Ouje-Bougoumou was in high spirits April 15 when hometown fighters competed for titles at a Montreal Fight League (MFL) event. The mood escalated into euphoria as Quinn Blacksmith and Albert St-Pierre emerged with championship belts.
“People in the building were ecstatic,” said Blacksmith. “The kids were screaming so hard that all I heard was them telling me to slam him, punch him. I almost couldn’t hear my own coach in the corner.”
At 20, Blacksmith became the youngest two-time MFL champion and is now Canada’s top-ranked amateur heavyweight. Stepping into the octagon as the main event, he felt pumped with the Youth Centre’s energy and got in some good punches before using his opponent’s weight against him for the takedown.
“Once you get in there, everything becomes surreal,” Blacksmith told the Nation. “It was so exciting, almost like tingles in my body. I get to represent the Cree Nation – we get to show people what we’re made of.”
Spectators poured in from other communities with more tuning in on pay-per-view to witness all Cree fighters win their matches, including Eadan Shecapio-Blacksmith and Kurt Shecapio-Blacksmith. Mixed martial arts have galvanized Ouje-Bougoumou since MFL founder Maz Mas established a local training program in 2020.
“When Maz showed up in 2020, that’s when I really took it seriously,” said Blacksmith. “Maz changed everything for us, introducing us to different styles and techniques we’d never seen before. Once he saw my first fight was a TKO in the first round, he was pretty impressed.”
Quinn’s father Benny Blacksmith had reached out to Mas to develop a fitness program in the community. With the pandemic making MFL events impossible, Mas relocated from Montreal for six months and quickly realized the first group of fighters had impressive natural strength and talent.
“From the first class, you realize this is not your average 15-year-old you’re dealing with,” Mas recalled. “I didn’t have the heart to leave them after one season. I was in too deep with the boys to just leave them hanging – I come to do events whenever I can.”
Mas established the MFL in 2015. He says the success of Quebec’s George St-Pierre in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has made the sport easy to promote in Montreal and Canada. Organizing events in other communities, including several successful stops in Kanesatake, has been instrumental in recruiting new fighters and fans.
“Our mission as MFL is to give enough experience to amateur fighters to turn pro,” explained Mas. “To date, we have up to 43 fighters we’ve turned pro in eight years. A goal that’s very reachable is to turn Cree fighters into unstoppable machines and send them to the States to fight pro and eventually reach the UFC.”
Mas selects appropriate matchups for each Cree fighter, who go through intensive training preparing for a fight. Blacksmith said this includes a range of shadowboxing, sparring and cardio workouts, working on weaknesses and studying upcoming opponents to improve with every opportunity.
“The training gives us advantage because we train so hard for two months straight,” said Blacksmith. “After my second fight, my punches were more accurate with more power. My ground game improved a lot since I started. I’m able to outmanoeuvre some of the lightweights sometimes because of my speed steps.”
Blacksmith believes much of his strength comes from Cree cultural activities, such as carrying 8-foot logs while working in the bush. Hunting harvests in the Cree diet also provide a valuable source of body-building protein. Motivated to practice MMA for self-defence, the sport has proven an important therapeutic tool and boosted his self-confidence.
“It helped me mentally a lot with anger that most kids have at a young age,” Blacksmith suggested. “All those hormones and emotions you have just burst out. MMA taught me how to control and harness it into a fight. It taught me how to defend myself and my loved ones.”
Light heavyweight champion Albert St-Pierre got into fighting to escape the negative influences of gangs, drugs and alcohol in the community. A heavy drinker when he started competitive fighting eight years ago, St-Pierre has now been sober two years and was honoured as a role model at Ouje-Bougomou’s youth recognition awards last November.
“The gym kept me busy and helped me a lot with my sobriety,” St-Pierre told the Nation. “We grew up kind of harsh living in the rez – I got bullied a lot growing up. Now I’m beginning to be well known as a positive role model – kids scream ‘champion’ when I drive by.”
Several fights excited the crowd before the main attractions, including two “knight fights” with warriors wearing shining armour and attacking with swords. Usually a stand-up fighter, St-Pierre studied his opponent’s jiu-jitsu style leading up to the match, tightening up his “ground fight” and preparing for reverse submissions.
While St-Pierre may defend his belt in Montreal in the coming months, Blacksmith aims to take the summer off to play baseball before returning to the octagon towards year-end. Later this summer, Mas is hoping to introduce the Crees to UFC fighters at the Tristar Gym in Montreal, renowned as the country’s top MMA training facility.
Recognizing the sport’s positive impact on community youth, Mas and the Cree fighters are working to establish a permanent training facility in Ouje-Bougoumou that could serve as a regional hub for neighbouring Cree and Algonquin communities while also providing physiotherapy and other athletic therapeutic services.
“The events could be bigger and regional, not just local,” St-Pierre explained. “People can train with a chiropractor, jacuzzi and ice tub after they come back from skidoo racing. We’ll be getting certificates to start training our own youth.”
Blacksmith and St-Pierre want to grow the sport’s popularity in the northern communities while taking their MMA talents as far as they can. As one of the older fighters at age 36, St-Pierre hopes to show youth that they can accomplish whatever they set their minds to.
“Whoever is fighting a battle – whether it’s mentally, physically, drugs or alcohol, fighting for their relationship or even cancer and other diseases – keep fighting and giving your best,” St-Pierre concluded. “The outcome could be a lot greater than you think.”