At the end of a grueling two-hour training session in preparation for the Madtown Throwdown on Saturday, the sound of laughter bubbles out of the Chosen Few mixed martial arts gym in McFarland. On the training room floor, one of the fighters mops up sweat and who knows what else while others are changing and talking about old matches. Owned by Pat O'Malley and Jamie Carney, both retired veterans in the world of mixed martial arts, or MMA, the space would have the feel of a social club if it weren't for the samurai sword in a glass display case by the door.
There's also the subject matter at hand: battles won and lost, every punch and collision recalled with a nostalgic humor that wouldn't be out of place describing a family vacation. But when the talk moves to the upcoming match for one of the fighters present, the joking and teasing instantly turns into brotherly encouragement. Everyone believes he is ready, and if he's not, what's another scar in a life led with fists and heart?
Gaining an increasing popularity since its creation in August 2004, Madtown Throwdown has become one of the premiere showcases for amateur and pro MMA fighters in the region. But despite its popularity, the event received some traction in September 2010 as Wisconsin became the 43rd state to apply regulations to the sport. With Gov. Jim Doyle signing a bill that required the Department of Regulations and Licensing to oversee all major MMA events, the move has been in many ways both a curse and a blessing for a promotion that operated for nearly a decade on its own terms. While state regulations create a safer atmosphere for the event's fighters, with drug tests and physicals to ensure fair matches between participants, new licensing fees have made it difficult for promoters to secure funds for the event itself.
Yet after an 18-month hiatus, Madtown Throwdown returns to the Alliant Energy Center this Saturday, and while closing up shop, one of the event's originators and licensed match maker Pat O'Malley took a moment to talk to The Daily Page about getting the event back on its feet and the misconceptions about what the new state regulations mean for MMA in Wisconsin.
The Daily Page: Madtown Throwdown began in August 2004, and was developing a growing following every year. But it's been almost two years since the last event, and many people have been wondering why it's taken so long to get the event back off the ground.
Pat O'Malley: It was due to a multitude of things. A lot of people want to believe it was because of the new state regulations, and they can believe that if they want. Not to get too much into it, 18 months ago we shut down production because there was some infighting in the infrastructure of the company.
How many people are now involved in putting the show together?
When we break it down, right now we have a core of four people. Me and the other owner of this gym, Jamie Carney, and Josh Sterry and Josh Lippman. It funnels down between the four of us. It's split between the clerical and the talent end. So starting out, there's the insurance, the regulations through the state, which gets handled by Jamie. In the meantime, Josh Sterry works directly with the fighters,; Josh Lippman handles graphic design, social media and tickets; and, I start getting the gyms and teams together, matching them up and making sure fighters are ready to compete because I've been around the longest.
So 18 months ago the event was put on "hiatus"...
Right, so there was some parting ways between a few people. I ended up getting a job that took me out of state for a substantial amount of time. So a lot of things were changing back then in the gym and in the company. Then someone said, "Hey man, I'll buy in" and that was Jamie Carney. He said that he really wanted to be a part of the gym and the event. So I said basically, "show me what you want to do." I wasn't so interested in him putting the money on the table, but more what he wanted to do with it, what his vision was for the event. And he said that he just wanted the Throwdown to be a great show, that he wanted to bring it back.
I'd known Jamie previously, because he'd fought out of the Throwdown a couple times, and we'd also done some partnerships on other business deals, so I knew him to always come through as a stand-up guy. Everything he's always told me that he was going to do, he's done, and I've seen these things come to fruition, so I like being around people like that. It's hard to start something with an idea, put it into motion, and then watch it become something when it's all said and done.
So Jamie started talking to all these people, talking to sponsors, and finally we said, let's go with it. We originally wanted to start back in October, but the timing just wasn't right. I'll be the first to admit it, I had a lot on my plate at that time, so we decided to postpone until January. Historically speaking, January is always our best show financially as far as attendance numbers. And it's always been our biggest show, the time where we can put together the best fights with a higher level of talent. So we said, "Screw it, let's do it." And now we have an event that has some of the best fighters in the state fighting some of the best fighters from throughout the Midwest.
Considering your dedication and involvement with the sport, it must be a relief to see it coming back with a lot of enthusiasm from the community.
Definitely. I'm honestly a fan before anything else. But while I'm loyal to other fans who've been loyal to the event for eight years, we're not necessarily here to entertain people. At the end of the day, I don't want to get on a beatnik drum that this is a blood sport. What I'm getting at is that I -- and when I say "I," just replace it with "we," because this has been a team effort -- we really hope and believe that people come to the show because they like to see tall heart, that they like to see guys that are willing to be in the prime shape of their lives and go in there and push their bodies to the absolute limit in a way that other people may never do. I think people who may never do that take a lot of enjoyment in watching that, and hopefully not from the brutality of it.
It's almost more of an "art" than a "sport," in that it's not like in basketball where a player says, "Oh, I'm going to practice my jump shot now." Your body and mind are continuously in training because the stakes are higher. You have way more to lose.
And less money to make. The reality of it is that there's more to lose, and a hell of a lot less to gain. But I think the idea of it being just a "blood sport" has fallen to the wayside, because I think people have realized you can't be an idiot and fight. You can't be, man. You've got to be smart. A regular person can't do what any of these fighters do and be an idiot. If you don't have the ability to use deductive reasoning in the midst of a fight, you'll have a short lived career, believe me.
You see a difference in the "craft" of MMA fighting, if I can use that word, compared to random street fights you might walk past. People swinging wild haymakers, a mess of panting and flailing limbs
Absolutely. Absolutely. With their heads down and everything. Exactly. YouTube a street fight and a UFC fight and you'll see the difference right away. I love it when people look at UFC fighters and say, "Oh, he's just a brawler!" I mean, I'll show you a brawler. It's someone who gets in there and does this [O'Malley bends his neck towards floor and starts swinging arms in circles].
So there is absolutely a difference, and that was a concern of mine back in '04, because I wasn't sure how Madison would embrace us. But the city and the surrounding area has really embraced Madtown Throwdown as its own. It really is a homegrown company. We've had ups and downs, but we've always had good cards, with great groups of fighters. And more than I'm interested in the profits, I really just want to see good fights. Like I said, I'm a fan first a foremost. I'm not going to put a crappy fight together just to make money off of it. I refuse to do that. I never want to hear, "That show isn't what it was" from someone leaving the event. Even with regulations, I have yet to hear people say that. So I can only hope that never happens.
So what were the difficulties this year in helping to put the event back on? You said that it shut down 18 months ago due to various reasons, and I'm curious if the recent state regulations have had anything to do with it being stalled?
You know, quite frankly, the idea of the "state" for most people I compare to the idea of the Boogeyman. You think the Boogeyman is under your bed, until you look there and the Boogeyman just isn't there. So that's how I felt when the state first came in. I testified in front of the sate subcommittee and I said, look, if we're gonna do a show, this is how I think we should do it, we've been doing it this way for a number of years. And I did that in good faith hoping that what they were ultimately trying to do was to protect the fighters. If that was truly their interest, even if in the process of doing it the Throwdown got shut down because we couldn't afford the regulation fees, it's still better for the fighters. There would still be that integrity intact.
What prompted the discussion in the first place after so many years of being unregulated?
The UFC wanted to come here. They sent a lobbyist up, and the lobbyist started barking in people's ears, asking who was on board, because they wouldn't fight in a place that wasn't regulated. And at the end of the day, you aren't going to fight that. I could fight it on certain principles for certain reasons, but I'm not gonna fight it because ultimately it'll be better and safer for the fighters. I appreciate that. So I can't really explain why regulations came in other than that the state probably saw an opportunity to make some money, but also saw an opportunity to make an unregulated event that was growing in popularity more safe and fair for everyone involved.
I mean, I've seen fighters get ripped off and jacked around, and there are now things put in place so that doesn't happen. So everyone can bitch and moan about the state getting theirs, the state doing this, the state doing that, but honest to God, the state of Wisconsin has been the least of our worries in putting this show together.
What have been your biggest problems? I've heard that much of the difficulty in putting a show like this together comes from the talent side of things
Oh absolutely. Fighters dropping out at the last minute, fighters not getting their blood work in on time. People saying, "Yeah yeah, I want that fight" and then calling you up four days before an event and saying, "Hey, I'm 20 pounds overweight, can we do a catch?" And it's like, no! Absolutely not. You're not fighting. But as a result, I'm screwing over the guy who's been training for eight weeks. So it's a double-edged sword. And that happens all the time.
You get managers promising to put fighters up, to do this and do that, and it just becomes this squirrely, snake-y game. People trying to get more money than they're worth, all kinds of things. You end up with a lot of prima donnas in this sport. It's kind of embarrassing to say, and kind of shameful to me that it's like that. You have a lot of guys who think they are the next best thing because they watched three episodes of The Ultimate Fighter and they wrestled for a week and a half in high school.
So the state has been the least hindering. Not to sound like a suck-up, but I can't say enough good things about the state and Jess Gonzalez, the program coordinator over at the Department of Regulations and Licensing. Jess was a fighter too, once, so he knows how bad things can get if you let them.It's a different environment now than it was ten years ago, and completely different than back when I was fighting in '98 and '99, where your water bottle was an empty can of Coke [Laughs]. Or, no joke, fights that consisted of one twenty-minute round. I wish some people could see that and experience that, because it was a lot different.
But that's not to say it was better. The athletes coming to this sport now are just phenomenal. The fighters when I first started fighting, if they were of the level of talent that they are now when I was coming through the door, I would have never fought. That's why I really really really admire the fighters who are on our card this year. Every one of them are coming from gyms that are established, gyms that I've worked with, and they are ready to fight. And they would just as soon die in the ring than quit. All of them. They lead with their hearts. I can't say enough good things about them. So I'm happy that rules are now in place to ensure their safety.
Plus, as a promoter, I doubt you need the added stress of worrying about someone coming into the ring who's hopped up on something or carrying a disease
You're damn right. My fighter may go up against someone with Hepatitis-C and never know it until months or years later when he gets tested and finds out he's been exposed. So I can sit here and be hoo-ra, anti-government, but that's bullshit. Jess Gonzalez has the fighters' best interests in mind, and he does it without breaking the back of the promoter. And I'm telling you, I mean, I don't want to get him in trouble, but he's bent over backwards for us. He's been there to answer all of our questions, letting us know what does and doesn't fall within regulations, and then working with us to come up with alternatives that do. And I mean, all day, every day he's done this. Jess will call me on his day off just to make sure everything is going well.
So we could have it a hell of a lot worse. We could have a commissioner who hates fighting, who can't stand it. But we've got a guy who wants to see quality fights in the state of Wisconsin. So I'm more relaxed now than I've ever been with only a few days left 'til the show. We've got the contracts signed, we've got the fighters booked, we've got the blood work in. So other than a few more papers we need to fill out, by Saturday, it's time to go. It's showtime.