Most envision the great champions of combat sports emerging from the worst of conditions. Hellish ghettos in forgotten neighborhoods where the code of survival is kill or be killed; decrepit gyms where rusty equipment and peeling paint reek of poverty and desperation. Places where one must search deep within just to fi nd the spirit to continue living, never mind excelling in a sport where the man who has his hand raised at the end of the fi ght can be just as damaged as his opponent. Yet there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to transposing the stereotypes and preconceptions held in the public eye over the now-fl ourishing sport of MMA.
When you fi rst enter the recently opened Xtreme Couture in Toronto, Ontario, the atmosphere is as upscale and commercial as any major fi tness center. Well-muscled bodybuilding types administer the facility from behind counters and tabletops while every kind of amenity, from rows of cardio machines to a yoga studio, is available at the massive 33,000 square foot complex. Yet the facility is anything but commercial when it comes to the professional staff, like Mark Hominick (16-8), Chris Horodecki (12-1) and Mark Bocek (5-2) teaching classes, Xtreme Toronto is a Mecca for those seeking expert training.
There is also a subtle sense of frustration within the region’s MMA community. MMA is banned at both the amateur and professional levels in the province of Ontario. Regressive policies are enforced uniformly against all combat sports. Professional boxing matches still require a same-day weigh-in and professional Muay Thai is outlawed. Sadly, for the fi ghters, this means they will never feel the comfort and support of a hometown audience.
“For us, we’re always the away team. Not sometimes, not 80 percent of the time, 100 percent of the time,” explains head MMA trainer, Sam Zakula. “You got to get acclimated to a different climate. You got to get acclimated to a different time zone. You have to cut weight in a different city.”
The list of headaches for Ontario fi ghters goes on and on, yet of all the local fi ghters I talk to, none cite this situation as an excuse.
The genesis of Xtreme Couture came right from the The Ultimate Fighter. According to the company’s namesake, Randy Couture, “The group of guys I was training with including Forrest Griffi n, Jay Hieron and Mike Pyle…we would all bounce from gym to gym. We would go one place for boxing, another place for Muay Thai, then somewhere else for jiu-jitsu. When I saw The Ultimate Fighter set, I said this is a perfect gym for MMA. So I built one in Las Vegas and it became home to our team. Now we are trying to bring that super gym idea to other cities that are hotbeds for MMA.”
In exchange for a franchise fee and a percent of the gross, Toronto fi tness club entrepreneur Doug Urch bought into the chain and brought a long-held dream of his to fruition. Urch and his business partners had been planning to open up a combined fi tness and MMA facility for some time, eventually discussing their plans with the man who later turned out to be Randy Couture’s manager.
“They called me up and said, ‘Did you ever open up that gym you wanted to?’ and I said ‘No, the idea is still in our heads,’ and she said, ‘Do you want to do it with Randy Couture?’ I said, ‘Yeah, as long as he’s not an asshole.”
Initially, Couture thought that Urch’s plans were overly ambitious. Given that Xtreme Toronto has a larger mat area than most MMA gyms, perhaps Randy understood that the costs of starting any new business are enormous. However, with strong demand from the area, and over 650 members already, Doug conservatively predicts that he will recoup his investment within 18 months of opening.
“I hope that this will be the next generation of MMA,” says Doug, who has high hopes for local prospects such as TKO bantamweight champ Adrian Wooley (5-0) and jiu-jitsu prodigy Misha Cirkunov.
Coming off a big win against Savant Young at the inaugural Affl iction show, Mark Hominick is buzzing with positive energy. Explaining his strategy against Young, “I just wanted to drag him out into the deep water and see if he could swim.” Although he planned on using footwork and movement to tire Young out in the stand-up, Hominick was taken down but managed to submit his opponent.
“I knew that if I just kept attacking, he wouldn’t be able to keep up with my pace.” Hominick is keen to stress the importance of psychological strength, “I think I broke Savant. After he slammed me out of the triangle attempt…I think I broke him right there because he knew I wasn’t hurt from it. I went right back to the attack.”
It was at that point, Hominick believes, his opponent no longer wanted to continue. Even after victory, Hominick analyzes the fi ght tape searching for areas in which he could have performed better. He knows that his next opponent will be stronger, more skilled, and perhaps have a greater will.
“I have to know that my striking will always be there, know that I’m going to be the better one on the feet…I have to be in the gym getting my ass kicked, getting beat up, getting beat on…but getting better each time.”
It all began for Hominick when he started high school. An age when most teenagers are happy to be smoking their fi rst cigarette and watching movies rated above PG-13. “I went to an orientation class for a martial arts gym back in grade nine…and I signed up that night.” Within two weeks, he was competing in grappling tournaments.
“This is what I am driven, this is what I am passionate about,” says Hominick, who has never been far from a gym since he started taking martial arts. Even while earning his degree in Commerce from the University of Windsor, he would get up at 5:30 AM to box with members from Canada’s national boxing squad, several of whom made it to the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. “It was a lot, but it was worth it. I’m glad I fi nished it,” says Hominick of attaining his degree. He is well aware that many promising athletes drop out of college or reduce their commitment to their sport.
Watching him teach, I try to gauge a feel for who Mark is when he’s away from the sport. Nothing comes up. Not an image of a guy at the club with a popped collar, not the guy wearing a suit and reading his copy of The Economist on the subway. When he’s out of his street clothes and holding the pads for his students, I can sense his intent like a compass pointing north. Hominick’s identity is fused to his lifestyle as a fi ghter who has committed himself with total dedication and focus to being a success.
But you don’t have to excel at MMA or even train in the sport to make a name for yourself. Hominick discovered this one night out on the town with his boys, “I overheard this one guy talking to another group saying ‘he’s in Mixed Martial Arts, and he’s part of Team Tompkins’…so we kind of listened to the story. Then he explained that ‘he was Mark Hominick.’”
Did the real Mark Hominick get agitated, and challenge his impersonator? “I went up and said, ‘Nice to meet you.’ And that was it…we laughed and walked away.”
Four of the gym’s fi ghters, including the man responsible for Xtreme Toronto’s media relations, Robin Black, a local television personality cultivated via MuchMusic (something like a Canadian variant of MTV), must travel to Hull, Quebec to compete. Robin’s journey towards fi ghting in MMA was captured by a hit television show, and now he will venture to La Belle Province to prove himself in MMA.
The ban on MMA in Ontario proved no impediment to Newmarket-based fi ghter Carlos Newton from claiming
the UFC welterweight crown. Zakula remains proud of Newton, who he worked with as his ground coach until after the fi rst Matt Hughes fi ght. A result that I mention is controversial.
Zakula uses a street fi ghting metaphor to explain why he felt Matt deserved the “W,” “Let’s say you get knocked out and I get knocked out. If I wake up fi rst, and we’re in an alley, or we’re in a room, and you’re still knocked out, guess who’s going to continue fi ghting?” I can’t fi nd fault in his logic.
Without any amateur or professional MMA fi ghts currently sanctioned in the province of Ontario, the question of legalization hinges on the matter of both public opinion and the government’s attitude towards the sport. Unfortunately, when I call the Federal Department for information on laws relating to MMA, the media relations woman sounds friendly and helpful— but has no idea what Mixed Martial Arts is. During a job interview at a major Toronto daily newspaper, the city editor also draws a blank when the subject of MMA is broached in reference to my portfolio.
Whether it’s the high sales of Affl iction tee shirts (and their knockoffs), the many seasons of The Ultimate Fighter playing on Spike TV, or the popularity of Canadian Georges St. Pierre, none of the above has signifi cantly contributed to breaking through the mainstream barrier and showing the average Canadian what MMA is really about.
A government offi cial from the provincial level makes the law crystal clear for me, “Under Section 83 of the Criminal Code of Canada, prize fi ght events using hands and fi sts including Mixed Martial Arts events, with the exception of provincially regulated professional boxing events, or amateur events where gloves of a specifi ed mass are used are illegal.”
He does not—or possibly cannot—explain to me what the government’s stance is when it comes to regulating professional events, nor the time frame for which amateur events will be permitted. Considering that few lawmakers even know about the existence, never mind the true nature, of MMA competition, pessimism and doubt linger over MMA’s immediate future in Ontario. Section 83 could be amended, but there have been no changes to that particular law since 1934.
“I just feel like we’re under a dictator,” says trainer Sam Zakula, “I’m not a politician, I don’t really care for politics. My heart is 100 percent MMA. I just feel like, this is a prohibition area/ era for me. This is the reason that I’ve had to live and travel all over North America.”
The wounds from government indifference cut deep when Zakula’s reputation as a trainer hinges on his ability to create successful fi ghters. What will it take to bring them to the next level and garner acclaim for their team? Will the next great champion simply fade into nothingness because it was too diffi cult to get a local fi ght?
Unsanctioned events do take place, although for the legal protection of the individuals and organizations involved details about such practices might be better left unsaid. It might confi rm the worst fears, that there are Bloodsport copycats running amok, fi ghting to the death and blinding each other with baby powder. A recent event at an Ontario MMA facility included a kickboxing tournament dubbed “continuous sparring” and a quasi-amateur MMA competition where participants were warned from going at it too hard. It might not be the greatest tool to keep fi ghters razor sharp for an eventual test against the best in the world—but it is better than nothing.
The best-case scenario is that amateur MMA becomes legal in the near future, and after statistics and data on the safety of the sport are compiled, perhaps in a few years the province will regulate professional MMA. However, there are no guarantees that any amount of lobbying, from either the public or from MMA promotion companies, can change the minds of Ontarian lawmakers.
When corresponding with a provincial government offi cial, he punctuated a series of answers with this typical line, “The safety of participants and spectators at athletic events in Ontario is a priority of the Government, which is proud to support many recognized professional and amateur sports.” Where in the world has the safety of audiences of MMA matches ever been in question? And why is MMA recognized in Quebec and other Canadian provinces, but not in Ontario?
There are shades of doublespeak and consistent attempts at evasion straight out of Orwell’s 1984.
Toronto-born Mark Bocek is warm, yet mildly reserved. His eye socket bears an outline of the cut he sustained against Mac Danzig at UFC 83, a fi ght where his heart and perseverance earned praise and respect in Danzig’s post-fi ght speech.
“The fi rst round went pretty good…kind of how I expected it to go. Then the second round, it was going OK until I ate the knee.”
Coming into the third round, Bocek still thought he could pull off the win and took Danzig down. But the TUF winner managed to get back up, “Then I ate the knee and got cut, and it all went downhill from there.”
Bocek is living his dream, doing the only job that he ever wanted to do since he fi rst saw Royce Gracie. “UFC 2 to be exact, that’s what started sparking my interest in jiu-jitsu.” In the summer of 1996, Bocek made a trip to California where he trained at a number of clubs including Royce and Rorion’s in Torrance, and Rickson Gracie’s club in West LA. “I just thought that Rickson’s guys, their approach was better; more technical, more interest in the students. Torrance was more like a business.”
The lack of talented athletic guys among the Gracies, with the exception of Renzo, brought Bocek to the realization that he needed to expand his horizons. He spent time in New York with Renzo, lived in Brazil for over a year in 2003, and talks about how he prepared for all his big fi ghts with training camps at Team Quest.
Negativity could affect Bocek, but he doesn’t let it. Commenting on the people who have tried to dissuade him from stepping into the octagon, “It doesn’t matter what other people think. It doesn’t bother me.” Of course, having name recognition comes with the price of critics looking for something or someone to denigrate.
“People are always going to count you out. I’ve won so many matches or fi ghts when people thought that I was going to get killed.”
Although Bocek calls Xtreme Couture Toronto the best facility he’s ever seen in the world, he still believes that an individual’s character and base will be the critical factor in the next generation of MMA fighters. “In the end, I think it comes down to the person…now they’ll have a chance to cross-train in all the arts, but I don’t know if that’s such a good thing. You’re kind of a jack of all trades, master of none.”
Hoping for a November return to the UFC, he doesn’t dwell on losing to Danzig. “Losses just make me hungrier. I hate losing, but they’re almost good in a way.” With all the improvements he’s been making, a promise to the fans, “Watch my next fi ght. I’ll be a different fi ghter.”
Chris Horodecki appears baby faced, but if this were a Vietnam movie, he’d be the one lugging around the M-60. Training is his top priority as he fi nishes a workout on the treadmill before sitting down with me for an interview inside Xtreme’s octagon. He’s also attuned to the ways of the press: infl ate the currency of winners, whether they are hot celebrities or championship sports teams and devalue or show indifference to losers, even if they are the very same people who were once held in high regard.
his time with the IFL, Horodecki is positive and enthusiastic about the experience, “You worked out with 5-6 of your team mates, and then you went to war together. It put a lot on team unity.”
With Horodecki, motivation can be an external force exerting itself upon you, “You always had someone kicking your ass if you were slacking that day,” he explains of the IFL’s team-based format.
“I was raised Polish. I didn’t speak English until I was like, fi ve,” says Horodecki, who was born in Canada but remains intrinsically linked to his immigrant family history. A self-described joker and class clown, he loved Karate, calling himself “A Karate Kid,” and was introduced to MMA through an uncle who showed him old UFC tapes.
There was a crossroads early in Horodecki’s life, a choice between two similar, yet divergent paths. At the age of thirteen, he had to choose between training in MMA or boxing. “I went to a boxing gym in London, and it was real rundown, real beat-up, and my mom didn’t want me going there. It was in a poorer area of the city.” He then linked up with long time trainer Shawn Tompkins when Tompkins gave an MMA seminar at his Karate school. Horodecki notes that Tompkins was well mannered and very much liked in the community. Both are deciding factors that played a role in his decision.
“We still have our obligations back home in London,” says Horodecki, who like Hominick, will never forget where he came from.
At one point, Chris was studying to become a paramedic. With the limited years afforded to a professional athlete and fi nancial rewards accruing only for the most popular and the highest echelon of fi ghters, having other options down the road is prudent. Halfway through his schooling, Horodecki had to abandon his goal due to frequent travel and the punishing schedule required as a top-tier MMA fi ghter.
His confidence is strong and although training is hard, he considers himself lucky. “I’ve been pretty fortunate. There haven’t been too many deep slopes.” Horodecki is philosophical about his rematch with Ryan Shultz for the IFL lightweight title, the only blemish on his professional record, “You live, you lose. It’s not the first time I’ve lost. I lost in the amateurs…I hated it. I lost in wrestling… I hated it. I hate that, but you get up on your feet, you know? You can’t sit there and pity yourself and lick your wounds. You got to wake up.”
Although there are many factors that he cannot control, such as the gradual demise of the poorly managed IFL, like anyone who achieves something of worth, he prefers to concentrate on his own game.
“Right now I’m in limbo and I’m waiting. I’m still under contract with the IFL and I’m waiting until they have a show.” With the fi nancial troubles of the IFL, and ownership up for grabs, that next event may never materialize. Horodecki is now a free agent being wooed by the major organizations, “I’m working hard and keeping ready just to be ready at any time, jump into a camp.”
At 20 years of age, with an outstanding record, Horodecki will continue to evolve and make his mark among the many talented lightweights in the world.
A team rises and falls based on the success and cohesion of its members. Randy Couture was a founding member of Team Quest, but has since moved on to form his own team. Some teams build fi ghters from the ground up; Couture’s stable is growing in force as he collects new members from different camps.
Hominick rationalizes the process, “That’s what has to happen when you get to the higher level. If you’re not bettering yourself in the sport, you’re not going to improve. You’re not going to be at the top level. The way you get better is by training with the best.”
Although Bocek, Hominick and Horodecki remain intensely focused on their MMA careers, they are all still highly committed to their role as teachers. It’s not viewed as a secondary activity, nor as a burden. They love to work with others regardless of their ability or aspirations.
“I’ve always taught since I was a kid,” says Horodecki. “A lot of the people that come in here, they come with previous martial arts experience. It’s kind of different because you have to kind of refi ne their technique and bring them to your system,” explains Horodecki, who believes that a blank slate is the perfect way to get into MMA.
“Anyone can do it. It just takes a lot of hard work,” says Bocek, fi rm in his belief that MMA is accessible to everyone.
All the same, the regiment at Xtreme is rigorous and demanding; not something that those venturing into MMA on a lark should be involved in. “I know that not everyone is there to become a pro fi ghter, but I expect everyone to put in what I’m putting in,” says Hominick.
It’s a hard lifestyle, fraught with constant danger and frequent disappointment. The outcome of every fi ght determines whether your path will cross with the best of the best and the wait for that chance to prove yourself can be excruciating. Every single moment counts for a fi ghter, they’ve refi ned an awareness and knowledge of self that extends far beyond ordinary sensory perception. They hold a belief in their destiny, a faith so strong it endures when faced with the most diffi – cult of adversity.
Sadly, an Ontario-based MMA fighter’s road to success may not be shaped by their efforts in the gym or cage, but by paperwork, legal jargon and time. If they can simply hang on and continue believing, perhaps one day their prayers will be answered.
Until then, however, the excruciating wait will continue.