On Saturday, at West London’s Eventim Apollo, Cage Warriors broke the system.
Officially dubbed ‘Night of Champions’, several other monikers would fit the bill; ‘Night of Upsets’, ‘Night of Drama’, or thanks to its grotesquely awesome main event, ‘The Red Wedding’. The main card was a five-fight title feast, with a bonus championship bout headlining the prelims. Had every fight gone to a decision, it still would have been a historic night for Europe’s leading MMA promotion. But that, unlike everything else, simply wasn’t on the cards.
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The departing crowds were uncharacteristically quiet as they filed out of the arena into the night; the preceding six hours had simply satisfied them entirely – a rare accomplishment in the sport’s landscape.
Cage Warriors President, Graham Boylan seemed similarly content with the night’s performance. He knows that he’d likely just put on the MMA event of the year to date.
“We’ve had a lot of underdogs win, we’ve had champions lose belts, we’ve had fights called off because of bloodbaths. I don’t think you could have put any more narrative into the ‘Night of Champions.’” he told The Body Lock at the post-event scrum.
Knowing your role
The secret of a great product is knowing your audience and resources inside out. Boylan revels in knowing that his product of European MMA reigns supreme in its role as Sherpa to the fighters with Everest aspirations of reaching the UFC.
“We’re happy with what we do, we embrace what we do,” he says. “We’ve built a platform for our fighters. They can’t go from a community hall winning four or five fights then to the UFC without something in-between. Otherwise, they go from that community hall to the arena and before you know it, their career is over. We are that show in between. We give them the same size octagon, lights, cameras, they’ve got the cutmen, hand wrappers, VTs etc. Cage Warriors is similar to the UFC without the mass numbers.”
To date, nearly 100 fighters including Conor McGregor, Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Michael Bisping have spring-boarded from Cage Warriors success to a UFC career.
Last week, Boylan said he knew Saturday’s event could lead to a UFC caller ID notification for at least four or five of the roster; performance-depending of course.
Headliners Nicolas Dalby and Ross Houston should probably expect that call, after putting on arguably the bloodiest spectacle in recent memory. So bloody in fact, that the fight’s third round more resembled a 50’s farce with both men slipping and sliding across the Octagon, drenched in red; eventually leading to Marc Goddard calling a halt and a ‘No Contest.’ Despite a smattering of crowd disapproval, Boylan believes the right call was made and deemed the fight worthy of an immediate rematch in the big leagues.
“It was getting to a stage where the guys just couldn’t compete. I would be happy for the UFC to do that rematch in Copenhagen. Nicolas has put in a warrior’s story in his career. Ross is still unbeaten. I think for the first time in the history of Cage Warriors we had a fight stopped because there was too much blood.”
What’s to come
While Saturday’s winners take some time for well-deserved R&R, there’s no rest for Boylan and his team. In addition to 2019 cards in Cardiff, Liverpool, and Birmingham fans can expect a Sweden event and a show harkening back to MMA’s golden era.
“We’ll always find something to step it up. Next thing is we’re going to give you a one-night tournament. We’re working on it, but I think pretty soon we’re going to have a four-man one-night tournament”. The prize, he later confirmed, being the Cage Warriors Bantamweight Championship.
Several promotions shun the format, understandably in some cases; providing not so much of a worthy champion assessment, more of a modified gladiatorial endurance test. Boylan recognizes this fact, but today’s line in the sand between entertainment and competition is blurry, so experimentation should be encouraged.
“I’m 50/50 on one-night tournaments. I like the excitement of them but nine times out of ten, the guy who would win the belt on a normal title shot probably won’t win it in a tournament because they might get an injury in the first fight.”
Boylan also says the promotion has its sights set on expansion to France, after its legalization of MMA last week, and an invite-only London show on September 6th. Activity levels aren’t over-ambitious or scattergun though, Boylan asserts, but strategic and calculated to fan, and especially fighter, expectation.
“I’ve been accused of closing my eyes and throwing darts at a dartboard to see where we go.” he laughs. “But the dartboard doesn’t exist. We go to places strategically and France is on our list, we already have the framework in place.”
“The theory behind all this is that we don’t want to have a roster of fighters and not be able to keep them busy,” he says.
“Venue availability in the last quarter of the year is very slim. We’ve got a roster of X amount of fighters. If we don’t get another show in the last quarter we’re going to have a lot of guys sitting around. That’s not what I want to do. I don’t want to sign guys to the organization, promise that I’m going to build them and then not be able to give them fights. It’s my job to keep them busy. If that means doing a compact show with our broadcast partners then that’s what we’ll do.”
One puzzle Boylan doesn’t yet have an answer for is the flyweight division; one that is either not being considered at all or facing the chop across several promotions, despite unconvincing re-assurance.
“It’s a tough one. You can’t build divisions if there’s no one to build the divisions on, when you’ve got maybe one guy who’s had 15 odd fights and the others are on two or three. I don’t know where it is going to go globally but I know in Europe its very, very slim pickings. The problem is that not many of these guys are 135ers either. I think on the Cage Warriors roster a lot of the 125ers could easily be at 135 in Europe but we need to do a bit of digging to see what’s left of the division”.
But that’s an issue for another day. For a few minutes at least, Boylan and colleagues can revel in the weekend’s enduring bloodstains and success.
Rhodri Morgan is a combat sports writer based out of London, England. When not covering MMA, he can be found roaming the halls of a south London Wholefoods, finding a dog to befriend and rolling in the doomed pursuit of the perfect kimura.