Inside Australian MMA’s First Post-Pandemic Stadium Show

By Jacob Debets Oct 8, 2020
The outlook for Australia’s Eternal MMA promotion had never been brighter than it was at the beginning of March.

Having signed a UFC Fight Pass streaming deal in October 2019 and having successfully pulled off back-to-back-to-back shows—Eternal MMA 50 in Auckland, New Zealand, Eternal MMA 51 in Perth, Western Australia, and Eternal MMA 52 in Gold Coast, Queensland—in three consecutive weekends between Feb. 22 and March 7, partners Cameron O’Neil and Ben Vickers felt confident they had put some distance between Eternal and its competitors on Australia’s regional MMA scene.

What’s more, the two men were champing at the bit to implement improvements to every aspect of their operation. From matchmaking and production to broadcasting and lighting, there was a formidable to-do list waiting for them when they returned to their respective home bases in Perth and Pimpama, Queensland; and after eight years of grinding, there was some cash at their disposal to make them happen. With a mandate to build Australian MMA from the ground-up courtesy of consistent events, a streamlined product, deepening relationships with fighters, fans and suppliers and the Ultimate Fighting Championship touching down on a bi-annual basis and ensuring a healthy dose of mainstream and international exposure for Australian talent, everything was falling into place.

Then the pandemic started.

Thirteen days after Eternal MMA 52, Australia locked down its international borders—a move that was soon followed by bans on non-essential gatherings and the prohibition of a wide range of non-essential economic activities. Gyms shut down, live sporting events were prohibited and combat sports in Australia and abroad ground to an abrupt halt. Health officials and world leaders struggled to contain the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, while Australians and their international counterparts were directed to stay indoors, socially distance and wash their hands.

For the first time in years, O’Neil and Vickers had nothing but time on their hands.

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Speaking to via Zoom from their respective bunkers exactly 30 weeks removed from their most recent event, O’Neil and Vickers’ enthusiasm to resume their 2020 season and get back to the serious business of putting on events was very much apparent. Behind O’Neil was a whiteboard so detailed it could be mistaken for the one that belonged to Steve Bannon circa 2017, and the two men spoke excitedly about matchups, fight cards and milestones they have planned for the coming 15 months. In a wide-ranging interview, they also shared their views on the health of Australia’s regional scene, what they believe needs to be done in order for MMA to be seen as a legitimate part of the mainstream sports culture Down Under and the responsibility of putting on Australia’s first post-pandemic stadium show, Eternal MMA 53, this Saturday in Perth’s HBF Stadium.

“It’s been a big bummer for us,” Vickers said when asked about the pandemic. “We went from doing those three shows in three weeks—in Auckland to Perth to the Gold Coast—where we pretty much sold out all three and had all this momentum. We were looking forward to pushing on. We had a massive show booked for April, and suddenly, we ground to a halt.”

However, the time off was a blessing in disguise for Vickers personally, as he admitted the pace of Eternal MMA’s event calendar, combined with his duties as coach and owner of Perth’s Scrappy MMA gym, had led to health problems that twice culminated in trips to hospital. While he has missed the roar of a live crowd and the sense of achievement from pulling off meaningful events, getting to sleep in and spend some down time with his young family comes with its own sense of domestic euphoria; and it is not as if he and O’Neil have been twiddling their thumbs.

“We’ve been scheming since the beginning,” O’Neil said with a laugh after admitting the initial raft of government lockdown measures left him feeling rudderless and depressed. “We were in conversation constantly: what matches were exciting, what could we do to improve the product in the future, how we could legitimize routes to the title, what cities and venues were we going to go to next.”

Vickers agrees.

“It’s given us some time to sort of gather our thoughts, which we hadn’t had for years, and really make a strategy and a plan for what we want to do in a thoughtful way, rather than just going in headfirst to every show,” he said. “We’ve cemented our procedures a bit better and developed a more tactical model about how we want to proceed, which we’ve never done before. When you’re doing 10 or 12 shows a year, you’re just rolling from show to show and picking up the pieces along the way.”

The more refined and purposeful approach is just a couple of days away from being put to the test at Eternal MMA 53, where Jack Della Maddalena will attempt to defend his welterweight title for a record fourth time against Aldin Bates in front of a crowd of 1,500 strong. The promoters will be back at it three weeks later at Eternal MMA 54 in Gold Coast, which is expected to attract another 1,000 fans; they would expect more if not for the Queensland government’s one-person-per-four-square-meter rule.

While O’Neil and Vickers would have preferred to jumpstart their post-pandemic event schedule sooner, they are complimentary of their dealings with government regulators and proud to put on the first major show in Australia since the pandemic.

“So we had the shows in place [a few months ago],” Vickers said. “We had the fight cards in place, and it was just about waiting for the [respective state] governments to confirm it would be safe and financially viable for us to go ahead and do it. We had a few shows scheduled for September and October—in Melbourne, the Gold Coast and Perth. Melbourne is obviously not an option now because of the second wave, but as soon as it opens up again, we have a fight card ready to drop in.

“There’s a twofold level of excitement for me [in respect to Eternal MMA 53], because of my position as promoter and as Jack’s coach” he added. “If Jack wins on Saturday night, there’s nothing more for him at Eternal. He’s ready to be picked up by a major show like the UFC. It’s just a matter of whether they see him as an investment. The other side of it is that we’re putting on a sold-out event with fans.”

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O’Neil and Vickers, United Kingdom expatriates who launched eternal MMA in 2012 with an initial focus on their respective home states of Queensland and Western Australia, have always regarded it as their mission to give Australian MMA talent a platform to exhibit their skills. Moreover, they have set their sights on breaking the mold set by their predecessors and counterparts, who they describe as “putting money over the sport” and failing to put on evenly matched, defensible bouts. It had negative consequences for the development and legitimacy of the Australian roster. They also identify the inward focus of local promoters—which has seen Eternal MMA struggle to expand into places like South Australia due to territorialism—as limiting opportunities for up-and-coming talent.

“There have been great promotions and great fighters in Australia,” O’Neil said, “but because they didn’t come from the right gym or something, they haven’t gotten behind them.”

“We decided long ago that we were going to leave the debate over who’s the best promoter in Australia to other people and just focus on making Eternal MMA the absolute best it can be [and] let that do the talking,” Vickers added. “We always knew we were the best matchmakers in the country and we put on the best fight shows. Our problem was always cash flow and production, which are no longer as big an issue with the Fight Pass deal.”

Eternal MMA has now put on shows in Queensland, Western Australia, Victoria, South Australia and New Zealand, and it has mapped out 13 additional shows—including its first in Sydney–between now and the end of 2021. O’Neil and Vickers believe that comparing themselves to local MMA promotions is no longer a worthwhile undertaking in 2020 and that their ambitions go far beyond being Australia’s flagbearer organization, an achievement they already regard as having been unlocked.

“We went to a model that is similar to any other sports franchise in Australia,” O’Neil said. “Obviously, we’re not operating in the same tier as your Australian Football League, National Rugby League, etcetera, but even though we’re starting a couple of tiers below that, it doesn’t mean we can’t be as professional and organized. We want people to focus on our upcoming matches—the same way they do with Poland and KSW, the same way they do with Japan and Rizin [Fighting Federation], the same way they do with the UK and Cage Warriors [Fighting Championship]. We want there to be a subculture of people who support the sport. We’re just the ones who give them the product. As soon as Australia gets behind MMA, we have a product that will rival those promotions.

“Our aim is to be the number one non-UFC promotion on Fight Pass, and when you look at the fights that Fight Pass broadcasts on there, we’re not any worse off than what they are,” he added. “What we’re probably not doing is giving our athletes the same level of financial support as fighters in other countries. That’s only because we don’t have a subculture built up behind our fighters yet. Once that happens, it will trickle down. They will feel more like professional athletes, even though they are by definition professional athletes, when we can pay them the same amount as the Rizins and KSWs. Our aim is to get to a point where even fighters that don’t make it into the UFC can still be highly regarded by the Australia public as local champions.”

When asked how border restrictions affect this grand plan—they could conceivably prevent the UFC from touching down in this part of the world for the foreseeable future and create an obstacle for young fighters getting signed—O’Neil and Vickers admit the outlook is cloudy. Nevertheless, the relentless optimists also see opportunity.

“Pre-COVID, the UFC obviously had interest in this region,” O’Neil said. “They wanted to build up the level of interest in their shows. They would do that by having a mix of international fighters [and] the top-tier guys in the main events, and then throughout the card, there would be a plethora of local talent. I think if COVID hadn’t happened and the UFC were coming to Perth in June [as planned for UFC 251], I don’t think we’d be doing this fight between Jack and Aldin. The issue is that all the fights [in the UFC] are taking place at the Apex in Las Vegas or [on] Fight Island [in the United Arab Emirates]. To get to Vegas, you need a P1 visa to work as an athlete, and that’s something that’s not given out at this moment in time. We can see that at the moment, that there’s a preference from Europe.

“The fact [is] that our relationship [with the UFC] is pretty strong,” Vickers added. “They want us to help them by growing things that they want to grow. We’ve had interesting conversations; we’ve had conversations which indicate the UFC are willing to make our lives a lot easier. If the UFC can’t come here, as has been the case with this pandemic, I think we would be saying to the UFC ‘let us do your shows for you, tell us who you want kept busy,’ as happened with the UFC’s Darren Stewart and the Polish fellow in Cage Warriors. The mold has been broken. If the UFC can’t operate here, why can’t we keep their fighters busy?”


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