In July Jon Ferguson travelled to South Wales to become the first Manxman to fight in a professional mixed martial arts bout, and walked away with a light heavyweight title, and a 9-carat championship belt to prove it.
Black Dog MMA, the modest Douglas gym that Jon trains with, also boasts two fighters that made semi-professional debuts this summer – Harry Brereton and Oscar Brown – and a host of young athletes below them eager to graduate from the amateur ranks.
It’s a remarkable track record for the ambitious but small Derby Square-based club, where trainer Andy Lawrence is at the helm. He acknowledged how important Jon, Harry and Oscar are for Black Dog’s profile.
‘The three of them are essential help for me as a coach,’ said Andy. ‘They are so motivational, it helps others know they are on the right track. What we’re trying to build is that if you want to push on and compete, this is where you come.’
It was 2007 when Black Dog first entered fighters into UK events, and they moved to the Derby Square base last year after planning permission issues meant they were ejected from their former leaky-roofed home at Falcon Cliff Terrace.
With more facilities, and more space to run a busier schedule of classes, Andy called the switch to the former bathroom showroom ‘the best move ever’, though the future is far from certain, being as they are now tenants in a building ear-marked for residential development.
But it is in the ring, or rather the cage, in which success is measured.
‘We get a lot of people from boxing and judo wanting to test themselves against fighters of other disciplines,’ said Andy, touching on the ethos of mixed martial arts.
‘Boxers only fight against boxers, judo against judo. MMA allows people to test those skills against other types of athlete. A good wrestler might not know how to take or avoid a punch. You can never be a complete fighter.’
Jon will be required to return to South Wales in December to defend his title. The more success in the cage he, Harry and Oscar chalk up against professional opponents the better their chances of generating an income from the sport.
For now, gym membership and sponsorship helps fund the fighters, with Jon still working part-time jobs and Harry and Oscar working full-time.
For Jon, turning pro has meant the difference between working an office job and training four hours a week, to now training four or more hours a day.
Andy hopes this breakthrough will help the club get past the traditional glass ceiling that has stalled the careers of island-based fighters; the fact that it is difficult securing top bouts because UK promoters feel they can’t sell tickets to travelling Manx fans, because most of the time there aren’t any. Jon, however, is in negotiations with a UK management company that could help bridge that divide.
‘Our biggest aims are to improve the opportunities for more guys – and the guys we’ve got – to fight pro fights,’ said Andy. ‘The way of doing that is to bring a show over here, that’s my most immediate goal. It would raise some money. We don’t even have a cage here!
‘Hopefully, we can get our three pros and a few of our amateurs on the card at Merthyr Tydfil in December, then look to get them over here in the new year.’
Andy explained the combat sport covers striking, grappling, throws and ground work, including locks, chokes and holds.
‘It is still in its infancy,’ he said. ‘In the early days promoters probably played on the “blood sport” angle, which is complete nonsense, and it has made it hard to shake off that image.
‘We get accused of being a violent sport, but everything is done with consent. Violence is imposing a physical threat without consent. In MMA you both agree to some rules and put some gloves on.’
Andy said, despite their successes, membership at Black Dog is lower than they’d like, simply because the combat sport asks so much of people.
Jon said: ‘I do it because I want to be the best I can, and I like the one on one aspect. I played rugby for 10 years, that’s 15 on 15. With MMA, when you’re in there it’s just you.’
Andy agreed: ‘It creates an incredible amount of focus, to build on your weaknesses. It’s an exercise in the truth; you can’t hide the things you’re not good at, they will be exposed quickly.
‘There are three, five-minute rounds. A boxer might think three rounds sounds easy, but there’s nothing to describe the workout you get when someone is resisting everything you’re trying to do. A good opponent won’t let you use your best skill set; it’s not as simple as just throwing a punch. It’s a chess game.’
Visit the Black Dog MMA Facebook page for more on the club. Phone 244335.