Main picture: IMMAF Board celebrates at the close of the inaugural IMMAF World Championships in Las Vegas in 2014 , with August Wallen centre facing.
The lessons learned the hard way in Sweden helped to make IMMAF what it is today. Founder August Wallen talks to immaf.org about IMMAF’s origins.
“IMMAF’s journey began during dark times in Sweden, when MMA, and all full-contact combat sports faced the threat of a ban,” said August.
IMMAF’s story begins in Sweden where a martial artist called August Wallen had the vision, the plan, and like all good fighters, the discipline and determination to change the world.
In 2005 Sweden elected a new Sport Minister who promptly cancelled an investigation to accept all martial arts and legalise pro boxing, which was banned in Sweden at that time. The Minister set off instead to ban all forms of full contact martial arts in the country.
As a fighter, Wallen, a.k.a. “The Strangler” fought the likes of Yuki Kondo, Vernon “Tiger” White, Elvis Sinosic and Chris Greig and he has also been a coach, a promoter, a manager a gym owner and entrepreneur. But his greatest MMA legacy is likely to be political, as he was a driving force in amending the legislation to save MMA in Sweden and the man who then decided to reach beyond his country’s own border to pursue a dream called IMMAF.
“This gentleman was also vice Prime Minister of our country and stood up in front of Parliament to tell a bald lie about the dangers of mixed martial arts. I joined with George Sallfeldt (now IMMAF Vice President) and Michale Sjolin to lead a campaign not just against the proposed ban but about the principle of honest political principles in our country. We developed a very engaged lobbying group. They were knowledgeable about MMA, united, passionate and believed in democracy.”
Wallen was able to underline Swedish
MMA’s safety, noting that there had been no deaths in MMA in Sweden, while
horse riding had 160.
“You can’t ban MMA based on the argument of death in the sport, unless you ban horse riding first,” declared Wallen.”
“We succeeded, by 2007, to get the law changed. You now needed a national permit to organise competitions in all sports where there were head strikes.
“We were able to make 116 changes to the proposed ban,” Wallen says proudly. “We believed in the mission.”
August then founded SMMAF (Swedish MMA Federation) in 2007, securing the first permits for competitions before joining the Association of Swedish Budo and Martial Arts Federation. Upon admittance, MMA became a legitimate national sport and its approved clubs could be subsidized in part by the taxpayer.
“ This was important because I knew that in order to advance, we needed recognition, and in Sweden this could only happen when you were officially recognised by the Swedish Sport Confederation, which is the umbrella organisation for sport in the country.”
By setting up this body, and obtaining a permit for amateur MMA, it was possible for professional MMA to be accepted in Sweden, initially with “softer” rules than those of the UFC.
“It took, literally, years of work to ensure that amateur MMA developed roots in Sweden and for the authorities to be convinced that professional events could be sanctioned as well. I worked very closely with the UFC and we were finally able to secure permission to organise shows with the first event happening in 2012.”
“What I would call “sportifying” mixed martial arts in Sweden was critical to success,” explains Wallen. I think MMA developed kind of backwards. All other sports start on the amateur level with people playing soccer, for instance, in their backyards. Then you get many teams in one city, then a city against a city, regions against regions and finally international competition. But in MMA the professional scene emerged first, and we were trying to create a pyramid from the bottom up.”
With a proposed ban on mixed martial arts legislated in 2006, hosting a UFC event in Sweden in 2012 was a milestone event in a remarkable turnaround for the industry in Sweden. “The world’s roughest sport has become housebroken,” was the title of an article in Sweden’s Expressen.se.
“Very few if any sports federations in Sweden have ever accomplished so much in such short time,” said Wallen proudly.
The sport of MMA was no longer marginalised but prominent in Swedish living rooms. Television was showing local promotions Superior Challenge, Vision Fighting Championship, The Zone FC, and Rumble of the Kings with UFC events, including “The Ultimate Fighter,” regularly shown as well.
“The campaign to give the sport in my country legitimacy and to create a functioning national governing body gave us the confidence and experience to do the same thing on an international stage.”
From Sweden to the World – the birth of IMMAF
By 2012, Sweden had a solid structure with a national league, national championships, good governance and pathways for coach and technical official education.
August stepped aside for George Sallfeldt to take over and they agreed that what had been achieved in Sweden, could now become a model for a worldwide organisation.
“We both agreed that the key to further development, and funding, inside Sweden was to form and grow a legitimate international federation with World Championships. Creating this system would also allow fighters to remain amateur and develop their skills, rather than turn professional too quickly. We needed an amateur pyramid in MMA where some people were turning professional without even having competed, which was a crazy situation, but that was because amateur structures didn’t exist, unlike in almost every other sport.
Wallen knew that the first step for the
IMMAF was to facilitate the formation of a unified national federation for as
many countries as possible. Some countries, like France, had no body at all.
Other nations, like Brazil, sported a handful of federations that operated
independently of each other and sometimes in competition.
“It was a challenge to build the pyramid with safety and medical issues as the top priority. We needed that reassurance and trust so people could compete safely said Wallen. “There were world champions in other sports who were coming in to compete in professional MMA, but in the long run, we also wanted really good youth training programmes and competitions to develop true mixed martial arts fighters from the start.”
“Our first job was to see that there were national federations capable of sanctioning professional events,” said Wallen. “We could then look into arranging international amateur events and hold amateur world championships. Once you hold regular international world championships, then you can search for recognition from GAISF and the IOC. When you have that, you are a recognized sport.
“Thanks to the support of UFC we were able to organise our first amateur World Championships in Las Vegas in 2014, the same year that Kerrith Brown and Densign White joined IMMAF. Both were Olympian athletes in Judo and experienced sport administrators. Working with the elected Board, they have built a team, and processes, that have brought us to the brink of recognition by GAISF and the World Anti-doping Agency.”
WMMAA – Soul Mates not Enemies
In 2012, both the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) and the World MMA Association (WMMAA) were founded independently, both aiming to establish an amateur structure based on principles of good governance. WMMAA was established by Vadim Finkelchtein, owner of the M1 professional franchise.
“I remember sitting down for the first time for a meeting with Vadim and his team,” said August. “The mood was friendly and respectful, and it was quickly clear that we both wanted the same things for the sport of amateur MMA globally. We were simply on parallel paths but aiming for the same destination. We left the meeting agreeing to stay in touch and wishing each other good luck.
It became clear from meetings with GAISF that they could only accept one International organisation and that “rivalry” was a serious hindrance to international recognition. IMMAF and WMMA began discussing how to best create a unified organisation which would have the best elements of both organisations.
The process ended formally in November 2019 with WMMA being absorbed into IMMAF.
“IMMAF is now a much more powerful and inclusive organisation as a result,” said August. “I cannot underline enough now important this is. It would never have happened without the positive attitude and good faith of Vadim and his team.“
UFC – Friend and Partner
“The crucial thing about the UFC support is that it has always been very respectful of the fact that we needed to be independent and to focus on the development of amateur MMA around the world.
“One important factor, from the start, was that I absolutely insisted that my own involvement was completely pro-bono. I remained an unpaid volunteer when helping to set up an MMA federation in Sweden, supporting the arrival of the first UFC Event in Sweden, to founding IMMAF in 2012. I was always insistent on the fact that this was a labour of love, a truly “amateur” commitment from me. UFC respected that committed stance.”
But it is also crucial to emphasise that UFC did not only give IMMAF verbal support but also committed finances, without which IMMAF would simply not have been able to grow and develop.
“I really think we need to acknowledge the contribution of George Sallfeldt,” said August. “He took over as President of the Swedish Federation, then joined the Board of IMMAF where he was soon elected as IMMAF Vice President.
“With a background in business, George negotiated an agreement with UFC so IMMAF could obtain, to use an entrepreneurial term the “seed funding” for vital administrative structures and activities. Thanks to this support oversee IMMAF could start to build the sport on a global level
With the UFC’s verbal and financial backing and years of hard work, the IMMAF is now the only legitimate international governing body for MMA. Through its support of IMMAF, UFC shows its real commitment to international grassroots development.