As with any sport, MMA has its fair share of unsung heroes. Whilst the bright lights of the UFC and Bellator may give a platform to the sport’s best and brightest, it is often away from the limelight and behind the drawn curtain where the real heart and soul of MMA lies.
These are the men and women who selflessly put in the hours to provide a platform for local amateurs and professionals alike. They are the ones who keep the sport alive at the grassroots level.
Take Carl Liddle, for example.
Carl is an MMA promoter in Sunderland, co-promoting the fledgling local organisation Rise and Conquer with his friend, and head coach at TFT MMA, Andrew Fisher.
Now on their eighth show, Rise and Conquer aims to give local talent in Sunderland and the surrounding area the opportunity to test themselves in live combat.
Those fighting on the card not only get the opportunity to gain experience in real fights, but they also get to draw insight from seasoned professionals.
The region has experienced a surge in mainstream success as of late, with local lads Ryan Scope and Callum Ellenor both fighting in Bellator, and former UFC heavyweight Phil De Fries regularly defending his KSW world championship in Poland.
Carl believes that tightness of the MMA community in the North East is a major factor in the area’s continuous success in the sport.
“The talent up here has always been big, even back 17 year ago. It mainly started in the North East, with the likes of Ross Pearson and that,” said Carl.
“The good thing about Rise and Conquer, our show in the North East, is that the Cal Ellenor’s, the Phil De Fries’, they all train at Andrew’s gym, we all train at TFT.
“We’re all part of the same team, they’re all part of the crew here as well. Its definitely a hotbed for talent, and we all help each other out.”
It isn’t just local amateurs on the card, however. Co-promoter Andrew Fisher’s connections in the business means that international fighters from Europe and across the world are appearing on the card as well.
“We’re quite lucky because Andrew has been in it for 17 years,” said Carl, “He’s fought at world level, he knows all the gyms in the UK and around Europe, so he has connections.
“With him having base of 30 fighters [at the gym] it’s easy for him to just find the fighters himself.”
One thing I noticed whilst walking around the room was the number of children and young people present, all with the intent of competing on the card.
Some would consider MMA a sport too rough and demanding for children, but, as Carl explains to me, a great deal of precaution is taken to ensure that kids gain the skills necessary to compete, whilst still staying safe.
“What we tend to do as a promotion, as well as gym owners as well, we don’t do any head shots below a certain age,” Carl explained, “but we bring them on in the grappling and wrestling side, with kickboxing, but controlled kickboxing.
“We follow the IMAF rules, basically up until the age of 16 they can’t do any head shots whatsoever and the grappling and wrestling is limited in what they can do.
“No spine manipulation, no neck manipulation, so it’s safe as it can be for the kids, which gets them fighting more regularly.”
This is the reason why people like Carl are the unsung heroes of the sport. It isn’t just about winning fights or putting on a good show for the fans; it is about teaching and nurturing the next generation of fighters. It is this kind of diligent, under-the-radar work that keeps the sport alive and well.
As long as people like Carl keep working tirelessly on the growth and development of the sport at a local level, MMA in the North East will remain strong and healthy for many, many years to come.