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Sam Caplan: 2009 a Year to Remember

When I stopped writing regularly for this site and decided to no longer cover the sport of MMA as a columnist/reporter, it raised some eyebrows. For a lot of people, they only see what’s on the surface and you become pigeon-holed and typecast. Often, what people first see you as is what they will always see you as.

But for anyone that has known me for any length of time, they’ve known I’ve had great aspirations when it comes to being involved with the sport of mixed martial arts. Even as I was covering the sport of MMA, my ultimate goal was one that was much greater and I spent a lot of time preparing myself for a potential role change.

The change in roles began last year when I decided to form Combat Sports Media, a business-to-business consulting firm for MMA companies looking for an outsource solution. The plan was to help assist MMA-based companies with public relations, website content management, and even matchmaking.

That was the plan anyway and often times in life things rarely follow the vision that has been laid out. However, 2009 exceeded my wildest hopes and aspirations. Through M-1, I was able to assist in the promotion of shows in Bulgaria, Holland, Brazil, South Korea, and Japan.

It was on those trips that I began to form a strong friendship with Joe Kelly, the owner of the Titan Fighting Championships in Kansas City — one of the finest regional promotions in the U.S. Thanks to Joe and also John Doyle (much more on him later), I was able to accomplish my goal of getting involved with MMA as a matchmaker of record as opposed to just a guy people called when they wanted a second opinion on a fighter.

Usually when I would tell people my goal was to get into matchmaking, I would get a strange look, as if they were saying “Dude, you are a writer, what do you know about matchmaking?” But Joe was one of the first prominent people in the industry who took me seriously. When M-1 came to Kansas City last June, I not only was able to procure some U.S.-based fighters for the show but would ultimately serve as the matchmaker of record.

But just because I got to wear the matchmaker hat for a few seconds wouldn’t necessarily mean I would get to keep wearing it. That’s where John comes in.

You see, when I landed in Kansas City for the M-1 Challenge event last June, I thought my role regarding fighters was over and done with. In my mind, my role for the rest of the show would just be to handle PR-related matters. However, there was a brand new commissioner at the Kansas Athletic Commission and he was a lot different than the man he was proceeding. As it would turn out eight of the 15 planned fights had been flagged and were in jeopardy of being cut.

Our planned 15 bout show was in danger of being trimmed down to seven fights, which would have been a disaster since M-1’s main priority isn’t being a live event but rather being a taping for a television show that records three episodes at a time.

Joe and I had to scramble and work with Peter Howes of the commission to save as many fights as we good. Peter is a good guy and is very fair but he also believes fighter safety comes first and I can never fault him for that. Joe and I managed to save six of the eight bouts but there were two bouts we could not save. One of which was a bout between Team USA East’s Mike Ottman against Finland’s Toni Valtonen and a matchup between Team Turkey’s Abdullah Ahmady and the World Team’s Ryan Sturdy.

It turns out that Ottman was on medical suspension and when that happens, no amount of convincing is ever going to prevent a fighter from not competing. You either can get the fighter off medical suspension or you can’t and Joe and I could not.

The replacement for Ottman was an easy one. Joe told me to get Lloyd “Kadillac” Marshbanks and I contacted USA East manager Reed Wallace and asked him if we could work together to secure Lloyd. Despite an all night poker run and no sleep in 24 hours, Kadillac didn’t ask any questions and got right on a plane from San Diego to Kansas City, taking the fight on 36 hours notice.

The other situation was not so black and white, as Peter’s only concern was that Abdullah’s 3-0 record could not be verified on either Sherdog or All Peter said he needed was some form of proof that Abdullah had been competing as a professional mixed martial artist.

Easy enough, right? Wrong.

Abdullah spoke limited English so communicating with him was not easy for him or us. We asked if he had any footage of his fights on YouTube? He did not. We asked if he could call his family back home and maybe have them e-mail us a scanned copy of some newspaper clippings talking about his fight? He could not. Joe and I did a number of Google searches trying to find any info we could supporting our assertion that Abdullah was a highly qualified professional mixed martial artist who deserved to be licensed by the state of Kansas. We couldn’t find anything!

Thursday (the day before the fight) came and Pete informed us that Abdullah would not be allowed to fight and it was in our best interest to secure a replacement if we had any hope of saving the fight. Joe gave me a list of gyms and managers in the Kansas City area for me to call in order to secure a local replacement. I called each and every single name on the list but nobody had a 205 lbs. fighter ready to compete on 24 hours notice against Sturdy, the Extreme Challenge middleweight champion. It wasn’t that there wasn’t anyone willing the help us but the reality was that there had been a major regional MMA show the week prior and with one scheduled the week after the M-1 event, every fighter in the area was committed to another show.

Joe told me he needed me to find someone nationally, which was no easy task considering there was just 24 hours until Friday’s event at the historic Memorial Hall. Not only did I have to find a fighter ready, willing, and able, but I’d have to handle all of the logistics such as negotiating the purse with his manager, getting everything cleared by M-1 and making sure Sturdy and his camp was okay with the last-minute change, getting the replacement on the plane as soon as possible, making sure the replacement was on weight, and getting all of the neccessary paperwork and medical clearance completed with the commission.

Through Ryan’s manager, Brian Butler, I was able to get Ryan into M-1. Ryan’s original opponent, Abdullah, was only 3-0 and not a well known fighter on the U.S. scene. Ryan’s camp really liked the matchup which is why they accepted M-1’s offer to compete on just seven days notice. Now their entire world had been flipped upside down and the person who brought them in was now trying to find a replacement opponent. It was an awkward situation for me but it’s a part of the game.

At the time, I wasn’t sure I’d even have a fight for Ryan. After all, the odds of finding a replacement on just 24 hours notice with no local options available weren’t that good. I had to think of a guy who would be crazy enough to hop on a plane right away with the intent on fighting on just 24 hours notice.

Did I know a fighter crazy enough? As a matter of fact, I did.

John Doyle began his pro MMA career with a 6-1 record and multiple regional light heavyweight titles. He was a blue chip prospect expected to make it big on the national stage. John and I had actually briefly trained at the same school in Philadelphia at Daddis Fight Camps even though I don’t think we said more than two words to each other when we were there. But I became a fan of John after a fight in Atlantic City against Brendan Barrett.

During that fight,John fell out of the ring early in the bout and with his head literally landing on the concrete floor. The Jersey commission rushed over to him to check him out and waved off the fight. John, with an incredulous look on his face began to argue with the commission. He couldn’t believe the commission wasn’t going to allow him to get back in the ring and continue the fight. Never mind the fact that John did a faceplant on the floor and potentially had suffered a concussion; his plan was to get back in and continue to fight and nobody should prevent that from happening.

John would further demonstrate his insanity — err toughness — a couple of years later. EliteXC had just recently signed a client of Ed Soares, former IFL heavyweight Rafael Cavalcante, more commonly known as “Feijao.” Feijao was a late addition to the “Street Certified” undercard and with ten days left until the event, EliteXC needed an “opponent” to match up with their new blue chip acquisition.

So who got the call? You guessed it, John Doyle. John really hadn’t been training at the time and was being asked to fight a guy who was a personal protege of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira that had been learning the finer points of Muay Thai from Anderson Silva. Most fighters would have turned the fight down out of principle but not John.

The unique part was that I was working the event as a part of the SHOWTIME production crew as a researcher. When John walked in for his pre-fight interview with the announce team, I made it a point to introduce myself because he clearly didn’t recognize me. I told him that I had trained at Daddis the same time as he did and I wished him good luck.

It was a great night for me personally, as I was given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to join Mauro Ranallo and Stephen Quadros in calling three fights during the undercard that was streamed on However, it was a rough night for John, who ended up losing via first round TKO. Don’t worry though, this story has a happy ending.

So I had a feeling that a guy who wanted to keep fighting after falling out of a ring and slamming his head on the concrete floor who had also fought Feijao on ten days notice might also be crazy enough to accept a fight on 24 hours notice. I called John up and with almost no convincing, he took the fight. John’s trainer, Will Miranda, called me a few minutes later to ask some pertinent questions that John had neglected to ask and everything was worked out.

Next, we had to get John on a plane and to Kansas City for weigh-ins by Thursday night. Unfortunately, no flights from Philadelphia or Newark straight to Kansas City were available and the best we could do was get John into Kansas City by 11 p.m. Thankfully, Peter granted us a special waiver and said that as long as John weighed in at 205 lbs. the day of the event and passed his pre-fight medicals, he’d be cleared to fight. John decided he wanted to get a good night’s sleep and elected to fly in Friday morning and fight the same day.

John arrived at the Argosy Hotel and Casino on Friday morning and wanted to weigh-in so he could hit the buffet right away. The problem was the commission wasn’t available and wouldn’t be able to weigh-in John until 5 p.m. that day. John got on an unofficial scale and weighed 206 lbs.! That meant he might be able to drink some water during the day but that he wouldn’t be allowed to eat until after weighing in.

If John was angry about not being able to eat until 5, he didn’t let anyone know. He conducted himself like a professional and showed up to the arena and weighed in and underwent all his medicals. Ryan and his camp were also tremendous professionals throughout the entire crisis, as they accepted the bout against John on no notice even though he was a much tougher opponent than they had originally signed on for.

Both Ryan and John stepped up and had a two round war (the M-1 Challenge does not use three rounds unless a tie-breaking round is needed) that ended with Ryan getting a two round split decision victory. Personally, I felt the fight was tied 1-1 after two rounds and that a third round was warranted but I’m not a judge. Ryan and John both threw down and ended up winning “Fight of the Night” honors.

By John taking the fight on short notice and pairing with Ryan to have the best fight, I think Joe became convinced that I was more than just an MMA writer/PR guy. He realized I knew a few things about the sport and was able to pull fighters for a show even under the most hazardous of conditions.

For Joe, the show couldn’t have gone any better. USA East closed out the show against Team Finland but fell behind two fights to one. Light heavyweight Rodney Wallace, who would go on to compete in the UFC, ended up tying the score at 2-2, leaving the best-of-five series to be decided by Kadillac and Valtonen.

The Kadillac vs. Valtonen fight really deserves a column of its own instead of being slammed into this article as a sub plot. As documented by HDNet over the summer, Valtonen competed with an objectionable tattoo on his back that read “White Power.” He would be challenged by Kadillac, an affable 5’9” fighter weighing in at 245 lbs. who just happended to be African American.

The K.C. fight crowd is a smart one. They didn’t need anything spelled out for them. The tattoo was plain as day and the patriotic crowd wanted to see Lloyd get the win over the “White Power” guy and get U.S. the win on its home turf.

The fight started and Lloyd began to get pounded by Valtonen. I am not sure, but round one could have been a 10-8 round in favor of Valtonen. Round two was a little more competitive, but it started out in favor of Valtonen. But Lloyd withstood all of Valtonen’s offense and when Valtonen got tired, Lloyd began to dish out some punishment of his own. An All-American wrestler in High School, Lloyd got the fight to the ground and eventually caught Valtonen in a pretty nasty looking neck crank.

Neck cranks are funny things because they hurt a lot and it is the type of submission you might feel for a day or two after having it applied. But when I first started rolling, I was taught that there are certain submissions that might hurt a lot but you still don’t tap to them. A neck crank happened to be one of them. But Lloyd kept cranking and cranking.

The crowd realized that an improbable comeback was on the verge of taking place. Joe and I had been watching from an entrance area and we were getting pretty excited… it wasn’t so much that we were rooting for a fighter or against one, but as a promoter and matchmaker, you want the fans to go home happy. A win for USA East was going to ensure everyone left the building that night wanting to see more fights as Memorial.

And then suddenly there it was – THE TAP! Kadillac completed USA East’s thrilling 3-2 comeback victory over Team Finland and the “White Power” guy was forced to tap to a fighter who just happened to be African American. Vince McMahon had nothing on this show!

Despite all the hurdles that week, the show went very well with it still ranking as the most paid attendees for an M-1 Challenge event. A throng of fans that didn’t know who Lloyd was before the fight came down from the stands and down to the ring and began yelling “Kadillac!” Lloyd was busy for the next 45 minutes signing autographs, posing for pictures, and signing autographs.

While Lloyd was on top of the world, John wasn’t too happy about the loss. He was pretty dejected and believed he should have beaten Sturdy. You see, John rocked Ryan early and Ryan fell to the floor. Instead of making Ryan stand back up or trying to finish Ryan with ground and pound, John followed his wrestling instincts and went to the floor and got caught in Ryan’s guard, giving him time to recover. But based on John’s strong performance, I was able to get him a second M-1 fight in August at his more natural fighting weight of 185 lbs. Having trained hard, John put on a ground and pound clinic in Amsterdam and punished Richard Plug for ten straight minutes. After impressing people at M-1 for a second consecutive fight, John got the call later that same month against Karl Amoussou at “M-1 Breakthrough” in a nationally televised fight on HDNet. John lost the fight but the silver lining was that the fight represented the biggest payday of his career and John promptly reinvested some of the money and spent about six weeks in New Mexico training at Greg Jackson’s.

As a matchmaker now for three separate promotions, I look back to John’s willingness to step up vs. Ryan Sturdy for me on 24 hours notice and the performance put on as a major reason why I am currently living my dream of working in MMA talent relations on a full-time basis. Joe would later hire me as the Vice President of Talent Relations for the Titan Fighting Championships and has even gone so far as to make me a part owner. And at the end of February, my long-time dream of getting to matchmaker a fight card in my hometown city of Philadelphia will become a reality thanks to Jimmy Binns Jr. and Phil Migliarese and their brand new Matrix Fights promotion.

Last year was an amazing one for me on a professional level and if 2010 comes anywhere close, I’ll be a pretty happy man.