PORT ALLEN — Mixed martial arts is perhaps now seen as being just as professional as any other combative sports — whether it be boxing, karate, wrestling, etc.
In the infancy stages, though, it was far from the case — including here on Kauai.
Local MMA promoter Vance Pascua had to wait a decade before putting on his first MMA event on Kauai in 2005.
Now, he’s about to host his 17th promotion, “Kauai Cage 17: The Return” at Hanapepe Stadium on June 3 — which will showcase local fighters as well as talent from the other Hawaiian Islands and the Mainland.
Pascua, owner and CEO of MMA promotion Ainofea Productions, sat down with The Garden Island last week and talked about the growth of the local fight community, establishing a local promotion and the upcoming event in Hanapepe.
So, take us to the beginning. When did the initial thought of, “Let’s start an MMA promotion” happen?
The funny part is the regular kumite tournaments stopped, and there wasn’t anything on the island. We were training, but there was nothing going on. For years after, I think the last tournament I fought in was in ‘91, and for years nothing popped up. And then all of a sudden, the UFC came up. It came up in, I think, ‘95 or ‘94. That was the first thing like, “Wow, we should start this.” And it was brand new. There was no rules — the old school. There was no rules at all.
When we first started the promotion, we winged everything as far as, “OK, these are the rules.” We set the tone even before the state came in because it wasn’t a regulated event yet. Before the state came in, it was no holds barred basically. You can do whatever you want, and nobody was going to regulate it. But we said, “No. We cannot put on a tournament or a show like that. We got to have some sanity to it.”
It was ‘95 when I first thought of doing it, but my first show wasn’t until about 10 years later.
The process was figuring out what is a legitimate rules system. It was basically brand new, and the UFC was figuring it out themselves. Basically, they said no eye-gouging and no biting and stuff. But that was like, “Wow, that’s pretty raw. You know?” (laughing) So, we had to tone it down even more. And then you got to think about the gloves, the referees, the judges. There was a whole line of things that (needed to be done). It took about 10 years.
And then as you see UFC pick up things, like, “OK, they’re doing it this way.” It was so new that there wasn’t anybody training for it. So, we started to kind of push the schools. Say, “OK, we’re going to start this. Maybe try to start this.” Everybody was just doing their own system. Jiu-jitsu just did jiu-jitsu. Boxing just did boxing. They didn’t cross over the disciplines.
That first event (Kauai Cage Match 1, at the Kapaa High School gym in 2005), was it just trial by fire?
Oh, yeah. It was basically live-or-die, or crash and burn (laughing). Whatever you want to use as far as, “take a chance and see what happens.” I was scared because I didn’t know what to expect. There was no guidance. So, trial by fire, that’s a good word for it. There was nothing to guide us and say, “OK, let’s just do this.”
We were practically building the cage still, and people were outside the door. That’s how bad it was. We were trying to do the final touches, and people were knocking like, “Can we come in now?” (laughing) It was pretty hectic. When you look back on it now, it was pretty funny. But during that time, it was, “I’m never doing this again.”
What was the reception?
Oh, they loved it. They loved it because it was never done before, or they never saw something like that before. Especially on Kauai, because we’re so limited on everything. Everybody was asking when was the next one, and I was just exhausted from just trying to get through this one. I said, “Please, don’t ask me that at least for another couple of weeks after.” (laughing) Just so I can recover and get by bearings.
At this point, at least a couple of weeks before (the event), I’m always telling myself, “Why am I still doing this?” (laughing) Every show, I’m always in that time table. Two to three weeks before, “This is my last one. This is too much work.” But after it’s all said and done, I’m like, “OK. I can see why I still do it.”
Then what keeps bringing you back?
The love of doing it. The love of the art. The love of bringing the community together that enjoys it. My wife just talked to somebody. They were saying, “You know what? If anybody could pull off a fight at the stadium, it would be Vance. Just because his passion for it, you know?”
If anybody goes in just for money, I would tell you don’t even try. You got to love doing this because you’re going to lose your shirt more often than make (money). The amount of money to put it on and you don’t have the resources, I had to build the resources at the stadium, basically. Bring in lighting, forklifts and generators just to make what Oahu already has. It’s a lot of work. And at the end of the day, you’re like, “Man, was all that energy worth it?” But it’s one of those, you got to love it. You really got to love it.
So how has Ainofea grown? How has it changed?
A lot of things changed is me trying to streamline the process of doing the production. As far as the other stuff I’ve been doing, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
At least from Day 1, I can honestly say my wife had to literally sit down with people — businesses and stuff — and explain we’re not a bunch of barbarians putting on a fight. They weren’t even putting up posters. They were saying, “No, no. We don’t support MMA, or what you guys are doing.” We’re like, “Why?” “Because you guys are brutal. You guys are bringing in drugs. You’re bringing in gangs.” That’s the kind of mentality they took just because we had fighters that looked like criminals, or whatever, in the beginning.
And that’s a big change from when we first started. We barely could put up one poster. It had to be word of mouth because people wouldn’t help us advertise. That was a big change of just accepting what we do. It wasn’t easy. Even my last show, doing it at the church grounds, I had to sit down with the pastor and explain. Luckily, I had past shows to prove what we’re about. Nothing bad, knock on wood, has happened. That helped hold water with them, but still had to sit down with them like, “I know it’s a church, and it’s promoting fighting.”
How do you go about creating matches? Do you have a roster you can pick and choose? Do you seek fighters, or do they come to you?
Actually, all of the above. Fighters find me. I find fighters. I watch and see who’s exciting, who’s an up-and-comer that nobody knows about that I’ll make a name for. I’ve had fighters that has big names, but they wanted the world. And I’m saying, “No. I don’t need you to put it on. Some of these people don’t even know you. You’re not the one that’s going to bring the people in.” So, I have to pick and chose on the card that’s going to be a nice balance of newcomers and people that has been around so they’re going to bring the crowd in as well.
The hardest part is trying to match up evenly. I guess being in the arts for so long, I can kind of see the strengths and weaknesses. I actually play chess in my head all the time when I put two of them together. Like, “OK, this would be a pretty good matchup,” and I’ve been nailing it out of the park every time.
Some of them can be really lopsided because they didn’t train, or their cardio was bad or their head wasn’t in the game, you know? But for the most part, I know it should have been a good fight. Then I go back to them and go, “What happened?” And they go, “Oh, I just broke up with my girlfriend, and I haven’t trained for two weeks.” Stuff like that, you don’t see leading up to the fight.
That’s why fight cards are subject to change. I’ve seen it where I’ve got two guys lined up (in case) because I know this guy is flaky. And the next guy, he might take a fight just before mine and he might get hurt. I might not be able to replace him, so I got to find a third guy. Just so, he doesn’t go, next guy. He doesn’t go, next guy. Just boom, boom, boom. Just to keep the card. If you lose too much of your card, it’s hard to keep the crowd. Like, “Wow, only four fights?” (laughing)
How much longer do you picture yourself doing this?
That’s a good question. You’re asking me before the fight, and I’m already teetered to one way. (laughing) Ask me two weeks after the fight, and I’ll give you a different answer.
Actually, I’ve done more shows than I actually thought I would have, at 17 now. I thought I would have been done at 10 or five. I wasn’t even thinking past one. When I did it, I said, “OK, we’ll do one and see what happens.” Then it went to two and then three. Now, like I’ve said, every one it takes time for me to say, “OK.” I actually need to sit down and get the energy to say, “OK, I’m going to do the next one” because it’s such a tall order.
But after it’s all said and done, like I’ve said, I just feel like, “OK, this is why I do it.” (It’s a) labor of love. Also, I connect with everybody as far as the coaches, the referees, the judges. Imagine you putting a big wedding together, and all your friends, family and relatives come to Kauai. That’s how I feel. When everybody comes over, it’s like a big vacation for everybody, a big party. I see friends that I haven’t seen for a while. And they feel it, too. Like I’ve said, it’s more of a gathering to me. It’s more of a big party, in a sense. Funny how I would think it’s a party and everybody thinks it’s something else. (laughing) But that’s how I feel. I connect with every part of the production.
OK, now to Kauai Cage 17. Why should people come?
It’s been eight years since we’ve been down at the stadium. If you haven’t seen it down there, it’s something to see because it’s different. The atmosphere, it’s hard to explain. It’s like having a big party in your backyard, you know? And everyone’s invited. (laughing)
It’s a unique thing. Like I’ve said, you don’t see it all the time. Just being at an outdoor event in this kind of nature, it’s unique. There’s not too many places that does it outside. Maybe some reservations on the Mainland like “King of the Cage” or something. Other than that, it’s all indoor. So even that, it’s a unique thing in itself.
Of course, there’s high risk with the weather. I worry about things I can control and pray for the rest. (laughing)
Talk about some of the local fighters.
I got about six or seven Kauai fighters, maybe eight. It’s teetering. Like I’ve said, some of them signed up last minute, and I got to find match-ups for them. “Fight card subject to change.” (laughing) I’m still adding. They’re like, “I think I want to fight.” I’m like, “It’s two weeks away. Have you been training?” “Yeah.”
That’s the part where I hesitate. I don’t want you guys to get hurt. I know maybe in your mind, you’re ready. But two weeks, you’re not ready. I got to see them, and see how good their cardio is or where their mindset is. I’ve said no. A lot of times, I’ve said no because I just know they’re going to get hurt in there. It’s not about me just putting somebody in there just to fight. I try to make the best out of everybody that’s walking in there.
During your promotions, has there been a fight that was just so great that it elevated Ainofea’s status?
I actually had a few fights like that where they just let everything out. There was nothing left inside of them after the fight. The crowd couldn’t get enough of that. Whoever won, the crowd was happy for the loser as well because it was just toe-to-toe all the way. It’s hard to find fighters like that who would lay it all on the line. But after it’s all said and done, they’re all hugging each other. It’s amazing. That’s one thing I’ve noticed, where people are like, “They just almost killed each other, but they’re still hugging each other after?” I’m like, “Yeah.” They don’t hate each other. It’s just part of the sport and what they’re doing. But some people cannot fathom that. Like, “I cannot imagine you just beating the da kine out of me, and then shaking my hand after and hug me.” (laughing)
One fight was two Oahu fighters (Ron Verdedero vs. Casey Daniels). It was No. 7 at the stadium. … That was where I had outside fighters that won the crowd over. See, that’s the part that’s funny. Usually, people ask who’s on the card. And then they’re like, “I don’t know that guy.” After the fight, they’re like, “Wow, that was the best fight I’ve ever seen,” and they will remember their names forever. They won the crowd over, and there was so much energy and passion that it was stuck in everybody’s heads.