The International MMA Federation has worked diligently since February 2012 to develop the sport of MMA worldwide. Part of that task is securing safe governance and representation of MMA through the foundation of national federations. Earlier this year the first World Championships in Amateur MMA was announced and will take place in conjunction with the UFC expo in Las Vegas July 2014. In a series of interviews we have talked to some of the national federations to hear about their progress this past year and what preparations are made for getting a national team in place to compete in Las Vegas. This week we turn our heads towards Norway and NMMAF President Henning Svendsen.
The Norwegian MMA Federation (NMMAF) was elected as a member of the IMMAF in April 2012. What have been your main achievements over the first year?
First of all, thanks for giving us this opportunity to introduce the NMMAF to the MMA world. The NMMAF was established in 2011 and we were elected to the IMMAF as the second full member. The NMMAF is independent and has no funding, hence all the work is carried out in our spare time. The first year was mostly spent creating a solid foundation for the NMMAF as an organization as well as reaching out to as many MMA gyms as possible. In Norway, combat sports involving knock-outs are more or less illegal, so in reality you can only train in MMA. If you want to compete, even on an amateur level, you have to travel abroad. During 2012 the NMMAF established the “Merkekamper” concept which in short is competition that involves sparring-fights with strict rules concerning how hard a fighter is allowed to strike. The competition is made to be as close to an ordinary professional competition as possible, and “Merkekamper” are being held by gyms throughout Norway. For examples on what a “Merkekamper” event looks like, here is a link for pictures: https://www.facebook.com/nmmaf/photos_albums
The underlying idea is to give both new and advanced fighters a place to compete in Norway. All fights go to a decision which secures both participants plenty of ring-time and thus experience. Another goal is to get gyms more directly involved, to give them competence in arranging events as well as getting the feeling of cooperation between everyone working at the event properly established and of course to give the gyms a great boost locally.
Another of our achievements this year was in the area of political lobbying. We had the opportunity to bring two representatives from the Norwegian parliament to attend a seminar on how MMA has been successfully regulated in Sweden and then afterwards attend the UFC Stockholm event. We managed to get two representatives, one pro and one against MMA to come, and both expressed openly afterwards that this was an educational and positive experience. This was made possible through a collaborative effort between the NMMAF and George Sallfeldt (SMMAF President) and Erika Mattsson (IMMAF Director of Communications).
You have already held your tryouts for the national team that will represent Norway in Las Vegas 2014. How did they turn out?
The tryouts were a great success. It took place at Frontline Academy in Oslo, we had almost 50 fighters from all over the country competing to be on the national team. The team’s coach, Jakob “the Striking Viking” Løvstad and his crew had a hard time picking the team. On October 5th we added a couple of qualifying matches to the Merkekamp-event in Sarpsborg, and now we have a national team with two representatives in most weight classes. I am very pleased with the athletes and it will be exciting to follow them the coming year(s).
What are the next steps for the team?
We are really excited to be able to be a part of the first real MMA World Championships. This is great for Norwegian amateur MMA and we hope it will revolutionize the MMA scene worldwide. As for our team we are just starting out and we have a lot of work ahead of us. What the future brings is up to us. The ambition of the NMMAF is to further our cause and expand even more, our long term goal is to have an outstanding national team in amateur MMA. But even so, we like to approach this in a process-oriented manner. This means that the process should be rewarding in and of itself, not just measured in the immediate results we get. In the bigger picture, our overall goal is to both get MMA legalized in Norway, as well as to establish a Federation that really works for the athletes and always look to expand and make the sport bigger, better and as safe as MMA possibly can be.
How big is MMA in Norway? How many gyms and promotions?
There are 49 MMA gyms in Norway which are members of the NMMAF, that translates to about 4500 individual practitioners. This means that in Norway MMA is bigger than both boxing and wrestling. Even though most gyms are members there certainly are a few gyms that are not yet members, but we hope they will join shortly. There are also new gyms popping up all over the country which is great to see. Due to regulations there are no MMA promotions since combat sports involving knockouts are sanctioned with extreme restriction.
What have been some of the biggest challenges and obstacles in the first year?
The NMMAF is created on will and nothing else. We have worked very hard, paid what has been needed to be paid from our own pockets and tried to get help and involve others as well. On the other hand, the things that we did expect to be great challenges have not been too hard to get pass. However, the biggest obstacle is of course to get MMA legalized in Norway. That fight is yet ahead of us but we are quite confident that we will prevail, especially with the great support from SMMAF and IMMAF internationally, along with great support domestically.
What is your strategy in working against the ban on MMA?
We have been working towards the parliament and will continue to do so. Being able to bring two parliament members over to UFC Sweden really opened doors and that single initiative proved invaluable to our work. The seminars were great, educational and laid the perfect backdrop for the event itself. Afterwards we got quite a bit of media coverage and it was especially beneficial for us to have a parliamentarian representing a party that supports the ban on MMA come out and talk about this experience as a positive one.
When you compare your achievements to your original goals since the NMMAF was founded, how do they match-up? Are there any areas in which you had to change direction and what were the causes? What surprised you the most?
I do think we have accomplished more than we set out to accomplish during these years. Some goals are of course long term goals, thus it is more difficult to measure how close we are to attaining them. However, it certainly feels like we’re doing something right. Also, in a small MMA community such as Norway it is not just the NMMAF that’s doing everything. Without the trust, help and participation of the gyms in Norway we would be nothing. So, when I say we, I like to think of Norway as a whole. Everyone matters, when we do our best to evolve and reach the next level. As Genki Sudo stated: We are all one! Personally, what surprised me the most is the cooperation I have seen. The will to put politics aside and try to find some common ground has been great. I truly respect that. I do hope this will continue and that the NMMAF can be a Federation that unites MMA in Norway and that united we can further our cause, both at home and internationally.
Who are the key people in the NMMAF and how long will you hold these positions?
The NMMAF has a board consisting of three members: Thomas Rye Eriksen (Communication), Thomas Rønning Formo (Web design) and myself, Henning Svendsen (President). We also have Chris Dat Ngo as an observational member and Jakob Løvstad is the national team coach. We have not yet set the date for the first election.
What are you working on at the moment and what are your current goals and projects?
We are, as always, doing ground work to evolve and expand. This means a lot of administration which, I guess, most people would not associate with MMA. We want to give MMA athletes in Norway a safe way to start a career through the Merkekamper-concept, a concept we are still working on evolving. Besides our lobbying work in the political arena we have also initiated the work of getting MMA formally accepted in the Norwegian sports community. This might NOT be the easiest task as the Norwegian Confederation of Sports (NIF) reportedly just stated that they do not want to include more combat sports. Recently the power in parliament changed hands, which in the matter of the KO regulation was in our favor, and this has meant that a discussion on weather this ban should be kept or not has surfaced. In the light of this discussion the NIF has been vocal in the media, painting a strange picture of MMA in general. Strange meaning not just anti-MMA sentiments but a lot statements lacking in any factual base. I guess we all have heard them before; i.e. MMA has no rules, in MMA you can hit someone defenceless on the ground, MMA is more dangerous than boxing, MMA is human cockfighting. Sounds familiar? Even though this feels a bit like being dragged back to the “dark middle ages”, we are confident that reason, education, science and knowledge will prevail, though this may take some time.
In the meantime, we defend ourselves in the media, and as already mentioned; we make the administrative side even stronger, we expand and grow. We will have some meetings set up with the government officials and the Norwegian Martial Arts Confederation (sorting under NIF). We also focus on getting our national team some fight experience before it’s time to go to Las Vegas.
Finally, let me again stress that we are very fortunate to receive help from both within and outside of Norway. The Norwegian MMA community has been great and we all continue to work towards the same goals on different levels. The help and support of George Sallfeldt and Erika Mattson has made a great impact on the NMMAF. We are proud to have such good friends, and we are humble for all the help we have received and the chance for the world to get to know the NMMAF.