This past year was the busiest yet for Cage Warriors since they returned to the European scene back in 2016. They put on 12 shows across four different countries and continued to do what they do best - provide a pathway for the stars of tomorrow to the UFC. When it comes to producing high-level prospects, no one does it better than Cage Warriors. The route has been proven many times and it is clear now more than ever that if you have the talent while believing in the process, the organisation will ensure you get to the sport’s biggest proving ground.
There were many events the company staged last year which stood out for a variety of reasons. In March, Cage Warriors made their debut in Copenhagen, Denmark and the evening was an impressive showcase of Nordic talent. The arena was totally sold out and the local fans provided a stunning atmosphere for their favourite fighters to thrive and perform to the best of their abilities. Nicolas Dalby won the interim welterweight title with a highlight-reel knockout of Alex Lohore, Soren Bak edged past Morgan Charriere to claim the interim featherweight belt and Mark O. Madsen picked up a victory which sent him straight to the UFC. It could be argued that the success of the event made the UFC realise that Copenhagen was a territory they needed to move into and they did later during the year.
Cage Warriors 104 took place in Cardiff, Wales which continued to be an important market for the promotion throughout 2019. Jack Shore secured his move to the UFC when he defended his bantamweight title for the second time against Scott Malone while Mason Jones continued his rise towards the top of the lightweight division as he overcame Donovan Desmae.
Two months later, the organisation put on their biggest show of the year entitled ‘Night of Champions’ from the iconic Hammersmith Apollo and featured no less than six title fights. The event gained lots of media and fan attention which shows the amount of interest there was leading up to fight night. It lived up to the hype with a number of great finishes and tough battles including the bloodbath between Nicolas Dalby (who subsequently got re-signed by the UFC) and Ross Houston which ended in a no contest due to an unsafe fighting environment. It was disappointing to have no definitive winner so Houston held on to the belt but there is definitely unfinished business there for the future. Jai Herbert had a breakout performance against Jack Grant to win the vacant lightweight title and Mads Burnell took the featherweight strap from Dean Trueman by submission.
After such a stacked card, Cage Warriors had a break over the summer months but returned to the BT Sport studio for their second ‘Unplugged’ event in front of an invite-only crowd at the start of September. The show focused on a one-night, four-man tournament to crown a new bantamweight champion because Jack Shore received the famous UFC call a few months prior. Least well-known of the participants and Cage Warriors debutant, Jack Cartwright, saw off two former title contenders by first round knockout to make the most of the opportunity and consequently became an immediate star for the company overnight.
Team Renegade is one of the fastest rising gyms in the UK so the organisation have ensured to make regular visits to their base of Birmingham to utilise the upcoming talent. In the main event, Jai Herbert put on a striking masterclass to finish UFC veteran, Cain Carrizosa, by devastating knockout which will most likely send him to the UFC. Another Cage Warriors star was born in the co-headliner when Morgan Charriere dominated Dean Trueman on the way to a third round stoppage. The Frenchman has huge support in his home country and could play a key part into the promotion’s likely push into France over this coming year.
To round off the calendar, Cage Warriors returned to Ireland for the first time since 2017 in an attempt to kickstart the domestic regional scene over there once again. Rhys McKee, Joe McColgan and Ian Garry all picked up impressive victories as they intend to lead the charge of the next generation of Irish talent to make a push towards the UFC. It’s great to see Cage Warriors invested in that market like they were a few years ago and the importance of that move can’t be understated.
The final show of 2019 was still a strong showing even though one of the biggest stars in the promotion, Paddy Pimblett, lost his opponent the day before the eventndue to missing weight. Nathias Frederick took the middleweight belt from James Webb in their anticipated rematch while Modestas Bukauskas retained his light heavyweight title with another knockout victory.
One of the biggest strengths of Cage Warriors is the amount of high-level talent they develop and then move on to the UFC. It must be hard building certain fighters up, getting fans invested in them only to see those same athletes graduate to other promotions and then feeling as though you’re back at square one again. However, the level of talent never drops off in the organisation due to the fact they always reinvest in the next crop of undiscovered stars. This is largely down to Cage Warriors matchmaker, Ian Dean, who has finally started getting recognition for the incredible work he does. Dean remains one of the best in the world at spotting and cultivating talent. He is a huge asset to the company.
Another part of the business that the company do so well is building markets through their stars. Many of their most important territories are associated with big names in the promotion whether that’s Paddy Pimblett in Liverpool, Jai Herbert in Birmingham or Mason Jones in Wales. This helps with ticket sales and draws media to shows which gives coverage to the promotion. Also, due to this attention, the next crop of names are already known once the big stars have moved on. It’s a cycle that works to everyone’s benefit.
To add to this, the whole event production surrounding Cage Warriors is outstanding. Brad Wharton and Josh Palmer are outstanding commentators who add great knowledge and give energy to the broadcast. They are one of the most underrated duos in the game and would hold their own against most other MMA commentators in the world. Layla Anna-Lee does a great job as the presenter alongside Dan Hardy and Graham Boylan. It’s clear that her knowledge of the sport has come on leaps and bounds over the last year or so and she helps the broadcast have a really polished feel.
However, the promotion has reduced its potential audience in the UK due to signing exclusively with UFC Fight Pass. Unless you are a hardcore MMA fan, it is highly unlikely you’d stumble across a Cage Warriors show like people did when it was broadcast on BT Sport. That makes it harder to build a fanbase and grow the promotion so it would be good to see them explore ways in which whole events could be more widely accessible during 2020.
When Bellator Europe launched earlier this year, some predicted that Cage Warriors would lose many fighters who were in search of a big payday but that ended up not being the case. Despite this, they did lose some notable names including the likes of Soren Bak, Aiden Lee, Stefano Paterno and Lee Chadwick to the Viacom-owned organisation. Whether their contracts had run out and whether they were technically Cage Warriors athletes or not, it is likely the promotion would rather have them under contact and available to make their cards even deeper.
Overall, it can be debated if Cage Warriors are the leading European promotion and that argument essentially boils down to what ‘leading promotion’ actually means. Although they may not sell out large arenas or put on grand spectacles, if your definition of ‘leading promotion’ comes down to high-level talent being produced, Cage Warriors have a very strong case of being the number one show on the continent. With 2020 promising to be their most loaded year yet with ten shows already announced and more international ones on the horizon, it’s likely Cage Warriors could send more fighters to the UFC than every before. Therefore, it really is essential viewing for all MMA purists who want to watch tomorrow’s stars develop before they reach the big stage.