By Caoilite de Barra
This week marks the return of the Junior IMMAF competition following a long spell without competition due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over that period, we’ve seen multiple changes as to how MMA operates be it locally, regionally or internationally, the state of event management has changed drastically.
IMMAF Director of International Events, Alistair Pettitt spoke to IMMAF.org in detail on the return to competition from an event management perspective.
Like many of us, Alistair witnessed the whole world changing at a rapid speed. Unfortunately for him, he was in competition mode at the time and was on the other side of the world from his UK home.
“While we were out doing that event in Australia, the news was breaking about this pandemic but nobody knew what was happening. So I went straight from Australia to South Africa, because 3-4 weeks after that we were supposed to be doing the African open. I flew there to do a pre-event site visit, meet the national federation and talk with the partners and stakeholders.”
At this point, the worldwide situation heightened meaning borders closed which was not an ideal scenario but he was lucky enough to get home.
“I managed to get the last flight to Johannesburg before they stopped air travel.”
From that moment on, work had to be handled both virtually and remotely, and the focus could shift to catching up on admin tasks.
“Our events team continued to do a lot of work but just not executing the events. What we’ve been doing is going through all of our policy documents and all of our processes.”
Getting back to events
As we saw with the UFC, Bellator MMA, Cage Warriors and many others, Those MMA events that took place were completely different from before. Fights went behind closed doors without fans, giving an eerie tense atmosphere. It was something that had never been seen before.
As things have begun to open up, and with more information available on hosting safe events, sport events are starting to become more common. This goes for IMMAF too, something Alistair has been excited about but while managing expectations.
“I’m excited to get back and it’s becoming a reality. What events will look like from a participation point of view is subject to people being willing to travel and take the risk, for example in the UK, Bulgaria is on the amber list.”
“When it comes to the participation numbers for these events I’ve not set any expectations. It is what it is. If federations can get there, despite the extra costs for all the testing, and want to come and enjoy the sport again then that’s great. I think the appetite is there, to be honest, everyone is itching to get out there and compete so they’re willing to go the extra mile.”
Obstacles with events
Having competitions back is exciting but it hasn’t been as straightforward as in the past. The IMMAF events team has put in some amazing work to get the events of 2021 over the line. Multiple obstacles have been faced and overcome, especially with regard to the World Youth Championships.
“We changed the host of the youth worlds from Turkey to Bulgaria as we had some covid related issues to resolve.” he began, “When an event has to move, you need to take a strategic as well as an operational one. Within a week of realising that Turkey could not go ahead we managed to secure an alternative venue thanks to our federation in Bulgaria. Turkey and Bulgaria are very close geographically, we’ve worked with Bulgaria before and they’re backed by their sports ministry. So, within a week conversations, agreements in place, contracts done and the news broke it’s switched from Turkey to Sofia. That’s a credit to the IMMAF team.”
“That is a testament to how quickly we can do things and how good of a relationship we have with our federations and sports ministers etc…”
Stress is something that one would naturally feel would come into a situation such as the above but Pettitt was quick to explain that once matters are out of your control, you can’t dwell on it.
“In the events world, we’re not always stressed but we’re always busy in a manageable way. We try to control the controllable. You may think that when you’re in control of things there is no stress, but there is always stress, but it’s healthy. What you have to learn quickly is that when things are out of your control you can’t get stressed and thanks to Covid, that’s where we still are at the moment.”
“So, as things stand now, we’re going to Sofia, Russia, Prague for the World Cup, Kazakhstan at the back end of the year for the World Championships before we go to Bahrain for the World Team Championships in January and at the minute we’re all on track with those.”
What will events look like
IMMAF has made resources available so teams can arrive at the event with peace of mind knowing how things will operate. The comprehensive resources have been built out through general compliance and safeguarding of everyone at the event along with questions coming from federations that helped identify anything initially missed in planning.
As for the event itself, it will look different. Alistair sees the UFC on Fight Island set up as the gold standard for an elite professional event. Lots of parties were involved, including governments, and a significant injection of extra capital was needed to make the event happen, especially with regard to creating an event bubble. IMMAF has sought to emulate that concept, within the restraints of an amateur event budget.
“We had to come down a level [from the UFCl] so while we have a bubble we’re not claiming that it can be airtight. For example, in the hotel where the event takes place there are staff who will go home at night. We can’t emulate the perfect bubble the UFC had in Abu Dhabi.”
“Simply put, we have managed the risk. So when an athlete gets to the official hotel they will have to go into their rooms and stay there until the Covid testing staff come and test them. They will have to stay in their rooms until results come back. That’s one way of us making sure that everyone that competes is checked.”
Watching and meeting competitors again
Since the last set of IMMAF tournaments, prospects such as Muhammad Mokaev have turned pro. It wasn’t long ago that Mokaev was only making his first-ever walk to the IMMAF cage. Back then it was unknown what would become of the undefeated pro that went 23-0 as an amateur. Stories like this are what excited Alistair to get back to the competition.
“From a sporting context what I am excited about is that I could be speaking to the future UFC champion. Will I be watching a 12-year-old kid that in 10 years town has come through the juniors, the seniors and now they’re UFC champion or Bellator Champion or whatever organisation it may be.”
“That to me Is the magical bit that all of our team strive to do. Put this platform on to educate them and give them the best possible exposure. We’re back in action now, but this is just the start.”