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Is Team MMA even MMA at all?

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Team MMA Battle
Casey Oxendine, Team MMA Battle

Watching team mixed martial arts (MMA) is off-putting, at least for me. The action appears intentionally chaotic with the product itself seemingly geared to deliver gratuitous, overwhelming violence. Its origins are rooted in spectacle. While the activity involves elements of sport, it’s dubious to label the product as such.

Yet, these criticisms should be familiar to fans of MMA. They are precisely the sort of arguments cynics, skeptics and other doubters have used to challenge the acceptance of mixed martial arts over the course of its rise to prominence.

What team MMA truly is, and where it’s headed is up for debate, but what seems beyond dispute is that it represents an attempt to iterate MMA. That’s noteworthy given MMA is a sport that represents an evolution in combat sports. What’s even more revealing is those who are pushing these changes aren’t outsiders, but members of the MMA community.

The question, however, is whether team MMA is the appropriate next step in combative athletics. Evolution or innovation is impossible to stop, generally, but that fact doesn’t give cover to all changes as welcome developments.

In this discussion with Casey Oxendine, the leading American promoter of team-based MMA, we delve into these issues. Oxendine talks to MMA Fighting about his background, what makes team MMA appealing, its safety record, whether it can really be called MMA at all and more.

Full audio and partial transcript below:

Let me start actually about you. As I understand it, you're a black belt in jiu-jitsu, correct?

I am, yeah.

Tell me about your background in MMA and in jiu-jitsu specifically.

I began in 1997, and I trained with a guy that had trained in the Marines, Japan. I was kinda a pro wrestling fan, got intrigued with the UFC in the early stages. So I worked with a guy there. Eventually in the late ’90s, I went to train with Marco Ruas, who was the old school king of the streets, the old UFC champ.

And then, began as a competitor in mixed martial arts and in grappling. And then went on to start coaching. I was head grappling coach for Upstate Karate in South Carolina, I worked with Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson for about three years. I worked with UFC fighter Sean Spencer. Sara McMann, recently did some work with her.

I'm ongoing. I own a gym, and I work with MMA fighters daily. But also, I'm like the guy that started in a restaurant washing dishes and moved up through every job in the house, and eventually owned my own restaurant.

I've promoted events, 20-plus MMA and kickboxing events, even before this, and I went on to do a TV show that was on FightNow TV, that was in Canada. I kinda went all over the world, doing the Anthony Bourdain, getting flavor of the different regions. So we traveled to Australia, I've been to Monaco, and Romania, and the UK. Kinda picked out these different places, and when I was there, that's when I came across Hip Show that was going on in Russia. And that's what started my interest, more than anything I was intrigued by it. And then from there, the team MMA started to unfold.

I do color commentary for three events right now, so I stay really busy doing that. So I'm really in tune with what's going on in mixed martial arts. Of course I watch the UFC and Bellator and all the top stuff as well.

Your discovery of the team concept came as a consequence of being involved in various other positions, including promoting, through the course of your career. Can you pinpoint a relative date about when you think that might've happened?

Early 2013.

Before this conversation was started recording, you had noted that there are actually different branches of the team MMA concept. I've seen five on five in Russia.

But the one you do is different. For someone who might ask you, "What is the history of team MMA?" Not so much the brand you promote, but that activity generally, what could you tell them?

The first brand that I came in contact with was Hip Show in Russia, and it was wild. There was a viral video that came out, where it was basically two-on-two MMA fighting in an obstacle course, this huge caged-in area, 40 feet by 40 feet. It's huge.

The fighters would climb up onto obstacles, but the big viral video was one fighter double-legged another fighter off of this huge obstacle, and they hit down on the ground. So people went nuts, and they were streaming it live on YouTube at the time, and that's where we sort of got wind of it. We got a little feature on it. It was more of shock factor than anything, and when we got in touch with the owners, we worked out a deal with them and then I started doing English commentary over the Russian commentators. And we eventually brought it to AXS TV for a special, one-night, one-hour special and kinda brought it here. That was in March of 2014.

After that we started looking into what it would take to bring it here. Obviously there were a lot of things that were going on in Russia with that promotion that just wouldn't fly here, and I wouldn't want to be involved with, as far as super, super dangerous type stuff. That's sort of where it started.

The five on five crazy stuff in Poland, it actually has no affiliation with us whatsoever. I've encountered some of the guys that competed here from America that went over there. We actually demonstrated, inside of our big cage at the Arnold Classic a few years back. And they were actually there representing their product as well.

With that product, I won't bash anything, but it was not a viable -- even aside from the danger — it's not a viable type of event. Simply because you've got 10 competitors that are competing in one match. Once one guy falters in that situation, where it's just a wide-open area, it goes like a chain of events, one after another and typically you'll see one of those matches end in about a minute and a half.

You think, that's almost half of a roster for a mixed martial arts fight card. If you're thinking even as a businessman, if you're gonna have even three or four of those matches on one event, one show, then it's not economically viable.

We began re-crafting the rules, and this is something that I consulted with some of the more respected referees, some of the commissions that were surrounding. And what we did was, obviously for a first event, we scheduled that for August of 2014. There are very few commissions, if any, that were gonna just open the doors and let us do something crazy like that.

We essentially held an amateur event in Virginia at the time. It was 100 percent legal to hold unsanctioned events, we had no choice, and it's always a risky deal. But we held the event. Of course, we held it under the standards of all the previous martial arts and kickboxing events I held. Under the standards of Tennessee, which is what I worked with most. I actually was part of the lobbying process to get mixed martial arts legalized in Tennessee, and I held the first sanctioned event in Tennessee in 2008. I was in really close contact with a lot of the commissions and so forth.

I invited all the surrounding commissions in the states surrounding our area, and we had several show up, particularly South Carolina. We held the event without incident.

What city was this in?

This was in Bristol, Virginia. It was right over the state line of where we live, so we're in the Tri-Cities region. We held the event, it went over really well. It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen in person, since I saw my first mixed martial arts event decades before.

It started to evolve from there. For our next event, I started working with the state athletic commission in South Carolina, and speaking with them and working with them. In September 2015, we scheduled our first sanctioned event to take place in South Carolina. Right before that, I went to the ABC national convention in San Diego that year, and I presented this in front of all the commissioners there.

It was a bold move, because they were all there. Of course, I've known Andy Foster for a lot of years, he's very prominent there with the ABC and so forth. I actually had a fighter that fought against him years ago in Georgia. I knew him, so I was able to present it, answer some questions about what was going on. I met John McCarthy there. We just spoke briefly, and he actually left before my presentation.

But then I spoke with him a little bit later, on his podcast with Sean Wheelock, the “Let's Get It On” podcast, and he expressed some concerns. One thing is, at that point the event was called Arena Combat. And that was essentially the evolution from the Russian event, which was Hip Show, to the American event that we held there in Bristol and it was called Arena Combat. And it still had some of the obstacles. John McCarthy, he definitely took exception to the elevated obstacles, that was one thing that a lot of people had concerns with. Just because when you take competitive cheerleading in high school, that's the number one cause of injury and death, and it has to do with accidental falls.

With guys up on these obstacles and so forth, that was the big controversy. So we ended up holding the event. Of course, I continued to work with the athletic commission, I attended most of their meetings throughout the year over the last three years. And we just continued to cultivate, and make it into this sport. We just held the event January 21, in Myrtle Beach, and we rebranded it Team MMA Battle.

The reason we did that is, we had a number of changes, safety protocol. Essentially, we feel it's the final product not only in safety, but also it's a great spectator sport, because we've actually made a few tweaks regarding ... when you watch this, you want to see the team interactions, you see the fast breaks and the double teams. You also see, I don't know if you watched the most recent video, but you see the dog pile, you see one guy come along, snatch one guy off and throw him in a triangle choke. You get to see all these mixed martial arts-type exchanges, but you see them in a new format.

What sort of fighters compete on the show? Do they come to you, do you go to them? Is there a profile of the certain kind of guy you're looking for?

For the last three years, we have a roster that began developing for our first event in 2014. And that's one thing about this that really, there's a shock factor out there, because a lot of people hadn't seen it. Just like the first time you saw UFC in 1993, there's a shock factor. If you haven't seen it before, automatically and if you're not familiar with it, it's automatically gonna appear more dangerous.

But all of our competitors for our first event had been previously mixed martial arts competitors. It was an all-amateur event, though. But it was good, solid, seasoned amateurs. As the time evolved, as time went on, the fighters that were in that first roster continued to train hard. So when we hold our second and our third, our featherweight champions now have competed in all three of the previous events, and they've been training for the three years that they have gone on. Since the first event they have trained continuously.

We have a lot of guys that are very seasoned in how to use the team aspect and how to win in it. But then we also have some guys like for our second event, we had former UFC and Bellator competitor Rodney Wallace, who'd competed all over the world, he actually competed in KSW and Poland as well, some huge shows. And then Adam "Primetime" Townsend, who just made some waves on that last LFA card. He competed with us. We have some really top-tier competition, but not only recognized in mixed martial arts, but guys that we've developed in our own style over the years.

What sort of pay do you guys offer?

The pay depends, and we still do have an amateur side of our card, just like in mixed martial arts. We are a grassroots promotion at this point, so our pay, it depends on the situation.

Our main event for our last show in Myrtle Beach, we used Amos Collins and Brandon Bushaw, they're called the Warrior Brigade. They're very popular in the region, and their draw was very good, and they were paid very well for their work. Like I said, our pay scale ranges, but it's competitive with regional to upper-regional MMA.

Anywhere from hundreds to potentially thousands, in certain cases maybe five figures?

Like I said, I'll say that our main event, the money they got, they weren't to the $10,000 mark, but they made a pretty good pull.

Again, that's because of their draw. And that's something too. I work in mixed martial arts very closely, I work with Valor Fights, Next-Level Fight Club, a lot of regional-based promotions that are making a rise. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that a solid promoter is able to put together a grassroots card and make it viable otherwise you don't exist at all. If you don't have some kind of corporate funding and whatnot.

I'm very privy to how to work with that. But to make sure that when the guys deliver, that they make the money that they're working for.

What is what you're doing? It's not exactly clear to me that it is MMA. In other words, when I watch it, you can certainly see MMA in it, but it's clearly more than that, or it's clearly different from that. It looks like I'm watching something that's not MMA, that guys use MMA in it to benefit themselves.

If I'm asking you, "What is Team Battle MMA?" Is it MMA, or is it something else?

It depends on who you speak with. It's a sport. As far as South Carolina is concerned, and there was a debate there when I last spoke with John McCarthy, that I had a little interaction with him a few weeks back. And essentially when I spoke with him in 2015 on his podcast, he made some suggestions and things that I took to heart, because I have a lot of respect for the guy.

Since then, it's been more than two years, he really hasn't visited any of that. So when he reads Team MMA Battle, and we have these rules ... for instance, we only allow 10 seconds on the ground after a takedown. Why do we only allow 10 seconds? Because we want the people to see the team interaction of the sport. We don't want to see two guys grappling over here, and then two guys grappling 20 feet away from him over on the other side of the room and that be the gist of what we're watching.

We want to see the things you saw in the highlight, where guys are working cooperatively and they're using mixed martial arts.

In South Carolina, it is sanctioned as MMA, as a subcategory of MMA. Because by law, everything based with striking and grappling and all of these things put together, it's under that broad headline. So it's sorta like you've got a cat. Well, there are lions, there are tigers, there are bobcats and alley cats, and all different types of cats. But they're all cats. So the way South Carolina observes it, is that it is a faction of MMA.

Essentially, I could have gone to a lot of states that don't sanction. I could've gone to Mexico and do it, really if I wanted to. This is the issue with that, though. Having come up in the mixed martial arts and combat sports for 20 years, I want to create a viable product that has the ability to eventually go everywhere, just like the UFC worked very hard to get sanctioning.

I wouldn't want to go to a state and put on a show, and firstly, not have ... there's a lot of liability when you hold an unsanctioned show. You saw this with Duke Roufus, and this kickboxing event he held. It's 100 percent legal, but if you're not sanctioned and you do anything wrong, you have nobody to buffer that. That's what the sanctioning commissions, aside from the safety and so forth, that's what they're there for.

I wouldn't want to have a long-standing sport that wasn't respected as a sanctioned event. But also, you go in and you hold an event in one of these locations, and even if it's legal, if that commission or even someone locally sees that it could be something dangerous and they start reporting on it, then the commissions immediately go in and do an emergency meeting and they'll shut it down anyway.

It's better to go to the commission first with your project, and start to develop it, and do it the right way. Because if you're doing it the right way, how can anybody really slight you?

I was raised to be a creative-minded individual. I was also raised to, if you believe in something to work hard for it and obtain it, but obtain it the right way.

Your answer is that in the state of Mississippi, we also have licensing and are sanctioned. It is viewed as its own sport. It's team MMA sport.

Are there states you've gone to that have just said, "No, we're not sanctioning this"?

When I was in front of the ABC board, they said, "We're not gonna do anything with you right now, obviously we're gonna have to view it." Some of them said, "No, I'll never do it," of course. But usually for the most part, they're like, "Well, we just want to see more. We're gonna be watching what you're doing."

Tennessee right now, I'm speaking with Kentucky. Some commissions in their actual bylaws ... because herein lies another issue, is that if the rules of MMA or combat sports are written a certain way, then it's impossible to amend the rules of MMA to include our sport. It could be because the size of our cage, it could be certain requirements that deem it as MMA and allow it to be sanctioned.

Otherwise you have to go back into legislation and create a new sport, or amend officially in legislation a lot of the protocol and so forth. Does that makes sense?

What kind of changes have you made to make it palatable to state commissions? I know you alluded to some of them earlier, about, you can't have these tackles off of the elevated surfaces.

As far as the elevated obstacles, that would be the biggest change we've made. And we actually had some elevated obstacles in our first sanctioned event, they weren't that high. We never had an incident where there was a major injury due to it. But you can watch, and you can always see that certain things could potentially arise, and you've gotta obviously troubleshoot those things before it comes to light. You need to be proactive there.

That was the big thing. We still have three little obstacle areas in our event, and they're actually in one side of the area, and they become live during periods of the match. Essentially, they're bonus points. So not only do you stand in the middle of the ring and you exchange two on two, and team-based fighting. At periods in the match, one of the obstacles, which is a ground-based area which is sort of build up like, there's one called the valley, where you stand in between two sloped areas and you have to hold that area standing for 10 seconds without being pulled out or taken down. And then you'll score some basic bonus points. Nothing like scoring in actual combat, but just something extra to create a vision of scenarios, almost.

In other words, four guys fighting on the street is one thing, four guys fighting in an alley in close quarters is something different. Or in a house, or in certain areas. So we've created these little areas to kind of give the viewer a chance to see, well, what if they were standing here? What if they weren't in just a wide-open area?

It starts to open the doors for other interactions and things like that. So that was the big thing, is that we took all of our obstacles and we took them down to four base. So nobody has a chance of getting thrown off of something and hurting themselves that way.

Obviously, just the idea of it being team-based was concerning, it's always been concerning to the commissions because we've never seen it before. The big thing is that we implement three referees, live inside the event to oversee each one of the groups, essentially, and then we have one head referee, again to make sure that things are overseen well.

Essentially those are the biggest changes. Implementing a very strict rule set. It was a little hard to follow in Russia. The stuff we brought over here and aired on AXS TV is a little hard to follow. It was based a little bit different, so again, we cleaned things up and we made it work.

What sort of injuries have you guys had?

All basic-type injuries you would see normally in mixed martial arts. We had one guy that hurt his shoulder a little bit, but again, this is a guy that never even climbed up onto one of the obstacles. We've had one guy who ... we've had a few knockouts. But again, it's never been anything where a guy's fallen off an obstacle, it's always been something you would see in standard MMA. Broken noses, knockouts, and so forth.

Nothing meaningfully than what we understand the injuries to be commonly in mixed martial arts?

Team MMA Battle
Casey Oxendine, Team MMA Battle

Absolutely. And like I said, there are points in our match where it can turn out to be a one-on-one portion, where one guy's been eliminated, the other guy's been eliminated, now it goes to a one-on-one situation. And in that case, those were actually often the times where we've seen injuries, where the guys are just going at it one-on-one.

Typically not the two-on-two. And it's just like in unified rules, there's no hitting to the back of the head, there's no ... everything that would be legal in mixed martial arts, or illegal, a foul, it would be a foul in team based mixed martial arts as well.

And from what I've seen from the footage, they have to wear headgear?

They wear headgear. And I'll tell you, the biggest part of that has to do with the officials and the scorekeepers being able to tell the teams apart.

There's always been this big debate that the headgear doesn't provide any protection. It does help with the cuts, and that's a good thing. Whether you believe that the headgear protects you from overall head trauma, it does give you a sense of security, it makes it appear more of a sport. And for people watching from outside, it may give the appearance that it's less brutal, because we're giving them a lot to look at, right out of the gate. So if they've never seen it before, they automatically think, "I don't understand it." So it's really fast, it's much faster than standard MMA. So how could these guys not be in utter danger?

That was something that the original Hip Show did, and that was something that with the commission, we maintained with the state of South Carolina.

In talking to other folks in the MMA industry, some are very curious about what you're doing and this is no secret, some of what you get when they watch it is hostility. Why do you think there is hostility to the kind of product you're offering in certain cases?

Well, I think that some people are really fanatics for mixed martial arts. John McCarthy particularity, he was involved in a lot of the legislation, and gaining approval for MMA, whenever the UFC had their big push, he was there speaking and learning. So he loves MMA. And a lot of people love MMA as a sport. And they think that anything that steps on its toes or doesn't follow the same guidelines and structure ... and I don't mean by safety but more so just, they don't want to see the sport, the image hurt.

That being said, that was their baby. This is my baby. And there are a lot of people that are involved in this that it's their baby, too. So I think that it's the same ... I was involved very closely, as I mentioned, in gaining sanctioning here in Tennessee. Something that was never a big push by the UFC. It was Strikeforce that helped a lot, them coming here for their first event back in the day, that kinda helped lift that up.

There wasn't always a big push in other regions for growth of MMA itself. I was involved with that, I know how it is. I heard what the boxing people always said about it. They said it was a bloodsport, cockfighting and all that other stuff. The same stuff I hear about my sport now, about Team MMA.

It's something different, I think that people are gonna be skeptical, because they don't know if the people that are involved are putting the time and the work in to ensure that it's safe and that it's gonna be a viable sport. I'm here to tell you that putting the last five years of my life into it and dedicating to it, that it most definitely is, it's a viable sport, it's exciting, the fighters all love it from start to finish. And the fans, when they are in attendance, they are insane.

You see their jaws drop to the floor because they can't believe that they're watching what they're watching.

My goal is to make a faster, more complete sport that people have never seen before. And on top of that, there's gonna be an appearance of danger, all the while it's heavily regulated and very safe for a combat sport. There's a lot of sports out there, football, auto racing, all those sports, people die in.

MMA, people die in it. We talk about the steroid scandals and the weight cutting scandals, the domestic abuse, the War Machine trial that was just on. MMA, they have a lot of black marks against them right now.

A man who is doing things the right way, setting out to get this sanctioned with state athletic commissions and grow the sport, I'm not somebody to be looked at and put down if I'm doing it the right way. There are a lot of other black marks on MMA that you can look towards before me.

I don't know that I enjoy it, I don't know that it's for me. But I find that the arguments against it are especially weak. It's one thing to say, "Maybe it's for me, maybe it's not for me," but should it be allowed? It's not clear to me what argument someone could make to not allow it.

The evolution of combat sports is not going to stop. Do you find that there's a contingent of the MMA community that believed that MMA itself was the end of combat sports evolution?

I think the people that feel that way weren't around in the ’90s. These were the guys that came along when the Ultimate Fighter had the big boom, and everything got super popular for the most part.

MMA, which is, you can go back to Bruce Lee and his idea about martial arts, that's where it all rooted from, because when Art did the "it's boxing versus karate versus..."

That's all game of death stuff. And the idea that martial arts should be all included, and you should take the best of everything. The whole concept of mixed martial arts is that it should evolve. So you get a sport, and that sport is viable, just like boxing was viable before.

If you like mixed martial arts, and I love mixed martial arts, it's my life, I've made my full-time living off of combat sports. And I have for 20 years.

But there's also a sect of people that want to see more, they want to see extensions and advancements, and see where different scenarios. Art imitates life. A real fight, a situation where you and your buddy come out of a bar, or let's say one woman is attacked, and maybe she has to survive for a period of time against two people, even just surviving.

We train these concepts in our gyms, the military has trained it, police training, we've worked with police officers as well. All of these scenarios are art imitating situations you would see in real life.

When you see it inside the cage, it makes sense. And that's the thing. The thing with commissions is that you're going to have a viable sport whenever not only is it safe, but it's also lucrative.

And that's something you have to battle against as well. You've gotta make sure that if they're gonna put all of these officials in place, and they're gonna do all of this work, and they're gonna meet with you, that in the end, it's gonna be viable.

It's liability and it's viability. I think when it comes to the fans, if the fans are against it, then those fans shouldn't watch it probably until it gets super popular, and then when it gets super popular, everybody's gonna have always loved it, and they've always think it was great.

Just like mixed martial arts. So that's the thing, too. If you take some time and you watch it, if you're a true enthusiast of combat sports, you're gonna see some stuff, even if it's not something you follow, because it's not as developed as MMA. We don't have events every weekend like mixed martial arts does.

But if you watch it and you see, how can you see ... they've got a dog pile, and you see a guy run across the top of it, tight-waist a guy off, and throw him into a triangle choke? You see a WWE-style clothesline, which you could never see in standard MMA, because nobody is able to get a stride going enough in a cage, and redirect somebody. But you see it and you're like, "Man, that looked like Barry Windham throwing a freaking lariat on somebody."

You see something that you've never seen before. You see new options. It's exciting. There's only so much you can do with MMA and sometimes you want to see something different. And that's what I say to the fans. If they're dead-set against it, I'm not gonna probably change their mind, it's gonna be the new generation, these younger guys that are coming up watching MMA, MMA's always been there, and they're like, "What about this, this is even faster?" Dude, this is faster than football. This is faster than basketball, MMA, anything else, man. It is just really another level of sports.

We want everybody to watch and enjoy it, but it is a grassroots project as of right now.

This is something real quick too, though, man. I wanted to throw it in. You know there is a two-on-one portion of the fight, right?

I did not. If you want, you can clarify that for me.

What it is, is when you have the two-on-two portion of the fight, one guy is taken out, submitted or knocked out, and the referee steps in to stop it. The fight could be over. The one team could win. But there's also an opportunity for there to be a two-on-one survival round, meaning you have this whole area that you can run and avoid it.

The 10-second on the ground rule is still in effect, so in other words, they have to get the guy down and sub him, or the referees have to be able to step in and stop it. You got three referees in attendance, so if anything gets hairy, they go in and stop it. But essentially, it's an opportunity for the fighter to survive. If he can do that for one minute, it moves on to a one-on-one, two-minute round. And then the winner of that will be decided, whoever wins that round based on martial arts rules will be deemed the winning team.

And we do that just as a last chance for these fighters. And typically, 99 percent of the competitors that get in that situation, they choose to do it. In every instance, whether they've survived or not, and we've had quite a few survive it to go on and win. Every one that has done it, they like it. They've appreciated the opportunity to do it, and nobody's gotten hurt. They've not gotten any more damage. Because again, the referees run it close. If something rough happens, they're gonna err on the side of caution. If there is any foul whatsoever, then they're very, very strict on that.

But it's essentially the most exciting portion of a fight, because you see guys that, can they survive for a minute and use that strategy? And it's very impressive to see it when they can.

I had one reporter go to one of the commissioners that we're speaking with and say, "Well, they're putting on two-on-one matches here," and it's not the case whatsoever. Like I said, it's a bonus round. It's something that I brought to every commission that I've ever spoken with. John McCarthy, he basically said, "I just think it's unfair, because any really good martial artist, good grappler, two guys are always gonna be able to submit the one guy, but in the heat of battle they're not. And it's not always that way."

But he didn't say, "Well, it isn’t necessarily any more super dangerous, it's not something that I would throw out," he just doesn't think it would be a viable part of the sport.