With gym doors locked, new amateur MMA association lobbies Quebec for mainstream status

·4 min read

Wuilmer "Wally" Rodriguez was fresh off winning a title belt, had built his amateur mixed martial arts record up to 11-0-1 and was closing in on a shot to fight in the big leagues when the pandemic hit.

"With COVID that goal is just slipping away. When you're this close, you don't want to quit," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez has done what he can to stay in shape over the last year, but he said with gyms mostly closed due to public health restrictions he lost control of his weight, gaining nearly 40 pounds.

"At some point, the more the [public health restrictions] take away, the harder it gets to be creative," said the 25-year-old Montrealer. "I saw that all my hard work that I did all these years is slipping away and I told myself I have to do something about it."

Some elite amateur athletes have been allowed to continue their training through an exemption granted by the provincial public health department. But not Rodriguez and his fellow mixed martial arts (MMA) enthusiasts.

His Montreal-based coach, Justin Etheridge, is working to change that through a newly formed amateur association.

A new association to represent amateur combat athletes

Those changes can't happen quickly enough for Rodriguez. Unable to train in in Quebec, he has decided to relocate to a small farm in Guatemala to get fighting trim. He said it will be a rustic and challenging environment.

For food he will rely primarily on rice and about a dozen free-range chickens, but contrary to the situation in Quebec at least he'll be able to work out as much as he wishes.

The Central American country of 16 million reported 200 new COVID-19 infections on Monday, according to the World Health Organization. Most businesses, including gyms, are open.

"They took away everything from us, being free (in Guatemala) it doesn't matter the conditions or if the food is hard to get or the weather is stronger than here, it's really hot, it doesn't matter as long as I can train," he said.

Etheridge supports his pupil's decision to leave, but is incredulous that it's come to this.

"I have three fighters alone that are going to make the UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship] and make a huge impact and these people are sitting at home, young men sitting at home, gaining weight and getting depressed," said Etheridge, who owns and operates Angry Monkey MMA in Verdun.

Louis-Marie Philidor/CBC
Louis-Marie Philidor/CBC

He believes that if elite amateur mixed martial arts athletes were treated the same way as Olympic hopefuls, people like Rodriguez wouldn't need to leave the country to continue practicing their sport.

"It's been a terrible time and not having representation at that table it's been awful," Etheridge said.

Among the issues: MMA is one of a handful of amateur combat sports that are still not officially recognized by the provincial government. When the pandemic hit, Etheridge said, there was no line of communication for coaches like him to lobby the government so their top fighters could keep following their training regimen.

The province has had the power to legitimize amateur combat sports like mixed martial arts since a change to federal law in 2013. But unlike other provinces such as Ontraio, B.C. and Manitoba, Quebec has yet to do anything substantial to accomplish it.

Seeing a need for representation, Etheridge has rallied more than 100 gyms and dojos to join a new coalition called the Association des arts martiaux du Québec (AAMQ). Together, they're trying to get the government's attention.

"We opened up the affiliation forms online and just dozens and dozens of gyms are signing up week after week and this thing is powerful," Etheridge said "We have a lot a lot of support that the government just cannot ignore, I mean we have representation in all 19 [administrative] regions."

Illuminating the grey zone around combat sports

Until a few years ago there wasn't much urgency for the community to get organized.

Amateur MMA used to operate in a sort of legal grey zone with multiple events happening around the province each weekend, but authorities started cracking down four years ago.

"Number one, our goal was unite everybody and bring everybody together so we can actually accomplish our goals, moving forward we want to reopen the gyms — we want to re-legalize amateur MMA, amateur muay thai and jiu-jitsu and elevate the standards of safety in everything," Etheridge said.

Etheridge and the AAMQ have yet to hold any talks with the government.

Rodriguez meanwhile says he's planning to stay in Guatemala until the situation changes in Quebec. When he comes back, it will because he can return into his familiar gym to train again.