Time Out peers through the bars and finds Cage fighting not as fearsome as it sounds
The name evokes a bizarre blend of sleaze, illegality and Mad Max. I’ve enjoyed live boxing for years, but I take my ‘cageside’ seat at Wembley Conference Centre with curiosity and trepidation. I have no idea what will unfold and have deliberately not read the very polarised reports on the subject as I want to make my own mind up.
The arena has the atmosphere of a cockfight as British featherweight champion Brad ‘One Punch’ Pickett prepares to defend his title. He enters with a Pete Doherty swagger, trilby and all, to the jovial strains of Chas ’n’ Dave, casually reading a copy of the Sun. After a marginally less theatrical arrival by opponent Robbie Olivier, it’s down to business. The combatants wear padded fingerless gloves which allow for punching and grappling, and are barefoot which allows for – you guessed it – kicking. What unfolds is a mixture of Muay Thai, Brazilian ju-jitsu, Olympic wrestling and a good old-fashioned tear-up. It’s basically full-contact mixed martial arts and anything else within the rules, though there are a couple of WWF moments as well.
Despite the obvious allusion to animal captivity, the ‘cage’ is actually an octagonal ring surrounded by high netting designed to stop the fighters falling out and injuring themselves and others. It will prove extremely useful during the course of the evening. Brad, the local boy, comes good on a decision after three five-minute rounds of moderately exciting punching and mauling. The baying, leather-gloved gangsterati to my right, left and rear are soothed.
A couple of fights in and, after a visit to the bar, I’m actually enjoying this. As well as British and American fighters, there’s a contingent of Brazilian and Japanese making for a mix of styles – no two bouts are the same. There’s some very nasty cuts and bumps opening up all of a sudden, but a definite semblance of technique and brass balls holding it all together.
What cage fighting lacks in finesse it makes up in terms of spectacle. Matches can be won and lost in an instant with explosive barrages of hard punches, or turn into canvas-hugging tussles where submissions are forced by technical holds and sheer strength. Contrary to popular myth, it is not ‘no holds barred’ combat. There are actually 28 rules, which include ‘no butting’, ‘no pulling of hair’ and, the clincher (excuse the pun), ‘no fingers in any orifices’. Shame, I was expecting so much more. Yes, the fighters’ insurance premiums must be pretty high but, by and large, they accord each other the same respect as in any other sport I’ve witnessed.
The final contest of the evening, a light-heavyweight ‘world’ title showdown, is a stand-up slugfest with a huge number of punches thrown and shipped before the champion Melvin Manhoef, looking dazed and bloodied himself, finishes his rival off with a crunching knockout. It’s as devastating a display as you’ll see in any combat sport, though it’s nothing a boxing crowd hasn’t witnessed from time immemorial and (at top level) for immeasurably bigger purses.
The arena is buzzing, and as I head off to catch a few words with promoter Andy Geer I get a chance to take in the diversity of the punters. From the chav chic built-like-an-air-raid-shelter wide boys and their trophy peroxide girls, to the fey-looking students in the cheap seats at the back, it’s not as easy to pigeonhole the audience as you might imagine.
According to Andy, cage fighting has really taken off since it began in 2002 as a way to raise funds for a mixed martial arts club in Elephant & Castle. Shows have routinely sold out – ‘Cage Rage 16’ on April 22 is the last at the Conference Centre before a move into the larger Wembley Arena – with coverage on Sky Sports 3 and ITV4. ‘We’re just catching up with Japan and the States,’ says Geer, ‘where similar circuits have been big news for the past decade. We’re using the same model for the UK.’ The next promotion features top fighters from the American UFC League and Japanese Pride affiliations.
I leave reflecting that while any fighting sport will always be a fringe activity it’s not entirely unjustified. Having met a couple of the combatants, who seem like genuinely dedicated characters, after the event, I’m glad they have an outlet. It would be such a crime for them to be hanging around my local, bored and drunk, on a Saturday night.
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