It’s a sport on the rise in Scotland. Once looked upon as brutal and barbaric, MMA has revamped its image in recent years, partly due to the rising popularity of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the sport’s premier promotion.
The London-based Cage Warriors Fighting Championship has benefited dramatically from the boom in the sport’s popularity and tonight Cage Warriors will cap off a year in which they set a company record for number of events held with a blowout in Dublin, Ireland’s Helix Arena featuring two world title fights.
Contesting these championship fights are two of Scotland’s finest, as Steven Ray, 23, defends his lightweight championship against Ivan Buchinger and Graham Turner, 26, challenges featherweight champion Jim Alers for his title. Both men have made waves in their respective weight divisions, and neither plans on stopping until reaching the pinnacle of the sport.
After winning a gruelling four-man, one-night tournament to win his lightweight crown at Cage Warriors 60 in October, Ray will climb back into the cage against dangerous submission ace Buchinger at Cage Warriors 63 where he is relishing the return to fighting only once per night.
He said: “It seems a lot better, not because of the two fights but the fact it added up to eight rounds. I’ve competed in four-man tournaments before but this one felt different. After my first fight my heart rate was really high and I couldn’t calm down.”
Ray was eventually able to regain control of his body and went on to defeat Sean Carter in their lightweight tournament final by way of submission in the fourth round, and is now looking to keep what he earned. “It’s one opponent, one fight,” he continued. “I know who the opponent is this time. I’ll be prepared.”
Fellow Scot Turner, on the other hand, is in a different position to Ray as the challenger to a world title belt. Turner’s opponent, Jim Alers, won the featherweight strap on Cage Warriors’ last trip to Glasgow in April, but Turner plans to bring the belt back home with him to Scotland.
Alers’ strengths lie in his grappling, something Turner and his coaches took into account when formulating his gameplan for fight night.
Turner said: “When he gets people to the ground, his control and ability to pin people to the mat lets him do what he wants with them, so I’ll be looking to keep it on the feet.”
Turner and Alers have spent time promoting their fight through Twitter, a medium that many will use to talk trash and demean their opponent. But Turner and Alers have instead used the social networking site to send each other high praise, and promise to deliver the fight of the night.
Turner explained: “We both have a lot of respect towards one another. It’s not personal, it’s just business at the end of the day.”
The Scots pair found their passion for the sport in different ways; one followed a keen interest in traditional martial arts, the other at the insistence of a friend. Turner found freestyle karate at the age of 14 before his talents led to a professional career.
“A class in freestyle karate started in my local area and within six months of training I got called up to for the Scotland karate squad,” Turner recalls.
“I only had my second belt and I was put up against a Second Dan black belt. He only beat me by two points. My coach, James Doolan, saw a lot of potential in me and kept pushing me, and as he progressed with his career into Thai boxing and MMA, I followed.”
For Ray it was less a calling, more a friend’s perseverance that he would enjoy the training that got him hooked on the MMA bug.
Ray said: “My mate just kept saying to me every time I saw him ‘you should come along, you’d be good at it’. I didn’t go at first but when I eventually did, I fell in love with it. I actually used to train in a cabin in the guy’s back garden, it was like a private club. I’ve come a long way since then.”
Both Scots now train and fight out of Glasgow’s Griphouse Gym, which forms the country’s biggest mixed martial arts squad known as the Dinky Ninja Fight Team.
They credit the gym with producing some of the most exciting MMA talent on the circuit at the moment and Ray believes the quality of the team’s fighters has allowed him to thrive in that environment, moulding him into the world champion he is today.
He added: “If they’re a quick learner, they could turn pro really quickly because of the talent we’ve got.”