The cage fighting revolution has well and truly begun. A little helping hand from Hollywood is useful but the seeds of fascination had already been sewn long before The Warrior blasted the sport into public consciousness. No longer is it a sport resigned to the graveyard shift on obscure pay-per-view cable TV, a sport more readily associated with angry, testosterone fuelled sadomasochists than professional athletes. Cage fighting or Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is flourishing and with each and every boxing scandal increasingly leaving a bitter taste, disillusioned fans are switching over to a sport untarnished by greed and corruption
The sport has descended upon Glasgow for the Ontop4 championships at Kelvin Hall. It’s the pinnacle for the sport in Scotland and somehow due to a combination of coincidence and an insistence on waving my press press at lots of people who really couldn’t care less I find myself sitting in arguably the best seat in the house. I’m meters from the cage next to the fighters’ runway, sandwiched bizarrely between the family zone and the scantily-clad ring girls. The close proximity allows for an incredible insight into the razor sharp intensity of the affair. The dramatic entrances the fights make to the Arena feel almost like part of the fight itself. Spectacular visuals give the effect of the fighters ascending from the darkness, emerging shrouded in smoke. As they swagger up to the cage it’s like watching a procession of the people you’d least like to meet down a dark alleyway. Nearly all are sporting skinheads and decorated with an impressive arrays of scars and tattoos, yet it is the look in their eyes that is perhaps most frightening. Focussed is one thing; these guys look almost maniacal. Beady eyes fixed seemingly into oblivion, or if their opponent is already in the cage engaged in pre-fight rituals then the combatants’ mind games can truly begin. They all start to madly eye-ball each other with penetrating looks so intense that they seem to be boring into one anothers souls searching for a weakness or vulnerabilty to exploit.
This build up is played out to a sound-track of beating hearts and the ultra-emotive ‘Eye-of-the-Tiger-and-the-like’ fight music ensemble. So much so that by the time the fighters have been given the once over by the doctor – although maybe it should be a psychologist – the atmosphere is truly electric. You may be of a pacifist persuasion but it’s almost impossible not be swept away by the gladiatorial prestige of the occasion. I find myself arbitrarily picking sides and by the end I’m so into it I’m practically baying for blood. It’s easy to be swept up by the furore of the hugely partisan home crowd. Scots are treated like heroes whilst foreigners arrive to the chorus of boos more readily associated with a pantomime villain.
It would be easy to expect MMA to just be full-on fisticuffs but the fights all seem to follow a certain pattern. A couple of well-aimed kicks and a few punches before the opponent’s lunge grappling to the floor. Rarely it seems are fights won with a hail Mary knockout blow but rather in the homo-erotically charged wrestling that inevitably seems to follow suit. You know the are trying to inflict some serious damage but its hard to think they’re not just having a big cuddle. At times it’s like watching a pair of first-time lovers clumsily attempting the Kama Sutra as they wriggle and grasp with each other on the floor.
The manner in which the actions veers from the gung-ho to the methodical is probably the most compelling aspect of MMA; the delicate balance of brains and brawn needed to be champion. Just because you’re 7ft tall and built like a James Bond bad guy doesn’t necessarily mean a thing, although to be fair it probably helps because MMA is like chess for the abnormally tough.
It’s so methodical and tactical in fact that it’s easy to misjudge who seems to be winning. Just because someone is inflicting apparent mortal damage on their opponent doesn’t necessarily mean they are heading for victory. At one stage a fighter seems to be unceremoniously tipped onto his head but no sooner have I turned squeamishly away to wince expecting a horrific crunch than he’s wildly bounding around the cage celebrating. Turns out in falling he had trapped his opponent in a leg lock and forced his opponent to tap out to avoid a leg break.
The unbalance of some the early fights at times verges on the ridiculous. At times I feel a bit like I’m watching in on the scuffle of two warring siblings, with the outcome like all fights between big and little brothers, inevitable. Yet they do serve to answer any doubts sceptics might have over the authenticity of the sport as the first fight is prematurely stopped due to a suspected broken foot, whilst the second sees the defeated depart forced to take oxygen.
The event staged at Kelvin Hall marked a landmark event in Scottish MMA with the first professional female fight. Sadly the build up was somewhat tarnished by the ill-chosen words of MSP Sandra White, whose ignorance caused unnecessary controversy as she suggested that the fight was geared more to the hyper-sexualised tendency’s of a largely male audience than to a watershed moment in women’s sport. She claimed: “There are sexual connotations of having women cage fighting. I just think it sends out completely the wrong message to the general public” before going on to add “I think it’s degrading to women.”
The fight sees Scotland’s Joanne Calderwood face the French challenger of Noelia Molina, yet no sooner has the booming voice of the host finished highlighting the historical significance of the fight, than it’s over. Calderwood is brutal in her efficiency. Within seconds she has her opponent locked helplessly on the floor and is pummelling her with such frenzy that it sends an awed hush across Kelvin Hall. Whatever people expected from Scotland’s first professional female fight, I’m not sure it was this. Eventually the referee is forced to stop the fight with Molina dazed and bleeding badly from a head wound. It may be an inherently sexist comment, but watching this fight made me far more uncomfortable than in the viewing of men in similar positions being just as equally beaten senseless. I realise those sentiments are patronising when dealing with professional athletes, and at the centre of all things Calderwood demonstrated a ruthlessness that reflects that there is no reason why she cannot go on to compete with the very best in the sport.
Top of the bill is the fight between home favourite Martin Delaney and Mamour Fall for the crown of On Top lightweight champion. It’s the fight the event deserved. Five gruelling rounds of combat fail to separate them before the Scot eventually narrowly claims the title on a judge’s count. Queue jubilant celebrations as the crowd surge into the cage to carry out the new champion aloft.
Having recently watched coverage of England’s 1966 World Cup victory, I can’t help but draw comparisons with the iconic image of Bobby Moore held on the shoulders of his team. Sex, greed and race scandals may be robbing football of its heroes but tonight in Martin Delaney, Glasgow found one.