The international governance of combat sports and martial arts is well renowned for its internal rifts and divisions. Take the World Boxing Association (WBA), World Boxing Council (WBC), International Boxing Federation (IBF) and World Boxing Organization (WBO) as examples in pro boxing. Meanwhile, the World Anti-doping Agency recognises three Code Signatory International Federations for the sport of Taekwondo, and various bodies lay claim to overseeing Muay Thai and kickboxing.
So when in June 2017, world umbrella sports body, the Global Association of International Sport Federations (GAISF) instructed ‘rival’ applicants for the sport recognition of MMA that they must cooperate, since only one application could be considered, the odds of success were high.
The Swedish founded International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) and Monaco based, World Mixed Martial Arts Association (WMMAA) were both established in 2012 with an Olympic vision and equally claimed the right to be deemed the international authority for amateur MMA. Perhaps it was their newness or their evolution from a sport that within a couple of decades of existence had become the world’s fastest growing that made them so dynamic, because what happened next could not have been anticipated.
In May 2018, IMMAF and WMMAA signed a legally binding affiliation MOU, approved by both memberships. By the close of November 2018 they had completed a fully executed agreement, as well as a first unified world championships with 52 participating countries that would create a new world order in the rankings of amateur MMA. Following a time-lag to allow for the necessary, democratically approved changes to the IMMAF statutes, IMMAF’s 2019 General Assembly saw the IMMAF board expand to accept elected representatives from WMMAA, with WMMAA President Vadim Finkelchtein joining IMMAF founder August Wallen as Honorary President.
However, these rapid-fire achievements weren’t the most impressive. Not only did the merger require that of two international boards and administration teams, but it also needed to be mapped out across around 100 member nations, a number of whom had counterpart IMMAF and WMMAA national federations.
So how did the IMMAF and WMMAA executives achieve this? immaf.org spoke with former WMMAA Executive Director turned IMMAF Board Director, Tatiana Klimenko, who worked on the national level coordination of the amalgamation.
The main challenge was presented by countries in which both WMMAA and IMMAF each had an active representative organisation. Where this was the case, first consideration was necessarily given to the federation which had government or National Olympic Committee recognition. The non-recognised party was encouraged to join with the mandated organisation. Meanwhile, inactive federations were cut, as were bad players.
For example, in one case IMMAF had received complaints about national federation’s association with right wing extremism and hooliganism. The allegations were never satisfactorily refuted by the organisation in question, and this was taken into account in deciding against them in selecting the best representative in that country to lead the sport, alongside their recognition status.
Where such clarity did not exist, federations were encouraged to merge and, according to Tatiana, this worked well where both sides “put their athletes and the interests of the sport first, over and above power struggles.”
There were successful national level mergers in countries that include Romania, Kazakhstan and India.
“In these countries, national federations were strengthened by coming together, bringing different assets, skill sets and relationships to the table. They increased their membership and deepened their competition pool.”
According to Tatiana, only a surprisingly small handful of disputes emerged that were unresolvable or situations in which merged groups came apart – five or less. In these instances, where IMMAF | WMMAA was forced choose a side, the unified administration evaluated not just the national federation’s administrative compliance to GASIF criteria, but equally took into account the roots and comparative strengths of the federations, their scope of influence within the sport and their business capabilities.
“In all, there was a total of around three organisations of value, largely in terms of their professional MMA or commercial experience, that we were unable to carry with us, which is unfortunate. However, due to the in depth process through which we worked closely with national federations and the many interviews we conducted, I can attest without a doubt that each of the federations we retained are the strongest in their country, whether in terms of good governance process, having some kind of formal recognition or carrying out all the administrative duties of a federation. Some of these remain small due to the political and legal landscape there or because the sport is still young there, but they are certainly the right ones to grow the sport in the interests of the amateur participant and according to the values of International Sport.”
“However, the doors remain open those organisations we lost. We appreciate that the speed with which IMMAF and WMMAA moved with the merger created a difficult situation for some. At any time, we are committed to working to facilitate fresh dialogues between them and our national federation in their country to find a workable solution for a cooperation.”
IMMAF President Kerrith Brown, who was also closely involved in the national merger process alongside WMMAA President Vadim Finkelchtein, commented:
“I’m extremely proud of what we managed to achieve in uniting two such strong entities. I am thankful to Vadim, Tatiana and the WMMAA Board for their cooperation, and equally to IMMAF founders August Wallen, Vice-President George Sallfeldt and the IMMAF board. The WMMAA board directors and administrative staff who have joined us are by now very much part of the IMMAF international family, bringing enhanced expertise and experience to the team. I am confident too that in all our territories, IMMAF has the strongest national representative. Where National Federations successfully merged they have likewise been strengthened as a result. The process also enabled us to weed out non-performing ‘paper’ federations and those failing to meet good governance standards for amateur sport. The results of our merger with WMMAA are demonstrable through the increased engagement and participation of our federations that has really propelled us forward as a super organisation. With hindsight, I can say I am grateful to GAISF for their recommendation that we unite as it has only made us better as an organisation and reinforced our ability to meet our duties as an international governing body.”