The Year in European MMA

By Tim Leidecker Jan 15, 2009
The last year in European mixed martial arts mirrored the rest of the sport’s world. Longtime former champions and star fighters like Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic and Karo Parisyan had to say goodbye to the top of the mountain, while exciting young talents like Gegard Mousasi and Goran Reljic lay claim to be the sports’ future.

The UFC continued to draw big crowds wherever they went in England, while most other UK and continental promoters are more than happy if they manage to attract more than 2,000 paid customers to their shows. This shows a clear trend: While “Ultimate Fighting” is starting to gain mainstream acceptance, mixed martial arts still has a long way to go before it will be fully embraced as a sport.

In our special edition of European Throwdown, we bring you an exclusive look back at the 2008's major events and take you for a unique ride from Iberia to Siberia.

January-March

The Dutch got off to the strongest start in 2008 as Semmy Schilt and half a dozen of his countrymen fought at a big event called Lord of the Ring at 23,000-seat Belgrade Arena in the Serbian capital. Planned as a series of events, unfortunately LOTR was a flash in the pan just like Schilt’s full-time comeback to MMA.

The Dutch event, Beast of the East, flew unjustifiably under the radar. The promotion from Zutphen, a 47,000-inhabitant municipality in Eastern Holland, is already set to put on the first quality show of the new year. In 2008 they did the same, featuring top European fighters like Robert Jocz and Gregor Tredowski as well as exciting your talents like Stefan Struve, who is UFC-bound this February.

However, the story of early 2008 was the legalization of MMA in France. The country of cheese, wine and Jerome Le Banner had suffered for years from governmental restrictions, but thanks to an initiative by many top fighters, the ban was lifted in late January to allow Pancrase-style events (no punches to the head on the ground). While the legalization had not resulted in a big event straightaway, it was a huge step for one of Europe’s premier fighting nations and a sign of things to come.

Early March saw the first installment of a new series of events called the M-1 Challenge, headed up by Vadim Finkelstein, longtime manager to Fedor Emelianenko. After an initial deal with Monte Cox and Sibling Sports LLC. led to nothing but disagreement, M-1 teamed up with smaller shows and promoters across Europe to stage events in Holland, Russia, Spain, England and Finland. The events produced solid action and were broadcasted in numerous countries, but still have room for improvement. M-1 Challenge’s second season debuts in February in Seattle.

April-May

As days became longer and warmer, Scandinavia started to defrost as well. With The Zone FC and Superior Challenge, Sweden finally produced two top-class events again. After the temporary ban of MMA in 2007 and the ensuing shutdown of its flagship show European Vale Tudo, the Northerners can once again pride themselves as integral players in Euro MMA.

At the same time in the United States, Belarusian Vladimir Matyushenko made the final defense of his IFL light heavyweight title before the promotion folded in April. In East Rutherford, New Jersey, Matyushenko took on former high school All-American wrestler Jamal Patterson in a battle of ground fighting specialists. “The Janitor” stopped “The Suit” with punches late in the second round.

In May, two fierce rivals of the European welterweight circuit punched their tickets to the UFC. English kickboxer Dan "The Outlaw" Hardy elbowed former German wunderkind Daniel Weichel all the way to a technical knockout, while French firefighter David Baron guillotine-choked former Shooto champ Hayato “Mach” Sakurai in Japan. Both fighters eventually made their UFC debuts at UFC 89 in Birmingham, England, that October.

The following weekend, the star of one Polish fighter began to rise, while another shone for a final time. At KSW 9, muay Thai stylist Jan Blachowicz came out of nowhere to win the promotions’ prestigious 95kg (209 pounds) tournament. Meanwhile Euro MMA legend Grzegorz Jakubowski retired from the sport following a decision loss to UFC veteran Jordan Radev.

June-September

Arguably, the best non-UFC show in the UK took place in Nottingham, England and was put together by Cage Warriors, the country’s oldest active promotion. “Enter the Rough House 7” featured a glut of top UK and European fighters, including Paul McVeigh, Abdul Mohamed, Jim Wallhead, Simeon Thoresen and superstar Paul "Semtex" Daley in his lone domestic fight of the year.

Further west some 5,300 miles, the duo of Andrei Arlovski and Fedor Emelianenko impressed with their destructions of former UFC titleholder Tim Sylvia and IFL standout Ben Rothwell at Affliction “Banned” in July. Emelianenko’s 36 second drubbing of the “Maine-iac” silenced all of the “Last Emperor’s” critics.

The Cinderella story of the year was provided by Norway’s Joachim Hansen. The former Shooto welterweight champion had been in a slump following the dissolution of Pride Bushido, but staged a spectacular comeback as he won the inaugural Dream lightweight grand prix as an alternate. His technical knockout over Shinya Aoki in the final was particularly sweet revenge for “Hellboy.”

At the end of the summer, one of the greatest tragedies of the year happened. Russian Top Team manager Vladimir Pogodin was one of 88 people killed in a plane crash in Perm at the foot of the Ural Mountains. Pogodin is credited with having discovered the Emelianenko brothers and Sergei Kharitonov among others. He was 57 years old.

October-December

Two months after Hansen’s triumph, another European fighter took home the second Dream Grand Prix as well. Needing just 223 seconds combined, Armenia’s “Young Vagabond” Gegard Mousasi made short work of knockout machine Melvin Manhoef and 8-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion Ronaldo Jacaré Souza to become the promotion’s first ever middleweight champion.

At what was eventually the final stand for EliteXC, Russian muay Thai specialist Alexander Shlemenko and Chechen grappler Mamed Khalidov used the opportunity to make a good impression on American fight fans. Shlemenko knocked out his opponent Robert McDaniel with a flying knee to the body, while the “Cannibal” consumed TUF castoff Jason Guida with a series of punches.

If his impressive UFC debut against Wilson Gouveia in May wasn’t enough to win over the fans, Croatian model athlete Goran Reljic delivered a superhuman performance outside the cage as well: The 24-year-old submission specialist saved two men from drowning -- who had crashed their car into the Adriatic Sea -- by breaking the windshield and pulling the men ashore.

The final important chapter for European MMA in 2008 was written by the UFC and their big event in Birmingham, England, which featured a France vs. Sweden miniseries. The Swedes came away on top as Per Eklund submitted Samy Schiavo and David Bielkheden outgrappled and outstruck Jess Liaudin en route to a unanimous decision victory.

It will be interesting to see what 2009 has in store for European MMA. One thing’s for sure though: With Fedor Emelianenko and Andrei Arlovski facing off against each other in January, the UFC going to mainland Europe for the first time ever with UFC 99 in Germany, and ambitious plans from England’s Cage Gladiators, Poland’s KSW and Slovenia’s WFC, it promises to be bigger and better than ever.
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