RAMA, Ont. — Part way through Neven Pajkic’s heavyweight boxing match against Andreas Sidon last Oct. 30 at Casino Rama, a Pajkic supporter screamed encouragement during a brief lull in the action. In Serbian.
At which point another guy interjected in English: “I agree with what that guy just said!”, and everyone had a good laugh.
Sadly, however, that witty exchange was one of the highlights of the night.
Rama has been one of the few places in Ontario that has hosted professional boxing the past few years. But the excitement level for the sport has waned considerably. The fights haven’t been great and the crowds have become smaller and less enthusiastic.
For Rama officials, the writing was on the wall.
Now, instead of organizing more boxing cards, Rama has jumped on the Mixed Martial Arts craze in a big way and, on Saturday night, the Casino, along with British promoter Robert Waterman, presented the first-ever professional MMA show in Ontario, MMA: The Reckoning — getting the jump on the higher-profile UFC 129 card on April 30 at the Rogers Centre.
“Frankly, in the last few boxing shows we had struggled a little bit,” said Jeff Craik, Casino Rama’s VP of marketing. “Some of the enthusiasm for the last 3-4-5 ‘Rumble at Ramas’ had clearly fallen off. MMA is all the rage and boxing is clearly declined in terms of popularity for us. So it was a natural decision (to switch) to MMA. It was almost a no brainer.”
Logistically, the physical setup for MMA is quite similar to boxing, aside from the fact boxing has a ring and MMA a cage (Rama’s was a hexagon). But the presentation is as different as night and day. In boxing, the razzle dazzle essentially consists of some music played over the loud speaker when the fighter walks from the dressing room to the ring. At Saturday’s MMA card, there were pyrotechnics — some of which nearly scorched the saps sitting on press row — a light show and a rock and roll soundtrack. Basically everything the educated MMA crowd has come to expect.
“In general, the MMA crowd is younger, a little more rock and roll orientated and a little more adventurous and fun-loving,” Craik said. “The boxing crowd tends to be a little older.”
Craik said it had “never crossed their mind” to jazz up the boxing shows they’ve hosted over the years, pointing out that the fight crowd does not expect many bells and whistles.
Whether you appreciate MMA or not, promoters of the sport get it. They’ve learned that flash sells. Most boxing organizers, on the other hand, haven’t clued in. They seem to be stuck in the 1960s.
That’s why Casino Rama has jumped ship from boxing and switched MMA. A second MMA card is already in the works for July 16. They have no boxing shows on the docket.
There was definitely a buzz in the air for MMA: The Reckoning on Saturday, though it seemed much of crowd was there for the historic significance of the card rather than for the actual bouts, as there were not a lot of big-name fighters on the bill.
Joel Powell of Guelph, a former top level Canadian amateur wrestler, made history by becoming the first fighter ever to win a professional MMA fight in Ontario, when he defeated Brandt Dewsberry (5-1) of Lethbridge, Alta., by tap-out in the opening card of the evening.
Powell (2-2) controlled the fight, wrestling Dewsberry to the mat in the first and second rounds, eventually forcing his younger opponent to tap out at 4:54 of the second when he applied a rear naked choke hold.
The semifinal bout featured London lightweight Chris (The Polish Hammer) Horodecki (16-3) against American David Castillo (10-2) and was a good matchup, at least on paper.
The main event matched Jordan Mein (14-5) of Lethbridge against American Josh Burkman (21-8). Mein had won three straight, including a victory over former UFC veteran Joe Riggs in January. Burkman has won his last three since leaving the UFC, where the Utah resident went 5-5 after appearing on Season 2 of The Ultimate Fighter.