With the 2016 Summer Olympics scheduled for Aug. 5-21 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sherdog.com staff and contributors sat down to put together hypothetical MMA Olympic teams for the following countries: United States, Canada, Japan, Brazil, Russia, Great Britain, Mexico, Poland, Australia and Sweden. This 10-part series will map out the yellow brick road to Rio de Janeiro for the men and women who call the cage home, Zika virus be damned.
As a first-world country in the upper half of the Northern Hemisphere, Canada’s forte has always been more the Winter Games than the Summer Games. However, Canada’s quality of life and culturally diverse population of 35 million has made it an ideal immigration destination for a century, and it certainly resonates in the nation’s current Olympic ambitions.
Canada hosted the financially disastrous 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. Its legacy was larger than financial ledgers: Canada infamously became the only host nation ever to not secure a single gold medal. Since then, federal money for funding amateur athletics, specifically Olympic sports, has grown considerably, which has led to Canada being one of the foremost nations when it comes to passport trade-ins.
Many of Canada’s most famous gold medal athletes at the Summer Games opted to fly the Maple Leaf because of a preferential training environment: Perhaps Canada’s best-known modern Summer Olympics athlete is 1996 double gold medalist sprinter Donovan Bailey, who could have represented Jamaica. As far as MMA-related sports go, Canada’s most famous golden boys are Lennox Lewis in boxing (1988) and Daniel Igali (2000) in freestyle wrestling, but they could have competed for England or Nigeria respectively.
There is no doubt that Canada has a strong MMA legacy that belies the country’s pacifist profile and the fact that its population pales in comparison to the likes of the United States, Brazil and Russia. Georges St. Pierre, after all, is the most accomplished MMA fighter in the history of this sport for my money. However, in spite of GSP’s historic greatness and the fact that he says he is ready to return to the cage soon, that’s a bridge too far for us to entertain. This is the post-GSP era, and if Canada is sending a hypothetical squad to our hypothetical MMA competition in Rio, the nation has to deal without the arguable G.O.A.T.
While our Canadian squad will true to form include many folks with multiple passports, there is one notable omission: One Championship ace Bibiano Fernandes would be a shoo-in for a 135- or 145-pound berth on this squad. “The Flash” has lived in British Columbia for years but is still in the process of applying for Canadian citizenship, so he’s disqualified -- at least until our hypothetical 2020 Tokyo Games team.
As a training staff, it would be easy to simply choose Firas Zahabi as the head Olympic coach and select his entire squad. However, Canada preaches diversity and representation, so we’ll adhere to that ethos here. Zahabi will be the general, joined by top Tristar Gym lieutenant Eric O’Keefe and affiliated boxing trainer Howard Grant, who can impart his Olympic experience and wisdom on the team, having represented Canada at the 1988 Seoul Games.
For some bi-coastal coaching representation, the 2016 Canadian MMA Olympic team will also employ the services of Nova Scotian Fit Plus head coach Scott MacLean, who took T.J. Grant to the a promised-but-never-realized Ultimate Fighting Championship title shot and took team member Chris Kelades to being a UFC flyweight regular. From the west coast, coach Adam Zugec of Zuma, a clever strategist and understudy of Greg Jackson, will be able to directly coach his top charge Sarah Kaufman, while always-prolific Toshido MMA trainer David Lea will get to reunite with his most famous, albeit former, pupil Rory MacDonald.
2016 Canada National MMA Team• Heavyweight: Smealinho Rama
• Light Heavyweight: Misha Cirkunov
• Middleweight: Elias Theodorou
• Welterweight: Rory MacDonald
• Lightweight: Chad Laprise
• Featherweight: Gavin Tucker
• Bantamweight: Josh Hill
• Flyweight: Chris Kelades
• Women’s Bantamweight: Sarah Kaufman
• Women’s Strawweight: Randa Markos
HEAVYWEIGHT: In our first question of nationality, Greek-Albanian talent Rama nabs the heavyweight spot. There is no question that the 24-year-old is the most accomplished Canadian heavyweight at the moment. What made this a tenuous selection was Rama’s stated political positions. “Canada has done nothing for me. Greece did nothing for me. I did everything,” Rama told MMAFighting.com in June 2015. “I represent my team, I represent myself, my family and my loved ones. That’s what I represent. I don’t represent any country. I don’t believe in any of that.” Maybe Rama’s comments could hurt his candidacy here, but frankly, Canada’s “Own the Podium” mantra runs deep, and I’d expect concerned parties to find a way to get the Calgary-based heavy on the roster. Alternates: Tanner Boser, Tim Hague
LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT: Of course, Cirkunov is a Latvian national. Critically, however, he’s a Canadian citizen and he loves Canada. With his outstanding national wrestling pedigree and grappling skills, most folks on the Canadian MMA scene saw Cirkunov as a serious prospect long before he had ever committed to competing. Over his six-year career, Cirkunov has found his footing, winning seven straight bouts, all by stoppage, including his last three in the UFC. While there would be charm to putting hockey enforcer turned MMA notable Steve Bosse on the squad, Cirkunov is just beginning to enter his MMA prime and his physical dominance and explosive grappling earn him the nod. Alternates: Steve Bosse, Todd Stoute
MIDDLEWEIGHT: Unless Patrick Cote were to move back to 185 pounds to attempt to secure an Olympic berth, Theodorou simply doesn’t have much competition in his weight class. Our alternates, Ryan Janes and Adam Hunter, are quality prospects but still a bit away from making it to the UFC, let alone making any kind of tangible impact. Theodorou has posted a 4-1 mark in UFC competition. At 12-1 overall, his lone loss as a pro was to explosive Brazilian upstart Thiago Santos, whose more powerful kicking style bested “The Ultimate Fighter Nations” winner at his own game. Outside of that L, Theodorou’s size and volume kicking style are a legitimate stylistic worry for most middleweights; and his current connection to Zahabi doesn’t hurt, either. Alternates: Ryan Janes, Adam Hunter
WELTERWEIGHT: We’re ignoring St. Pierre’s far-fetched candidacy, but with Zahabi as the head coach and Lea as an assistant, there’s no one else who could be here other than MacDonald. His latest UFC outing in which he was trounced by Stephen Thompson while aimlessly rolling for leg locks was embarrassing, and he would be heading into this Olympiad with a heavy professional conscience, as a free agent who just cost himself a lot of money headed into free agency. However, even if MacDonald isn’t “The Next GSP,” for the purposes of these Games, he’s the closest thing Canada has to it. In fact, even given MacDonald’s current predicament, he would still represent this team’s best chance to get to the podium in Rio. Alternates: Patrick Cote, Nordine Taleb
LIGHTWEIGHT: Laprise has lost his last two bouts, but Brazil’s Francisco Trinaldo is on a tear and the London, Ontario, native could have easily gotten his hand raised in a razor-close bout with Ross Pearson in March. The next best candidate is Olivier Aubin-Mercier, who, even with his current connections to Tristar Gym, lost every single round to Laprise in their “Ultimate Fighter” final. Laprise’s well-rounded and technical counterpunching style and his willingness to defer to this coaching staff are more than enough to earn him the berth. Alternates: Olivier Aubin-Mercier, Jason Saggo
FEATHERWEIGHT: Admittedly, born and raised Calgarian and World Series of Fighting vet Hakeem Dawodu has fought the higher level of competition. However, in Dawodu’s draw with Marat Magomedov in WSOF, he showed the sort of passivity that I forecast being a huge concern under whatever Olympic-style MMA rules resembled. More than that, the 8-0 Tucker is a stud in his own right, with a strong muay Thai game at distance and a hard-punching clinch game. Better still, if there’s an opportunity to take a representative from Newfoundland on the 2016 Canadian MMA Olympic squad, we’re taking it. Alternates: Hakeem Dawodu, Kyle Nelson
BANTAMWEIGHT: Based on how their first fight went in February 2015, one would hope Hill could pull out of his scheduled WSOF title rematch with Marlon Moraes if he secured this Olympic berth. After all, Moraes might well be Brazil’s Olympic rep at 135 pounds, and they could rematch in Rio. Hamilton, Ontario’s Hill has posted a 14-1 pro record against quality opposition and possesses top-notch athleticism, physical wrestling and a potent clinch game that are going to carry him against the majority of bantamweights outside of your dynamic and elite properties like the aforementioned Moraes. Alternates: Xavier Alaoui, Jesse Arnett
FLYWEIGHT: Austin Ryan and Randy Turner are both quality Canadian prospects at 125 pounds and may not be far from UFC contracts, but Kelades is undeniably the country’s top flyweight. Moreover, MacLean, his Fit Plus head coach, is an assistant on our squad. In his losses to Sergio Pettis and Ray Borg, it was clear that Kelades is a jack of all trades and a master of none. However, this is an international MMA competition; and against folks from all over the globe, Kelades’ rugged general well-roundedness will serve him well, in addition to being a better wrestler than what most countries at the Games will have to offer. A favorable draw dodging America, Brazil and Russia could let “The Greek Assassin” sneak onto the podium in a still-developing division. Alternates: Austin Ryan, Randy Turner
WOMEN’S BANTAMWEIGHT: Canada has some bantamweight depth, but Kaufman is the clear choice, even with two straight disappointing losses inside the UFC. The former Strikeforce bantamweight champ isn’t defensively infallible, especially if she gets into brawls or encounters slick grapplers on the ground. Nonetheless, Kaufman’s results at 135 can’t be denied and her well-rounded game offers her strategic flexibility, having the ability to piece up inferior strikers from outside while muscling and dirty boxing most challenging standup specialists in the clinch. In a continuing theme, her career-long mentor Zugec getting assistant coach duties on this team only helps her bid. Alternates: Valerie Letourneau, Sarah Moras
WOMEN’S STRAWWEIGHT: In a different world, considering competition and accomplishment, this spot would likely belong to Valerie Letourneau. However, MMA at the Olympics would inevitably be a multi-fight prospect, and given the overwhelming difficulties Letourneau has had making 115 pounds for an individual bout, Markos becomes a no-brainer. More than that, Markos has success in a multi-fight tournament schedule, having had her breakout moment on “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 20 by upsetting both Tecia Torres and Felice Herrig on the show. Markos announced recently that she had left Tristar Gym, as she felt Zahabi tried to make her a “patient fighter,” and taken up training in Detroit. For the sake of an Olympic bid as she enters her physical prime, I’m sure Markos could make peace, at least for Rio. Alternates: Lindsay Garbatt, Alyssa Krahn