Stephane Patry: Canadian MMA’s Future from the Past – Part 1

Jeff Harrison / September 12, 2016 - 7:46pm

MMA_StephanePatry

 

Stephane Patry is hard to dislike.

There are Patry haters that exist out there in the cynical and vindictive rolling terrain of fight land that peak their gopher heads out from holes now and then and chirp their rumbling offerings.

“He is cheap!”

“Watch out!”

Don’t believe everything you hear.

Stéphane is what he is.

Shrewd.

Charismatic.

Passionate.

A nice guy.

He is also the absolute best in this country at what he does.

My opinions of him are obviously viewed through glasses tinted by experience. I can’t speak to anyone else’s perspective except my own, but I never have had a large issue… Well there was that one time my very facial structure was permanently altered because of his TKO circus due to a last-minute show saver. You know, the kind where you’re called late night on Tuesday and asked to fight on Friday against a hard-hitting and treacherously accurate Jordan Mein.

After getting trounced and spewing blood every which way from a broken nose and cracked orbital bone, I sat backstage bathing in a thick, murky concussion soup wondering how the f*ck I got talked into taking that fight with no training.  It was no one’s fault but my own… Just part of the game right? It was mostly due to my bastard ego believing the Patry hype from a TKO performance 12 months earlier when I fought a ranked lightweight with 13 more fights than me in my second ever MMA fight that I happened to win. Despite this reckless, haphazard approach to management which had me accepting any old opponent (a strategy that gave me nothing except some great experiences, wild stories and a .500 record), I like many aspiring combatants owed Stéphane because he took a chance on me, gave me a place in his big show and seemed to believe in me, which consequently led to me believing a little more in myself. And that’s it, really.

The secret S.P. ingredient.

Belief.

Stéphane has the innate gift to make people believe. Believe in the sport, believe in him and believe in themselves. He gave Canadian MMA fighters the opportunity to become stars. There are no easy fights, no padded records and he isn’t a fight coach building up athletes to move on to bigger things. No. He and his TKO MMA acted and will once again act as a bench mark catalyst for excellence in the sport of MMA in Canada. In the fetal stages of Mixed Martial Arts in the Great White North, the UCC/TKO cage/ring was inarguably the nourishing amniotic fluid that kept it alive. The fight-hub of Montreal was the result of Patry’s vision, dedication and diligence.

Literally an entire combative “family tree” of sorts can be rooted back to the promotion; a comprehensive who’s who memorandum of MMA figures that includes notable names like St-Pierre, Hominick, Tompkins, Cote, Loiseau, Grant, and more… To the old school fan…The kind with pilled grey cotton Full Contact Fighter shirts with darkly stained armpits from too much wear buried deep within the confines of their closets; tokens from a time when NHB fighting was still new, raw and exciting as hell the names Duane Ludwig, Jeremy Horn and of course Pain Peters might ring the proverbial bell as well.

There was a time when UFC lightweight champ Jens Pulver jumped ship from the struggling Ultimate Proving Ground to TKO because it promised to be the king promotion.

Steph provided a formative generation of combat athlete with intensely bright lights to shine under, and as they did more often than not, the silhouette cast on the far side would appear larger than actual life; giant shadows of iconic measurement that the athlete was forced to try and grow into to meet the bar of expectation. His show forced MMA to be better. Talented athletes, big production value, tough fights, the best ring girls in the game and insanely boisterous Montreal fans proved to be the perfect breeding ground for rough and tumble Canadian fight culture. The TKO cage brought out great fights and greater fighters. GSP is the obvious shining example.

The news of the upcoming TKO resurgence has us all pumped beyond words. Thank all the fight gods he’s back in business. We’ve missed him. Canadian and Global MMA has missed him.

I asked him if he would be interested in doing an interview for this editorial I would submit to  Fight Network and he readily obliged. I was excited to get the keys clicking again since I haven’t produced articles or blogs for websites since my 20s. I had just completed my first book and felt my pen-game was on point and the timing was right, especially after receiving an open invitation from the good editors at  Fight Network to submit any work. Any chance to produce well-written ramble for the fine folks in fight land was an opportunity I simply couldn’t pass up. After three and a half days of attempting to get a hold of him, I finally persuaded his thumb to press the ‘accept’ button on what I’m assuming is a state of the art and chaotically busy cell phone. It was a hot Friday. I pulled over in my car and I dialed his number by heart, the result of a 10-year relationship mixed with fairly decent numeric retention. I hit record on an older iPhone that I set beside my phone and placed my cell on speaker phone to record our conversation, as I didn’t want to lose any of the real-time dialogue or emotions conveyed due to primitive short form notation taking. I always enjoyed the old school form of journalism; you know the kind with a tape recorder and word for word conversations. So much of this gets lost on our five second attention span society. Should I tell him I was intent on recording out conversation?

Nah…

Baa-rinng…

“Oui Allo?”  He said in a friendly French-accented voice.

“Steph, how are you doing buddy?” I asked.

“I am doing great thank you,” he replied politely.

“Nice,” I said as I scanned over the list of questions I had prepared. “How is the show coming along?”

“Amazing man!” he explained happily. ”It’s almost sold out already. Everyone is excited. Everyone is happy so…”

“The world is excited!” I interrupted.

“Jeff, I am looking forward to it,” he said confidently. “It’s going to be an amazing night.”

Time to get to the point. I had pre-framed him with a text message but still it would be best to cut right to the chase.

“So I am writing a bit,” I told him as a pre-emptive warning that I might dig a little further than our existing professional relationship allowed.  “Obviously we will separate this from any manager/promoter relationship we have ok? I am just going to ask you some questions.”

“Yeah, that is fine.”

“Ok cool man. So, first off… Let’s get to know Stephane Patry.  It’s probably been done before but I am going to do it again. What is your background in fighting? Did you ever train any martial arts?”

“Yes. Actually I did Tae Kwon Do as a kid. I did it from around six years old until 11. Then I did Judo from about six years old to age 14. I went to the Quebec games for this.”

Five years and eight years… I did the math in my mind and figured it was possibly enough time to earn a red or black belt at a commercialized dojang, and possibly a brown belt in the gentle art. “Really?” I said, thoroughly impressed.

“Yeah.” He said. “Actually I still have pictures of that. I was also playing hockey at the same time, so when I started playing at a higher level in hockey I stopped martial arts altogether, but I was always into them.”

“Cool bro. Do you still train?”

“Martial Arts?”

“Yes.”

“No. I don’t have time.” His voice carried a slight hint of regret.  “I do cardio and some weights but that is about it.”

“I see,” I said glancing down at the prompt paper I had sitting beside me roasting in the sun on the passenger seat. “So how did you get into promoting? You have been doing this for such a long time… How did it happen?”

“Actually it was one of those things. When the UFC came about in 1993, I would also watch them with friends. They would have about three shows a year back then and we would always order them on pay-per-view and watch. In 1996, when the CRTC advised Viewer’s Choice to stop showing UFC because it was promoting, sanctioning and encouraging violence, they pulled it off the air and I got quite upset because we couldn’t watch it anymore. So I actually called SEG Sports and spoke with David Isaacs who was the VP of the company that owned the UFC at the time, and I asked him if they were going to do anything about it. Because they were an American company and the CRTC was a Canadian entity, arguments wouldn’t be heard from the U.S. company to try and get UFC on the air. He said it had to be done by a Canadian group. So I met a lawyer in New Brunswick and we started working on the Canadian movement for Mixed Martial Arts.”

‘Oh it was actually just one of THOSE things,’ I said silently to myself. I should have guessed.

“We started working on different presentations to be done for the CRTC,” he continued, seemingly more than happy to give me an in-depth recap of the beginning of his career. “I ended up meeting with these guys probably close to 20 times to do these presentations on why we should allow Viewer’s Choice to broadcast UFC again. And then very early in 1998 at my last meeting with them I completely changed the way I was presenting it. I had been focusing on trying to push mixed martial arts, to push the beauty of our sport, push the beauty of our athletes and new rules that were coming into play blah blah blah but it wasn’t working. So I decided to do something different; I started bashing boxing and wrestling. So what I did is I went to the channel where they show previews on the upcoming shows you know?”

“Yes.” I returned, recalling the old blue pay-per-view commercial screens that advertised fights and pornography in the 1990s.

“I don’t know if they even have that anymore,” he continued. “So they had a commercial for boxing and it had footage of Mike Tyson biting off Holyfield’s ear. Then the next commercial was for wrestling and showed a wrestler hitting a girl and then smashing a referee with a chair. People in the crowd were cheering ‘F*ck Russians’ and ‘F*ck Russia.’ So I said how can they say our sport sanctions and glorifies violence more than these two other sports? You know?”

“Wow, crazy.” I thought back to the 90s and couldn’t recall racist wrestling ads, but I guess I was never really into the whole WWF scene. Maybe things were different in the community of Quebec?

“So I did a whole new presentation on the difference between what boxing and wrestling promoted and what our sport promoted. I also put a lot of emphasis on the numbers that Viewer’s Choice was making with boxing and wrestling, which was really the bread and butter of the pay-per-views because back then movies weren’t really a thing on these channels yet. So I told them, listen, if you are going to ban mixed martial arts because it’s sanctioning and promoting violence then you need to ban wrestling and boxing as well. That kind of shocked the CRTC. You must understand the people you meet. They are… What’s the word?” he muttered as he translated from French to English in the recesses of his sharp-as-a-tack brain. “Commissioners!  So they really don’t know much about boxing or wrestling or how those sports along with MMA are promoted… So when I showed up with that video it changed everyone on the board’s mind. I left that meeting with a letter confirming that Viewer’s Choice would be allowed once again to broadcast UFC.”

“Wow. Steph, I never knew… Were you the guy that actually got it sanctioned in Quebec? What is a sport already or did you make that happen as well?”

He laughed as if a little annoyed I had interrupted his flow.

“I’m getting there, hold on.”

“Okay,” I responded.

“When I left the CRTC office I called David Isaacs and told him. The UFC had a show coming up a few weeks later and they were able to put it back on the air in Canada. That was big for them because they were kind of banned in Canada at that point. So that is how I made a name for myself in the sport,” he said.

I sat there in the driver’s seat of my car in the sweltering heat, contemplating momentarily on how getting the largest no holds barred fighting promotion on the planet back into the living rooms of an entire country would be a great way to make a name for oneself.

“So a few months later, I was helping the UFC with their press releases; you know they gave me some stuff to do up here in Canada. I got a call shortly after from Mike, who was one of the owners of the IFC. They did shows on the reserves near Montreal.”

“Oh I remember that!” I said excitedly, thinking to the days in high school when I used to rent or buy any fight video I could get my hands on to study.

“Yes,” he affirmed. “I met with Mike and he wanted me to become the manager of operations for his show. They were having a hard time getting people to go watch. There was a lot of political bullsh*t in Quebec, which led some people to be scared to go on the reservations, and most of their fighters were actually natives from different reserves, or Americans… They didn’t really have any fighters from Quebec or Ontario. No up and comers. Most of their guys were street brawlers, doormen from bars… It wasn’t really… You know…”

“It was playing into the stereotype of the era,” I interjected.

“Yes. They had a few athletes but it wasn’t great. I told Mike I would do it, but I needed a few months to go around Quebec and find talent. When I started scouting, I found David Loiseau, I discovered Georges St-Pierre when he was only 17, Charles Nester, Joel Leblanc, and more. But there was so much going on behind the scenes with the IFC that I only worked for three shows. I resigned because I didn’t like what was going on behind the scenes. I didn’t want to be associated with this company, so I went back to my career.”

He excitedly told me to wait a few times, like he had something very important to tell me. “I am telling you these stories about the UFC and IFC, but I should tell you I finished University in… When did I finish University?” he asked himself out loud. “I finished in 1997, I believe…And I had a major in communications and I started working.”

Suddenly the promoting legend’s ability to sell things made perfect sense.

“I was 24 or 25 years old and I was making a lot of money. Like a sh*t load of money,” he said emphatically.  “Things were going very well for me, and when Mike called me to go work for the IFC, my girlfriend asked me if I was f*cking crazy because they were going to pay me very little. Jeff, I won’t say how much it was, but it was maybe a quarter or a third of what I was making. My girlfriend thought I was crazy.  My own mom didn’t want to talk to me for months, but I still went to the IFC, did three shows with them and then left. I got my job right back even though I left for seven or eight months because I did a very good job… I sat in my office for one week. I said to myself ‘this isn’t what I want to do.’ My passion was Mixed Martial Arts. So I started my own company, the UCC, which turned into TKO.”

“Wow,” I offered a one-word fist bump of respect for giving up the white-collar purgatory and chasing his dreams. I was pouring sweat from being hot-boxed. As I opened the car door to tried and get some air, the terrible nagging beep of a car key left in the ignition began crying at me and making the decibel spikes on my recording device peak rhythmically. Steph was explaining how he had to convince the commission in Quebec to change the rules because in the early days, “mixed boxing” as it is so eloquently named in the “Belle Province,” used to lack knees and elbows, only allow open hand strikes on the ground and give out standing eight counts during MMA fights, a rule that simply didn’t allow any progressive form of MMA to exist within the province. Stephane sat with the commission for weeks and modified the rulebook to fit the bill of the unified rules.

“So moving on…” I said once he had finished. “You are the master of MMA hype in Canada. I guess it makes sense that you have a university degree in communications.” His phone started to screech and spit static out into the cockpit of my car. “You are like the French-Canadian Don King. Why is it that when you say something will be incredible people listen?”

“I didn’t understand your question,” he said as the static subsided.

“Why is it that when you say a fighter, a show or whatever else will be incredible, why is it that everyone listens?” I reiterated. “Why is this? Why do you have this knack to persuade people that what you do is going to be incredible?”

“I guess my masters in communication helps. It probably doesn’t hurt that I am a really good salesman, but at the same time if you say something is going to be incredible and you never delivered in the past you might not get the same kind of attention. So my ability to sell something helps, but it’s also because I have delivered in the past.”

A rolodex of great moments flashed like a sped up slideshow in the back of my mind; GSP making his debut vs. Menjivar, Cote throwing right hand bombs, Duane Ludwig starching Jens Pulver, Hominick coming in fired up with Shawn Tompkins right behind him telling him he was the best, plus so many more.

“When I started back in 2000 with UCC and then TKO it wasn’t like that. I was this guy coming of out nowhere trying to sell this big event. I had to make my way through this jungle, and let me tell you it is a jungle. I guess I did a pretty good job at that, and today, through the highs and lows of what I’ve done I am very happy that folks still believe in me, and I am so happy we are getting the kind of reception we are getting with the return of TKO. The momentum we are getting is huge. I mean, I knew people would be excited to see TKO again after I struck my deal with UFC fight pass. I knew there would be a buzz, I knew there would be emotions and momentum, but I never expected it like this. This is crazy.”

“People missed you man!” I told him honestly.

“I guess.”

“It’s going to be huge!” I added. “Next question: Who is your favorite fighter? Only name one.”

“My favorite fighter I have promoted?” he asked.

“Just in general. Anybody.”

“My favorite fighter ever to deal with was Mark Hominick by leaps and bounds,” he said with hesitation.

“Interesting,” I replied, remembering how Steph had always said he is looking for the next Mark Hominick, using his skills and character as a sort of benchmark for the great Canadian MMA striker.

“My favorite fighter ever to watch was Vitor Belfort, but I really, really enjoy Conor McGregor now.”

“You wish he fought for TKO, don’t you?” I laughed.

“Conor?” He replied smugly. “Of course!”

“This is a sticky question. What happened between you and GSP?” I asked. “I for one and I am sure the rest of Canadian MMA wants to know.”

“What happened between me and GSP?” he repeated then trailed off for a second. “Well, Jeff, what happened was… If you go back and look at the seven years we were together, as an athlete and manager, we were best friends. We were always together, we had dinner at restaurants four times a week, we watched movies together, travelled together and we bought houses on the same street. We were always together. But this is a business and Georges was very young at the time and obviously you get people that say things to you, and try to tell you they could do this better or this better… You know?”

“Yeah,” I responded, internally referencing my own experiences with bastard coaches trying to poach fighters from me.

“Georges was having success. He was a world champion and he had tonnes of people telling him they could do more for him,” Stephane said. “And me? I was very confident about the work I was doing with Georges. He was one of the most sponsored guys back then. He was making good money for back then, or even today… As his manager I was happy because he had more sponsors than Chuck Liddell who was the biggest star in the UFC.”

“That’s actually crazy.”

“Look at his fight shorts. When I managed him up until his loss with Matt Serra, the guy’s shorts were full. He was plastered. So basically he got an offer from someone to handle his sponsorship and Georges thought that the person offering could do a better job than me, and I didn’t agree. He wanted me to handle his fight career and have this woman handle his sponsors. I didn’t agree with it. We started not fighting but arguing about it for a few weeks, and honestly it was the only time in our relationship that we argued about something. We had a wonderful manager-athlete relationship. So that kind of started putting…” He paused and hummed for a second. “Ahh what’s the word in English?”

“Rift?” I offered.

“I wouldn’t say a huge one, but yes there was a rift.” he agreed.  “In 2006, if you remember that is where TKO walked into the Bell Centre.”

“Yes,” I recalled. I remember the hype. I had missed the first show at the Bell Centre and had shown up on the TKO radar as a coach for the second one where my boy viciously assaulted a Quebec up-and-comer.

“Those shows were big. It was huge for me and huge for TKO and it was also a lot of work. I was also manager to I think 18 fighters”.

“Holy sh*t!”

Patry laughed to himself, making my speaker phone crack from the volume of it. It was most likely tickled up by disbelief at how he managed it all. “Most of them were very manageable, and I was trying to maintain my schedule were I could be a very good manager, and run a successful TKO as a business. But Georges, because of the way he is… You don’t become a world champion if you’re not special, and he is a very special person. He was becoming a full time job. It was becoming really hard for me to be his agent, take care of my other athletes, and do TKO. Honestly if I wanted to be a perfect manager for Georges I would have had to stop TKO and get rid of my seventeen other fighters, because he needed someone full-time.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

“There was no time for me to be his full-time agent because my passion was TKO and of course the other guys too. We got to a point were we went out for lunch one day in July of 2007 I believe and Georges said he didn’t want me to be his manager anymore. And that…” He stopped short for a second. Was it emotional remembering losing his prize athlete? Did he still have a piece of him that wishes he would be in the greatest Canadian Mixed Martial Artist of all time’s dressing room when he made his much anticipated comeback?

“That was that,” I said.

“Yes that is how we stopped. He was still under contract with me and I made him an offer because obviously this is a business with financial implications, and he refused.” His voice switched to all business. “We had to go to court.”

“Oh sh*t.”

“We ended up settling, but when I made the decision to sue him to get what I wanted, for about two years we didn’t talk at all during the entire procedure,” he told me. “We settled a few weeks before trial, and then we became friends again. We went out for dinner and everything was forgotten. Obviously I don’t see him as often as I used to…”

“Are you guys still close?”

“I wouldn’t say close,” he spoke very specifically, as if dissecting the words he used under a microscope to be careful of a misrepresentation of the facts or a potentially misconstrued interpretation of his feelings.  “We still talk. We don’t go out for dinner four times a week anymore but we have a very good relationship.”

“What are your thoughts on his comeback, Steph?”

“I wrote about it and talked about it for two years. We had dinner sometime in 2015 and he told me right there and then that he was thinking of making a comeback. He only wanted to do one or two big fights, and the focus was on Anderson Silva, but when Silva got caught with steroids, that’s when the whole plan fell through… So in my opinion, if Silva hadn’t got caught with steroids that fight would have happened in 2015. But now he’s going to come back in December.”

The inside scoop this man had was staggering. If the average fight geek knew what he knew, it might result in some form of over-exposure-to-behind-scene-facts-induced seizure; a tragic keeling over of GSP and grassroots MMA fans alike nation wide. This was indeed going great. It was turning into an interesting, insightful and in depth interview that surpassed your average 500-750 word blurb on a web page to be shot out of the social media cannon into the aether, read quickly by fight fans before scrolled past for more entertaining videos of cats on the bus home from work or on the toilet during break and forgotten as fast as it came rip roaring onto a newsfeed. This was a throwback to old sports reporting in thick magazines that actually covered the story. A meaningful look into the mind of the man who made MMA happen in the best country on the planet. With the topic of how he got started out of the way, it was time to delve into the comeback of a legendary platform with a penchant for making highlight reels and superstars. Time to extract some stories, thoughts on his highs, lows and even some craziness from the past, and get a look into our nation’s fighting future from the past; TKO.

Part two next week…