March’s sell-out UFC London card at The O2 offered a showcase for Liverpool’s fast-growing MMA scene.
With UFC the fastest growing sports franchise in the world, Paddy and Molly have become a focal point for the Merseyside MMA movement.
Merseysportlive caught up with president of Almighty Fighting Championship, Ray Thompson, to discuss what makes Liverpool such a prominent manufacturer of fighting talent.
“There are so many big gyms and the standard is really, really high,” said Thompson.
“One of the things that I was told, which I suppose I had seen myself but I didn’t know was an official fact, was that the City of Liverpool, across the whole of Europe, has supplied the most fighters that have competed in the UFC.
“When you look at the history, back to Terry Etim and Paul Kelly and then throw it forward to where we are now, there’s been a long history with Liverpool and the UFC.”
Of the 10 Brits who competed at The O2, 50% were either Liverpudlian or affiliated with local gyms.
While Pimblett and McCann were the fighters who rocked the arena, Liverpool’s revered reputation has led competitors from across Britain and Europe to relocate in pursuit of a combat scholarship.
Notably, UFC London’s heavyweight headliner Tom Aspinall moved camp to Wavertree’s Team Kaobon.
The Wigan Warrior undoubtedly enticed by training alongside guru Colin Heron and title contender Darren ‘The Gorilla’ Till.
“There are so many good gyms in Liverpool that are bringing through talent, the standard in general around Liverpool is just absolutely amazing!
“Look at the coaches today, there’s Jason Tan who fought in the UFC, Dean Garnett who was in Cage Warriors.
“Look at Next Generation and the guys they’ve got now in the UFC i.e. Paddy ‘The Baddy’, Molly McCann.
“Look at Team Kaobon with Tom Aspinall, Darren Till, Mike Grundy.
“With that kind of standard and quality, knowing those are the guys that are bringing people through, you’re gonna get a good standard.”
Since MMA’s emergence in 1993 with the first UFC event, the sport has been littered with controversy.
In 1996, United States Senator John McCain famously branded MMA as ‘human cockfighting’, a stigma that has stuck with the sport until today (although, it should be noted that Arizona, whom McCain represented as senator, didn’t ban actual cockfighting until 1998).
Even as late as 2016, MMA was officially banned in France by its government, only for it to be recognised again as a sport in January 2020.
According to Thompson, however, Liverpool has been ultimately unfazed by the sport’s dated reputation.
“There wasn’t a stigma surrounding MMA like there is in other areas.
“It’s not so bad now, but when we first started, you had to be over 18 to go to the show because ‘it was fighting’.
“If you follow the sport, you don’t see it as ‘fighting’, it’s competing, although that’s often how it’s perceived.”
This open embrace of the sport, coupled with the city’s long lineage of fighting, appears to be what’s fuelling a golden era of Merseyside MMA.
Yet, Thompson maintains that integration from a young age is pivotal to driving the next generation forward.
“Going to Liverpool and seeing five or six-year-old kids running around, it’s like a family thing.
“They’re at these gyms from a young age, they’re there to see their older brother or sister compete – and they’re the next generation that are now coming through.
“We’ve been asked before, ‘would you not do kids fights?’ Now, we don’t do kids fights, we haven’t needed to.
“But if I was to do kids fights, I’d do them in Liverpool! I know there are kids in Liverpool from nine to eleven that are ready to compete already.
“Of the areas I’ve been to, Liverpool has been the most responsive as a city.”