Catching up with the King

By Jacob Debets Jan 22, 2019
Long before Robert Whittaker climbed the ranks to capture the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s middleweight title in 2017; before Alexander Volkanovski power punched his way into contention at 145 pounds; before George Sotiropoulos pieced together an eight-fight winning streak at lightweight and almost snatched a title shot opposite Frankie Edgar; and before Auckland-born Mark Hunt turned a losing record into the unlikeliest of heavyweight title campaigns, the Australasian region was represented by one man: Elvis Sinosic.

The “King of Rock n’ Rumble” was what they called him, and although his day job was in information technology and he was born and bred in Canberra -- a city that is often featured on short lists of the world’s most boring cities -- Sinosic was hungry. He was hungry first to supplement his traditional taekwondo and Jeet Kune Do training with other combat disciplines; he was hungry next to plant Australia’s flag in a fledgling sport that, at that time, belonged to the United States and Japan; and he was hungry finally to compete on the biggest stage and face MMA’s biggest names. In a career that spanned 10 years (1997-2007), he inarguably achieved all three, becoming the first Australian to compete in K-1, the first to be signed to the Ultimate Fighting Championship and the first to fight for a UFC title. Today, he looks proudly at the prodigious Australasian MMA scene for which he laid the foundation, contributing to the sport as a coach at his newly formed Kings Academy and an analyst for Fox Sports.



Speaking to Sherdog.com, Sinosic reflected on his early foray into what was then “No Holds Barred” fighting and the unconventional road he took from his programmer job at Microsoft in Sydney to fighting under the bright lights of Las Vegas at UFC 30 in February 2001 -- the first event of the Zuffa era after the company was sold to Lorenzo Fertitta, Frank Fertitta and Dana White. This fight, opposite veteran Jeremy Horn, was bookended by fights opposite some of the most recognizable men in the sport, including Frank Shamrock, Tito Ortiz, Forrest Griffin and Michael Bisping.

“I basically pestered people,” Sinosic said with a laugh when I asked him the secret to making inroads into the big shows at a time before social media or power-broking managers facilitated connections between the promoters and the promoted. “I kind of got lucky back in the early days. We didn’t have the Internet or forums [or] ease of access to information. I was working in the IT industry, so luckily, I was kind of staying up to date with what was [on] the Internet back then. It started off with what we call mailing lists. Instead of a forum, you’d have an email digest every day, where people would email into a particular email address and their message would [be broadcast] to all the people who’d signed up.

“I worked off an [MMA] digest,” he continued. “I’d go through all the individual emails, and I’d reply to all the ones that caught my eye. That’s where I networked. That’s where I met the promoter of Universal Combat Challenge -- what would later become TKO -- who promoted Georges St Pierre. I also met Joe Silva, who was working at the UFC but not yet as the matchmaker.”

With an expanding list of phone numbers and email addresses, Sinosic dedicated himself to piecing together a training regimen, traipsing from gym to gym to sharpen his tools while the first generation of MMA gyms slowly began to emerge across Sydney and Melbourne. It was a precarious enterprise that bears little resemblance to fighters in Australia today, but Sinosic was happy to blaze a new trail as a pioneering martial artist and, in 2002, as a coach at the acclaimed Sinosic-Perosh Martial Arts center.

“For a while there I had my full-time job, my part-time security job, I was teaching and I was also trying to fit in my own training. I was traveling to a wrestling gym, a kickboxing gym, a jiu-jitsu gym and a conditioning gym. I was literally running around the city to fit in my training,” Sinosic said. “Somewhere in there, I had to squeeze a personal life.

“Slowly, more and more of the [combat sports] community started to embrace mixed martial arts,” he continued. “You saw a lot more clubs bringing in the different disciplines: striking clubs adding grappling, grappling clubs adding striking [and] even sometimes gyms working in partnership with other clubs. It’s not like it was foreign back in the day. My coach Anthony Lange, back in 1997 and ’98, was already doing striking and grappling. John Will [was another coach] who had already recognized the value of [cross-training].”

Sinosic’s preparation and persistence intersected with opportunity, with the Australian-born son of Croatian immigrants fighting five times Down Under between 1997 and 1998 -- on regional events and in innumerable shoot-fighting, jiu-jitsu, wrestling and grappling competitions -- before eventually taking his show on the road in 2000.

“Long story short, I got an opportunity to fight in the UCC,” Sinosic said. “I was going to fight on their February show in 2001, but at the last second, there was an injury pullout and they wanted me to compete in their first show [in June 2000]. I fought on seven days’ notice. I literally agreed to the fight, then jumped on a plane to Canada. During my flight, my opponent pulled out and I ended up being matched up against Dave Beneteau, who was a UFC veteran. I kind of got screwed in that fight. I should have won and had the heavyweight belt. It ended up being a draw.”

“I ended up coming back home and got an opportunity to fight [on] 10 days’ notice in December in K-1” he continued, “so I agreed and found myself fighting five-time UFC champion Frank Shamrock. That went the distance. Frank won, but it was definitely competitive. From there, in February 2001, Jeremy Horn’s opponent [fell out]. On about two weeks’ [notice], I got a callup from [UFC matchmaker] Joe Silva. No one wanted to fight Jeremy Horn on short notice. Because I’d already fought Beneteau and Shamrock -- and I’d gone the distance with Shamrock when Jeremy had been submitted -- there was some history, so I got the offer.”

Sinosic won his UFC debut opposite Horn, defying the oddsmakers with a first-round submission upset that spoiled the promotion’s plans to match Horn with incumbent champion Tito Ortiz. Sinosic effectively usurped that shot, throwing down with “The Huntington Beach Day Boy” at UFC 32 and losing via technical knockout in the first round. Sinosic’s anywhere-anytime attitude and exciting fighting style, however, ensured he would continue to be slotted into big fights in the future, even if few people were picking him to win them.

“It was an interesting situation,” Sinosic said. “Obviously, in today’s climate you wouldn’t have jumped in so high so quickly. Again, it was mainly due to opportunity. My first three fights [in the UCC, K-1 and the UFC] were on short notice, two weeks or less to fight overseas. The other part was also from the UFC’s perspective. It’s not like today, where the world is as connected as it is. There was no Australian market really, other than a few tape traders. Bringing me over [to the UFC] for undercard fights, financially, wasn’t viable. There was no point building me up. They weren’t doing shows overseas, only in the U.S. The expense of flying myself and my corner was quite prohibitive, but using me to build up big names when they knew I was an exciting fighter? That made financial sense. I was put in this position where I really needed to take these fights or I probably wasn’t going to get a lot of opportunity.”

Sinosic left the UFC in 2007 with a 1-6 record. Having fought a laundry list of names -- including five fighters who won or contended for a UFC title -- he is content with the mark he left on the sport and the experiences he had along the way.

“There’s nothing like stepping into the cage and hearing an audience cheering and going crazy,” he said. “It’s an overwhelming experience stepping up in front of 10,000, 20,000 people, [or] over 70,000 people when I fought in the Tokyo Dome in K-1.

“The other aspect is meeting people,” Sinosic added. “One of my funniest experiences was being in the hotel on fight week. Matt Hughes comes up to me. I’m like, ‘Holy s---, what does Hughes want?’ He’s acting all sheepish, kicking his feet, looking down. I say to him, ‘Hey Matt, big fan.’ And he says, ‘My wife is a big fan of yours, and I was hoping I could get an autograph for her?’ I was in shock.”

Although he was a staple of the UFC’s roster in the 2000s, many fans remember Sinosic most fondly for his “Fight of the Night” scrap with Michael Bisping at UFC 70 in his final Octagon appearance, as he knocked down the eventual 185-pound champion with a knee and nearly submitted him with a kimura in the second round. When I asked him whether he thinks about that fight and what might have been different about his career if he had won, Sinosic smiled.

“You sometimes can’t stop and wonder,” he said. “I spoke to him after the fight. He’s a good guy. We still speak sometimes. It’s kind of funny. He was at the forefront of the U.K. scene. I was at the forefront of the Australian scene. I was the first Australian to fight for a world title. He was the first British person to win a world title. He ended up working for Fox Sports. I ended up working for Fox Sports. I did commentary for the UFC. He now does commentary for the UFC. It’s kind of funny how similar our careers were but how much bigger he was.

“It does make me wonder” Sinosic added, “but in the end, I just have to appreciate what I’ve gone out and achieved. In the end, I still was a pioneer in Australian jiu-jitsu, Australian submission wrestling, Australian MMA. I helped build what is the foundation to everything that people are doing and achieving today.”

In 2019, many regard Australasian MMA as entering its Golden Age, with Whittaker, the UFC’s first-ever Australian champion, booked to headline a pay-per-view in Melbourne next month that features adopted Kiwi Israel Adesanya in the co-main event. Outside the middleweights, power-puncher Tai Tuivasa has been making waves at heavyweight; former Sydney Roosters rugby player Volkanovski just put himself in the title conversation at 145 pounds; and Jake Matthews remains a consistent force at lightweight. Recent promotional debutants in Jimmy Crute and Kai Kara-France also seemed poised to make an impact at light heavyweight and flyweight, respectively -- a point they hope to underscore at UFC 234 in February.

“It’s not something that’s happened overnight,” Sinosic said when I asked him to diagnose the recent success of the ANZACs. “It seems like they’re all turning up at the same time, but it’s been a long process. The sport has been growing out here at the grassroots level. The jiu-jitsu and wrestling has been getting better. Australia has always been a strong kickboxing country. Look at John Wayne Parr and Nathan Corbett. New Zealand is the same. We’ve always had that striking background; we just needed to balance it out with the jiu-jitsu and wresting, or the ‘anti-grappling,’ you know? You look at guys like Adasenya and Whittaker. It’s a lot more of the striking with the anti-wrestling.

“It probably wasn’t until about 2010 when UFC 110 came to Australia that MMA really started to come to prominence,” he added. “It was around 2012 where the industry was really starting to peak with the number of people looking for the sport and training and competing. [That was] definitely one of our high points running a gym. It’s just continued to grow. Back then, it was jiu-jitsu gyms that did MMA or had striking coaches come in. Now you’re seeing a lot of MMA gyms, and I opened up probably the first super MMA gym in Australia that had everything under the one roof: wrestling, jiu-jitsu, boxing, muay Thai, conditioning, cage, ring, sauna, ice bath, hyperbolic chamber. It’s something I picked up back in 2010, when I went over to the United States training in Vegas. I saw what they were doing over there, and I knew we needed that over here.”

Opportunities outside the UFC are also seemingly expanding, with One Championship making big moves in 2018 to solidify its market share in Asia, ostensibly creating an avenue for fighters from the Asia Pacific region. Sinosic recognizes the potential that Chatri Sityodtong’s organization has for the ANZACs but is not sold that it will divert fighters from the market leader.

“One is a fantastic organization,” he said. “They provide great opportunities to their fighters, but I think the majority of fighters still look towards the UFC. What you tend to see is a lot more of the Asian heritage fighters go out to One. They do seem like they’re opening up to the broader market by signing guys like [Eddie] Alvarez and [Demetrious] ‘Mighty Mouse’ [Johnson], though. You might see more opportunities for Aussie fighters soon, and they are putting on more caged muay Thai stuff, which is pioneered by the [Australian] John Wayne Parr.

“There are also a lot of questions about how they operate,” Sinosic added. “Even though the UFC doesn’t have a lot of transparency, it still has more transparency than One Championship. Obviously, they’re following the UFC model. They’re apparently incorporating WADA this year in their drug-testing. On the flipside, they’ve put bans on weight cutting and have instituted hydration tests, but there’s been very little transparency about how that’s being implemented.”

Sinosic never officially retired, so before we said our goodbyes, I asked whether we might ever see the “King of Rock N’ Rumble” back in the cage. He laughed.

“Even nowadays I pretty much walk around on weight,” he said, “so I would have been able to easily step in. Admittedly, it was a bit of a running joke, but I would see Joe Siva and say, ‘Hey Joe, I’m on weight if you need anyone at light heavyweight. If someone trips on the stairs on the way to the scales, I’m good to go. Give me a call.’ Obviously, it never happened, but I still enjoy going along to those events. I still get the tingles when the walkouts start and people head into the cage. The door is pretty much closed on that, but never say never. If I happened to be in Vegas and Jon Jones needs an opponent, what the hell, I’ll step in and fight for the belt again.”

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