Trainer Eric O’Keefe’s License Not Renewed:
Unable to corner Jonathan Goulet at UFC 113 in Montreal
By: Brian J. D’Souza
Quebec is a province of Canada that is notorious for being a hot spot for organized crime. From mafia families to biker gangs, there is frequent news about criminal activity in the media. However, an attempt to draw a linkage between “those people” and one dedicated MMA coach, Eric O’Keefe, has tarnished O’Keefe’s reputation and barred him from doing his job—cornering MMA fighters in Quebec, including the May 8th UFC 113 show in Montreal.
“I don’t care if you want to scrutinize me more closely, but don’t prevent me from working with these kids,” says an impassioned O’Keefe of the decision that has affected his life in a dramatic way.
The body responsible for granting licenses to corner fighters in Quebec is the Régie des alcools, des courses et des jeux or RACJ, which is a board established by the Quebec government to regulate alcohol, racing and games, including combat sports like MMA. Typically, coaches apply to have their licenses renewed on an annual basis, with permits always expiring as of March, 31st. After having his license successfully renewed on three prior occasions, O’Keefe explained the atypical events surrounding his current plight.
“Usually, when [your license] is up, you go up for the weigh-ins, they tell you ‘It’s up. Give us forty-four dollars.’ And they take your picture, and that’s it.” A sports commissioner hinted at potential turbulence ahead, telling him that perhaps he should drop by the office and pay for his license without waiting for the next show. “I took it at face value, and I went,” says O’Keefe, who completed his application three weeks before the expiration of his current license.
O’Keefe was slated to corner five fighters on April 10th, at a Montreal promotion called Ringside. Days before the event, he still had not heard about the status of his license renewal. He called the RACJ office on April 7 and was told that he would be getting an e-mail later in the day stating that he would not be allowed to work the corner. Further questioning revealed that his license was pending review, and that he would probably not get an answer back until after the May 8th UFC show where O’Keefe was slated to corner Jonathan Goulet.
This was devastating news for O’Keefe, who in addition to working with Goulet has also trained former UFC fighters David Loiseau and Dennis Kang, and runs a Sherbrooke gym called Force Xtreme. The letter from the RACJ cites three potential reasons for his license not being granted:
1) When the applicant was declared guilty of a criminal infraction that is linked to a sporting event.
2) When the applicant is unable to establish his capacity to exercise with competence and integrity the activity for which he solicits the license, taking into account his behavior at prior professional sporting events.
3) When the commission has reasonable motives to believe that not issuing a license is necessary in order to ensure, in the public interest, the integrity of combat sports (professional) and the upholding of its good name.
The first two reasons do not apply to O’Keefe, which leads him to believe that the third category is why he’s been targeted. The potential interpretations of protecting the good name of MMA are very wide, which means that nothing more than circumstantial evidence could be used to withhold his license.
RACJ spokesperson Rejean Theriault offers only one detail concerning the case to explain why O’Keefe is in this situation, “In the case of Mr. O’Keefe, we are awaiting a police report and then decide if the permit can be issued.” When the report is issued, O’Keefe will meet with the commissioners as part of an inquiry where he will have a chance to defend himself. Why the report hasn’t been submitted in a timely matter as to not affect O’Keefe’s livelihood is a matter of speculation—perhaps it’s a delay due to procedure, but it could also be a tactic meant to punish O’Keefe. But what is it exactly that he stands accused of doing?
“Anything I tell you, is what I assume,” says O’Keefe. “At my gym, one of my partners was a Hell’s Angel. But his business, whatever he did—he didn’t bring it to the gym and I didn’t get involved in whatever he was doing.”
Aside from alleged association with possible criminal figures, there is something in O’Keefe’s past that he feels will stigmatize him for the rest of his life—he’s an ex-con, having served over eight years in maximum security prisons.
“In the 80’s, I was involved in a crime in the United States,” says O’Keefe, who reveals the darkest chapter in his life. “I was a kid, and I got involved with some guys who asked me to go deliver a message to some guys, and I did it.” After getting caught, he was sentenced to 154 months in prison in the United States.
Everything in O’Keefe’s past was disclosed to the RACJ three years ago when he got his first license. He served his time, was paroled in 1997, and began the long journey in order to seek a place where he gave back to society. Running athletic programs in prison helped give him focus and direction, and he had previous experience in boxing as a youth.
“When MMA came out, I was in prison. I got involved in MMA when I got out. I was in my 30’s, and more involved in coaching.”
Now 45 years old, the situation with the RACJ has brought O’Keefe’s entire life under a microscope. While many individuals from the amateur to professional level have spoken out in support of O’Keefe, the RACJ’s actions will have a greater impact than intended. The underlying truth remains that the people most affected by this decision are the athletes, like Jonathan Goulet, who will lose the comfort of having a friendly face in their corner.
“This has caused damage to me, and to MMA in Quebec,” says O’Keefe, who points out that he is free to continue to work at events in Edmonton, Alberta and in England, but not his home province.
Longtime friend and UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre has stuck by O’Keefe, offering him his own reserved ringside seat at UFC 113 for the Goulet fight. But it’s no true consolation when you consider a coach’s role in preparing a fighter in the dressing room, and the necessity to be in close proximity of the octagon to shout encouragement and instructions.
“Ringside is behind Dana White, and all the tables—with all the noise of the Bell Centre, it’s highly unlikely he’ll hear me,” says O’Keefe, who now awaits the RACJ hearing.
O’Keefe is hoping to galvanize public opinion on his side, having started a Facebook group to raise awareness. Right now, he must prepare himself for a hearing where he does not know the charges, has no idea what evidence will be brought against him, and can’t speculate if he’ll ever be licensed again. The uncertainty is killing his spirit, but he’ll ready himself as best he can in the hopes of clearing his name and regaining any trust he’s lost in the MMA community.
“These athletes and these kids give me a sense of who I am,” says O’Keefe, of the identity he’s found through MMA. “My father died eight months ago—he was so proud that I was coaching MMA,” explains O’Keefe, who pointed to his achievements in working at the UFC’s in Dublin and Belfast. “He made me promise, ‘Keep working at this, Eric and don’t get involved in that crap again.’”
The day he got the fateful news provoked strong emotion. But what Eric thought about most of all was how the news would have affected his father were he still alive.
“He’d be devastated.”