A Review: 2018 IMMAF European Championships

IMMAF

Contributed by Gary Elbert
Photos by Jorden Curran

As the dust settles on an enthralling 2018 edition of the IMMAF European Championships, it’s certainly worth reflecting on the ongoing evolution of a sport that is rapidly growing in participation and popularity. Indeed, the stated goal of the IMMAF organisation remains focused on accession to the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028.

36177484_1310337955763294_6252894525191094272_oThe week began with Europe’s elite amateur MMA competitors jetting in from all areas of the continent; their intention was to compete at the IMMAF European mixed martial arts championships held in the elegant opulence of the RIN Grand hotel where impossibly beautiful women sail around its lobby and wealthy looking business travellers negotiate the hotels multicoloured ornate interior interspersed with the sharp surreal mirage like shapes of muscular and supremely focused MMA national squads. Turn left at the back of the lobby and a mini indoor shopping mall offers everything from veggie burgers, laundry service, dental appointments, manicures, and avocado mined sugar free chocolate.  Turn right and a newly constructed octagon sits in a chandeliered and richly decorated function room where the fighters pit their wits and skill in a cool, calm, and exquisitely air-conditioned setting.  The contrast is obvious, yet it feels like the sport of MMA belongs right here in this symbolic hub of success and comfort, located on the outskirts of the rustic Gothic beauty of the city. These are the mini Colosseums of the future and these fighters and officials are part of a movement that continues to attract wider recognition.

After a thrilling week of combat featuring teams from across the continent of Europe no one can deny MMA is well on its way to mainstream acceptance. The fights were tightly competitive, keenly contested, and characterised by a respect and a camaraderie that is truly remarkable to witness and observe.

Eur_18Lean and ferociously fit athletes mixed and mingled within the glitzy environs of the RIN Grand hotel throughout the week with mutual respect and admiration the primary theme of all interactions. Despite the diverse flags, colours and fight gear on display one got the sense that all the athletes are possessed of a deep realisation that they each have more in common with each other than others in the outside world as they all arrived here in scorching Bucharest, Romania armed with a similar depth of passion and love for their chosen sport.

The organisational efficiency and gleaming professionalism of the event centred around the jet-black octagon which was emblazoned with various sponsors and patrons including the UFC logo which provided all the competitors with added motivation. For many of these fighters the goal is to progress from these championships and reach the pinnacle of mixed martial arts. That pinnacle for now is the UFC along with other ambitious and expanding organisations such as Brave. In the future the dream of Olympic gold may supersede such current ambitions.

Fighter health and safety is clearly at the forefront of the IMMAF strategy with daily early morning weight checks a pre-requisite to continued participation.  The authoritative presence of elite official Marc Goddard lent a further credibility to the event. No athlete could afford to replicate the dangerous dehydration inducing weight cutting currently blighting the professional side of mixed martial arts. The consequence of such measures were obvious given the tight decisions that separated many of the contests. Indeed, on one day alone there were no less than thirteen split decision verdicts-cause for controversy yes but to this observer’s eyes more a reflection of the competitive skill level on show.

In terms of martial arts styles, the tournament certainly seemed to favour those fighters with a top-heavy wrestling and grappling base but what was very clear was the eventual winners of the divisions were in possession of a diverse toolbox of weapons with the ability to strike and trade accentuated by a strong and unpredictable take-down threat. Mixed martial arts is forever evolving and this competition certainly appeared to provide the first glimpses of a generation that has begun all its training in specialised MMA gyms as opposed to transitioning to the sport from singular disciplines such as boxing or kickboxing.

This new breed of mixed martial artist, along with the vital support and platform that the IMMAF organisation offers, are pioneering a new dawn for the sport which is certainly gaining momentum towards that dream of Los Angeles in 2028.

The arrival into the cage of the Romanian Minister for Sport at the beginning of the tournament was a clear statement of the sport’s ongoing march towards full legitimacy and respect throughout the continent. It is only a matter of time before other European governments offer the same backing and support for athletes and coaches who are currently funding their own training and travel not to mention the personal and financial sacrifices that pursuing a career in mixed martial arts entails. Martial arts offers a transformative and rejuvenating option that other sports simply cannot match. Speak to many of the fighters here and the overall theme is of MMA acting as a saviour and a trigger for a renewed appetite for both sport and life in general.

Referees and officials worked diligently and tirelessly during the tournament to ensure maximum fairness and justice was served in side and outside the magnetic darkness of the cage with no fights close to being allowed continue too long when it was clear a downed opponent had nothing more to offer. Thus, all competitors departed the competition healthy and well treated.

Of course without those brave and dedicated souls entering those foreboding cage doors there would be no sport nor an event. To be around the fighters throughout the week it’s their calmness, lack of ego and iron will that is most often prevalent.  Pre-fight jitters and anxiety are naturally present but for those competitors such emotions are treated as a minor irritation that will dissolve as soon as the adrenalin rush lands upon arrival into the arena. The subtle contrasts in the various national styles and forms of expressions were a testament to the sports ability to transcend borders and boundaries. Thus, when an Italian supporter yells “Sprawla! “the universal language of MMA ensures everybody in the room understands the instruction he is providing.

Friday was the day for the finals and for the medals ceremony. The pride, emotion and relief etched upon the medallist’ faces obvious. For many this exceptional achievement was the culmination of a journey that began way back in the cold darkness of January, running in the rain and grinding out the rounds and hours in gyms across Europe as this week, this time and this unique event in the sweltering heat of Romania become the narrowing object of their tunnel vision.

These athletes deserve more recognition, more sponsorship, and more support. In an age of rising anxiety and confusion among Europe’s youth these young and humble martial artists deserve the ultimate prize; to represent their country with dignity and pride on the biggest stage of all; the Olympic Games.

The success of this year’s IMMAF European Championships has helped make that dream come a step closer to fruition.

Read more by Gary Ebert under Gazza E at garyelbert.wordpress.com