Their sport may be shockingly violent, but cage-fighters have a surprising serenity about them before their bouts

Their sport may be shockingly violent, but cage-fighters have a surprising serenity about them before their bouts

THE cage-fighter has a question. In fact, he has several. “When the guy is down, can I kick his face? Can I stomp him? Can I jump him? Can I axe-kick him? Can I use my elbows on his head?”

Two hours until showtime, and backstage at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow, a rules meeting is under way. Cage-fighting, or mixed martial arts (MMA) to give it its Sunday name, is widely regarded as being a sport in which anything goes. In fact, there are a great many rules. Hence the couple of dozen fighters and coaches, sprawled out in trackies and baseball caps, listening intently as the finer points of violent conduct are explained.

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“If the guy’s standing above you,” the referee nods reassuringly, “you can kick his face.”

Cage-fighting has become remarkably popular remarkably quickly. Its devotees will tell you that it is the fastest growing sport in the world. In America it is already a phenomenon, with events staged by the Ultimate Fighting Championship regularly attracting more than 10,000 spectators into arenas and being broadcast to half a billion homes worldwide, including in Scotland. The top fighters in America can earn between $500,000 and $1 million per fight. In the UK, the pay-scale ranges between a few hundred and few thousand pounds.

Here, cage-fighting has not quite penetrated the mainstream, held back perhaps by a lingering sense that this is not so much a sport as a barbarous freak show. The recent story about eight-year-old boys fighting in a cage in Preston is just one example of the sort of media outrage which has dogged mixed martial arts.

Over the past few years, as its profile in Scotland has soared, the sport has been condemned by politicians, religious leaders, doctors and police. Yet despite – and perhaps even because of – the bad publicity, the Scottish audience is thought to have tripled over the past 18 months, and there are ever-increasing numbers of fighters. So-called “fight teams”, tight as family, can be found right across the Central Belt and beyond. Preeminent among these are the Dinky Ninjas (slogan: “Kickin’ Baws and Breakin’ Jaws”) in Glasgow, Dumbarton and Lanark. They and others are present at the Kelvin Hall, their allegiances proclaimed on the back of hoodies.

Backstage, the atmosphere is serene. Tonight is Scottish Fight Challenge 5, and a sell-out audience of 1,500 is expected to witness 14 bouts. Saturday night, as they say, is alright for fighting. But early evening, it seems, is more about chilling out. Fighters do stretching exercises on crash-mats or lie back with eyes closed and headphones on.

Coaches lovingly wind tape round their fighters’ fists. The ring girls – glamazons all – totter around in black catsuits and vertiginous heels, looking askance at the cage in which they will be required to walk around holding aloft large cards proclaiming the number of each round. “Dae we need tae get up thae ladders?” one asks in horror.

Paul Lopez, a fighter from Cumnock known as “The Sparra” on account of his lack of height, is attracting attention by walking around with his finger and toenails painted pink and baby blue. “It puts folk off,” explains his team-mate William McCurdy. “They look doon at his feet and he kicks them in the face.” Lopez paints his nails with the assistance of his girlfriend Amy; she does the right hand, he does the left. “I had to take him to hospital last week with a suspected broken toe,” says McCurdy, “and every nurse in A&E came over to look at his feet.”

By 6pm, the night’s entertainment is about to begin. The hall is dark and smells of beer and sweat and spray-tan and perfume. The audience is seated in raised, tiered rows, or around large circular tables close to the action. The queue for the bar resembles a record-breaking conga line. The ladies in the crowd are dressed to the nines and beyond; one young woman accessorises a faux-fur gilet with a can of Strongbow. Their menfolk tend towards ned-couture.

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The women seem, for the most part, profoundly bored, sitting with legs crossed, tugging in tedium at their false lashes. The cage-fighting WAGs, however, are up to high doh – chewing perfect nails, jumping up and down in stilettoes, and screaming for their men.

At the centre of it all is the cage – a large octagon of diamond mesh. The cage exists for two reasons. First, it is dramatic, a bit of stage-craft suggesting that the fighters within are wild beasts for whom such precautions are necessary. Less obviously, however, it is there to prevent the combatants falling or being thrown out and suffering injury. As one fighter puts it: “I feel safer in the cage.”

The cage is also a transforming space. There is something ritualistic about it. Amid flashing lights and dry ice and their chosen music (everything from It’s Raining Men to Showtek’s Here We F***ing Go) the fighters enter the hall by strutting along a catwalk. At the door to the cage, there is a quiet moment of communion with their coach during which they are given a sip of water and have their brows anointed with Vaseline.

They fight bare-chested and in bare feet, wearing leather fingerless gloves. There is something quite preening about cage-fighting; pretty much everyone has Michelangelo muscles and elaborate tattoos. As the fighters strike and grapple, so too do their tats, eagles pressed up and flattened against angels, sweat streaming down over skulls and demons, dragons and stars. Backstage, these young men – they are mostly in their twenties – were mechanics and plumbers and oil-workers. Now, in the cage, they are warriors.

That, I suspect, is why so many of the fighters say they find it addictive. Who wouldn’t want to be a hero, if only for a few minutes on a Saturday night?

The coaches press their faces up against the cage, fingers (gloved against blood) holding tight to the mesh, shouting ceaseless instructions to their men. “Hands up! Put that elbow through! Let me see you bring your knees towards your chest! Control your posture!” At times it sounds like a chiropractors’ convention, or a game of extreme Twister.

But this is no game. As Peter McAfferty from Stirling performs a victorious cartwheel, his opponent Gerry Kennedy from Clydebank is attended by his cornermen, crimson gushing from his nose and pooling round his toes. The crowd go crazy whenever there is a glimpse of gore – screaming obscenities, pints aloft, jabbing fingers towards the cage. Advice (“Hook ’im!”), comment (“Nice choke!”) and criticism (“Ya steroid-abusing basturt!”) is offered at high volume. Everyone’s blood is up. “It makes you want to get right in there next to them,” says Chris Miller, 31, from East Kilbride after a particularly violent bout. “That’s nothing compared to some of the things I’ve seen.”

The blood-lust on display in the audience is in marked contrast to the way the fighters themselves feel about what they do. Mixed martial arts is, as the name suggests, a complex blend of different combat disciplines including boxing, wrestling, kickboxing and jiu jitsu. It requires a degree of knowledge, ability and all-round fitness that can only be attained with enormous amounts of training.

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Cage-fighters, therefore, tend to live extremely focused, almost monastic lives, and they talk about their sport in a surprisingly quiet and cerebral way. It is quite common to hear MMA compared to chess – the idea being that success relies upon an ability to understand and exploit weaknesses in your opponent’s strategy. In the cage they feel great concentration and clarity. It is, to hear them tell it, an exercise in intellectual creativity, an out-of-body experience, albeit one that can leave even the winners vomiting blood. This is not just a square go with ideas above its station.

“I enjoy fighting, competing,” says James Doolan of the Dinky Ninjas, “but the thought of being in a confrontation in the street terrifies me.”

And yet. There is, undeniably, something nasty about cage-fighting. Standing at the side of the cage, my head level with the mat, I am just a foot away from the face of the fighter Neil Laird as he gets the area above his right eye split open by repeated blows of the elbow from Shaun Lomas. The dull thuck of elbow on brow is sickening. Worse, though, are the contests which end with fighters being choked unconscious. They can, in theory, “tap out” – submit – before this happens, but sometimes are too proud or determined to do so. One man loses consciousness for about ten seconds, his legs jerking like a fish gasping for air. It is horrible. It doesn’t look much like chess.

As midnight approaches, I am seated at one of the cage-side tables which, by this late hour, are heaped high with crumpled empties. One fighter is wrapping his legs round another’s throat, a delta of veins bulging on both their temples. The action is obscured for a moment, however, by the couple sitting across from me, who lean in towards each other, silhouetted against the cage light, lips about to touch, the gasping, choking fighter just visible through the narrowing gap between their faces.

On a night of blurred and brutal violence, of black-outs and blood, this tender Glasgow kiss is the most striking moment of all.

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