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From “Niche Sport” to Olympics — The Story of IMMAF

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By now, you’re probably familiar with the origins of MMA as we know it today. ​The modern era of MMA began in the early 1990s with the creation of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in the United States. The UFC was created as a tournament to determine the best martial arts style, and the early events were often chaotic and violent, with few rules in place. However, as the sport evolved, new rules were introduced to ensure the safety of the fighters, and the sport began to gain popularity.

In the early 2000s, MMA experienced a surge in popularity, with the sport growing rapidly in the United States and around the world. Since then, the sport has continued to grow, with new promotions emerging and existing promotions expanding into new markets. In more recent years, fight fans have been able to enjoy the likes of PRIDE and Rizin from Japan as well as ONE Championship coming out of South East Asia.

However, despite more and more martial arts being added as Olympic disciplines, mixed martial arts still struggles to gain Olympic recognition. This is where the IMMAF comes in.

The origins of the International MMA Federation

Fighter dominates his opponent with a ground and pound at the 2022 IMMAF World Championship

The International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) is a non-profit organization that aims to promote and develop the sport of mixed martial arts around the world. The organization was founded in 2012 and is based in Sweden. IMMAF primarily works to promote safety and fair play in the sport and to establish standard rules and regulations for MMA competitions. One name you might recognize that has been spearheading this ambition is none other than Marc Goddard, the UFC referee.

IMMAF’s primary focus is on amateur MMA, with the goal of creating a pathway for amateur fighters to transition to professional MMA. We’ve seen this happen in real-time (if you’ve been paying any attention), with the likes of IMMAF alumni Amanda Ribas, Muhammad Mokaev, Manon Fiorot, and Jack Shore joining the UFC after finding amazing success within the IMMAF leagues.

What does IMMAF do?

Female fighter faces her opponent at the 2022 IMMAF World Championship

IMMAF mainly works with national MMA federations around the world to help them develop and promote the sport in their countries. This includes providing training and support for coaches and officials (like referees and timekeepers), as well as helping to organize and sanction local and regional competitions. Today, IMMAF has 120 national member federations, with about 50 of those organizations officially recognized by their National Olympic Committee or National Sports Authority.

One of the key initiatives of IMMAF is the annual IMMAF World Championships, which take place in different locations each year. The tournament is open to amateur MMA fighters from around the world and features men’s and women’s competitions in a variety of weight classes. The event is considered the premier amateur MMA tournament in the world and has been held in locations such as Las Vegas, Bahrain, and Rome. Most recently, the 2022 IMMAF World Championships were held in Belgrade, Serbia.

According to IMMAF, the organization is highly dedicated to the “health and safety of the sport of MMA and zero tolerance of cheating”. With that goal in mind, IMMAF works very closely with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) — a name most MMA fans should be familiar with — to ensure that MMA competitions are conducted in accordance with WADA’s rules and regulations regarding performance-enhancing drugs.

UFC’s surprising role in realizing IMMAF’s goals

Fighter taking down his opponent at the 2022 IMMAF World Championship Unless you’ve watched an IMMAF Worlds event or paid attention to IMMAF’s website, you might be surprised to hear that the UFC themselves play a significant role in realizing IMMAF’s goals. While MMA fans can definitely thank the UFC for popularizing the sport and bringing it to what it is today, the professional MMA promotion also recognizes the importance of developing the sport at the amateur level. And bringing the sport to greater heights.

With that being said, the UFC supports the work of IMMAF and recognizes the importance of amateur MMA in the development of the sport. The UFC has also provided financial support to IMMAF and has collaborated with the organization on various initiatives, such as the IMMAF World Championships. Fun fact: The inaugural IMMAF World Championships in 2014 was held during International Fight Week — perhaps one of the biggest annual events in the MMA industry.

What’s next for IMMAF?

Polish fighter gets her hand raised as she wins her bout at the 2022 IMMAF World Championships

IMMAF’s main goal continues to be the promotion of MMA as an Olympic sport. The organization has been working with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to have MMA included in the Olympics in the future. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been news of MMA being recognized by the IOC any time soon, although the recognition of the International Federation of Muay Thai Associates (IFMA) in 2021 as a member of the IOC alongside Kickboxing may be a nod to MMA’s impending ascension.

Until then, the IMMAF will continue to work hard to realize its goals through education and yearly World Championships for both youths and adults alike. With the waves the organization has been making in recent months, it’s only a matter of time before we see MMA as an Olympic-level sport.

All images courtesy of IMMAF.

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Jasmin is a writer-photographer who has worked in video games, music, travel, and more recently, MMA. Her fight background is in TKD, Muay Thai and Boxing though she's always wanted to roll with the BJJ crew. Follow her on Twitter @blaise_MMA

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