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MMA Storytime: Matchmaking MMA in the House of Hardcore

Philadelphia is a hotbed for Combat Sports. A long-time staple within the Philly sports scene has been pro wrestling. The meteoric rise of ECW caused the then-Viking Hall to be re-named "The ECEW Arena." Now known simply as "The Arena," a new combat sports tradition will take shape when Matrix Fights invades the historic venue.

As I’ve chronicled in my previous two columns, I have been able to cross over from the world of journalism into my ultimate aspiration of working in talent relations in mixed martial arts.

Since last April, I’ve been able to be involved in a number of shows as a matchmaker but my next show on Feb. 27 at The Arena (formerly known as the ECW Arena) will hold special meaning to me due to the fact that it is in my hometown of Philadelphia.

Philadelphia is portrayed as a very tough city by the national media. Some of the bad rap Philly gets is warranted (there is no excused for when Eagles fans cheered when Michael Irvin got injured) and some of it is not warranted (yes, we booed Santa Claus at an Eagles game but he was a bootleg Santa not hired by the team and he was drunk off his ass).

So Philly is indeed an edgy town which is why this city has embraced combat sports with open arms over the years. It started (and continues) with boxing as some of the “sweet science’s” most prolific punchers such as Joe Frazier and Bernard Hopkins call Philly home (and I can’t forget my favorite boxer of all time, Meldrick Taylor).

Pro wrestling also has a rich history in Philly. While it was before my time, the Spectrum used to be packed in the 70s when the likes of Bruno Sammartino and “Superstar” Billy Graham came to town. Growing up, I was a huge pro wrestling fan and even at a young age I followed the NWA (the wrestling promotion, not the rap group — although I thought the rap group was pretty bad ass too) and was a huge fan of Ric Flair, the Road Warriors, and the Midnight Express.

The NWA eventually morphed into World Championship Wrestling and by that point I was old enough to attend events with my younger brother. While the WWF (now WWE) did their events at the more modern Spectrum, WCW was left to do their events at the old Philadelphia Civic Center, a dirty, borderline dilapidated venue that never was past its peak because I don’t think it had one to begin with.

Despite being young, my parents allowed my brother and I to attend these events at the rough and tumble Philly Civic Center because my uncle was the timekeeper for the shows (he even got to carry Ric Flair’s robe to the back once!). Looking back, the wrestling action was pretty weak and the WCW house shows really didn’t live up to what my brother and I watched each week on TV.

Despite all the crap WCW house shows my brother and I endured, I will always remember the one time Cactus Jack Manson (aka Mick Foley) made a surprise return to WCW and had an impromptu hardcore match with Sting. It was pretty cool because just a few weeks earlier I watched an amazing brawl between Cactus Jack and Eddie Gilbert at the Pennsylvania Hall (which was adjacent to the Civic Center) at a Tri-State Wrestling Alliance event (the forerunner to what would eventually become ECW). The feud between Cactus Jack and Eddie Gilbert is legendary in Philly and the attention they generated from their matches earned both second opportunities with WCW.

As I got older I still followed wrestling but simply had other priorities as a teenager than sitting through boring house shows at the rat-infested Civic Center. But my desire to go out and attend wrestling events was renewed in the mid-90s when Tod Gordon and Paul Heyman revolutionized the wrestling industry with a new brand of extreme wrestling. Truth be told, hardcore wrestling had been done for years in the South and also in Japan with FMW but Heyman was a creative genius and the extreme nature of the product extended beyond the ring, as many of the story lines were unique and compelling.

In a lot of ways, Heyman was pro wrestling’s version of Christopher Nolan (the director of the new Batman franchise). Instead of cartoonish and unrealistic story lines, Heyman and his team featured realism and adult-themed wrestling angles. I will always remember the angle they did between Sandman and Raven in which Sandman’s real-life divorce was exposed on camera and Sandman’s young son abandoned him to join Raven’s cult.

ECW most certainly revolutionized wrestling and took its act on the road but it originated in Philadelphia. To this day, I feel the edginess that the Philadelphia crowd brought to the early ECW events really added to the promotion’s brand and helped it grow in popularity. I was not a regular at live ECW events in Philly but I made it a point to attend several shows.

ECW’s home base was formerly a Bingo Hall that had been re-named Viking Hall. However, the promotion became so iconic in Philadelphia that the venue was re-branded as the “ECW Arena” and despite less than stellar sight lines, the venue was portrayed as a “Wrigley Field” of wrestling because of its intimate feel.

There are still a lot of pro boxing and wrestling shows (such as Ring of Honor, CZW, and Chikara Pro) here in Philly but I really feel the combat sports torch has been passed to mixed martial arts. Even before The Ultimate Fighter hit the air there were several jiu-jitsu and MMA schools in Philly along with various Judo, Sambo, and Muay Thai “combat clubs” (usually a basement or garage where a bunch of people trained).

While MMA was legalized in PA just last year, many top schools in the region had emerged since the turn of the century. Schools such as Daddis Fight Camps, the Fight Factory, and Balance Studios have been existence for quite some time in various forms for the past 8-9 years. Thanks to TUF, their student levels have gone through the roof with schools such as Daddis and Balance opening multiple locations to accommodate their rapid growth.

As big as boxing and pro wrestling has been in Philadelphia, it is my sincere belief that as time goes on, MMA will be bigger in this town than both combat sports combined. It may sound like hyperbole on my part but unless you live in the area you truly do not have an understanding just how many people train BJJ, Muay Thai, or MMA in or around the city of Philadelphia. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at a bar or restaurant talking to people and when I tell them what I do for a living I hear “Oh, I have a brother who does that.”

All of the preamble I have laid out here is to try and convey just how much of a dream it has been of mine to be directly involved with a major MMA show here in this city. For Matrix, it will be our first show but we’re coming out of the gate with a bang.

The cool part about the card that we’ve put together is that in many respects I have some sort of direct connection to the fighters and fight gyms that will be involved with the show. For example, the show’s main event will feature welterweights Matt Makowski and LeVon Maynard. If you’re a longtime reader of this site, those names should be very familiar to you.

After leaving traditional martial arts in favor of taking up MMA, Daddis Fight Camps was the first school I trained at. I not only trained there, I even participated in several smokers — fighting within Philadelphia city limits long before MMA had been legalized. One of the top prospects at the school was a kid named Matt Makowski, who I believe was still just a teenager (either 18 or 19) at the time. Matt was working his way up the amateur ranks, participating in a lot of Muay Thai fights as well as amateur MMA bouts in New Jersey. It was obvious to anyone who saw him that he was destined to be a pro fighter.

Despite just being 21, Matt made his pro debut at a ShoXC event in Atlantic City several years back and would go on to fight for EliteXC three times, compiling a record of 2-1 with his most notable win coming over UFC veteran Nick Serra. The Makowski fight vs. Serra took place on the undercard of the first-ever MMA event televised on live, primetime network television and I had the honor of working on the CBS crew for the show. Even though Matt’s fight didn’t air on CBS, it did air live on ProElite.com. The bout has become infamous because Nick Serra was disqualified for repeatedly pulling guard/butt scooting. Nick’s erratic behavior was unfortunate because it really obscured the fact that the reason why he resorted to such tactics was because Matt had nearly leg kicked him into oblivion.

Fast forward to present day and both my wife and 10-year old son train at Daddis. Brad Daddis, my original MMA instructor has really supported Matrix and we will have at least three Daddis fighters featured on Feb. 27. We could possibly have a fourth Daddis fighter on the show if someone steps up and agrees to fight Brylan Van Artsdalen in Brylan’s pro debut. So if you fight at 145 lbs. and live in the area and want to get in on this card, e-mail me at SCaplan8@gmail.com. And while I am at it, we also need a amateur 145 lbs. fighter to step up and fight Ben Tichy.

Finding opponents for Brylan and Ben has been one of the only sources of stress involved with helping put the show together. Having trained, I know what it is like to prepare for a fight. But having competed only in smokers, I always knew I would have an opponent (even though I never knew who it was until just hours before fighting). For Brylan and Ben, I know they have been training hard despite the fact that multiple opponents have pulled out. They pushed themselves to the limit, altered their diet, and made many other sacrifices in preparation for their respective fights. There’s nothing than I want more right now than to make sure they have a fight come Feb. 27, so help spread the word!

With that brief interlude out of the way, let’s get back to the main event.

Matt’s opponent, LeVon, is a fighter I was first introduced to when I covered the IFL draft tryouts in New York several years back. When I arrived, I was surprised by the level of East Coast talent that had shown up in hopes of breaking into the IFL. Such names in attendance included Shane Ott, Jim Bova, Diego Jimenez, Matt Lee, Al Iaquinta, Danillo Villefort, Torrance Taylor, Tiawan Howard, and Matt Brown. Despite the familiar faces I had seen on local shows, there was a civilian contractor from the Air Force out of Virginia who I had never heard of before that was tearing up the tryouts. It was none other than LeVon.

When it came to the grappling portion of the tryouts, LeVon was tapping his opponent out right and left so I immediately branded him as a BJJ guy. That was until they sparred Muay Thai, at which point LeVon worked his opponent so hard that the two-minute sparring session was cut short. He advanced to the finals, which actually turned out to be a full-scale MMA bout — which was surreal because MMA was and still is illegal in New York. LeVon wowed the IFL judges (which included Bas Rutten) with the effort and qualified for the IFL draft.

I was so impressed with LeVon and how he came out of nowhere that he was the feature subject of the CBSSports.com story I wrote covering my experience at the tryout. LeVon never ended up competing for the IFL but did get the call to step in as a last-minute replacement to fight Rory Markham at the 2007 IFL Grand Prix Finals at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. LeVon accepted the bout and was ready to compete but the gaming commission determined that LeVon didn’t have enough experience to fight Markham. The spot went to Brett Cooper, who had turned heads at the IFL tryouts in Los Angeles.

LeVon’s frustration of not being allowed to accept his call to a major show was compounded by the fact that Cooper pulled off an upset against Markham, TKO’ing him in the second round. LeVon is a very professional and polite guy but he is also very confident in his abilities and I believe to this day he feels like that was his upset to pull off and that it was taken away from him.

I am expecting fireworks between Matt and LeVon. Both are still young and will be competing at the highest levels of MMA (UFC, Strikeforce, and or Bellator) in short order. Both are taking a major risk in fighting each other but the reality is that whoever wins this fight will be in line for a bigger and better opportunity because it will be a win that matters.

Stylistically, Matt and LeVon match up very well. Both are true mixed martial artists with good grappling skills and even better striking skills. The unique thing about this fight is that Matt and LeVon fought several years ago in an amateur Muay Thai match at the WKA championships. Matt won the fight but the rematch will be contested under MMA rules.

For me, Matt vs. LeVon is a dream matchup, as it is a fight that I’ve wanted to see for years. When I first decided my ultimate goal was to work in talent relations, I decided to volunteer for a regional promotion called Combat in the Cage so I could gain more experience. I often suggested to the promoter that he should try and make a match between LeVon and Matt. He always liked the matchup but since he was managing Matt at the time, he wanted safer fights for him.

Years later and the two are finally going to get to fight in the main event of the first-ever show I am matchmaking in my own hometown. When I first proposed the fight, I think there might have been some skepticism on the part of both camps. Knowing that I used to train at Daddis, I think some people might have felt I was setting LeVon up. On the flip side, since I have written at length about LeVon and since 5 Oz. has even sponsored him in the past, I think there was also some questions from the other side.

The reality is that I have no ulterior motive. I have no idea who is going to win the fight — which is why I wanted to put it together in the first place. My only motive here is to make sure my bosses (Jimmy Binns Jr. and Phil and Ricardo Migliarese) get a high-caliber main event that allows them to grow their fight promotion. The goal here is to give the fans paying hard earned money a fight that they will talk about for years, much in the same way local Philly wrestling and boxing fans still talk about legendary clashes that they saw at the Blue Horizon, Spectrum, Philadelphia Civic Center, or the ECW Arena.

There is so much more to talk about but this column is already too long and the average reader has already stopped reading. But I am excited that we have Matt vs. LeVon in our main event and that we were fortunate enough to land Cole Konrad’s second-ever MMA fight, as he is set to take on fellow heavyweight prospect Joel Wyatt.

While there aren’t many tickets left, you still can buy them online at MatrixFights.com or via some of the major schools that are supporting us such as Daddis, Semper-Fi MMA (which will be represented by its head instructor, former Marine Julio Rosario), and Balance Studios. If you know a fighter fighting on the show who has tickets, please try to buy it from them, as they will get a percentage of the ticket sale.

In closing, I really want to thank Jimmy and the Migliarese brothers. Matrix is their promotion but they’ve allowed me to be a big part of it and have shown a lot of confidence in me. To be able to matchmake a show in my own hometown in one of the most famous combat sports venues in the United States is simply an amazing opportunity. From a sentimental standpoint it’s such an important milestone that my son and wife are not only going to be there but my father and brother will be as well even though they aren’t MMA fans.

I really hope to see you on Feb. 27 when Matrix helps further a brand new combat sports tradition in Philadelphia. If you aren’t able to make it, don’t worry about it as Matrix is only going to get bigger and better and there will be plenty more shows for you to attend.

Enjoy the fights.

2 COMMENTS
  • dpk says:

    I was a big pro wrestling fan back in High School, and I remember watching the ECW cards from the arena, it was a great venue and the fans always had alot of energy. I’m sure MMA will play well there. Matrix fights should do well, there is so much talent coming out of the Northeast these days, and MMA still isn’t legal in NY so those fighters will need a place to fight, and PA is a great location.

    The fight I am most excited about on this card is the Cole Konrad v Joel Wyatt fight. It is good to see a legit prospect like Konrad stay active, and actually be fighting another legit prospect.

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  • Rece Rock says:

    This will be a cool show to attend, I’m sure some of the old raucous crowd from ecw still haunts that arena… I hope to one day be able to attend local/ regional events in ny sometime soon- I think they recently crossed a hurdle and thAt mma could be on it’s way sometime before the end of the year…

    Agree or Disagree: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

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