James has a hold on the fight game
THE silence is broken only by the squeak of rubber sole on rubber mat. The temperature is climbing, the plastic sheeting taped over the windows adding to the heat. A slight breeze makes an entrance, swirling its way up five flights of stairs and setting the 15 or so punchbags gently swaying.
It's 7pm on a Wednesday night and 12 men, of differing ages and physiques, are locked in combat, grappling with each other in pairs, in the unlikeliest gym in Edinburgh.
Here – on the top level of an old stone building in Holyrood Business Park, a few floors above an architectural salvage yard – is where the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is practised.
The only person not looking ready to expire is professional fighter James Mair who is putting the others through their paces.
Call it what you will – cage fighting, ultimate fighting, or just "barbaric" as it's been termed by some politicians – James is Lothian's star of the punching, kicking, kneeing, grappling and elbowing sport which has taken America by storm and which is slowly building a following in the UK.
He is a picture of the kind of physical perfection that graces the covers of magazines. Taut thighs, muscular chest and arms, right leg tattooed with a Thai design, he runs barefoot in a circle urging the others to jump, to roll, to get down and press up. Then it's on to leap frogs, wheelbarrows and fireman lifts, before the grappling begins.
It's exhausting to watch, and the faces of the participants are beaming; sweat lashing off their concentrated brows. There are a couple of blokes whom you might expect to see at a fight club – shaven heads, the air of doormen – but the rest look like they could be architects, computer programmers or in some other such sedentary job.
What they all have in common though is a desire, at some level, to emulate 29-year-old James.
He is, after all, "The Nightmair", the current British Middleweight MMA Champion, and the fighter who will take on Andrew Punshon in the MMA Total Combat 25 contest in Sunderland tomorrow. Yet he's also a white-collar civil servant working as a policy and training officer with the Student Awards Agency and father of six-year-old Elle.
So what makes a man, who is rather gently spoken, who has a mild-mannered job, want to get into a ring and pummel his opponent into the matting?
"It is raw and a bit primal I suppose, but that's not why I fight. For me it's not just brawling, it's highly technical, and it's about using your brain as much as your brawn," he says. "I do it because you are testing yourself against another person and because it brings together a mixture of skills.
He adds: "I know it's not for everybody. There are dangerous aspects to it, but you train to be able to deal with those. In fact I think it's safer than boxing.
"The referee has a really active role and if a fighter is taking a lot of blows and not defending himself, the referee will stop the fight."
Tell that to his mum Christina, driving instructor dad Jake, or even his daughter. James smiles. "They are really supportive now. Mum wasn't sure at first, she thought it was too violent but she's come round.
"Elle knows that I fight, but she doesn't understand it totally, and I would never let her attend a fight."
A fan of Bruce Lee and Jean-Claude Van Damme films, James was nine when he took up karate. By 14, he had moved on to Tae Kwon Do, winning a black belt and the Scottish championship two years later.
"Tae Kwon Do is a good place to start if you like martial arts, it gives you a lot of discipline," he says. "When I was 18 I started Thai boxing because I wanted a bigger challenge. Then when I was 22 I found out about MMA and for me it was a natural progression."
It was the televised Ultimate Fighting Championship which inspired James to get in touch with Willie Scott of Edinburgh's Alba Dornadair MMA Club.
"It is no-holds-barred and raw. I think that's why it took off in the States, and top fighters can earn $1 million a fight. On pay-per-view TV it's now bigger than the NFL. The same thing is happening here and it can only get bigger."
James, from Dalkeith, is not yet at the level of the million-dollar men. He's more a trophy and expenses-paid fighter, although he does receive some sponsorship from Leith Street hairdressers Be Ba Boom. But he hopes that will change. "There are big promoters who will pay fighters once you reach a certain level, but at the moment I have to work to provide the bread and butter," he laughs.
MMA demands a lot of commitment – which could account for James' single status. It would be hard to see how a relationship would fit into his training schedule. "I train six days a week, for three hours. Every morning I run three miles and then train after work, either fitness or technical classes. And the closer a fight gets the more notice I have to take of my diet."
The six footer weighs in at 88kg (13st 9lbs), but gets down to 84kg (13st 2lbs) for his fights. "I'm lucky in that my natural weight is not so far removed from the fight weight so it doesn't take a lot for me to lose a few ounces."
I think what's great about MMA though is that age doesn't matter – there are guys in their 40s still competing professionally, it's a sport where experience counts for a lot."
He admits to having had a few injuries; a broken finger, an injured knee, a broken nose from a training session. Nothing serious so far, thanks he says to his training and the three Gs no fighter ever goes into the ring without – groin guard, gumshield and gloves.
With a fringe sport which receives more negative press than positive – he can't bear the "ignorant" attitude of those who believe it encourages antisocial behaviour – it would be easy to believe that it's a target for certain criminal elements.
"If you look at any sport you're going to get criminals," he says. "Look at footballers – they get up to all sorts. Is there a criminal element attached to MMA? I don't know about it and I've never heard of any match fixing. I think that would be extremely difficult.
"And like any sport people will use performance-enhancing drugs, and at my level there's no drug testing. Of course it goes on and I know bodybuilders who use steroids, but I've never been offered anything."
So what about the fight tomorrow? You'd expect him to be full of the testosterone-fuelled bravado which always seems to surround professional boxers. His aggression – even in speech – seems to be kept entirely for the ring.
"It should be a good fight. Punshon is from a kick boxing background and he's not lost in four fights. This will be my sixth fight, and I've only lost one and that was because I picked up an injury – even though I nearly had a KO in the first round. But I intend to do really well.
"People have to realise that to be good at this you have to be an intelligent fighter – the best fighters are intelligent. It's a discipline that requires competitors to be highly skilled."
For more information visit www.albadornadairstreetkombatclub.co.uk