By Jorden Curran
The IMMAF European Open Championships have consistently been the second biggest landmark on the amateur MMA calendar. Since its debut in 2015, the European Open continues to draw the most athletes from the most diverse lineup of nations after the marquee IMMAF World Championships.
With the World Championships traditionally serving as the closing event of the IMMAF calendar year, the size and diversity of the European Open has often served to highlight the brightest favourites for a world title. High success at both the European Open and World Championships has often gone hand in hand, but not always …
First hosted by the city of Birmingham, UK, in 2015, the European Open took place at the end of the year and ushered a new wave of exciting talent alongside standouts of the day. The 2015 Euros produced exciting new champions including Alexandra Toncheva, Leah McCourt, and Abdul Hussein, plus several silver and bronze medallists who would go on to claim major IMMAF titles in years to come. However, the 2015 Euros event packs its own bittersweet history with a lineup of one-and-done champions who would have made for compelling top contenders, if not likely winners of the following year’s World Championships, based on the future accomplishments of those they had surpassed in Birmingham.
Sunna Rannveig Davíðsdóttir (Iceland) – Flyweight
As a product of Iceland’s famous Mjölnir MMA gym, Sunna “Tsunami” Davíðsdóttir represented her country on the IMMAF stage and took home the gold medal of the women’s flyweight division. After besting perennial contender Ilaria Norcia in the quarter-finals and forcing a TKO over Michaela Dostalova in the semis, Sunna secured the gold with a full-mount TKO against Swedish World silver medalist, Anja Saxmark.
Following her European Open triumph, Sunna was picked up by Invicta Fighting Championships, a leading professional MMA organisation with an elite all-women’s, based in the USA, where she has since built a 3-1 pro record. Sunna’s seamless transition to the professional ranks underlined the reputation she quickly established as an amateur, yet with the Iceland standout absent, the 2016 World title was secured by Sweden’s Gabriella Ringblom with a series of masterful performances upon dropping down to flyweight, after taking bantamweight silver at the 2015 Euros.
Varpu Rinne (Finland) – Bantamweight
Gabriella Ringblom would rule over the flyweight division for the majority of 2016 to 2017, going 7-1 with World, Africa and Asia Open titles to her name and even enjoyed a stint as the pound-for-pound highest ranked IMMAF athlete. Yet, the European Open title remained the one elusive accolade of Ringblom’s reign, and in 2015 it was Varpu Rinne who decisively out-struck the future queen of amateur MMA. Rinne subsequently dropped off the MMA radar, yet as a BJJ purple belt was crowned the NOGI European champion in 2018. Sweden’s Cornelia Holm would go on to rule the bantamweight division, becoming an IMMAF legend with an undefeated streak capturing subsequent World and back-to-back European Open titles in 2016 and 2017.
Sanna Merta (Finland) – Featherweight
Cornelia Holm followed the same path as Ringblom, dropping from a higher weight class to establish dominance and would succeed her national team mate to be the pound-for-pound IMMAF rankings leader in what was a golden year for the Swedish national team. Yet, prior to Sweden establishing its widespread presence across the divisions, at the end of 2015 it was Finland who stood above all others as the most highly decorated nation across both the World Championships and European Open, thanks in great part to the nation’s medal haul in Birmingham.
Alongside Rinne and Abdul Hussein, Sanna Merta earned European Open gold for Finland, competing in the women’s featherweight category. At the age of 31 Merta entered the European Open as one of the event’s older competitors, and in future interviews would express how family comes first and foremost ahead of her passion for competition. This life experience and relaxed perspective towards a competitive career was perhaps reflected in her European Open performances, displaying veteran-like experience beyond that of her short MMA tenure. The former Judo competitor showed a hands-on edge in strength, yet most noticeable was her sense of calm throughout the tournament, utilising a rounded skill set with a flowing patience that never seemed to chase, yet brought upon two stoppages en route to the final, including an arm-bar submission over Germany’s Julia Dorny, another future World and European Open champion. In the gold medal decider, Merta was simply too much for future champ Cornelia Holm.
During the same event, Northern Ireland’s Leah McCourt was making her own IMMAF debut in the women’s lightweight bracket, in which she stormed her way to the gold medal before going on to win the World Championships at a featherweight. McCourt, who was also a judo specialist with a fondness for long rage striking, expressed a keen interest in facing off against Merta to decide the undisputed best of the featherweights, of which the Finn reciprocated, yet Merta never returned to action having stepped away to focus on family life with a second child on the way.
Jack Shore (Wales) – Lightweight
Now a world renown UFC contender at age 26, Jack Shore capped off an 11-0 amateur tenure by winning gold at the 2015 European Open in the men’s lightweight tournament. A submission whizz from day-one, Shore cruised flawlessly to the final day and won the crown with after a trio of first round stoppages via rear-naked-choke, triangle choke and arm-bar, respectively, including a quarter-final win over Bulgaria’s Ferdun Osmanov, a future top standout who would go on to win the World silver medal and back-to-back European Open titles in 2016 and 2017. Shore turned pro and swiftly rose through the ranks of Cage Warriors, eventually dropping to 135lbs to win the organisation’s bantamweight title ahead of being called up to the UFC where he now remains undefeated at 14-0.
Ben Forsyth (Rep. of Ireland) – Light-Heavyweight
Unlike the previous mentions, Ben Forsyth did not step away from competition immediately following his IMMAF stint, nor did he advance to become a standout professional, but the “what if?” scenario of Forsyth is nevertheless an interesting one. Despite a difficult start to amateur competition on the Ireland and UK circuits, the SBG Ireland product had the opportunity to represent his country at the 2015 European Open where he hit fine form. With three victories, Forsyth’s breakthrough effort saw him claim the European Open title, the cherry on top being a second-round knockout in the tournament final against formidable Hungarian national champion, Balazs Kiss. After a tremendous moment of validation, Forsyth turned pro, but after a 2-0 start he fell to 2-3. Who knows what the outcome would have been if Forsyth had continued to ride the momentum of his amateur success into 2016, but in his absence it was another Irishman, Matthew Sheehan, who went on to win the light-heavyweight title at the following World Championships.
The now 31-year-old Forsyth has not competed in MMA since 2017, choosing to pursue other passions in filmmaking and coffee making. Earlier this year he looked back on his career and discussed how new perspectives shifted his life ambitions, in an interview with the Irish MMA Association website.