With the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s popularity at an all-time high, the sport of mixed martial arts continues to gain momentum, riding the wave into the mainstream and flourishing at the local level in cities around the world.
While countries like the United States and Brazil have historically been hotspots for MMA, Canada has had quite an impact on the sport in recent years, rising to become one of MMA’s biggest supporters and most important contributors. Not only is Canada home to one of the UFC’s most dedicated fanbases, it has also bred two of the UFC’s most talented athletes — Georges St. Pierre, perhaps the most recognized fighter in the world, and GSP’s protegé Rory MacDonald, who has become one of the UFC’s most promising young prospects and a title contender in his own right.
The UFC’s impact on North America, coupled with the success of prized athletes like St. Pierre and MacDonald, has led to a thriving amateur MMA scene in Canada, including here in Calgary.
Kris Pomerleau is a local amateur fighting out of MMA training facility MMA University, located in northeast Calgary. Pomerleau is one of the city’s most promising young prospects and believes that both Calgary and Canada are now able to contend with the world’s best at all levels.
“It’s such a growing sport that so many people want to get involved,” said Pomerleau of the burgeoning local MMA scene. Calgary has grown to rival other top Canadian fighting cities like Toronto and Montreal.
Calgary appeals to young fighters by offering quality instruction.
“People go where they can find coaching,” said Pomerleau, who believes that Calgary is home to some of the best coaches in Canada.
Training at MMA University, she has experienced this instruction first-hand. The gym has allowed local prospects to work with some of the world’s best, including MacDonald, No. 1 UFC Light Heavyweight contender Glover Teixeira and legendary Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner Royce Gracie. The local gym’s own jiu-jitsu affiliation is led by André Galvão, a member of the coaching team for Anderson Silva, who is arguably the greatest MMA fighter of all time.
While Canada may not yet be at the same level as countries with established MMA fighting roots such as the U.S. or Brazil, Canadian athletes maintain the ability to compete at the highest level.
“I don’t think Canada is behind, by any means,” explained Pomerleau, “because we can go wherever we want to train. A lot of people from here will go down to the States and train, so it’s not like we’re limited.”
Yet Canada is still home to resources that draw fighters from other countries as well, such as St. Pierre’s TriStar gym in Montreal.
“Look at GSP — he trains with the best,” Pomerleau continued. “Everyone goes out to TriStar in Montreal because there are so many good coaches there, because GSP trains there, and I feel like GSP really takes everyone under his wing.”
MMA combines an appealing fusion of finesse and brute strength. It is a sport which, according to Pomerleau, requires unwavering dedication and forces athletes to “leave their egos at the door.”
Her own training regimen exemplifies the all-encompassing commitment required of fighters competing at a high level — a regimen that consists of an hour or two of training each morning, followed by three to four hours each afternoon. These hours of training can be spent attending the gym’s various training classes, sparring with other fighters to prepare for upcoming bouts and intense hour-long strength and conditioning sessions three mornings a week.
The life of a fighter is certainly not for the faint of heart, and making a name as a women fighter in a sport so heavily dominated by men is a task that has its own distinct challenges and obstacles. Opportunities to move up do not come often, and must be properly taken advantage of when they present themselves, as the sport is not a forgiving one.
“Women are like, ‘if my first fight sucks, I really have to prove something in my second fight,’ ” said Pomerleau. “ ‘If my second fight sucks, I don’t come back.’ ”
Outside the cage, another — perhaps even less forgiving — fight must be dealt with by women fighters. Women are finding it takes more than a strong record to get ahead, due to promoters who won’t push for women fighters who aren’t attractive and overtly feminine.
“They’re realizing they have to market you outside of fighting, because that’s how they’re going to make money,” said Pomerleau. “It’s like that with everything when it comes to girls. Looks get you ahead. Simple as that.”
She hopes that the criteria for marketable women fighters will shift away from looks and more towards what is truly relevant to their craft.
“It should always be based off of how hard you work and your actual skill level,” said Pomerleau. “Not how good you look with your hair done. I think more girls should focus on that.”
Despite this added obstacle, women’s MMA certainly seems to be on the rise, with the recently established all-women organization Invicta and media magnet Ronda Rousey both pushing women’s fighting further into
the public spotlight. It seems Canada, and Calgary specifically, has become as formidable a place as any for MMA fighters of all genders to thrive and continue to flourish.