Tall Poppy Syndrome: The Slow Death of Australian MMA

Fightland Blog

By Liam Resnekov

Australia is a sport nation, we love our sports more than anything; boxing, football (that’s rugby to you non-Aussie louts), cricket, soccer and muay thai, just to name a few. Meet an Aussie, ask him about sport and hope you don’t have a weak bladder.

So how can MMA be dying in our beloved country? Well, buckle up and I’ll tell you.

Detractors surmise that it’s because it’s of our lack of wrestling, that the USA has a denser talent pool due to its population and that there is simply no money in it. While the truth may lie there, there is another possible truth. After the UFC first visited Australia, the sport was set to explode. So what happened?

Let’s start with the amateur league. Unlike Canada, which has caught up with the American MMA scene over the last few years, Australia has only a handful of amateur MMA shows a year; Canada had over 100 in 2013. For a young athlete to try his hand at MMA, he often has to turn pro on his first fight or risk fighting in unsanctioned amateur fights. The combat sports association only recently began to cover amateur MMA. Previously, they would monitor the professionals hand wraps and allow the amateurs to wrap them any which way they pleased. The results were often not pretty and dissuaded coaches from putting their students at risk.

Secondly, there is a lack of serious promotions, particularly those with foresight and an interest in building fighters careers. When the UFC hit our shores a few years ago, Australian MMA was flying with excellent shows like Brace, Rize, CFC, Penrith Elite, Nitro, XFC and AFC in full swing. By 2014, the number of shows has been cut in half. To make it worse, the octagon is still banned in the state of Victoria and has recently been banned in Perth, both hot spots for serious MMA talent. Add to those problems a handful of shady promoters that don’t pay fighters, mismatch them and poor locations for the fan-base and you have a serious problem for up and coming fighters.

While in Canada for the recent UFC, I had the pleasure to speak to many of the top coaches in order to try and grasp how Canadian MMA had suddenly blown up. Their answers were almost unanimous: GSP. A mild mannered, well educated, middle-class Canadian, Georges St Pierre set the imaginations of young Canadians alight with the possibility of a successful career in the UFC. Simply put, he is an everyman. Picked on as a child, his martial arts skills allowed him to not only defeat bigger stronger opponents but also made him akin to a comic book hero. His sponsorships, movie deals and TV appearances have paved they for MMA to be a legit career path. In contrast, prepare for head scratching when you try telling your Australian girlfriend’s father that you are pursuing mixed martial arts as a career. Simply put, we need a face for Australian MMA, someone we can all relate to, an Aussie everyman.

GSP’s success has had another effect; it has made Tri-star the mecca for MMA in Canada and created a formidable think-tank of MMA combatants. Athletes travel from all over Canada to train and spar at Tristar in order to sharpen their tools. On the other side of the world, Australian mixed martial artists can barely find enough training partners to put together a camp. Recently this has begun to change with the efforts of UFC fighters, and former foes, Jamie Tehuna and Anthony Perosh. This is few and far between however. In order to seek success, the majorities of talented MMA fighters leave Australia and join American teams, pulling further away from the Australian talent pool. It possible to surmise that Aussie fighters don’t want to see their local opposition succeed on an international scale, not realizing it is hindering their own career.

Which brings us to tall poppy syndrome. Australia is one of the greatest countries in the world; our island is just a great place to live. Unfortunately we haven’t created a vaccine for the jealousy bug. Take Anthony Mundine for example. Sure, he is loud in the media, controversial even, but nobody has done more for promoting Australian boxing in the last decade. What do we give him in return? A joyful front-page headline when he is knocked unconscious. Australia has a difficult time building stars for this very reason—they don’t like self-promotion.

Anthony Mundine’s knockout leaves us with one big problem; who is going to put Australian combat sports on the map again? Buckle up because it’s going to be a while. We have to be the only country that doesn’t get behind its stars, instead we sit in bars and whisper “Did you hear (insert name here) has (insert dirt here)”. Hopefully it will change in the future because we only have a handful of opportunities.

Lastly, we suffer from a lack of self-belief. “We don’t have wrestling in schools” is the common criticism. Super coach Robert Follis, trainer of little known UFC fighters Chael Sonnon and Randy Couture, said it best when he stated that Australia needs to stop worrying about what we don’t have and start focusing on what we do have. We have some of the best muay thai in the world (outside of Thailand) and have produced multiple greats. We have a rich history of boxing that could rival most countries, our judo is fantastic and readily available and lets be honest, we are the best rugby players in the world. Sorry, it’s true, even if we don’t always win.

Aussies are fit, strong, tough and smart. So where is the disconnection?  We get intimidated easily. Instead of farming our natural resources, it is easier to look for reasons why we aren’t successful. The reality is that our wrestling does need to catch up to compete in the cage, but the gap is not as big as people think and is rapidly being closed. The real question is; where does our strength lie and how do we bring it to the forefront of MMA?

With a little bit of support from the UFC, a little bit better team work, some confidence and perhaps a bit of luck, Australia can make a comeback, that’s kind of what we excel at. Hopefully it will be sooner rather than later, because if we don’t take the right steps, we will get left behind and then we’ll have to listen to “I told you so.” Nobody wants that.


Check out this related story:

The Australian Behind the Rise of Texas MMA