MMA and the push to succeed against all reasonable odds

After 18 months on the shelf, Ian Perron returns to action August 11, 2012, at EFL 6.

In the run-up to his last fight, Ian Perron finally decided it was time to visit a physiotherapist and deal with the nagging injury that had plagued him over the past few years. Two hours of treatment later, he stepped out of the office, his neck feeling better than it had in ages. Outside, he started his car’s engine, eager to be back at the gym.

As he approached the parking lot exit, a car suddenly rammed his door. The damage extended beyond his Honda Civic. The soreness in his neck was back. $80 down the toilet. No matter. He was back training later that afternoon.

Two days later, he stepped into Le Skratch, a sprawling pool bar in Laval, for a scheduled amateur mixed martial arts (MMA) bout. Cleared for competition after a doctor’s routine pre-fight inspection, he looked relaxed, joking with friends as he awaited his slot in the evening’s main event.

I asked him if he knew anything about the man he’d be facing. It seemed unlikely. Tracking down footage of an opponent’s past exploits can be virtually impossible at his level. No one bothers to record most events.

“He smiled at me earlier – it’s gonna be his last smile,” he quickly offers. The 25 year-old’s manner is casual, confident. A small chuckle escapes his mouth.

Three hours later he steps into the ring, anxious to fight. Nearly 600 fans have gathered. Perron is the clear crowd favourite. The referee, clothed in black from head to toe, delivers final instructions. The fighters back into their corners without breaking eye contact, awaiting the opening bell.

******

A typical mixed martial artist trains for years with the ultimate goal of transforming himself into finely a tuned, multidisciplinary combat machine – a living, breathing weapon, primed to inflict bodily destruction.

The payoff? An opportunity to repeatedly do battle with opponents equally hell-bent on  demolition. Concussions, broken bones, and chronic pains are routine. As hard as any athlete works, hundreds of others are pushing for the same few spots where higher paycheques and greater recognition become reality.

In spite of MMA’s growing popularity, only a few hundred fighters earn enough to live off the sport in North America. That’s among thousands of hungry competitors. Perron is just one of hundreds of unpaid amateur fighters competing in the MMA hotbed that is Quebec. Numerous new MMA-focused gyms have sprouted up across the province in recent years. Several have affiliated amateur fight organizations.

These ostensibly help fighters gain experience in an environment safer than the professional leagues. Rounds are shorter, and usually less numerous. Elbow and knee strikes are illegal. Fighters wear shin guards and open-handed, boxing-style gloves.

The result, it’s hoped, is fewer injuries and brain-rattling knockouts. Says one promoter, “It’s not a butcher shop. These fighters aren’t being paid, so I can’t ask them to take knees to the face.” Regardless, concussions do occur. Padding or not, a cleanly landed punch or kick has to the power to rattle the brain.

Promoters normally pay for a doctor or ambulance to be present. A fighter being seriously injured is more than just an undesirable outcome. It could also bring unwanted mainstream attention to amateur MMA, which exists in a legal gray zone in Quebec – not quite legal, but tolerated by the provincial government.

 *****

Perron opens the first round with his Muay Thai technique, chopping away with body and leg kicks. As his opponent dives in for the takedown, Perron nearly sinks in a guillotine choke, before finally being put on his back. Round one ends. Things are just starting to heat up.

  *****

Before he found fighting, Perron spent his early teenage years in a foster home. He later graduated to stints in juvenile hall.

In 2005, tragedy struck. “My best friend got shot in front of me,” says Perron, speaking ten days after his fight. “Him, then his cousin a year later, then a friend that got run over by a car. They’re all murders.”

“It made me realize it wasn’t worth losing my life in a street fight,” he says. “It made me want to do better.”

At first drowning his sorrow in alcohol, the idea of taking up martial arts later came to Perron through a bootlegged copy of Ong Bak. The 2003 Thai film’s plot of a rural warrior sent to the city to recover a stolen Buddha head does little to impress. Star Tony Jaa unleashing his acrobatic and lethal brand of Muay Thai on an endless number of ill-intentioned ruffians most certainly does.

Inspired by the onscreen devastation, Perron quickly took up the discipline.  His left forearm now sports a tattoo spelling out Muay Thai in its native tongue. “This,” he says pointing to it, “is what saved me from this.” His finger now points at four tombstones inked across his left bicep, commemorating his dearly departed comrades.

Subpar training performances later convinced Perron to clean up his life. He cut back on his drinking and partying, and further dedicated himself to training.  “It’s an ego thing for me,” he says. “I’d rather get beat up ‘cause the guy’s better than me, not because I’m out of shape.”

While the gangster mentality is now a thing of the past, the sartorial influence remains, lending Perron, with his baggy hip-hop sweatshirts, a somewhat menacing air.

He trains at Quebec’s best-known gym, Tristar, along the likes of Georges St-Pierre (GSP), the UFC’s reigning Welterweight champion. Perron has headlined four of his gym’s Fightquest cards. The events are the Montreal area’s biggest at the amateur level.

Perron’s focus is currently on being fully prepared before he goes pro. “I’m doing it smart, getting experience, and building a fan base,” he tells me during a training break. Once he reaches the professional level, a built-in crowd of ticket-buying supporters could increase his chances of getting booked on a fight card, and facilitate the search for paying sponsors.

He could use the help. Making ends meet has been difficult.  At this point in his career, Perron is barely paid.  For his latest fight, he sold $1500 in tickets, but pocketed only ten per cent of that.

He lives at home for now, where he pays his mother a weekly rent.  Like many fighters, he used to moonlight as a bouncer, but work has slowed down. The demands of training twice a day, five times a week, make it hard to hold down a normal job. Training at a gym costs money. Private lessons with instructors cost more. In turn, it’s time that can’t be used to pull down a normal salary.

With competition fierce, and prospects for success small, Perron tries to be realistic. “It’s a dream,” he says. “If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, then it wasn’t meant to me. But I’m going to work as much as I can to achieve it. I’m in the right place with the right people. Now, it’s up to me.”

 *****

The action picks up in round two. Both fighters blast out of the gate swinging. Perron connects with a pair of hooks, forcing his dazed opponent to dive in defensively for a takedown. Perron sprawls, but the round later ends without him having the chance to capitalize on his near-finish. One round to go. One more chance to make an impression.

*****

Despite its top-notch reputation, Tristar’s setting is rather humble – the top floor of an unassuming red brick office building that also houses textile and carpet companies’ headquarters. The only indication a passerby might have that a gym is here is a set of large, red star-shaped stickers pasted to the windows.

Inside, the gym’s nature is abundantly clear. A large training area spans the entire floor. The walls are covered in boxing and MMA posters. A pantheon of pugilistic greats. A piercing alarm goes off every five minutes, acclimating amateurs and pros alike to the length of professional rounds.

This evening, the gym is full of young men looking to spar, Perron included. GSP works his technique in the corner. No one seems to take much notice.

As the amateurs spar, an instructor points out an especially hulking fighter and explains to me that he “uses him to break people.” Not physically, but mentally. “Guys can come in here with tons of talent and huge egos,” he explains. “This guy is a wrestler who frustrates them and brings them back to earth.” His point is clear – while confidence is necessary to succeed, so are humbleness and a constant willingness to learn.

Perron appears to injure himself while sparring with the ego breaker. He’s reluctant to tell me exactly where and whether or not he’ll pull out of his next fight. The times we’ve spoken, he’s repeatedly made a point of not wanting his opponents to know where he’s hurt, afraid it will give them an advantage.

If a car accident couldn’t stop him, I wonder if a training injury will. A fighter going into a bout injured is nothing new. ‘No one fights at 100 percent’ is an accepted truth in a sport where training camps are so intense.

Stephane Vigneault, Fightquest’s promoter, is satisfied with Perron’s progression. “He’s very motivated,” Vigneault says. “He studies constantly and he sacrifices a lot to train.  He has huge potential.”

Vigneault has war stories of his own. “I did a fight for $50, another for $100, and one for $150,” he recalls. “I had weeks where I ate very little because of my career choice.”

The 28 year-old built up a blood-soaked professional record of 12-5 before a detached retina forced him to retire. He had two surgeries to fix it, but his vision in the eye is still only half of what it was.

He insists the up-and-comers at Tristar aren’t naive.  “Most of these young guys realize GSP is a phenomenon,” he says. GSP topped the UFC’s 2010 declared pay list, earning a healthy $900,000.

Vigneault tries to keep expectations realistic. “I always tell them to finish whatever school they’re in,” he says. “Do MMA as a passion, and if you breakthrough, you breakthrough.” But for Perron, school is a thing of the distant past.

*****

Round three – Perron’s last chance to finish. He returns to his Muay Thai offense, but never connects with enough to turn his opponent’s lights out. He attempts a rear-naked choke, but cannot finish. The bell rings one last time, putting an end to the bout. After the judges’ score cards are tabulated, Perron is announced as winner. He triumphantly raises his arms in the air, his fingers pointed to the roof, before unleashing a brief celebratory fist pump.

 *****

I meet up with him once more as he exits the ring. We speak in a bathroom, the only place quiet enough for me to clearly hear him. Though he’s secured the victory, he isn’t satisfied.

“I have a lot to change,” he says, his breathing still slightly heavy from exhaustion ten minutes after the fight. “I’ll keep working, and I’ll get there.”

The car accident? “It pissed me off, but I stayed calm and told myself to take it out on my opponent.”

“He didn’t hurt me at all,” he adds. “What hurts is my leg from kicking him.” He’s suffered a deep muscle bruise. He relents and says he’ll probably follow his trainer’s advice, and finally take a week off before returning to the gym.

He isn’t crazy about the idea. “A quitter never wins, and a winner never quits.”

Ring announcer Eric Emard (far right) announces Ian Perron (far left) as the winner

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