A day in the life of a professional fighter
For professional mixed martial artists, the toughest battles are often fought outside the ring
by Michael Hingston
Photograph Curtis Trent
For three minutes and 36 seconds, all eyes are on Victor Valimaki. That’s how long it takes – not even an entire round – for the 32-year-old light heavyweight to pin his opponent, Bill Widler, to the mat and force him into submission with a deftly applied “rear-naked choke.” Once the bell rings, Valimaki springs back to his feet and does a celebratory cartwheel before turning to face the hometown crowd at Edmonton’s sold-out Shaw Conference Centre. It’s early May, and we’re at Crowned Kings, the 40th event put on by the Edmonton-based mixed martial arts (MMA) organization Maximum Fighting Championship, or MFC. A string of health issues has kept Valimaki out of the ring, but tonight is his comeback fight. The crowd roars its approval.
From the audience’s perspective, an MMA fight typically lasts 15 minutes, or three five-minute rounds, tops. Most, like Valimaki and Widler’s, are even shorter: here the crowd ended up spending more time watching the pre-fight fanfare of entrance music, warm-up rituals and ringside pep talks than they did actual fighting. And the rapid-fire pace of MMA events only encourages viewers to keep looking ahead to what’s coming next. Within a minute of Valimaki’s cartwheel, audience members had already stopped applauding their hometown hero, and were sneaking down the aisles to find a bathroom or get another drink before the next fight began. Many of those watching at home, live on the American cable channel AXS TV, no doubt did the same.
For the fighters, however, the timeframe for even a single match extends far beyond what fans see in the ring. “If you want to do it right, fight training is a full-time job in itself,” Valimaki says. It’s now two weeks after his victory at Crowned Kings, and he’s enjoying the last night before his diet kicks back in by making quick work of a piece of cake with thick pink icing. In the weeks leading up to the fight, however, Valimaki trained two to three times per day, six days per week: weights or cardio in the morning, and at least one fight session later in the day. He also fit in boxing and wrestling sessions wherever he could. “Usually, that’s where you’d have a 9 to 5 job,” he says.
On top of the exercise is the dieting, which is itself time-consuming and, once you factor in the extra supplements and protein powders, expensive. But for aspiring MMA fighters in Alberta, keeping up with a strict training regimen is just the beginning. If you truly want to make a living beating other people up, you’re also going to need some entrepreneurial hustle.
David Bloom/Edmonton Sun/Qmi Age
There are three main ways an MMA fighter can make money. One is the purses paid by the organizations themselves. You get paid to show up, and you get paid again if you win; most fighters with MFC, for instance, sign on for multiple fights, and usually over a period of a year to 18 months. And while neither the promoter nor the fighter would put a precise dollar figure on what those purses look like, a figure in the low four-figures was the most commonly cited ballpark. The second is ticket sales: fighters are encouraged to sell directly to their family, friends and business connections, and, depending on how many tickets they move, they take a cut of 10 to 12.5 per cent of the retail price, in the case of MFC. (Tickets for Crowned Kings went for anywhere from $65 to $600.) The third option is sponsorships. Understandably, the key factor here is visibility, so the fact that AXS TV, which is owned by a consortium including billionaire Mark Cuban, American Idol host Ryan Seacrest and CBS and has 50 million subscribers, broadcasts the fight is a big asset for those MFC fighters like Valimaki who are good enough to make it into the televised portion of the events.
Most of Valimaki’s support for his comeback fight, though, was local. His main sponsor was X Construction, an Edmonton-based excavation company that paid him $10,000 to wear its logo during the fight and mention its name during interviews; he was also paid to host after parties at two local clubs. Ben X, owner of X Construction, says his sponsorship was as much about supporting an individual fighter as it was about drumming up publicity for his business. “I really liked [Victor’s] story,” he says. “I know him personally, and he’s a great guy that I’m proud to have him represent my company.”
The fight purse is out of a fighter’s control, and largely dependent on his record and name recognition.
But when it comes to sponsorships and especially to ticket sales, a mediocre fighter who is also an excellent salesman can end up holding his own against more established names. Self-promotion in general is key, and that kind of hustle doesn’t go unnoticed by management. “It’s great if a guy is 14-0,” says Mark Pavelich, who owns MFC, “but if he’s not on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, and he’s not plugging my organization, he’s worthless to me in terms of return on investment.” A lesser fighter who nonetheless makes the organization money, on the other hand? “That saves your job,” Pavelich says. When companies looking for publicity approach Pavelich and ask which fighter they should sponsor, he inevitably steers them to the ones who sing the gospel of MFC the loudest.
David Bloom/Edmonton Sun/Qmi Age
So there’s money to be made. But it rarely works out to a full-time income at the best of times, let alone when things go unexpectedly sideways. Opponents drop out. Entire events get cancelled. Meanwhile, a fighter has spent months dieting and training, all in the name of a big, future payday that can disappear with almost no notice. “That’s why it’s hard to just be a fighter,” Valimaki says. “That’s why most people have to have a part-time job.” Despite his local celebrity status, his record (18-8) and his connections in the sponsorship world, Valimaki still fills the gaps between fights as a personal trainer. He also does occasional sales work for a genetics company called Bodystrongdna. “There’s only a handful of guys in the country who can live off fighting,” he says.
In fact, Valimaki was one of them. But after being kept out of the ring for two years by health scares, some related to his training (kidney and liver failure, due to a number of over-aggressive weight cuts) and some not (surgery to remove a tumour in his throat), he decided the financial headaches weren’t worth it anymore. “I don’t want to rely on just fighting,” he says. “It’s too stressful. Fights fall through all the time. I don’t know many people who can just not get paid for six months, or a year, and survive.”
One of the main reasons they’re motivated to try is the siren call of the UFC. Valimaki says most fighters are, on some level, angling for a slot in the world’s premiere MMA organization. There, fight purses routinely soar into the six-figure range, and that’s not counting the multiple $50,000 bonuses that are up for grabs at every event, handed out to the evening’s most entertaining fighters. At the very top, Quebec’s Georges St-Pierre commanded enough in purse money, sponsorships and endorsement deals to pull in a combined $12 million in 2013 – all for a grand total of two fights. Here in Alberta, that dream isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound. In fact, nearly a dozen local fighters have logged time with the UFC in the last decade, from Tim Hague to Ryan Jimmo to Valimaki himself. If you can survive there, life is good.
More lucrative sponsors will seek you out, and your side gig as a bouncer or bartender will be a thing of the past. But for those fighters struggling to break through – who don’t receive UFC-level pay or sponsorships deals, but who do have to maintain the same strenuous training – the business case isn’t quite as sturdy. When Sheldon Westcott, a fighter based in St. Albert, found himself one victory away from a UFC contract earlier this year, he told the Edmonton Sun that his big break would “literally [change] the game. Going from not making a lot of money on the local scene to making a whole lot of money and to do this as a lifetime thing … Right now, the light at the end of the road is pretty green.” (Westcott ended up losing the match.)
Part of the reason that Alberta produces so many good fighters is that it also produces a lot of fights. “There are times when there’s a fight event in Edmonton once per week, and we still sell out shows,” Valimaki says. While UFC has only visited Alberta once to date – a disastrous 2012 event in Calgary, in which nine fighters dropped out due to injury, and which even Dana White, the head of UFC, considers one of the worst events in the organization’s history – the demand is certainly there. MFC, which was the first fully sanctioned MMA organization in Canada, has a sold-out event streak stretching back more than two years.
But there are plenty of other organizations, and plenty of up-and-coming fighters within them, who are trying to carve out some territory for themselves as well. Merrick Duggan is one of them. “He doesn’t have a lot of fights,” Valimaki says of the 29-year-old lightweight, “but he outsells anyone in the city, probably, in ticket sales. I swear to God, half of Wetaskiwin comes out to watch him fight every time.”
From the beginning, Duggan knew that if he was going to try MMA, he wanted to do it properly. The Pigeon Lake native took an entire year to learn jujitsu before taking his first fight with the Edmonton outfit Unified. And when it came to getting butts in seats, Duggan – who also has a diploma in hotel and hospitality management from NAIT – was relentless, selling nine full tables (10 seats, with dinner included, for $1,500), plus 186 general tickets at $60 apiece. Duggan treated his job as a bartender as an opportunity to sell even more. “I really enjoy people,” he says, “and I sell a lot of tickets over the wood. I build a relationship with regulars, and they come to support me.”
But as Duggan’s career started to take off locally, he became more and more aware of the sacrifices he was making. “We would go out to the lake for a bonfire, and my diet was so strict I couldn’t even have a hot dog,” he says. “I had to pack my own food. I had to weigh it. And I had to get my four to five litres of water, so I’m always drinking lemon water.” In sports, the phrase “staying hungry” gets used as a metaphor for keeping one’s energy up, but for an MMA fighter in the throes of training it’s also literally true.
“That really wore on me,” Duggan says. “I like my food.” In order to reach his target weight of 155 pounds, Duggan had to drop as much as 35 pounds before each weigh-in.
There was also the constant mental hustle required just to maintain a decent income. In Duggan’s case, that meant not just hand-selling tickets to everyone around him but also trying to find sponsors, printing and selling his own merchandise and squeezing in bartending shifts wherever he could to make a little extra in tip money. Things got bad enough that, last fall, after four years in the ring – and a 7-2 record to show for it – Duggan decided to temporarily step back from the grind of MMA and reassess his priorities.
“I’ll have a different mental approach to it,” he says of his planned return later this year, “which I think would really help my career, and my record. When you’re relaxed, you’re a better fighter. And I was just constantly stressed.”
Valimaki also learned those lessons about mental and financial balance the hard way. But with his priorities newly straight, his health returned and a successful return to the ring behind him, his goals from here on in are simple. Keep winning. Try to reclaim MFC’s light heavyweight belt, which used to be his. And maybe, if everything goes to plan, take one last shot at returning to the UFC. “I think I can make a real run now,” Valimaki says. “I definitely have the ability. I want to do it now, before I get too old and fat.”