There was a sense of anticipation and mystery heading into the inaugural IMMAF -WMMAA Youth MMA World Championships, hosted last month in the city of Rome.
The first event of its kind on a major international scale, 26 member nations of IMMAF – WMMAA came together in the Italian capital, represented by over 250 young athletes spanning three age/rule categories: Youth C (12-13), Youth B (14-15) and Youth A (16-17).
It was uncertain as to which nations would emerge as leaders of the youth championships. With amateur MMA at the senior level not wholly reflective of the professional scene with regards to national prominence, the spectrum of global talent among U18s was yet to be mapped out; surprises were anticipated.
It was, however, the USA who lived up to the expectation of being the undisputed hotbed of mainstream mixed martial arts, showcasing how the sport’s prominence has filtered to younger generations. The U.S. team, headed by the USFL, dispatched 34 athletes as the championship’s biggest team and excelled atop the medal table with 28 total podium positions and 16 golds (read more on USFL at Youth Worlds HERE).
At the forefront of MMA, Ukraine remains somewhat under the radar of MMA’s wider audience, the few exceptions to reach the sport’s mainstream audience being the likes of heavyweight MMA legend, Igor Vovchanchyn and current UFC light-heavyweight Nikita Krylov.
However, at the domestic and amateur level, Ukraine enjoys a flourishing and progressive MMA scene, keen to engage with unified sport development. It was this progressive mindset, initiated by the Ukraine MMA Federation and its president Oleg Rozhkevich, that served as the catalyst for the nation’s breakout success at the Youth World Championships, Ukraine edged second place over Russia (3rd) in the gold count, claiming 7 youth world titles.
“As soon as we knew the rules for the under-18’s world championships, we had them translated and given to our coaches,” Anton Blank revealed, Executive Director of the Ukraine MMA Federation.
“The coaches had enough time and information to prepare. Also we had Ukrainian Championships in the beginning of March so only the best U18 athletes from all Ukraine were taken to the national team and could compete in the world championships. I think after such a good result MMA will become much more popular among the parents of Ukrainian kids and they will bring their children to the sport of MMA.”
Ukraine’s foresight for preparation and willingness to endorse unified standards provides great optimism for continued progress. Not only in the competitive realm, the national federation has recently welcomed head of regulatory affairs, Marc Goddard, to deliver the IMMAF certification course for referees and judges, spreading practice and understanding of the unified amateur rule set.
Success at the Youth World Championships gives the sign that processes are in place to ensure development of home grown talent for years to come. Ukraine’s biggest success to date under IMMAF-WMMAA comes following steady success for the past two years at the senior level, with Ukrainian athletes consistently achieving titles and podium positions at the World Championships and European Open. Ukraine occupies 6th place in the current world team rankings.
Blank added, “Ukrainian people like sports. As You know, Ukraine has one of the best boxing schools in the world with such athletes like Klitschko, Lomachenko, Usyk. The problem is with the economic situation. A lot of talented sportsmen stop their sport careers after they become 18, because they don’t have money for living, and start working. If the athlete does not have a sponsor of some kind, they cannot become a big star in sports.”
As Blank suggests, the future is not always clear for promising young athletes approaching adulthood and with professional aspirations after crafting an efficient skill set as amateurs. Like many hotbeds of MMA and Olympic amateur sport, the future of would-be prospects can hinge on sustainability, on the economic landscape and extent of continued opportunity and pathways in sport.
By IMMAF.org lead writer, photographer: Jorden Curran