Amsterdam, Holland – Adversity in sports has a tendency to bring teammates closer together, and for the much-maligned Team England, the hurdles they have faced during the 2009 edition of the “M-1 CHALLENGE PRESENTED BY AFFLICTION” (www.M-1Global.com) have made its quintet as thick as thieves.
The adversity Team England has faced has come in the form of constant criticism about its selection of fighters populating its five-man roster in the year-long M-1 Challenge, an International team-based competition modeled after the World Cup.
Interestingly enough, the skepticism it has faced throughout the '09 season has not come from the outside, but rather from many pundits and critics hailing from their homeland. From day one, team manager Ian Dean and coaches Aaron Chatfield and Dave Butlin have faced questions about the caliber of team they assembled for England's maiden voyage in the Challenge.
“I am used to people doubting my ability to do my job as the UK, as the MMA scene is a very nasty little place,” said Dean during a recent interview with M-1Global.com. “However I was shocked by the level of criticism that Dave and Aaron received from people who just don't understand how the Challenge works.
“People have argued that we have left out a lot of high profile names in the UK. But people don't understand there are procedures, pay scales and structures you have to follow and not everyone is going to work under those conditions. Also other fighters have deals with other groups in the UK that would make working in the Challenge quite difficult.”
Logistics aside, Dean, Chatfield, and Butlin have proven the critics wrong, going 2-1 in team matchups and 10-5 in individual play, earning Team England a Group A title and a playoff berth in the '09 M-1 Challenge semifinals on Sept. 26 in Rostov, Russia (to be available on Internet PPV via M-1Global.com).
England had been in a dead heat with Team Japan and Team France to qualify for the playoffs, but delivered in the clutch during the M-1 Challenge regular season finale on Aug. 15 by racking up a 5-0 victory over Team Spain.
But set to face Russia Legion in the semifinals on Sept. 26 in Legion's home town of Rostov, Russia, England once again finds itself in the underdog role. Complicating matters further is that its standout light heavyweight, Tom Blackledge, a coach on the upcoming tenth season of The Ultimate Fighter, will be sidelined due to injury.
“Having Blackledge ruled out of the semifinal is a huge blow,” Dean stated. “I think Tom is the best light heavyweight in this year's M-1 Challenge and having him on the team is like having a win on the score sheet before the five bout series even starts.”
With Blackledge out, Team England has enlisted the services of Lee Austin, a capable veteran who has faced a recent stretch of rough luck having lost his last two fights. However, Austin has not competed in over a year and Team England officials believe he has improved greatly as a fighter and is ready to re-boot his career on the world stage.
Joining Austin will be Team England stalwarts Simon Phillips, Matt Thorpe, and standout heavyweight Rob Broughton, who is returning to the M-1 Challenge after a one-fight hiatus after having competed Aug. 28 during “HDNET FIGHTS PRESENTS M-1 BREAKTHROUGH.”
While losing Blackledge hurts, Dean is excited about England once again having the services of Broughton.
“It's a major boost to have the number one heavyweight in this year's M-1 Challenge back on our team,” he said. “Like Blackledge, I feel Rob gives us the security of having a virtual win on the scoresheet before the series even starts… He is keen to get back to action and increase his unbeaten M-1 Challenge record.”
Rounding out the squad will be lightweight Scott Hewitt, a former professional English football player who made his Team England debut during the regular season finale on Aug. 15 in Holland. Hewitt joined Team England late in the season after Ian Butlin was forced to retire due to multiple facial fractures.
Hewitt's selection caused a great deal of consternation within the UK MMA scene and the naysayers appeared to be valid in their concern following his slow start vs. Team Spain's Jose Roque. After losing round one, a stern pep talk from his corner lit a fire under Hewitt, who came out like a ball of fire in round two and finished Roque with an armbar submission just 1:35 into the round.
Despite the fact that Hewitt improved to 2-0 in his young career, there had been some speculation that England would make a change at lightweight for the playoffs.
Not so, said Dean.
“Scott Hewitt went out there in Holland and tapped out a BJJ brown belt and showed tremendous courage to come back from a tough first round, as he tried to shed a lot of ring rust. Dave Butlin picks the team and him and Aaron coaches them…. I have full faith in my coaches and I have seen Scott fight in the past and trusted my coaches' opinion… To reward Scott's fantastic performance in Holland with a trip to the bench for Russia would not have been the right thing to do.”
The loyalty and trust Dean, Butlin, and Chatfield have shown their team has created one of the most tight-knit squads in the entire M-1 Challenge. England's team chemistry has been a big reason why it has been able to overachieve this season. And while England will be sacrificing the “home field advantage” vs. Russia Legion on Sept. 26 in Rostov, Dean believes the bond shared by Team England will once again allow them to defy the odds and prove the critics wrong yet again.
“Team England has been so strong because of the bond the guys have with each other,” he said. “They train together; they know each other; and they trust and respect each other. We are a real team and each guy wants to win the M-1 Challenge in a big way. It means everything to us and the criticism they have received as a unit has only driven them more.”