March 2, 2021

How a UFC Impostor Became Australia’s First NHB Event


This is the final installment of a multi-part series on the
first modern MMA show held in Australia, billed the “Australasian
Ultimate Fighting Championship.”

PROLOGUE
|
PART 1
|
PART 2
|
PART 3
|
PART 4
|
PART 5


AFTERGLOW AND UNREALIZED POTENTIAL


Within minutes of the great Mario Sperry
beating Chris
Haseman
to win the “Australasian Ultimate Fighting
Championship,” the eight-sided cage was brimming with drummers and
dancers in celebration of the 30-year-old Brazilian’s victory.

As 5,000 spectators slowly filed out of the Darling Harbor
Exhibition and Convention Center into Sydney, a prime “Ze Mario”
was overcome with pride, relief and the sensation that he “fought
with a thousand cats.” Sperry had scratches all over his body due
to a painted canvas that “was like sandpaper.” He wanted to surf
the Australian waves the next day, but it was too uncomfortable to
get in the water.

Pulling off the event gave Randy Bable one of the biggest
adrenaline rushes of his life, but he had been scraped up by the
experience, as well. Bable had to circumnavigate Semaphore
Entertainment Group’s threats to shut down the event with an
injunction for trademark infringement. He talked down the Boxing
Authority of New South Wales and more than 20 uniformed police
officers who threatened to storm the cage and pull fans from the
bleachers. An hour and a half after it was all over, he and his
wife returned home feeling like a huge weight had been lifted from
their shoulders.

“I was so drained,” Bable said. “My wife had three or four or five
too many to drink in the VIP area during the fights. I just
remember the drive back over the [Sydney] Harbor Bridge and her
having to put her head out of the taxi window. You know, a bit of
stress was involved from her side, too.”

With their combat obligations discharged, the fighters and their
entourages let loose on Sydney. By all accounts, the camaraderie
flowed as freely as the beer. Frank
Shamrock
ended up on a boat dancing and drinking with the
Brazilians; Elvis
Sinosic
played tour guide for the Lion’s Den crew, taking them
to some of Sydney’s nightclubs; and Neil
Bodycote
’s team put down a few schooners with Zane Frazier,
whom he replaced in the tournament, along with other members of
Sperry’s entourage. There was a strong sense of kinship among men
charting a new frontier.

“It was a very small world,” Shamrock said. “These are guys that
you train with, live with, travel with. The Brazilian groups were
always very welcoming and family-oriented, so when we met Mario, it
was kind of the same vibe. Even though we were standing opposite
each other, it just felt good. We were all doing the same thing.
We’re in a foreign country doing our thing.”


Simon Sweet, Hiriwa Te Rangi, Carlson Gracie, Mario Sperry, Matt
Rocca and Vernon White after the tournament concluded. | Provided
by Matt Rocca



* * *


The morning after the event, Bable was up early arranging for fight
purses to be paid via bank transfer from revenue the event had
generated. Next came tearing down the infrastructure built inside
the convention center. Lastly, he made sure he had all the footage
of the spectacle ready for post-production.

Bable’s to-do list grew that Wednesday when
SEG filed proceedings against him for trademark infringement
,
arguing he had passed off his promotion as the
UFC
and unlawfully used SEG’s logos and intellectual
property.

Among other things, the lawsuit sought to temporarily restrain
Bable from distributing the event on VHS (this, after he had
already peddled pre-sale orders through Blitz magazine) and to
prevent him from marketing the tournament and future events as the
“Australasian UFC.” In addition, SEG sought damages with interest,
compensation for legal costs, orders that Bable publish corrective
advertising and orders that permanently prevented Bable from using
an octagonal cage in future NHB events.

Ultimately, SEG appeared to lose interest in the lawsuit after
Bable gave a legal undertaking to the Federal Court to change the
name of the event to “Caged Combat 1” and include disclaimers
stating it was not associated with or licensed by SEG. The release
of the VHS was delayed some weeks as a result of the proceedings,
but by mid-April, he was free to distribute it in hopes of making
back at least some of the estimated $250,000 he invested in the
tournament.

* * *


It was at this point that Bable believes he made a fatal error.

“I got a deal,” Bable said. “Lionsgate Films picked up the rights
to actually distribute it, as did Warner Bros. Lionsgate bought it
and shelved it, for whatever reason. I think that may have had
something to do with the SEG. When I followed up and asked, ‘Why
isn’t this happening?’ The response I got was that they wanted to
promote the UFC brand and shelve my VHS because they wanted to
invest in the UFC. They wanted to buy the rights to distribute in
this area.”

That left Time Warner as an option, according to Bable, but it was
not meant to be. This was the moment that played a key role in the
demise of his fight promotion and his decision to leave the
industry.

“I had the music from the ‘Fever Girls,’ which we didn’t have the
rights for,” Bable said. “The post-production guy said they could
lay in some studio music. We could have done it right then. I said
‘hold on’ and called my copyright attorney. I explained the
situation. We didn’t have rights to one of the songs; it was a Bon
Jovi song from memory. I said that we could edit it out right now
and asked what we should do. The advice was, ‘Don’t worry about it.
It won’t be a problem.’ That advice totally killed everything that
I did. The music rights stopped everything.

“We tried negotiations directly. They did as well with Bon Jovi,”
he added. “We were negotiating and trying to get these rights,
because we didn’t want to go back to post-production. And then it
just … it was an impasse. I think Time Warner actually sent me a
letter saying if we couldn’t reach it by a certain time, they would
have to drop it—and they did.”

* * *


Bable persisted with his original vision well into 1997. Full-page
advertisements for “Caged Combat 2: The Rumble on the Reef” were
placed in multiple issues of Blitz magazine published in the second
half of the year.

A partial lineup of combatants included original tournament
participants Chris Haseman and Elvis Sinosic, UFC veteran Paul
Varelans
, three-time Olympic wrestling alternate Tom Erikson
and Australian Pancrase fighters Larry Papadopolous and Alex Cook.

The format was the same—an eight-man elimination tournament as the
primary showcase—and two single-bout “superfights.” However, the
planned event never came to fruition.


(+ Enlarge) | Blitz Magazine: Volume 11, Issue
9


An advertisement for “Caged Combat 2:
The Rumble in the Reef,” set to take
place near the Townsville Army Barracks
in Queensland on Sept. 27, 1997.

With Bable struggling for cash as a result of
disappointing video sales following the first event—his only avenue
for distribution was through Blitz magazine and later on a
custom-made website—he pushed back the date of Caged Combat 2 and
organized a smaller card billed as “Australian
Vale Tudo
.” The event, scheduled for November 1997, was held at
Whitlam Leisure Center in Liverpool, New South Wales, in front of a
couple thousand spectators.

The fights took place on a rectangular canvas reminiscent of a
traditional boxing ring but with chain-link fence instead of the
ropes. Sinosic’s trainer, Anthony
Lange
, fought at the event and broke his arm after he fell back
onto the chain link.

“Because the chain has no give, it’s basically a steel bar when
it’s taut.” said Sinosic, who fought and won twice that night. “An
interesting thing I heard through the grapevine, and I put this
together after the event: Randy didn’t pay everyone. One of the
[contractors] who wasn’t paid was [one of] the people who put the
cage together. So for the Australasian Vale Tudo event, they didn’t
have a cage.”

Though rumors swirled regarding Bable dishonoring his contracts
with suppliers, only one, referee Cameron Quinn, confirmed being
stiffed.

“Tell Bable he still owes me $300,” Quinn said.

Bable denied that he left any contractor high and dry.

“Everybody got paid,” he responded. “Although there were a few
people that probably took longer to get paid than they should
have.”

There’s little doubt that finances were a big reason why he
downgraded for the AVT event and left the industry all together
soon after.

* * *


Bable’s contribution, short lived as it was, was nonetheless
important to the people who shared the experience.

Michael Schiavello got his start in MMA commentary thanks to
Bable.

“I had one in the books. I had done a solid job. I had a calling
card. I would go on to commentate MMA events worldwide and work on
the big promotions such as Strikeforce and Dream and Dynamite and
One Championship,” Schiavello said. “It all began with Caged
Combat, and I will forever be grateful for Randy Bable giving a
22-year-old an opportunity to commentate a major event in the
history of Australian martial arts.”

Chris Haseman and Elvis Sinosic, virtual unknowns in 1997, received
significantly greater exposure on the international stage from the
event. Sinosic took Frank Shamrock to a decision at the K-1 Grand
Prix 2000 Final event three years later, then made his way into the
UFC, where he fought for the 205-pound title against Tito Ortiz.
Haseman would fight his next 25 fights for Japan’s Rings
organization, culminating in a bout with Fedor
Emelianenko
in 2002.

Even controversy from their fight served to be a positive for the
pair. Sinosic criticized Haseman for his alleged dirty tactics,

cementing a rivalry that bubbled in the background
while they
represented Australia on the international circuit. Some 13 years
after their first meeting, the UFC touched down in Australia for
the first time with UFC 110 at Sydney’s Acer Arena, and a rematch
was booked for the two past-their-prime pioneers. The fight would
ultimately fall through—Sinosic was forced out with a shoulder
injury, and Haseman was removed from the card—but the spotlight
certainly did not hurt them as they transitioned into
retirement.


(+ Enlarge) | Photo Courtesy: Elvis Sinosic


Neil Bodycote, Mario Sperry and Elvis
Sinosic, all smiles during Sperry’s
BJJ seminar in Sydney.


The remaining three ANZACs—Simon Sweet,
Hiriwa Te
Rangi
and Neil Bodycote—experienced less decorated careers. Te
Rangi would continue competing in MMA, but his professional record
stands at 2-9, and he is mostly remembered for kickboxing. Sweet
never competed again in mixed fighting, and
the only remnants of his kickboxing career are a handful of YouTube
videos from the mid-1990s
. Bodycote, the first Australian to
compete in a modern mixed-rules bout on his home soil, competed
once more in NHB, picking up a victory at Bable’s Australian Vale
Tudo event. Tragically, he took his own life in 1998.

Vernon
White
claims his participation in the “rip-off” UFC event led
to SEG refusing to work with him, though he eventually signed with
the promotion after it had been purchased by Zuffa in the early
2000s. Matt
Rocca
, whose debut fight against Sinosic lasted all of 41
seconds, also had a tough time returning to the Lion’s Den and
departed the academy soon after.

“I was a disaster,” Rocca said of the aftermath of his trip to
Australia. “Keep in mind that this was an extremely successful
team. They’re all alphas. If you do well, you’ll get the accolades.
If you don’t, you’ll hear about it. That wore on me. Although I had
competed, I didn’t make that transition from young boy to
fighter.”

Rocca returned home to Canada, dejected with his performance,
holding onto the sense that the MMA industry was not going to “take
flight.” Time spent away from the fight game made the 20-year-old
reconsider what he wanted to do with his life. He had a revelation:
“Maybe this was not what I was destined to do.” Rocca listened to
his parents, who advised him to go to school. Today he is a police
officer in Ontario, Canada.

* * *


Randy Bable congratulated Mario Sperry on winning the
“Australasian Ultimate Fighting Championship.” From Blitz Magazine,
Volume 11, Issue 5.



Perspectives differ on what impact, if any, that Bable and his
short-lived promotion had on mixed martial arts, in general, and on
Australian MMA, in particular.

For his part, Bable likes to think the scale and professionalism of
his spectacle on March 22, 1997 set a high-water mark for NHB at
the time and played a part in propelling the sport into the
multibillion-dollar industry it is today. Others lament that the
promotion was too ahead of its time to meaningfully influence the
trajectory of NHB, which was about to disappear from cable
television in the United States and spend years languishing in
relative obscurity outside of Japan.

The dearth of major events in Australia until the real UFC touched
down in 2010 supports the latter interpretation of history. Though
small promotions, including incarnations of Pancrase and
Rings, tried cultivating a market for mixed fighting in Australia
in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was not until later that a
reliable regional scene established itself. This was followed by a
trickle of Australian fighters into the UFC and other
organizations—“The Ultimate Fighter” Season 6 semifinalist George
Sotiropoulos
and Bellator
MMA
middleweight champion Hector
Lombard
were among them—but the region’s talent did not explode
until the UFC targeted Australia for regular events, including with
its biggest stars, and a handful of seasons of “The Ultimate
Fighter.”

Australia and New Zealand have since produced contenders across
multiple divisions and crowned three UFC champions: Robert
Whittaker
, Alexander
Volkanovski
and Israel
Adesanya
. Australian crowds twice set the attendance records
for UFC events—first at UFC 157, where Holly Holm
shocked the world by knocking out the seemingly indestructible
Ronda
Rousey
with a second-round head kick, and next at UFC 243,
where Adesanya, the current 185-pound champion, commenced his
championship run with a stunning knockout of Whittaker. Australia
is frequently cited as the UFC’s biggest per-capita PPV domain, and
ever more Australian fighters and
organizations
are being brought within the promotion’s
orbit.

How much credit Bable deserves is a matter for debate.

“I just ran out of steam,” Bable said. “You look at the event and
everything that happened. Everyone—everyone—tried to stop me. I was
up against the wall every direction I went. The police, the boxing
commission, the local government. The venues didn’t want us, the
sponsors didn’t want us. In the end, we made a great product, but
everybody tried to stop us. I got beat down for a year, then took a
bath on the income, as well. I had to recover from that.

“I basically just got back to work,” he added. “I was a commercial
builder, so I went back to putting together contracts. I
fortunately had the ability to do that, but it took a little while
to recover. I had a wife and two little kids, remember. If I was a
single man, it might have been a different story, but my family was
my top priority.”

Aware of the opportunity he had in 1997 to impact the direction of
MMA, Bable thinks about what could have happened if not for a few
bad calls—with Renee Rivkin or the distribution deal with Time
Warner.

“It would have changed the course of my life,” he said. “It
tormented the hell out of me for five years, you know?”

Bable was coy when asked if he was completely over MMA. He wrote a
screenplay inspired by the March 1997 event and plans on releasing
the second vale tudo event at some point. The raw footage is
gathering dust in the Tennessee home where he currently lives with
his wife.

Jacob Debets is a lawyer and writer from Melbourne, Australia.
He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics
of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.



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