By Dane McGuire, IMMAF U.S. Correspondent
The month of November is almost here and with its arrival comes the most important event on the global amateur MMA calendar: the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation’s World Championships of Amateur MMA.
The U.S. is already home to the top professional promotion in the sport, the UFC, and some of its top stars. When the country brings its national team to the 2017 Worlds event in Manama, Bahrain between November 12-19, it will be looking for continued success and growth with head coach Robert Hulett leading the charge. Under Hulett, the team has taken home seven gold medals (three in 2014 and 2015 and one in 2016) since the first World Championships and the competition keeps getting tougher.
“In the first Nationals, we were lucky to get some very good fighters just from a few states, because nobody had known about the UMMAF yet. Over the years, Coach Bob Schirmer (coach to the IMMAF’s most decorated athlete in José “Shorty” Torres, a two-weight world champion for Titan FC) and I always seemed to have the most people win Nationals. But since the first one, the number of states involved has grown every year. And it has become tougher and tougher to win Nationals. Now it is a true national and world competition.
The sport is much safer and more organized because of the UMMAF and the work of [UMMAF National Director of Operations] Ryan Brueggeman and [Southeast Regional Director] Justin Brown. They worked hard to not only make it safer, but also to get more states involved.”
In 2016, the U.S. claimed five medals overall at the World Championships, placing the team among the top five nations on the planet. Hulett’s representatives this year are battle tested and hungry to do even better after being declared the best in the country this past May in Tennessee.
“Nationals was the most competitive that it has ever been this year, Hulett said. I was only able to bring four guys and one girl from my gym. We won four national titles. No other team won more than one title…Fighters always give a little more if they aren’t just fighting for themselves. So I try to impress on them that they are trailblazers for the sport, and not only are they fighting to represent the United States, but they are also making history by being in some of the first truly global competitions.”
Hulett, a former football player whose hopes of a pro career were dashed by a drunk driver at the age of 17, went into a month-long coma which was followed by a seven-month recovery period. The Bethany, Missouri native is now a 20-year-plus veteran of MMA with experience as both a coach and fighter dating back to the early days of the famed Greg Jackson’s gym (now Jackson-Wink MMA, the home of multiple UFC champions) and KICK, the predecessor to the UMMAF.
He’s seeing improvement every day in both his athletes and the sports amateur scene as what was once viewed as pure spectacle battles for Olympic recognition.
MMA’s predecessor was an ancient Olympic hybrid fighting sport known as pankration that originated as a part of the games in 648 B.C.E. The general consensus is that the only real barrier is political, a sentiment Hulett shared. IMMAF officials are hoping to debut MMA as a demonstration sport at the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.
California is home to one of the most progressive athletic commissions in the U.S. thanks to their plans for weight-cutting reform which was supported by the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports (ABC) and could see the addition of four new weight classes added to the sport.
“Having the possibility of MMA entering the Olympics helps those of us who have worked hard with fundraisers, coaching, and setting up events for no money, etc, because at least we get to be a part of history. Hopefully this will bring us more sponsorship money because that is a big obstacle.” Hulett said. “It would be great to be in the Olympics in California because of the state’s love for the sport…Most of these athletes work a full time job, and train every day, to try to make their dreams come true, but receive little outside support because we are not an Olympic-recognized sport yet.”
Come November 12, Hulett House Gym will field four of the nine team member able to compete in Bahrain and keeps developing young scrappers through his organization, Midwest Fight League, a promotion that he told the Columbia Missourian nearly had to fold in 2007 due to financial issues. It’s still here a decade later.
“It’s easier now that my gym has made a name for itself, because I have fighters like Toma Walton who live 40 minutes away, and Darian Weeks, who lives 60 minutes away. Both drive to our gym three or four days a week. Codie Wareham and Benjamin Bennett have been to Nationals several times, but have always come up short in the past. Ben moved to Missouri last year from Alaska to train with us and won a couple very tough Nationals [bouts] this year. He is a very skilled fighter but was lacking wall work, proper cardio, and a little fine tuning of his skills to work with his style.
Now he’s a much tougher and well-rounded fighter, who will be hard to stop in Worlds. Codie made it down several times to train with us, we just made basic corrections in her striking, and how to tie in ground work with it….She won Nationals this year also.”
The mentor continued on by saying to “look out for top prospects Kyle Cason, Laree Hutch, Josh Cosey, Albert Lee, and Don Brooks in the future”. He also feels that fans will one day see his trainees in Bennett, Walton, and Weeks under the bright lights of the professional circuit one day. Still, aside from sports, Hulett has only one true objective in mind.
“My main goal is not only to produce good fighters, but good men [and women], who know that with hard work they can do great things. I will have fighters go on to do great things, either in MMA or just in life, becoming men who work hard for their family and friends.”
The 2018 UMMAF National Championships will take place during the first week of February with registration already open on UMMAF.org. This next national event will also feature the first Youth MMA National Championship thanks to the United States Fight League, the UMMAF youth development arm, which is a requirement for any sport applying for the Olympics.
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