MONTREAL — Though mixed martial arts only gained mainstream popularity in North America in recent years, Canadian fighters have always played an important role in the sport.
Competitors such as Harold Howard, Gary (Big Daddy) Goodridge and former UFC welterweight champion Carlos (The Ronin) Newton took part in major bouts back in the early days of MMA.
“There’s been a strong Canadian presence (since the beginning), but the sport was so new back then,” said UFC welterweight T.J. Grant, a Cole Harbour, N.S. product. “Guys had to just abandon their lives in Canada and go train elsewhere to develop and get better. Now you can do it right here. We have athletes just like everywhere else. We have guys who fight and everyone is just getting better. It’s awesome to see.”
Grant (15-3) faces undefeated Johny Hendricks (7-0) on the undercard of UFC 113 in Montreal on Saturday. He is one of seven Canucks on the event.
Winnipeg’s Joe (El Dirte) Doerksen squares off with Tom (Filthy) Lawlor, Albertan Tim (The Thrashing Machine) Hague takes on Joey (The Mexecutioner) Beltran, Nova Scotia native Jason (The Athlete) MacDonald meets John Salter, Ontarian Sam (Hands of Stone) Stout battles Jeremy (Lil’ Heathen) Stephens, and Quebec-born fighters Patrick (The Predator) Cote and Jonathan (Road Warrior) Goulet face Alan (The Talent) Belcher and Marcus (Irish Hand Grenade) Davis, respectively.
Grant said while his mind is on his upcoming match, he will be cheering on his fellow Canadians.
“I mean, I’m focused on what I’m doing, but I’m always cheering for the guys from Canada, just because I know a lot of them,” Grant said. “They’re good guys and we kind of come up together. Some of them have been here before and had to work their way back. It’s good to see everybody realizing their dreams and achieving their goals.”
While many current Canadian fighters are new to mainstream audiences, they have all worked their way up to the UFC.
“A lot of the guys you’re seeing now in the UFC have been around for a long time — like myself,” said MacDonald (24-13), who has been competing in MMA for over a decade. “They’ve really fought their way through the smaller shows and into the UFC. They deserve to be here. You look at guys like Sam Stout, Joe Doerksen, T.J. Grant – guys who have been around for a long time.”
Doerksen (44-12), who made his pro debut in February of 1999, said he never anticipated the sport would get this big.
“I think it’s great they’re going to Vancouver, expanding and there’s more shows here in Canada,” Doerksen said. “It’s great for the fans and fighters, as well. It’s just exciting to see. Five, 10 years ago, we never would have dreamed the sport would come this far. So, we’re just happy to be here to watch it all happen and be a part of it.”
Despite an explosion in popularity, the sport is still considered barbaric by some. It is not currently sanctioned in Ontario, which UFC president Dana White calls the Mecca of MMA. Cote (13-5) said it’s easy for up-and-coming fighters to get discouraged by the lack of government support.
“There are a lot of good athletes from Canada, especially from Quebec and Ontario,” Cote said. “The problem is we have so much difficulty getting backing from the government; especially in Ontario. There’s a lot of good fighters from there, but it’s illegal. We want help from the government for the younger guys to reach the big leagues.”