Tuesday, 28 September 2010

BAMMA: Barely Acceptable, Mis-managed Media Access (aka The Circus Comes to Town)

BAMMA was caught and submitted to demands of Broadcast Media,
much like Marco Santi tapped out to Simeon Thoresen, above.

On Saturday, in a departure from my usual fare, I travelled to Birmingham to photograph a night of MMA fights hosted by the relatively new UK promotion called BAMMA - (British Association of Mixed Martial Arts - if you prefer the long form)

The headlining fight on the night featured Montreal based middleweight Tom "Kong" Watson taking on Alex Reid, aka "The Reidenator."

For those of you for whom don't read or get second-hand accounts of tabloid celebrity media "news", Reid is practically a daily fixture in the glossy gossip magazines that adorn the supermarket shelves. This is largely due to his relationship with one-time glamour model Katie Price - a woman whom has courted (craved?) media attention for as long as I can remember.

After a three year hiatus from the sport of MMA, Reid's newfound celebrity had many wondering if he still had the chops to compete in the sport - a factor that the aforementioned tabloid media spent many thousands of column inches opining.

Enter the aforementioned BAMMA and a proposed matchup with Montreal based Tom Watson. The fight was originally due to take place in April of this year but, owing to Reid sustaining a knee injury during training, the bout was postponed. Cue much hue and cry from columnists and British MMA fans alike.

Getting back to the point. After months of delay, the Reid / Watson fight was booked for 25 September. With UFC 119 taking place on the same night, my editors at ESPN had bigger fish to fry so I wound up getting behind the camera for the London desk of WireImage / Getty Images.

Those of you who know me well will be very aware that I take MMA photography very seriously. I'm an ardent fan of the sport and am extremely passionate about my job, pushing myself to make each shoot better than the last. I have the utmost respect for all the athletes whom don those four ounce gloves and do battle, whether in cage or ring, no matter which promotion.

Unfortunately, it appears that professionalism and respect for MMA as a sport is in short supply in some circles. Allow me to explain.

The first hint of trouble came during the media check-in process. A generic PR man in a mid grey suit hastily explained to me the following key points.
  • Photographers were allowed cageside for the first 9 fights only
  • No cageside access for anyone during the main event
  • Main event photography would be from elevated positions
  • There were no pre-assigned photo positions
  • Up to 26 photographers would be cageside
  • There was only one side of the cage from which photography was allowed
None of the above was communicated to anyone in advance; media check-in was the first that anybody got to hear about these restrictions. Mr Gray Suit tried to soothe the ruffled feathers of my fellow photographers by claiming that he instructed a colleague to send out emails detailing these restrictions to all and sundry three days prior.

Out of the dozen or so photographers that I spoke to that night, no one had received any email to this effect. A call to Getty's London desk early on Monday morning also turned up no evidence of this email. Pretty much no-one (including myself) arrived with any lenses longer than 200mm... a highly impractical proposition for shooting from an elevated position.

A *very* tight crop of the action from the Watson / Reid fight...
In over five years working as a media photographer, event PR have always communicated in advance to me when photo access will be limited to the point of requiring a long telephoto lens (between 400 ~ 600mm) to get usable images.

Given sufficient notice, you can borrow or rent such a lens if you don't own one; at a starting price of around £6000 for a 400mm f/2.8 lens, you tend not to have such a lens in your kit line-up unless you need one every week.

Now here's where it gets weird and very unprofessional: Upon being pressed about said changes, Mr Gray Suit claimed that BAMMA's hands were tied on the matter as these changes had been forced on them by media partners.

Wait... what???

To the best of my knowledge, BAMMA booked the arena, selected fighters for the bouts, crafted the match-ups, sold the tickets (via an agent) and put the whole shooting match together. With the exception of the live broadcast, BAMMA should have been the ones in total control.

It's abundantly clear that, in a desperate bid for a quick infusion of cash, BAMMA rolled over and lubed up to meet every whim of the broadcast media circus that is the Katie & Alex show.

Try to imagine for a second what would happen if the PR or media rep for Fighter X made similar demands to Dana White. Can you imagine the sheer volume of f-bombs that would be dropped at the mere suggestion?

My incredulity at Mr Gray Suit's explanation was further stretched when a good friend of mine showed up to shoot the fights. Now, my friend works for one of BAMMA's media partners; his company's logo was on the canvas floor of the cage and many other highly visible locations - ergo, his bosses were paying BAMMA to be a partner sponsor of the event.

Even he - a photographer for one of their sponsors - was told that he would be denied cageside access to the Watson / Reid fight. Luckily for my friend a higher power intervened in the shape of one of his bosses being on site. He never got to be cageside but was eventually granted the concession of being allowed inside the cage at the end of the scrap to get a few frames.

It's bad enough when you screw over members of the media at short notice, but screwing over a sponsor partner? Never mind the cake - that takes the whole damn bakery.

In another surprising development, I spotted celebrity snapper Dave Bennet cageside. He alternately stood or crouched on the cage apron behind Watson's corner and his interactions with Katie & co. fast made it evident that he was more interested in her than the fight that was about to happen. Out of the 64 photographs that Bennet filed, only five of them were of the fight... the rest were of Jordan and her entourage.

Nice move, BAMMA. Deny professional sports / MMA photographers the opportunity to cover your main event to the best of their ability in lieu of a someone whom is disinterested in the fight that you're promoting.

As for the rest of the show: with a total of ten fights on the card, it kicked off at 5:30pm. The live broadcast of the Watson / Reid fight was set to kick off at 10:00pm - factor in for taped intro segments and wannabe Goldberg / Rogan analysis and the bout wasn't going to start until 10:20 at the earliest.

Unfortunately for BAMMA, most of those nine other fights ended within minutes of their opening rounds. Fight #9 concluded just shy of 9pm, leaving almost 80 minutes of dead time in the arena until the main event kicked off. I concede that in the sport of MMA, anything can happen - but having the bulk of your fights finish so quickly without having a plan in place to fill the dead time is a bit of a poor show.

When Reid finally made his entrance to the arena there was no doubt left as to whom was running the show. In an entrance that would have made "Mayhem" Miller or Akihiro Gono blush, Reid was preceded by a mock circus troupe, coming out to the strains of a version of the Police hit "Roxanne", as lifted from the soundtrack to the film "Moulin Rouge"
Sidenote: Alex was outed as a crossdresser last year, with his alter-ego's name being "Roxanne". No doubt Reid, Price or one of their PR thought the choice of music was appropriately subtle.
As Reid stood cageside in his glittering black fight robe, a blast of confetti littered the cage floor. I thought it was bad enough that the "EA Sports MMA" graphic on the centre of the canvas was ill-applied - peeling at the edges and unevenly rippled in places. Sponsor logos that present trip/slip hazards to fighters are nothing new. Fortunately cageside attendants seemed to sweep up the all shredded paper debris post-haste.

Watson, by contrast, entered in his trademark gorilla mask - a novelty that seemed plain in comparison to the earlier theatrics. I was somewhat nonplussed by his choice of the Ultravox hit song "Vienna" as walk-out music until the refrain of the chorus rang out: "This means nothing to me...." Watson had wasted no time in deriding Reid as an opponent in the run-up to the fight. His entrance song was a final, subtle stab at the fighter-cum-celebrity.

By the time it finished, I was left unimpressed and underwhelmed by the main event - at least when the fighters were compared to the talent that is featured in the UFC, Strikeforce or many other promotions.

As was to be expected, BAMMA had touted Watson as "probably the best middleweight MMA fighter in the UK" - a heavy favourite with the bookmakers. Last time I checked before the fight, he had -700 odds at most betting agents.

The fight that unfurled could best be described as medium-level kickboxing. Reid's technique was sometimes sloppy or overly flash. Watson was predictable in his attempts at engaging Reid. Both fighters seemed to have ran out of gas come the middle of the third round with action becoming sporadic, yet occasionally showing hints of explosiveness. At the start of the fourth, Watson showed greater effectiveness, better conditioning and began to gain the edge over Reid in the exchanges.

Having gone the full distance we had to wait for the judges to render a decision. If memory serves, I heard two scores of 49-46 and one of 49-47, marking one round as a draw - which meant Watson retained the title and Reid escaped with his reputation as a fighter seemingly intact (or renewed, depending on your point of view)

Of course the real casualties of the attendant broadcast media circus were the other fights of the night. Of particular note were John Phillip's demolition of James Zikic, Simeon Thoresen's deep and tight RNC on Marco Santi, AJ Wenn's dogged determination to get Tim Newman in a triangle choke, Harvey Harra's manhandling of David Round... I could go on, but suffice to say that every fight had a definitive finish, even if a few felt a little one-sided from the off. (Photos at the bottom of this post)

With the event concluded, I was more than a little surprised to hear a good portion of the c. 6,000 crowd shouting "Rematch! Rematch!" - their appetite for spectacle as sport seemingly unabated. I will concede that Reid showed no signs of 'ring rust' and that he managed to leave many a mark on Watson's face, although by no means did he escape unscathed himself.

With the next BAMMA card set to be headlined by ageing journeyman Bob Sapp versus Stav Economu, the promotion will likely suffer a dearth of publicity in the wake of the broadcast media circus that was the Watson / Reid fight. I can only guess that they'll somehow try to shoehorn a rematch onto the card at the Metro Radio Arena in Newcastle, but I'll likely be staying at home - unless BAMMA institute the following.
  • Professional MMA photographers are allowed full access to the totality of their events
  • Adoption of UFC style photo positions: two sides of the cage, maximum eight photographers per side
  • In the event overhead photo spots being needed to meet demand, media are informed well in advance so they can bring/borrow/rent 400mm+ lenses as necessary
A post-fight press conference also wouldn't go amiss so reporters could elicit more than soundbite responses from the fighters following their wins and losses.

So that wraps up my opinions on the event that was BAMMA 4: Watson vs. Reid. Time to stop typing and let some of my photographs do the talking. Next up: UFC 120 fight week in London!!

Robert Devanne catches Colin Lewis in a standing guillotine choke
Shah Hussein got trapped by an RNC from Tom Breese
Charlie Leary pounds on Sam Elsdon, getting a TKO stoppage
Havery Harra rains blows down on a grounded David Round
Stuart Davies (facing) traps Scott Jansen with an armbar 
Tim Newman winces as AJ Wenn's kick finds a home
Gunnar Nelson tries to take down Eugene Fadiora
John Phillips buckles the kness of James Zikic with a left hook