Amateur mixed martial arts have come a long way since Jesse Bongfeldt began his career a decade ago.
But the former UFC fighter, who has posted a 16-5-1 record in the sport, says some things never evolve for the competitors.
“A lot of stuff has changed since when I started to where they are now,” Bongfeldt says. “The level of organization with (Hard Knocks Fighting Championship) is huge. But the feeling is not going to change. This is something new to them but it’s something that I still feel and experience every time I go in there.
“There’s a level of adrenalin mixed with excitement mixed with fear mixed with wonder. They’re going to be feeling amazing when the fight is over, win, lose or draw. They went in there and did it. That experience is going to stay with them for the rest of their lives.”
Hard Knocks rolled into Prince Albert on Wednesday with its weigh-ins at Stellar Gear at the Gateway Mall.
The card will be staged at the Art Hauser Centre on Thursday, with the doors opening at 6 p.m. and the fights starting at 7 p.m.
Bongfeldt says something that has definitely changed with the explosive growth of the sport is the level of coaching.
When he moved to Kenora to be closer to his son, he opened a training facility called United Fighter Kenora MMA Gym.
Access to a fighter like Bongfeldt — who fought to a draw against Rafael Natal in his UFC debut in 2010 and was submitted in a 2011 loss to fast-rising middleweight star Chris Weidman — would have been unthinkable when he started.
It’s great for his students but not always easy for Bongfeldt. Standing in the corner watching his four students fight on Thursday will be a challenge.
“When they come into the gym, they have nothing,” he says. “I try to show them everything; I hold nothing back. I want my knowledge to be displayed by them. Ultimately it’s them in there and it’s their skill and their level of dedication that’s going to shine through. Sometimes the moment’s just not with you but a lot of the time it is.”
The man providing that moment is Hard Knocks CEO Ari Taub, whose company will put on 14-16 shows in Alberta and Saskatchewan this year. Promoting fights with amateur athletes — such as the entire Prince Albert card — brings its own set of challenges.
One missed a flight and had to be removed from the card. Several didn’t hit weight.
While they each of those fighters had to try to hit lose pounds in the hours after the weigh-in, Taub admitted its all part of the lessons taught by his show.
“Hard Knocks is where the fighters learn and get a bunch of experience not only in the cage but dealing with the pressure of competition and understanding what the expectations are for medicals and contracts and weigh-ins,” says Taub, who wrestled for Canada in the 2008 Olympics.
“All of these fights will happen. The reality is that these guys train so hard that nobody wants to kibosh a fight just because a guy’s over a few pounds.”
“They can build up their amateur record and make all the mistakes you need to make at the amateur level before they go back to zero when they turn pro,” he says. “It’s everything for an amateur fighter to have something fairly nearby that’s substantial. The way this is put on is fantastic. The experience these guys are getting is everything.”
Taub says he has noticed the fighters are more knowledgeable about what’s required of them than even a couple of years ago.
At the same time, Taub is also building awareness in new markets like Prince Albert.
“The process of going into a new city is complicated and its extensive but it’s rewarding,” he says. “Every time we go to a new city we’ll probably double the number of fighters. Our mandate is to drive the sport of MMA and life lessons through sport across Canada.”
Tickets are available at the Art Hauser Centre box office. General admission tickets are $46.50 for adults and $20 for children.
VIP tickets are $155.
(With weights taken on Wednesday night. Fighters who were over had to try to lose some pounds after weigh-ins.)
Devon Smith of La Ronge (4–1) 203 pounds
Elias Cepeda of Chicago (1–0) 200 pounds
Adam Basaraba of Prince Albert (0-0) 182 pounds
Hayden Bye of Kenora (1–2) 183 pounds
Evander Masuskapoe of Sandy Lake, (3-1–1) 185 pounds
Randell Martell of Saskatoon (2–3) 189 pounds
Thomas Richardson of Winnipeg (1– 0) 177 pounds
Cody Bowman of Prince Albert — Late replacement
Tyrone Halkett of La Ronge (0-0) 129 pounds
Brad Campbell of Prince Albert (0-0) 140 pounds
FIGHT ON HOLD — Looking for new opponent
Derek Daku of Estevan (2–1) 230 pounds
Brendan Mooney of Prince Albert (0-0) 146.6 pounds
Brad Lammy of Winnipeg (0-0) 145 pounds
Ben Oliviero of Winnipeg (0-0) 153 pounds
Nic Grandbois of Kenora (1-2) 155 pounds
Josh Heinz of Estevan (0-0) 204 pounds
Randy Coyer of Thompson (0-0) 204 pounds
Ryan Torrence of La Ronge (1-3) 134 pounds
Dillon Adam of La Ronge (2-4) 145 pounds
Luke Benoit of Prince Albert (0-0) 137 pounds
Chad Halkett of Stanley Mission (0-0) 127 pounds
Mike Geib of Estevan (0-0) 204 pounds
Jordan O’Connor of Kenora (0-0) 208 pounds
Travis Favel of Paynton (0-3) — LATE
Nic Dupasquier of Winnipeg (0-0) 125 pounds
Greg Alberts of Estevan (0-0) 169 pounds
James Sanderson of La Ronge (0-0) 169 pounds
Matthew Fiddler of Cumberland House (1-0) 135 pounds
Dave Sternberg of Kenora (0-2) 134 pounds