Some are champions in towns so small and far apart they’re unknown even to their countrymen. Others are famous for what they can do with their hands and their legs, so their governments pay them to teach new recruits the best way to cut off the oxygen to a man’s brain. Then there are the ones who never amounted to anything but think they could, finally, if they could just get to the right place.
They all come to Michael Felix eventually.
Felix started out as an entertainment attorney taking care of immigration issues for hopeful actors, comedians, musicians, and even some athletes who dream of making it big in America. The art on his Web site is a pastiche of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Statue of Liberty, and the smiling faces of a few satisfied clients with their arms around his waist, Felix in dark suits and monochromatic shirt-and-tie combinations with efficiently slicked-back hair.
But over the last few years he’s noticed his clientele changing. Sure, the entertainers are still there but now there are more and more Brazilians and Europeans whose dreams play out on a rubber mat instead of in a recording studio.
“We do about 200 visas a year and right now 10 to 20 of them are for fighters,” Felix says in an enthusiastic staccato. “But every year there are more and more fighters.”
It’s not just promotions like the UFC and Bellator causing the flood. Even if a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu never steps foot inside a cage, there are a hundred MMA gyms in America starving for a man with those skills on staff so they can market themselves as the one local gym with a teacher who’s unlocked the arcane, foreign secrets of grappling.
If you have come across this story on your laptop in the locker room of some Eastern European gym and you want nothing more than to grapple in the United States, here is the best advice Felix can give you: Find someone in America to manage you before you get on a plane.
“People can apply for themselves if they’re in the one percent of MMA fighters in the world,” he says. “The guys who can show the ranking belt they’ve won and how much they make per fight. It’s a select few. For everyone else, the athlete cannot apply for themselves.
“You look at Brazil, and now that MMA is so huge there are great athletes there – and everywhere, really – who want to come over. I tell them all to have an agent or manager. This way, the agent or the manager can have them listed doing multiple jobs. If you apply for yourself, say, and you have one fight at the Staples Center then you can only work that one job.”
The next best thing you can do is keep track of your own good press. Proving that you’re already well known as a fighter, even if it’s in a small region outside the U.S., goes a long way toward proving that your intentions are legitimate. This is especially important because MMA exists in a strange shadow land where it's both a massively popular multi-million-dollar industry and relatively unknown.
“I have an service center in California I have to work at and one in Vermont,” Felix says. “If I go to the one in California it’s not a problem. Even if you’re not a fan, you’ve been exposed to MMA because it’s so big here. But if I go to Vermont there’s a good chance whoever I talk to is going to say, ‘MMA? What’s that?’ This isn’t a problem baseball players have.”
In these cases the agent can go so far as to request proof of who you are and what you’re planning in America. That’s one more reason to keep your hometown press clippings. If you’re lucky enough to be coming stateside already signed to a UFC contract, Felix says, chances are your venue alone will be enough to swing a quick decision.
“If I say my athlete is fighting at the MGM -- the same place Oscar de la Hoya fights – then it doesn’t matter if you know MMA or not, you know the MGM,” he says.
Some won’t pass these tests and for good reason. Anything with as much money involved as MMA is bound to attract a few dreamers who don’t have any business picking out entrance music, much less fighting for a living. And there are always people who want nothing but to be in America and will look for chances anywhere they can.
“I’ve had guys come in with Photoshop pictures of themselves with other fighters trying to fake a whole history,” Felix says. “They just want to be Americans; they don’t have any interest in fighting. As long as there aren’t any unions and no one keeping track it can be hard to check what they’re saying. There’s always going to be some degree of fraud in immigration, unfortunately, but the guys who try it usually you can spot them right away.”
Rather than get angry at the frauds, remember what the fighter who comes to this country and who makes it to the Octagon is bringing with him.
“If you want to have a fight at someplace like the MGM then you have to have parking attendants. You have to have ushers. You have to have ring girls,” Felix says. “Then there are managers, trainers, gyms. What often gets overlooked is that they’re stimulating the economy because what they do is actually creating jobs over here.”
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.