Amoussous fighting for French legalization

PARIS -- Thursday's mixed martial arts class at Lagardère Paris Racing had mercifully concluded. That much is clear after nearly 80 French men and women, crossing paths like waterlogged ants walking a trail, slapped five before dispersing into a damp late-September night.

Over the course of the previous hour, Bertrand Amoussou, the man in charge, converted a matted area the size of three side-by-side regulation basketball courts into a steam shower. Amoussou gets credit because the "judo room," located on the second floor of Lagardère's sprawling sports facility and home to several French Olympic champions, was mostly empty until his students showed up. Only eight people attended the lead-in judo session.

This has been typical of the 46-year-old Amoussou's experience at Lagardère, which is why Albert Pernet, a representative for the newly elected French government's ministry of sport, was on hand to bear witness.

This is what he saw: A diverse population of French citizens wearing MMA-branded garb, predominately labeled "UFC" or "Bad Boy," punching and grappling despite the French government and powerful interests throughout the country's entrenched martial arts communities having no palate for the combat sport.

"I confirm we remain totally opposed with a creation of a MMA federation in France," Jean-Pierre Mougin, Secretary General for the French National Olympic Committee, told ESPN.com.

No one wears more hats in French MMA than the Senegalese-born Amoussou. Some may know him as the older brother to mixed martial artist Karl Amoussou, who fights Thursday against Bellator welterweight champion Ben Askren in Thackerville, Okla. Others will remember him as the first French fighter to win a bout in Pride. He was a medal-winning judoka for France in the 1990 European Championships. He's a magazine publisher (and soon will be again). A broadcaster. An instructor.

Basically, Amoussou is the advocate for French MMA.

While MMA fans and media often look to Dana White and the Ultimate Fighting Championship to break down regulatory boundaries -- White promised again Wednesday that "people over there know" UFC is coming to France -- it's more likely, Amoussou believes, that change will happen from the inside.

"It's very important for the Minister of Sport [Valerie Fourneyron] that there is an evolution," Amoussou said. "That it's not [a situation where] everybody does whatever they want. It's important that we have a structure. I know she doesn't know anything about it, and the only people she talks to are against us. So I want to talk to her, not only about the fights, but the academies and educational programs for MMA. She's going to listen to that."

A couple of weeks ago Amoussou put the finishing touches on a graduated "belt" system for MMA. Among many students, his brother Karl, 27, stands alone. Emerging from a family of martial artists, their strict African father, who was a successful karate stylist, was fond of telling his boys, "I'm going to slap you with my foot." And he would when they got out of line.

Earlier in the day, well before the sauna, Karl, a judo black belt under his brother's care, got a workout in at a converted no-frills gym in northern Paris, where rain pelted its sheet-metal roof. With his title fight against Askren, a highly decorated American amateur wrestler, three and a half months away, Bertrand made sure to watch and instruct while Karl, an ex-undercover cop, moved enough to get a sweat going.

The plan was to be in solid enough shape to make the most of a three week trip to American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla. Instead, he spent more than two months preparing with ATT.

"It was not an easy decision but the training was so good I thought it would be stupid to go back to France," the welterweight challenger said, "especially with the level of wrestling in the U.S."

For the first time since turning pro -- a decision that was delayed a couple years more than Karl wanted because Bertrand refused to sign off until he was sure his brother was ready -- the Amoussous didn't regularly prep together for a fight. Not unless Skype sessions count.

"It was the first time without my brother, so it was unusual I have to say," Karl said. "But I had very good coaches at ATT. I really had what I needed here to be ready in the best way."

"It was the right time to make the move," Bertrand said. "He's happy. He's confident. I think he's going to put on a great show on Thursday."

Askren (10-0) doesn’t buy it. He predicts Amoussou (16-4-2) will be "a lot easier" fight than Jay Hieron or Douglas Lima, his last two opponents.

"Karl's cardio is crap," Askren said. And the Frenchman’s striking is "overrated," too, he said.

"He obviously knows that if he stands with me, he'll sleep,” Karl said of the unbeaten wrestler. "It would be really stupid of him to try and stand. So, yeah, he'll try to take me down. I think he will box a bit more than previous fights. I'm just going to destroy him. I will hit him so hard he won't even get close to me.

"I think people are underestimating my judo skills. I'm telling you that he's going to end up on his back. I'm going to take him down. I think he's cocky and arrogant and not very smart. I don't have much to say about him. He's just trying to sell the fight the best way he can, which for me is not the best way to do it. His mouth is going to be shut at the same time as the door to the cage."

Askren, never at a loss for confidence or words, shot back: "I'm 4-0 against American Top Team guys, so I think I'm set."

Bertrand will work his brother's corner Thursday evening with the ATT crew. Then, a couple weeks later for AB Groupe, which broadcasts Bellator alongside other MMA properties on cable television in France, the elder brother expects to dub over French commentary of the fight. As much as it pains Bertrand to say so, victory for his brother probably won't mean much when it comes to getting MMA approved by French authorities.

Said Florent Jeanne, a 24-year-old fight fan who shows up to Lagardère a couple times a week for Bertrand's sauna sessions: "You need to change public opinion by communicating it's a real sport with athletes and morals and respect. People see it as cage fighting. They have a really bad image of the sport as crazy guys going in there to kill each other."

To no one's surprise, that impression populated the faces of the four traditionally dressed Aikido practitioners who cut their way through the humidity.

The mat was theirs.