Ari Taub holds one of the belts MMA fighters will be battling for Friday night at the Century Casino in Calgary.
By Christopher Walsh, editor
As a nine year old boy, Matt Krayco first observed mixed martial arts and knew he had to be involved. Krayco was having trouble at school with bullies and it was suggested to his mother that she enroll him in a martial arts program.
It would keep him focused and able to defend himself. But what nobody knew was how deep the program would affect the rest of his life.
Following a friend to Dynamic MMA – a gym and fight club in Calgary’s northeast – Krayco discovered his passion.
“I watched that class and I fell in love with it,” the now 20-year-old Krayco says. “It changed my life.”
During the past 11 years, Krayco has trained in a variety of mixed martial arts. Being one of the youngest guys in the gym run by Vince Gentile meant there weren’t a lot of opponents at first. So Krayco tagged along with the older guys going to fights in Lethbridge, where he learned a lot about the surging sport by observing it through the other fighters.
“I wasn’t competing, but I saw the big lights and the crowds screaming, yelling and even booing at you,” he says. “Even now you never really get used to it, the jitters and nerves are always there and if you don’t have them something’s wrong.”
Krayco found the best opportunity of his life to compete when Calgary’s own Hard Knocks Fighting Championship started putting on events at Century Casino.
“I begged and pleaded when they started the amateur fights,” Krayco says. “I had a few under my belt and I thought I had the potential to maybe pull off a main event. And they gave it to me.”
Krayco won that first pro fight and is getting ready to defend his 2-0 record this Friday night at Hard Knocks 14 at the Century Casino.
Hard Knocks was started by former Olympic wrestler and current Calgary lawyer Ari Taub. After returning from the Beging Olympics in 2008, Taub and a friend who had trained with some mixed martial arts athletes, decided to hold an MMA fight in Calgary to gauge the interest in March of 2009.
“There’s a huge demand for it,” Taub says. “It’s the fastest growing sport in the world and [we thought] it would be a perfect platform to drive the message of learning things while playing sports and being good in life.”
So Taub went to a few of the clubs around town and discovered the guys just wanted a big venue to actually fight and gain new experience. The biggest challenge, he says, was building the trust with clubs who had promoters promise events in the past.
“The biggest thing we did when we started was show people we did what we said we were gonna do and did things the right way,” says Taub.
And the fighters started to respond.
“The athletes need a carrot,” he continues. “There’s only so many times they’re going to practice hockey without playing a game. And as we give them a game to play, they have a goal to train for. What we’ve seen in Calgary over the last three years is more clubs, more fighters, better skills, better competition and I think we’re going to continue to see development as fast as we can do events.
“The more events we do, the more the city will develop.”
The attendance has been steady and Taub already has plans to hold Hard Knocks events in Regina and Estevan, Saskatchewan later this year. He hopes to eventually hold 100 events across Canada a year and another 300 across the United States.
He adds he’s not trying to compete with the already well established UFC.
“What I’m trying to do is build minor hockey for MMA,” Taub says. “Right now there’s no grassroots mechanism to get local fighters the experience they need on a systematic basis to put them in another league.”
After the Olympics, Taub gave speeches to schools and businesses about the importance of life lessons through sports. He says in MMA, you really see the connection.
“In terms of the fighters, we’re creating avenue for them to learn life lessons through sport and develop a bunch of competition experience and skills,” he says.
Taub adds the sport still has a few misconceptions around it he’s hoping to dispel with more shows.
“The dedication and perserverance it takes to be a combative sport athlete is pretty high and by and large they’re dedicated and pretty tough. And believe it or not, for the most part they’re actually pretty smart, too,” he says.
“While MMA is sort of towards the basest of human instincts, it’s not for dumb people. Strategy and how you deal with pressure and those things are cerebral. The best guys are not necessarily the best athletes, they’re the guys that play the smartest game and make the best decisions under tremendous pressure.”
Krayco agrees and is thankful he had the opportunity to participate in the sport here in Calgary.
“They’ve opened a lot of doors for me. I keep trying to work my way up with them along the way,” he says.
And it kept him out of trouble in those tough years when it mattered. Krayco hopes to take the sport to its highest levels
“As far as I can possibly go with this, I will,” he says. “I’ve put my whole life into it and there’s no reason to let it go to waste. I want to push myself as far as I can go.
“They’ve been helping build me up. If it wasn’t for Hard Knocks and my gym Dynamic, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to shine in the bright lights like I have.”
Hard Knocks 14 is scheduled for this Friday night, Sept. 23 at Century Casino at 7 p.m. The championship main event will see Keto Allen of Calgary and Andrew Buckland of Nanaimo battling in Hard Knocks’ first title fight.