This will be a seismic weekend for mixed martial arts. A time of groundbreaking change after much heavy lifting for Bellator MMA. The walls have been breached. There was talk of liberty here in Paris yesterday. A revolution of sorts.
After much lobbying, political and sporting, this is the first time that an MMA event has been licenced in France, with Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu having lifted restrictions that have been hanging over the fighting arts in that country since MMA’s inception in 1993.
Heavyweight home comer Cheick Kongo admitted it would be “emotional to fight” in France, Michael ‘Venom’ Page promised to deliver “another showstopper” and Bellator MMA president Scott Coker thanked joint efforts in the mixed martial arts world for “delivering the sport to the final frontier” as the ban on MMA events inFrance heralds a new dawn on Saturday night.
“We are delighted to bring Bellator to one of the very famous arenas in the world which has staged some very big martial arts fights. But not mixed martial arts,” explained Coker, head of the company which is owned by VIACOM/CBS and has the backing to grow from CEO and President Bob Bakish.
“When we started this journey (to help legalise MMA in France) – we weren’t the only ones, lots of companies were lobbying – and the ban on MMA was lifted, COVID-19 had not started but the pandemic did not change our journey to want to come here for this important event,” added Coker.
It is the realisation of a dream for headliner and heavyweight Kongo, born in Paris, and a stalwart of the sport who has fought 43 times in seven countries on three continents over nineteen years. He will rematch American Timothy Johnson.
“This is huge for all fighters from France,” said Kongo. “For the next decade the next generation coming into the sport will grow and grow and grow. It’s going to be quite an emotional experience for me on Saturday night. But the good vibes I have had from so many people from so many places means I can guarantee you that this is going to be explosive. I’m going to be like a firecracker.”
Coker added: “As far as planet MMA goes, and new territories, an event in France is like coming to the final frontier. It was a task to get MMA approved and that means this is a special moment and a special event. This really was the final frontier. The industry will grow in France as it has in Italy where we have been several times. The growth from just a couple of fighters to an industry can be very quick. It happened in Italy, the same will happen in France. Now there is an underlying drive and fire for those involved. We will continue to help the process to get this sport onto French television as well, which will come next.”
Mixed martial arts makes another groundbreaking step forward with the BBC showing MMA for the first time live on the BBC iPlayer, with the final fights of the night also live on Channel 5 from 10pm.
Eight out of 10 of the UK population – 49.9 million – watched Sport on the BBC across 2019, higher than any other UK broadcaster. “It’s a big deal to have the BBC broadcasting the event, and we are delighted to break new ground with an event that will go out in 160 countries, including Russia, South East Asia, and many others.”
Eleven bouts from the event will be available to watch live on the iPlayer in the UK and Ireland from Saturday afternoon at 4.30pm, with Londoner Michael “Venom” Page, a former eight-time freestyle kickboxing world champion facing unbeaten Scotsman Ross Houston in one of the headline bouts at welterweight.
Page said yesterday: “It’s going to be an amazing show. I’m delighted to it’s a pleasure to be fighter in the first event in France It’s going to be a memorable one, I’m going to put on a show.”
Houston, a former Cage Warriors champion, said: “I’m always looking to progress my career. It’s a step up, or rather, a different style to deal with. He was a big name and that’s why I asked for him. When I beat him on Saturday night it will be a great moment for me and the chance to step up to a bigger stage, and promote my career. For me this fight is all about controlled pressure. My team and I have come up with a gameplan. Pressure will be key.”
Page responded: “I think he is right. It is about styles.” And what of Houston ? “I haven’t watched any of his fights yet,” said Page. “I will do that later.”
“We will continue to grow in Europe,” added Coker. “We are constantly looking for the next level of talent and we have signed 10 of the best blue chip prospects from around the world in the last two months.”
The International Mixed Martial Arts Federation also joined the move yesterday with IMMAF Board Director Bertrand Amoussou commenting: “This is what we have been fighting for all these years, for the right to hold regulated MMA events in France and for the sport to be recognised. I wish the promoters good luck and hope that the French public will appreciate the show.”
IMMAF President Kerrith Brown also commented: “This week’s MMA events in France, and the welcoming of an international promoter, mark a new era for the sport in the country. I would like to take this opportunity to commend the work of French Boxing to put a structure around the sport for the deliverance of a gold standard for all its participants, from the recreational up to professional, making it a safe, accessible and beneficial sport for all.”
Live broadcast of Bellator 248 starts on BBC iPlayer at 4:30pm BST and will run through until 10pm BST.
Viewers in the UK will then be able to switch over to Channel 5 at 10pm for live coverage of the final two fights of the night.