The Golden Cage looks to make MMA mainstream in Italy—starting Feb. 6 on UFC FIGHT PASS

The Golden Cage
Image via The Golden Cage

Italy is as sports-crazed as any country on earth, but so far, mixed martial arts has not caught on inside its famous, boot-shaped border. The Golden Cage, an upstart MMA promotion based in Rome, is hoping to change that.

TGC is the brainchild of President Luigi Perillo, a tax lawyer and the president of the Swiss MMA Federation, and Steve Dapper, a music industry executive and expert in linguistics. After two successful events in 2017 and 2018, the TGC team will promote its third this Saturday in Rome. The card, which will feature 10 pro bouts and 10 amateur bouts, will mark the promotion’s debut on UFC FIGHT PASS.

Suffice it to say that, so far, things are going quite well.

“The Golden Cage, on both occasions, was an incredible success,” Dapper told BJPENN.com, looking back on the promotion’s first two events, which featured high-profile fights and performances from famous rappers. “[They were] the biggest MMA events the country has ever had. Not even Bellator could do our numbers [in Italy]. Our first event, we filled up a theatre with four or five thousand people, which is a lot in Italy. Our second event, there were 6500 people in there. We were broadcast on the Fight Network, ESPN… There was a lot of interest. So we said, ‘well, this is working.’

“We’re like a smaller version of the Fertitta brothers,” he added with a laugh, comparing himself and Perillo to the previous owners of the UFC.

While things have gone well for the TGC team so far, however, it’s been an uphill climb.

Despite producing highly-regarded fighters like Marvin Vettori, Alessio Sakara, Alessio di Chirico and Iuri Lapicus, Italians have not been particularly welcoming of MMA.

The reasons for the common aversion to MMA in the country is the subject of debate, but one theory is that Italians are simply preoccupied with less brutal sports, and haven’t made the effort to learn about MMA.

“MMA is probably one of the less popular sports in Belpaese [Italy]” says Al Zullino, an Italian MMA journalist for BJPENN.com and Fatti Marziali, an Italian publication. “The main reason is football is highly followed. That leaves little room for other sports.

“Even many hardcore sports fans are not into MMA,” he added. “People think that it’s just a brawl, or a more violent version of pro wrestling, and they don’t even bother to do their research.

“In order to change this, Italy needs to produce [MMA] champions, so the mainstream media will start talking about them, and fans will approach the sport correctly. To produce champions, fighters need spotlights. That’s where The Golden Cage enters the discussion.”

The Golden Cage
Image via Italian Cage Fighting/Fabio Barbieri

Dapper and Perillo echoed Zullino’s assessment of the Italian MMA scene, and are acutely aware of the challenges of promoting the sport in a country that has not yet warmed up to it. They’ve effectively had to create a market for TGC from scratch, but so far, their creative approach is working well.

“There is a desire [for MMA in Italy], but it’s a silent need,” Dapper said. “You know when you have a silent need, you’re not aware of it, but the moment you open your eyes, you’re like ‘Oh my God, where was this [before]?’

“We’re doing a number of marketing initiatives that are massive in terms of critical mass,” he continued. “The first thing we did is we created a social media event. In November, we started The Chill House. It’s a spinoff of The Hype House in Los Angeles. We got together the top-10 social media influencers in the country—grossing 42 million followers altogether. We put them all under one roof, we built a gym, and these influencers train every day with pro MMA fighters.

“This is how we’re going to reach our target [audience] from 15 to 25 years of age.”

While TGC is gaining popularity in Italy, Perillo and Dapper’s mission for the local MMA scene extends far beyond creating an appetite for their live shows. They also seek to supercharge MMA training in the country, recognizing that, without world-class fighters, there can be no world-class events.

Italy has produced a number of high profile fighters over the years, but historically, those fighters have had to leave the country to find the kind of training that need to compete on the sport’s biggest stages. Alessio Sakara, for example, migrated to American Top Team in South Florida. Vettori set up shop at Kings MMA in Southern California. The list goes on and on. Leaving the country to train, of course, is an expensive undertaking for any fighter—particularly an up-and-comer. It also does little to invigorate the Italian MMA scene when all of the country’s best fighters take their skills elsewhere.

Perillo and Dapper are implementing a creative strategy to mitigate this problem.

Outside of their work as the TGC show-runners, the pair represent a long list of pro and amateur fighters through their company, Superbia Management. They frequently send those fighters overseas to world renowned gyms in Europe and North America, then bring them back to share what they’ve learned with their peers in Italy. They also plan to fly international fighters into Italy for the same reason.

The results of this strategy are already paying off, as several of Perillo and Dapper’s athletes have already been deemed UFC-ready by some of the most trusted voices in the sport.

“One of these fighters went to Team Alpha Male [in Sacramento] with Urijah Faber and trained with him,” Perillo said. “Last year, Urijah called me and said ‘Luigi, this is a very, very strong fighter. He’s ready for the UFC.'”

Needless to say, Perillo and Dapper have a lot on the go, but their hope is that, in time, Italy will be the home of a thriving MMA scene with high-production events and competitive fight cards.

The next big landmark on their mission to create that scene is their imminent debut on UFC FIGHT PASS, which will be topped by a welterweight title fight and feature appearances from several notables, including Bellator & UFC veteran Danilo Belluardo.

See the current lineup for that event below:

  • Leonardo Damiani vs. Marco Saccaro – for the vacant TGC welterweight title
  • Franc Agalliu vs. Wisem Hammami
  • Michele Baiano vs. Nizar Ben Amara – for the vacant TGC featherweight title
  • Danilo Belluardo vs. Dragan Pesic
  • Walter Cogliandro vs. Greg Shestakov
  • Fabio De Luca vs. Mohammad Walid
  • Carlo D’Ambrosio vs. Dylan Hazan
  • Dumitru Girlean vs. Simone Patrizi
  • Emanuele Sabatino vs. Enzo Tobbia
  • Domenico Coluccini vs. Giuseppe Ruggeri
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