The ANZAC Takeover: Reflections on a Weekend in Melbourne

By Jacob Debets Oct 19, 2019

The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 243 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S. Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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UFC 243 will be remembered for its high point: a stunning second-round knockout of Robert Whittaker served up by undefeated and now undisputed Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight titleholder Israel Adesanya. The clash between “Bobby Knuckles” and “The Last Stylebender,” sold by the media as Australia versus New Zealand, was what the better part of 57,000 people bought tickets to see, and it will be memorialized as such in highlight reels and “Best of UFC” compilations for the foreseeable future.

However, the weekend of Oct. 4 was much more than the breakout moment for the sport’s most promising young talent; it was the culmination of two decades worth of sacrifice by MMA pioneers. These men worked tirelessly to legitimize and professionalize a sport in Oceania many punters were all too willing to turn their nose up to, overcoming ignorant media and policymakers and ultimately setting the stage for the most-attended UFC fight in history.

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Technically, mixed fights in Australia date back more than a century, with “all-in” matches between wrestling, boxing and jiu-jitsu practitioners becoming a popular form of entertainment in the early 20th century. As chronicled by John Nash for Cage Side Seats, mixed prizefights were banned in England but flourished “Down Under,” with Australians fighting abroad and against imported talent in the newly formed federation. Outside of this little-remembered era, the first name mixed martial artist to emerge from the region was Elvis Sinosic, who enjoyed an unlikely run in the UFC’s light heavyweight division in the 2000s and challenged for Tito Ortiz’s 205-pound throne way back at UFC 32.

Sinosic, originally a programmer at Microsoft, spoke to Sherdog.com in 2018 about making inroads into the big shows, about pestering promoters with emails, about taking tough fights on short notice and about trying to piece together a training regime across multiple single-discipline gyms in Sydney. While he competed against the likes of Ortiz, Forrest Griffin, Evan Tanner and Renato Sobral in the Octagon, Sinosic’s final UFC record was a paltry 1-6, and he described the situation of a lone Australian competing at the very apex of the sport in candid fashion: “It’s not like today, where the world is as connected as it is. There was no Australian market really, other than a few tape traders. Bringing me over [to the UFC] for undercard fights, financially, wasn’t viable. There was no point building me up. They weren’t doing shows overseas, only in the U.S. The expense of flying myself and my corner was quite prohibitive, but using me to build up big names when they knew I was an exciting fighter? That made financial sense. I was put in this position where I really needed to take these fights or I probably wasn’t going to get a lot of opportunity.”

The Sinosic Experiment, which began in 1997 at Australia’s first-ever professional MMA show and ended in 2007 (he never officially retired but, at 48, has no plans on competing again) when the adopted Sydney-sider fought his last fight in the now-defunct Cage Rage promotion in the United Kingdom, did not precipitate a wave of Oceanic fighters moving up the UFC ranks; however, notable Queenslander Chris Haseman was a one-time Ultimate Fighting Championship competitor, losing to Evan Tanner at UFC 38.

What it did do was spur the development of cross-training in the region and give the next generation a more stable ladder on which to climb. Men like Sinosic, Anthony Perosh and George Sotiropoulos -- all of whom would eventually call the UFC home for a time -- trained abroad and brought home new training techniques and philosophies, contributing to the grassroots development of a new network of MMA gyms and promotions. Mark Hunt, fighting out of his adopted home of Sydney, also did much over this period to endear fans to the sport, with the “Super Samoan” putting on unforgettable performances in K-1 and Pride Fighting Championships before the UFC reluctantly added him to its heavyweight roster after acquiring the Japanese promotion in 2007.

This handful of pioneering soldiers and the bourgeoning grappling culture that complimented Australia’s reputation as a home of fearsome strikers set the stage for the next evolutionary phase.

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The turning point, like it often is in monopoly sports “leagues,” was the arrival of the market leader onto Australia’s shores in 2010. The UFC sold out the Acer Arena in Sydney for an event pitting future heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez against former Pride titleholder Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.

The card featured Sotiropoulos, Perosh and Kiwi James Te Huna, and it was broadcast on free-to-air TV in Australia, with the promotion forecasting annual events and a season of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series. For many mainstream sports journalists and fans, it was their first exposure to cage fighting, and the reaction of the local media was equal parts tentative enthusiasm and moral panic. Famed boxing trainer Johnny Lewis tellingly described MMA as a threat to the Sweet Science and lamented that whereas UFC 110 had sold out in a day without a single bout announced, Roy Jones Jr. and Danny Green could not fill out the same venue with weeks of promotion.

UFC 110 was a runaway success and was followed closely by the inception of new local promotions Australian Fighting Championship and the short-lived Impact Fighting Championship. Two instalments of “The Ultimate Fighter” followed, with Australian prospects squaring off against Team United Kingdom in “The Smashes” in 2012 and then against Team Canada in 2014.

A campaign to legalize the cage in Australia’s sporting capital of Victoria was launched, as before this, MMA fights could legally only take place within a boxing ring. The legality and morality of the sport became a major political issue in the 2014 state election, and the newly installed Labor government ultimately lifted the cage ban in 2015. Western Australia, which had also banned the cage, followed suit in 2017.

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Whittaker, Jake Matthews and Daniel Kelly emerged from their respective seasons of “The Ultimate Fighter” as players in the welterweight, lightweight and middleweight divisions, and they played the part of ambassadors for a sport that was vying to become less of a novelty and more a part of the nation’s sporting culture. The massive UFC 193 card, which featured then-bantamweight champion and sporting icon Ronda Rousey in the headlining spot against Holly Holm, did not hurt in that regard, but with only two ANZACs on the five-fight main card, it was still very much an imported product.

Reflecting on this formative period for MMA at the UFC 243 media day and how the ANZACs went from bit player to boasting champions and contenders across multiple divisions, Matthews said the key was training and building local rather than going abroad.

“I believe guys like myself, Rob, other guys out here, we made a bit of a sacrifice in staying in Australia to train,” he told Sherdog.com. “I had countless opportunities to go [abroad], offers to get sponsored to go overseas and train, but I always said to be a pure Aussie-bred fighter, I believe you have to train in Australia with Aussie coaches, Aussie training partners. If all the best fighters take off overseas, the sport’s never going to grow here. I decided to stay here. From the days where it was myself and Dan Kelly beating each other in the gym, we’ve [now] got five UFC fighters in the same gym, sparring each other, with the addition of Ben Sosoli now. We’ve got maybe 20 other guys fighting in Hex, Eternal … all those other regional events. It’s good to see that. It makes me proud. We helped with the push for the Octagon. We’ve actually been involved a fair bit. It’d be good, when the body says enough, to sit back and watch the sport continue to grow.”

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The new dawn is here, with over 57,000 fans buying tickets to watch an Australian fight a Kiwi at UFC 243 in Marvel Stadium and to see eight other ANZACs compete on the card.

Two nights prior, Queensland-based promotion Eternal MMA held its 48th event at the Melbourne Pavilion, which was streamed on UFC Fight Pass and featured a host of promising prospects, some of whom will no doubt be signed by the UFC or other major promotions in the near future. Other regional outfits -- Hex Fight Series, Diamondback Fighting Championship, Urban Fight Night and Xtreme Fighting Championships among them -- are facing similar boons in attendance and prospects.

With a charismatic and exciting figurehead for the region in Adesanya, ANZAC MMA is moving into its next phase, boasting representatives in almost every weight class while outdoing itself on the proportion of fighters to top contenders. UFC 243 seems like it was just the beginning of something special.

Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com. Advertisement

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