WSOP to UFC: The Rise of Poker and MMA

What strategic competition featuring marketable personalities, a large TV presence and big money busted onto the mainstream spotlight in the mid-2000s?

Hint: we’re not talking about poker.

We’re talking about Mixed Martial Arts and its most popular vehicle: the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

In the last few years the UFC has skyrocketed in popularity and now rivals sports like boxing and professional wrestling.

Indeed MMA and poker have taken a similar path to widespread popularity. Consider:

  • Both have dark pasts and have been outright outlawed in some locations
  • Both have been around for years but didn’t gain mainstream acceptance until 2006.
  • The value of the UFC and WSOP brands has increased exponentially over the last 10 years.
  • Both have plenty of so-called “bad boy” personalities
  • Both are intensely strategic and one bad decision can get you knocked out or busted

Of course one involves getting punched in the face and poker, most of the time, is restricted to blows to your bankroll. In recent years the two have become even closer as major players on each side have crossed over into the other’s territory.

terrence chan MMA
Terrence Chan after his first MMA win.

Terrence Chan Takes His MMA Shot

Perhaps no one has taken the transition from poker to MMA more seriously than Terrence Chan.

Chan, a former PokerStars employee, has won over $1 million in live and online tournaments.

A dominant online poker player, Chan won two SCOOP bracelets in a single night and later added a WCOOP title.

For years Chan trained Muay Thai boxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but it wasn’t until last year that he took his first shot at competitive fighting.

“It was fun, almost like a complete new sport yet still familiar,” he said.

It may come as a surprise that someone with Chan’s intellectual slant would be interested in the rough and tumble sport but MMA, as Chan explained, is far more than two guys hitting each other in the face.

“I love that it's such a complex game,” he said. “It's very multifaceted. In the standup, the ground and in wrestling, there are so many moves and so many counters. 

“And if you're one-dimensional and only understand one discipline well and the other guy understands the other disciplines better, he can have a big advantage since you put yourself into such bad situations.”

Chan went on to give an example where a wrestler would ignore his other options to attempt a guillotine choke or a Jiu Jitsu fighter might not realize he was vulnerable to strikes in a certain hold.

“The fact you have to take all these strategic decisions into consideration and have to do it really quickly and be physically capable of doing them is a really interesting physical puzzle.”

Terrence Chan
Terrence Chan back at the 2007 WSOP.

All of Chan’s training culminated with his first MMA fight in Vancouver last summer. Chan won by TKO and said it’s something he will never forget.

“It was a fantastic feeling obviously,” he said. “From the moment the ref pushed me off the guy it was the best day ever.

"And to hear the roar of friends and teammates in the crowd… there is truly nothing quite like it. I didn’t take my handwraps off until dinner because I never wanted the moment to end.”

Chan took his MMA journey one step further this winter when he flew to Phuket, Thailand, to continue his training.

He spoke to us from his bungalow in Phucket in the midst of rigorous Muay Thai, MMA and BJJ training at the Phuket Top Team training school.

Is there a future for Chan in something like the UFC? He's still unsure.

“I dunno, I’m sometimes delusional enough to think there is,” he laughs.

“I mean it's hard, I really only have one year of real MMA experience, I'm 31, not that gifted in an athletic sense, and I've had a lot of injuries too.

“On the other hand if the UFC were a realistic shot, 125 lbs is a weight I can make and the division is brand-new, so... maybe? 

"But in the end if I work hard, and get as far as I can get, then I'll be happy. The main thing for my career is that I want to have no regrets about what I could or should have done.”

Regardless of what happens to Chan in his bid to become a UFC fighter, he says the experience has changed him in a positive way.

“I mean, for me, it's been life-changing,” he said. It's the best thing I ever could have done for myself.

"It's made me focus on health, fitness and nutrition. It's made me spiritually a better person and made me mentally tougher.”

Would he recommend it to other poker players?

“I would but at the same time I recognize that getting punched or choked is not for everyone.

"The best thing for life balance is just to find some hobby that you really love and can immerse yourself in fully, and ideally it should be physically active.”

Lex Veldhuis vs. ElkY. Courtesy PokerStars

The Biggest MMA Fight in Poker History

Terrence Chan isn’t the only poker player who has taken an active interest in MMA.

Team PokerStars Pros Lex Veldhuis and Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier recently fought in an actual kickboxing match as part of one of the greatest prop bets in the history of poker.

Back in 2009 Veldhuis and Grospellier got to talking about fighting and eventually decided to stage a match of their own.

Both poker players had some experience with MMA.

Veldhuis boxed for nearly two years when he was younger and then started training in kickboxing in the last few years.

Grospellier started kickboxing and Muay Thai around the same time and was working hard on his conditioning in preparation for the fight.

After several delays the match finally occurred in Marbella, Spain last November. The fight lasted four minutes until Veldhuis delivered a pair of kicks that sent the Frenchman to the mat.

Two amateurs fighting doesn’t always make for the most interesting match, but Terrence Chan couldn’t help but appreciate the bout.

“I was very impressed by Lex,” he said. “I think he mentioned boxing as a teenager so people would think he'd mostly throw hands, then won the fight throwing high kicks like a champ. Sick level.”

“I thought ElkY definitely didn't perform to his level. When I sparred with him he was frequently in control and paced himself well for 5 rounds, but in the fight he threw a ton of wild haymakers, got tired, then his hands started dropping and that was the end.”

Despite his loss Grospellier was positive about the experience and felt it even helped his poker game.

“It’s really good to have another thing in your life other than poker,” he told PokerListings.com. “Having something else that’s important to look forward to can help you when you take bad beats.”

“Mostly it’s just quality of life. It helps so much when you’re playing long days. You don’t get as tired and you’re able to think more clearly and make better decisions.”

Veldhuis agreed.

“Yeah, even if you told me now that I was definitely going to lose the bet, and I had already done all this training, it would still be worth it for me,” he said.

“I think it keeps you mentally strong and fit. Fighting is the best because it’s the most intense and high-pressure kind of workout.”

Rami Boukai
Former MMA fighter Rami Boukai

Do MMA Stars Have a Fighting Chance in Poker?

It’s not just poker players that have been crossing over into the MMA world. World-class fighters have been trying their hand at poker for years.

Forrest Griffin, Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson are amongst the numerous MMA stars that have played in the World Series of Poker.

Matt Hughes and Mike Swick were also Friends of Full Tilt Poker during online poker’s peak in 2006-07.

MMA and poker appeal to similar demographics and Full Tilt and UB Poker even sponsored several official UFC fights in 2009-10.

Perhaps the best example, however, has been the lesser-known Rami “arbianight” Boukai.

Boukai had an MMA record of 2-2 and once fought UFC star Urijah Faber before he switched to poker full time.

He may have missed his shot at a title in MMA but he’s certainly succeeded in poker. In 2009 Boukai outlasted a field of 453 players to win a WSOP bracelet in Pot-Limit Omaha/Hold’em.

Boukai didn’t really make many connections between MMA and poker but he did say he gets nervous when goes deep in poker tournaments, which was similar to how he felt when he had a big fight.

He beat Najib Bennani heads-up to secure his first WSOP bracelet and the $244,862 first place prize. Boukai was modest about the win.

“I just wanted to win,” Boukai told Bluff Magazine after winning his first bracelet. “I won most of the hands heads-up but I was running really well, I was hitting some rivers. He was actually dodging, folding on the river a lot when I had him.”

Boukai has not been a one-hit wonder in the poker world either. Lately he’s been an absolute wrecking ball in the high-stakes online games and is up more than $250,000 so far in 2012.

Eventually Boukai had to choose between MMA and poker and decided to go with playing cards.

It’s hard to picture Boukai regretting his decision, considering he’s won more than $1 million since he started playing poker.

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