'Everyone thinks I must be some kind of animal'

 

CAGE FIGHTING isn’t a sport that elicits a mild reaction. When I tell people that it’s what my brother Andy does for a living, they’re either impressed or appalled, or both. Then they ask what I think.

To me, testing his martial-arts skills against others, and coaching others to do the same, is a natural progression from the judo he began aged eight and the jiu jitsu he learned later. I’m aware of the sport’s public image, but at the same time I’ve seen the huge dedication, training and technical skill that goes into a fight.

In 2009 the world’s biggest cage-fighting event, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) came to the O2 in Dublin and Andy came over from Britain to be a judge. When he mentioned that a car was coming to take the judges from a hotel in the IFSC to the O2, I assumed they didn’t know Dublin’s geography. Surely these young athletes could manage the 500m walk? He looked at me as if indulging a small child. “It’s so we don’t get mobbed,” he said.

The popularity of cage fighting – or mixed martial arts (MMA), as it’s more correctly known – has exploded in recent years. Thanks to TV rights and sponsorship, it’s now a multi-million-dollar industry, with the UFC holding events from Abu Dhabi to Rio and smaller competitions taking place regularly in Ireland.

Yet the sport continues to have an image problem. Branded “human cock-fighting” by US senator John McCain, it’s often viewed as a barbaric activity that’s less about skill and more about unchecked violence. In the UK the British Medical Association (BMA) is calling for an outright ban on MMA because it has “the sole aim to cause physical harm and injury to an opponent until they are unable to continue”.

Franca Tranza, a spokeswoman for the BMA, says: “We have a long-standing policy calling for a ban on boxing, which dates back to 1982. In 2007 we added MMA to that, for similar reasons. We’re concerned about blows to the head and cumulative neurological damage.”

The recent press pictures of two children grappling in a cage for the entertainment of adults didn’t help. “That was wrong,” says John Kavanagh, of Straight Blast Gym in Dublin, who coaches professional MMA fighters. “But if the kids had been playing table tennis inside the cage it would have been wrong, because it was at night in front of an audience of drunken adults. The actual activity they were doing was safe, but they need a sober, supportive crowd.”

Like many people involved in MMA, Kavanagh thinks it often gets a bad rap. “The perception is different from the reality,” he says. “I can understand how it comes across, but a lot of people are ignorant. I don’t mean that as a slander; I mean people don’t know much about it. MMA is very safe. I’ve been doing this for 15 years and I’ve never had to deal with a serious injury. ”

Originally devised as a way to determine which martial art was the most effective, MMA has developed into a multidisciplinary sport in which competitors use techniques from boxing, wrestling and jiu jitsu to overpower their opponents. The fighters start on their feet but the fight will often end up on the ground. Fighters can concede at any time by “tapping out”, and other ways for their opponents to win are through knockout, technical knockout, judges’ decision and a referee stopping the fight.

As the sport has grown, so have its rules. There is a long list of fouls, from groin attacks and eye gouging to spitting and pinching. As for the “cage”, which seems to be the focus of much ire, it’s actually an octagonal ring, much like a boxing ring, with mesh around the sides to stop fighters falling out when they’re grappling.

Henry “Herculeez” Fadipe is an Irish professional MMA fighter, who will compete in the Man of War II event this Saturday at the Helix in Dublin. He says that a lot of preparation goes into a fight. “Everyone thinks I must be some kind of animal, but it’s really not like that. Everything we do, we train for. Every move we practise over and over.”

He believes that mental discipline is just as important as physical skill. “You can’t go into the cage angry; it never works. You have to be calm and collected. It’s 60 per cent mental and 40 per cent physical.”

Although MMA events aren’t short on theatrics – from nicknames, to bikini-clad ring girls and pre-arranged pre-fight scuffles between the fighters – these are mostly for audience benefit.

Stefan Moriarty, an MMA coach and promoter who is organising Man of War II, says he doesn’t have a problem with hyping things up but he’s also keen to emphasise the work competitors put in. “I had 20 guys on the mat at 7am this morning,” he says. “They look after their diet, they don’t drink. For some it’s a career path. Anyone who’s been to a fight or watched it on TV knows that sportsmanship is the biggest aspect.”

Moriarty says that people come to MMA from a variety of backgrounds. “It’s not just one hard guy in town matched against another hard guy in town. People come from across all levels of society. We’ve got solicitors, doctors, college students.”

Kavanagh agrees. “It doesn’t attract the type of person you’d think it might attract. In the first year you spend your time getting tapped out and beaten up, and you have to agree to certain rules. It’s honourable.”

Words like honour, respect and sportsmanship crop up again and again. I’m told that MMA is a close community, that everyone shakes hands and usually hugs after a fight, and that you gain respect by just stepping into the cage. But isn’t that the critics’ point? It takes guts to get into the cage because it’s a dangerous situation and you’re likely to get hurt.

Dave Jones, a PE teacher, rugby coach and MMA referee, says: “My role is fighter safety, to make sure the fighters don’t injure themselves . . . I’ve refereed about a thousand fights and we’ve never had a really serious injury. I’ve seen worse on the rugby pitch. Every fighter is checked medically before the fight, we have three judges ringside, me, and a medical team with ambulance. MMA’s as safe as it can be.”

Kavanagh admits that it’s not a sport for everyone. “But if you don’t like it, don’t watch. You can always switch over to The X Factor.”

A bluffer's guide to cage fighting

The first rule of cage fighting isdon’t call it cage fighting. It’s mixed martial arts, or MMA.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship(UFC) is the biggest MMA promotion in the world. A total of 9,369 people attended the UFC 93 event at the O2 in Dublin in 2009, which added up to a live gate worth nearly €1 million.

MMA is a mix of Brazilian jiu jitsu, wrestling and boxing. Moves include striking, takedowns and grappling.

All f ights start with competitors standing upand progress according to the fighters’ strengths. Boxers prefer to stay on their feet, while those stronger in jiu jitsu will try to take the fight to the ground.

The most famous MMA competitor outside the industry is Alex Reid, former partner of Katie Price.

Irish fighter Aisling “Ais the Bash” Dalyis ranked seventh in the unified women’s MMA rankings.

Contrary to popular belief, there are many rules. Fouls include small-joint manipulation, groin attacks, strikes to the spine or back of the head, throat strikes, stomping on a grounded fighter and unsportsmanlike conduct that causes injury. Competitors must wear shorts, gum shields, groin cups and 4oz gloves.

Ways to win include: knockout, technical knockout, judges’ decision, opponent submission or an opponent’s corner throwing in the towel.

Top namesin the sport include: Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, Cain Velasquez, Jon “Bones” Jones, Frankie “The Answer” Edgar and José “Scarface” Aldo.

The cageis an octagonal ring enclosed with mesh, designed to stop fighters falling out of the ring.