we have to turn round and say enough is enough. We might have no choice but to go to court. We’re not going to wait for three years or four years to be thrown out into the long grass. You’ve got to make a decision, to come out and give us some concrete responses.”