Throughout my work as a journalist, commentator, broadcaster and ring announcer, I have had the opportunity to become an active member within the combat sports scene in Hampton Roads, Va., also known as the “757” or the “Seven-Cities.” It has given me the opportunity to get to know many fighters on a personal level, build long-lasting friendships with trainers and gym owners and develop positive professional relationships with promoters.

So, it should come as no surprise that after attending several sanctioned fights, grappling matches and unsanctioned smokers, I have noticed certain trends, both good and bad, that can be expected depending on the venue, crowd and competitors. While I respect all those involved in a sport where we ask a person to enter a ring or a cage and engage in unarmed combat with another person for the amusement of others, I will begin by saying that if you need to borrow a cup in order to compete in a gym smoker, then you are either in the wrong sport or train with the wrong people.

Now that I have your attention, here are some general guidelines based on my own observations and experience when it comes to promoting and competing in a gym smoker, also known as gym wars, unsanctioned fights and tough-man competitions. I would also like to preface this by saying that the events I have participated in were boxing and kickboxing events, and although they have been unsanctioned, they all still, for the most part, took the necessary precautions to ensure proper officiating and fighter safety. That said, there are too many variables and negative outcomes that can occur in MMA compared to pure striking and grappling matches. I would never endorse or encourage anyone to compete in an unsanctioned MMA match.

Equipment

One of the most common problems has to do with gear—either the promoter or the gym not being clear about what they can and will provide, or the fighters misunderstanding what they are required to bring. It is understandable with certain things like gloves, head gear and shin pads, since there are so many different types and the desire for consistency must be balanced with the limit of resources. This is a smoker, after all, so it’s not like there’s a significant amount of extra funds available to buy a dozen pairs of gloves, shin pads and headgear for the competitors. But if you’re a competitor and unsure about the equipment requirements, then make sure you ask. Of course, regardless of what will and will not be provided, it is paramount every fighter have his own mouth guard, shorts and cup. It may sound ridiculous, but I have seen fighters show up that unprepared before.

The wrap vs. tape issue also falls into this category. Some fighters or coaches want to use tape, whereas others might prefer wraps because this is a smoker. Then again, some fighters may have never used tape before. The simplest solution to this obstacle is to just ask what the fighters want and are willing to do. If both competitors agree to one or the other, then problem solved. Of course, if you’ve never trained or competed with your hands taped before, then now is probably not the best time to start. If you do prefer to fight with your hands taped, then make sure your trainer brings the kit along just in case.

Fighters As First Focus

I am of the belief that all combat sports events should focus on the competitors and the action inside the ring, cage or on the mat. I also recognize the need to sell tickets and cover operating costs, which is why I don’t outright disregard any promotion that tries to use motorcycles, special effects or strippers to draw a crowd. The difference here, though, is that smokers should not be about trying to make the most money. And, since they’re typically done in gyms anyway, chances are operating costs are significantly lower than that of a startup amateur MMA promotion.

The primary reason most reputable gyms do smokers is to give their fighters a chance to gain some experience inside the ring in a safe, familiar environment. There’s also a good chance they’ll be fighting someone they know from another gym in the same town. Another reason why a smoker might be conducted is because that gym is trying to raise funds to support their fight team, either by offsetting the costs of bringing in someone to do seminars that same weekend or to help fund the travel and lodging of fighters competing out of the area. Either way, both put the fighters first because not only are they the ones competing in the ring, but most of the crowd is made up of the fighters’ friends and family, and they didn’t pay to watch amateur magicians play with fire or see your brother-in-law try out his crappy stand-up comedy act on them.

The same thing goes for the competitors, though. Gym smokers are usually family events. Many gyms have kids’ programs and may feature youth exhibition matches as part of the event. If you don’t want your family there, that’s fine. But many do, so respect that. This is not the place to talk trash or act like a fool. Also, it’s always good to have as many of your friends there as possible for support, but make sure they understand the line between supporting you and disrespecting your competitor. He trained for this fight as well and agreed to step into the ring to compete with you, so you wouldn’t be there without him. This is a place for martial artists, so act like it.

On a related note, if you do bring your whole crew in there and they’re not familiar with the environment, make sure they know this is not the place to try to work their game to pick up ladies. If an attractive woman is at a smoker, chances are she’s not looking to be hit on by some unsanctioned fighter’s homeboy from high school.

Organization

If someone were to ask me to name the most common problem with smokers, I would have to say organization. You can always tell right away if this is someone’s 12th time putting on an event or their first time at the rodeo. Naturally, there are always going to be challenges every event organizer faces no matter how much planning they did, but there are also things that can easily be fixed, which will not only help ensure the evening goes by smoothly but also keeps the action going nonstop the whole time.

When in doubt, refer back to the the philosophy of putting fighters first. People are there to watch fights—nothing more, nothing less. While having a DJ is pretty much a must, don’t get too caught up in things like walkout music or music between rounds. These are features that require coordination between the ring announcer, DJ and the person in charge of coordinating the fighters for each corner (which is usually either no one or the ring announcer). So, if it ends up being too much trouble to do, then just get the fighters in the ring, let the crowd know who they are and ring the bell. It’s that simple.

It is nice to have some music playing between fights or during intermission, but don’t let the time between fights drag out too long to the point where each one feels like an intermission. Don’t let the music be too loud either, because this isn’t a dance club. The best thing is to use that minute or two between each fight to inform the crowd about this event, your gym, upcoming events in the area, concessions or the scheduled time for the longer intermission. That way people can know if they should go to the bathroom now because the 15-minute intermission is four fights way, or wait for a few more rounds because it’s coming up next.

If the venue is able to easily accommodate walkout music, then make sure the DJ has some general stuff lined up for fighters who don’t have a preference, but do take the time to ask the fighters what they prefer. If you’re a fighter and the DJ doesn’t have it then don’t get too upset, just pick something simple that you’re comfortable with. This is a smoker after all, not GLORY or Lion Fights. You can always bring a CD with you, just in case. But if they offer walkout music and the DJ does have your song, please don’t pick something cliche. If you don’t win, the only thing worse than losing will be losing after you came out to Eye of the Tiger.


To be honest, I could probably list 10 more things I’ve learned over the years and write 10,000 more words on the subject, but hopefully these thoughts are helpful to anyone looking to start doing their own smokers or those looking for ways they can improve on the ones they already host. Please don’t be afraid to share your own lessons and stories in the comments section below as well. Although I didn’t touch on it, because thankfully all the events I’ve worked at have done this, fighter safety is always paramount and can never be short skirted. And that’s the bottom line.

About The Author

Associate Editor/Senior Writer