MMA fans worldwide know the state of Hawaii for producing some of the fight game’s top talent.
Legends of the sport like BJ Penn hail from the Aloha State — as well as today’s rising stars like UFC lightweight contender Max Holloway, and Invicta bantamweight Raquel Pa’aluhi.
But with the US mainland dominating today’s MMA scene, fans may be surprised to learn that in years past, Hawaii hosted some of the sport’s biggest events as well.
In 2003, the Rumble on the Rock promotion paired the (arguably) two best lightweights in the world, BJ Penn and Takanori Gomi, at the Blaisdell Center in Honolulu. The same venue later hosted a welterweight tournament featuring the likes of Anderson Silva, Carlos Condit, and Jake Shields.
One man looking to bring the state back into the world’s focus is Robert Ostovich.
Ostovich, or “Bob-O” to his friends, wears several hats in the Hawaii MMA scene. While best known as a prominent trainer whose standout fighters include his son Robby and daughter Rachael. Ostovich recently began his own MMA promotion, Trinity Sport Combat, with the help of local promotion Destiny MMA.
This weekend, Ostovich works with Japanese promotion Pancrase MMA on their first visit to Hawaii — in an event which is also co-promoted by Destiny MMA.
It’s been a winding road to the title of Pancrase Hawaii Representative for Ostovich, whose relationship with the pioneering Japanese circuit began earlier this year.
“I sought out Pancrase for Robby to compete in Japan,” Ostovich explains. “He had a good performance. After the match, we had a meeting with (Pancrase CEO) Mr. (Masakazu) Sakai; they were very interested in coming to Hawaii. They saw it as relatively untapped. They knew there were a lot of great fighters coming out of Hawaii, but nobody gets to see them until they make it to the UFC.”
“They asked me who was the promoter holding consistent events at Blaisdell,” he continues. “They definitely wanted to get there. I made the connection to Destiny MMA and the three of us have been working on shows ever since.”
In years past, many of Japan’s best fighters cut their teeth in Hawaii. Similarly, Ostovich helped corner several teammates on their visits to Japan in his own days as a MMA fighter.
“The first time I went to Japan I fell in love,” Ostovich recalls. “I was in Japan cornering Stephen “Bozo” Palling and Ray Cooper – I think it was 2000 and 2001. I fell in love with the people, with the culture in general. We have the Aloha spirit in Hawaii. But in Japan, they’re so generous. People on the way home from work on the subway, saw us as kind of lost. They offered their help, and they wouldn’t just point you in the right direction, they’d walk three blocks to take you where you wanted. It was amazing. If I could go back every year I would.”
Instead on Saturday, Japan comes to Hawaii.
Pancrase 272, which will be held at Blaisdell Center, is “going back to the old school,” as Ostovich puts it, with “the top five bouts featuring local fighters against Japanese.”
The show — Pancrase’s first-ever event in Hawaii — is hoped to be a new beginning for both regions.
“Mr. Sakai is very interested in making Hawaii one of his main stops, which will be good for our local fighters,” he says. “This show won’t be broadcast live on UFC Fight Pass but it will make its way onto the library. We’re working on the details to broadcast live for our next show.”
Last month, Ostovich held the first edition of his own promotion, Trinity Sport Combat, to fill a gap in Hawaii’s amateur scene.
“We had a show out here called Mad Skillz, which was great,” he explains. “All my fighters went through there. Guys like Max Holloway came up through those shows. But the promoter hasn’t done a show in a few years, and I don’t think he’s interested in coming back. We’re picking up where he left off.”
Trinity Sport Combat’s competitions include a mix of rule-sets, designed for young athletes still getting accustomed to MMA.
“We call it triple threat in Hawaii,” he explains. “First round is kickboxing, second round is boxing with takedowns, third is submission grappling. For the fighters, coaches, fans – they can see where your strong points are. The fighters can focus on those areas. It encourages the athletes to become well-rounded.”
“Then for some guys, maybe they’re past their prime, and they don’t want to do a full-on MMA match. We’ve got a master’s division for older guys, so they can showcase their skills.”
The first Trinity event enjoyed “huge support” from the surrounding community, as Ostovich puts it; listing a long list of sponsors on the event’s Facebook page. He hopes to continue to build, eventually creating an amateur rankings system for both youth and adult competitors.
So there’s new life at both the amateur and professional level in Hawaii. But will the scene reach the heights we saw in an earlier era?
Ostovich thinks so, and he thinks events like this Saturday’s will be key.
“I’m sure we can see Hawaii holding shows at the level of the early 2000’s,” he says. “I’m sure. The biggest problem in Hawaii is we just don’t have the casual fans coming through to check out the event anymore. We’ve got to get big advertising out, make it more of an event and not just a fight night. People appreciate the talent out of Asia and they’ll want to see how our local fighters do against them. I think it will be a good show Saturday.”