Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Shogun Fights: From The Fighters’ Perspective

Note: An edited version of this article also appears on Combat Press.

Before John Rallo helped to sanction mixed martial arts in the state of Maryland in 2009, any fighter who called the Free State home had to travel far and wide to apply his or her wares in the fight game. But Rallo did much more than just help to sanction events; he created one of his own. The first Shogun Fights card took place in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2009 and it has called “Charm City” home ever since.

As Rallo prepares to present the 15th edition of Shogun Fights on Saturday, Oct. 15, Maryland-based fighters Dan Root, Jon Delbrugge, James “Binky” Jones, Micah Terrill, Rob Sullivan and Francisco Isata shared some thoughts on their experiences with the only Maryland-based MMA organization.

When did you first hear about Shogun Fights? What was your reaction?

Dan Root: “I heard it through my former coach. I had a lot of mutual friends with John Rallo, but I had not started training at Ground Control [Baltimore, where Rallo is head trainer] yet. I talked to him, and he put me on the first card. I thought it was great that it was happening – I always traveled to fight before.”

James “Binky” Jones: “I’ve been with John [Rallo] most of my career. We were in Russia in 2009 and it was late at night, and John was typing away at his computer. I asked him what he was doing and he said ‘I’m trying to legalize MMA in Maryland.’ I was excited about it – I’ve fought all over the place but thought that this was the perfect opportunity.”

Micah Terrill: “I heard it through the grapevine. I’m excited that it started, and I bought a scalped ticket to an event and people asked when I would fight on it. I’m not sure it was my dream to fight for Shogun, but it’s beyond anything I ever dreamed.”

Rob Sullivan: “I heard before I started fighting that the bill to legalize it was passed. I knew John was involved, but I was pretty preoccupied with my band and training jiu-jitsu at the time. But I had it in my head that it was happening that I would fight on there.”

Francisco Isata: “I was around on the amateur circuit and I cornered someone at Shogun Fights before, so I saw how big the stage was, so I had a better understanding of it when I fought on it for the first time.”

Describe the atmosphere at your first Shogun Fights card. How was it?

Root: “The best thing about it is the production value – it’s so good and second only to the UFC, in my opinion. Everything goes smoothly and it’s the best I’ve seen. But it was odd for me to see close to 6,000 people – I was used to fighting in front of a few hundred people. But I was so nervous the first time I fought for Shogun that when I walked down the ramp, I grabbed a box and puked in it and thought “Holy fuck, there are a lot of people.” I was one of the first to be a part of something and part of pro MMA in Maryland, so that was pretty cool.”

Jon Delbrugge: “I was super impressed by the first show I fought on. It’s amazing just to be there, and to see a lot of guys who fight on the card being able to make it their career.”

Jones: “I was a little nervous. I was ready to rock in the back, and I was carrying the Maryland flag when I walked out and the place just exploded. I just froze; I never had that feeling before. I went back to being a little kid and watching LL Cool J perform in that same arena. People thought I was just taking a picture, but I zoned in on my opponent in the cage and we had an awesome fight. It was an amazing, awesome feeling.”

Terrill: “It was nerve-racking, but it was also awesome. The hair was standing up on the back of my neck. It was definitely a pretty big deal to be in front of thousands of people.”

Sullivan: “The one thing I remember is missing weight by half-a-pound. I took off my underwear and the scale said I was one pound off because it was a piece of shit; but they changed the scale because I complained. It was a little intimidating stepping into that cage for the first time, because it’s a white canvas and a large arena, all you see is the referee and the person you’re fighting. You don’t pay attention to what’s around you. It’s a little different than fighting in a small casino or a 1,000-person hall, and I was super green, so my wrestling just took over.

I also remember one year, there was going to be a Disney on Ice event the following weekend. The arena floor was already iced, and they put planks of wood over it and you had to walk across the plywood to get to the cage. It was cold as shit, and I remember having to stand there for 15 minutes and I was freezing.”

Isata: “Coming from amateur fights in Virginia, this show was a lot bigger and there were cameras and interviews. I had so many emotions and it was my first weight cut to 145 pounds, and I had a tough opponent for my first fight. So I was more focused than anything else on just fighting.”

How have you seen Shogun Fights evolve over its first 15 cards?

Root: “The talent. People have fought on big shows or gone to big shows. Adding championships was genius, and it’s been built up correctly. We have an educated fan base too; you never hear people boo when the fight goes to the ground, unlike in the UFC. They create videos of the guys who fight and you develop a personal attachment to them. I’ve been on other shows that are a complete clusterfuck, but Shogun has built up championship contenders like me, Micah [Terrill], Rob Watley, Cole Presley. Fans have seen us for years and can develop a personal attachment and grow with us. People can build their career here.”

Delbrugge: “Shogun is the best venue I’ve ever competed in and my favorite to fight for. It’s most like the UFC that I’ve ever seen and the only show I fight on that takes place in an arena. Shogun looks like the UFC with its production; it’s fantastic and it’s good to do it twice a year. It doesn’t water down the talent, and it definitely gets you ready for the UFC. If you can fight in Shogun Fights’ atmosphere, that’s exactly how it is in the UFC.”

Jones: “The Sheffield Institute continue to improve with the production. It’s just the beginning; they do an amazing job doing what they love. John Rallo and his staff treat you like pros, and other shows don’t have that. Each card has amazing fights and the competition goes uphill, not downhill.”

Sullivan: “There’s definitely more promotion now. It’s definitely gotten bigger with the titles, and the guys at the top of the card are getting closer to the UFC. Shogun is making a nice, steady progression with a lot more television promos. I’m getting texts from people saying that I’m in it, and that they see it on Comedy Central and HGTV.”

Isata: “The production is getting better, and the promotion, posters and ads are a lot better. I’ve fought for World Series of Fighting before, and Shogun Fights is actually a little better. They make fans feel like they’re watching a legit card.”

What do you enjoy most about Shogun Fights?

Root: “I enjoy the fans the most. There’s no greater feeling than several thousand people chanting your name. For them to cheer for you, you’ll never have that feeling anywhere else, ever. It’s like a drug – I’m hooked on it. Baltimore has adopted me as one of their own, and the fan support, love and appreciation is one of the best feelings you’ll ever have.”

Delbrugge: “Everyone knows Shogun. People ask me if I fight there, and when I go to the doctor, people ask if I fight MMA. Radio stations call me about it, and when I’m old, this will definitely be a milestone in my career. It really means a lot and if I can be a champion, it’s cool that it resonates with everyone.”

Jones: “I enjoy sharing my journey with everyone and reaching out to the kids in Maryland. They walk out to the cage with me, and I’m happy to share my dream with them and watch them do boxing or jiu-jitsu. Hearing the fans say my name and give me respect whether I win or lose and never stop showing me love? I just love the fans, and Shogun Fights always has legends of the sport come to an event, like Matt Serra and Cowboy Cerrone.”

Terrill: “I really enjoyed my fight with Cole Presley, and my win against Jeremy Carper and knocking him out with a knee. Getting your hand raised? You can’t beat that feeling.”

Sullivan: “Just getting that respect from everyone in Baltimore, and it’s good to be in the locker room with a bunch of your friends and having that camaraderie. It’s pretty fun, and I’m pretty excited to be on this next card.”

Isata: “I’ve fought everyone tough in Shogun Fights and I feel like it legitimizes me to have pretty dope competition. I’ve fought in New Jersey, Texas, Pennsylvania and Virginia, but now I get to have 100-150 fans at Shogun Fights to support me. They don’t have to travel to see me.”

Monday, October 10, 2016

Shogun Fights’ John Rallo takes nothing for granted

Note: A version of this interview also appears on the website Combat Press.

John Rallo was confident that when he helped to sanction mixed martial arts events in Maryland in 2009 and then put on the first-ever MMA event in the state, that he would make it to 15 editions of his biannual fight card, Shogun Fights. He just wasn’t always sure of the location.

“I didn’t think the arena would work, because it was too big,” said Rallo, the founder of the Baltimore-based promotion. The fight cards take place at Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore, which can hold up to 14,000 people.

“I turned them down three or four times, but the general manager of the arena just made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Rallo told me recently. “They modified the arena for us, and no other regional show pulls the number of fans that we do.”

Shogun Fights averages about 5,000 fans at its shows, which includes accounting for comp tickets. Rallo would like to see that number increase to 6-7,000 fans, but notes that the fan base is growing, which he attributes to the passion of the fans and the following of its mainly Maryland-based fighters who compete at the event.

“The casual fan doesn’t come out for a regional show,” Rallo said. “I have other promoters ask me about putting on the type of show that we do, and the Shogun Fights guys are starting to become household names. We have guys with a following who bring in fans and family members, and I tell them ‘I’ll bust my ass for you, so you have to hustle for me.’”

Rallo compares Shogun Fights to other regional promotions who put on shows in the mid-Atlantic, including Ring of Combat and Cage Fury Fighting Championships. “Other promoters visit my show and tell me it’s better than their show,” Rallo said. “I take that as a compliment.”

But putting on a fight card twice a year doesn’t come without its challenges, including one that many promoters deal with – injuries. Shogun Fights 15, which takes place on Saturday, Oct. 15, features a super heavyweight bout with Maryland fighter Ryan McGowan, who’s currently on his fourth different opponent for the event.

“It’s not like the UFC, when one guy gets hurt and it makes headlines,” Rallo said. “When late changes happen, I can’t sell those tickets for that fighter and I’m losing money and sponsorships.”

However, Shogun Fights is also taped and televised on local sports channels in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. area, which can help fighters on the card land bigger sponsors. It can also help fighters gain exposure that they can’t get at other regional shows.

“Guys tell me that other cards have half the number of fans that we do,” Rallo said. He added that some fighters who have previously competed on Shogun Fights cards have appeared in the UFC, including Jimy Hettes, Dustin Pague and Zach Davis, who appeared on season 13 of The Ultimate Fighter. The two fighters competing for the Shogun Fights lightweight title on the Oct. 15 card, Rob Watley and Cole Presley, are also getting a lot of attention from larger organizations, according to Rallo.

“The longer we’re around, the more opportunities there will be,” Rallo said. “I’m doing my best to find fighters from the DMV and develop our guys and our talent. Ring of Combat has sent more than 100 guys to the UFC, and I want to be a consistent feeder to them as well.”

Rallo added, “It takes time to develop talent, and other guys come to our show and tell me they want to join up. I want to help these guys by giving them opportunities that I never had.”

A black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Rallo started competing in the sport after an ankle injury ended his athletic career in baseball and football. Rallo described getting MMA events sanctioned in Maryland as a “challenge,” but also said working with the state of Maryland has been “great.”

“I’m the first person they call when they need input on putting on cards and they’re willing to learn,” Rallo said. “Pat [Pannella, executive director of the Maryland State Athletic Commission] doesn’t act like a know-it-all and has an open mind. If we disagree on something, then we talk it out and he hears another opinion.”

Going forward, Rallo plans to work to boost Shogun Fights attendance by offering more prize giveaways and bringing in more “special guests” that are familiar to MMA fans. Previous Shogun Fights events boasted special guest stars like current and former UFC fighters Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, James Vick, Dennis Bermudez, Leonard Garcia, Matt Serra and Renzo Gracie.

“I’m always looking to make the fan experience better with our visuals and HD technology,” Rallo said. “Our production crew is always looking to improve, and we also welcome other companies like Harley Davidson. I want every card to be an event, not just a fight. I’m all about everyone coming and having fun and making it an entire event.”

Rallo also plans to introduce title belts for the flyweight and bantamweight classes, joining titles that already exist at Shogun Fights for featherweight, lightweight and welterweight. Rallo was hoping to put on three to five Shogun Fights cards when he started this endeavor in 2009 and said he’s hopeful that when the event is more established, he can explore holding events in other locations beyond Baltimore.

“I take nothing for granted,” Rallo said. “I keep plugging along and keep it business as usual, while always looking to make it bigger and better as our fan base grows and I try to keep bringing in bigger names. I believe we put out a great product and I don’t stress as much about paying the bills. I worry more about the health of our fighters.”