Words and Pictures by John Ferguson
“No biting, No spitting, No chewing gum” announces a large sign across the door. It seems an unusual introduction to this otherwise innocuous building, just another gym in a rundown council estate in South East London. I push open the doors, and am immediately assaulted by an unmistakable smell, a heady melange of stale sweat and damp clothes.
Dave O’ Donald appears at once, introducing himself. I shake his hand, unexpectedly intimidated by this bald man in his 50’s. He can’t be much more than 5”6. Dave has run a cage-fighting club in this part of South London for 5 years now, and has seen his beloved sport grow in popularity every year. I glance around the gym, where twenty or so men and a solitary woman grapple with each other on crash mats. The men are various shapes and sizes, some small, some overweight, others very large and frankly frightening. One man, especially tall and quite literally rippling with muscles can be seen shadowboxing beside the gym’s large windows. I watch him, transfixed, and try to imagine facing him in a caged ring. The thought is chilling. I turn my attention to the only female in the gym. She is dressed all in black, and stands at about 5-ft 10. Her brown hair is tied behind her head in an incongruously pretty bow. Suddenly, she launches herself at her training opponent, a 6 ft male who takes evasive action to protect himself.
‘Fancy a go then?’ Dave asks me, smiling. I decline his offer, steering him back to his fighters.
“Some of the lads will be fighting next week at Caesar’s in Streatham at the Cage Rage night,” he tells me, and points out a few of the men who will be on the card.
Cage fighting in the UK has seen a steady increase in popularly over the past three years, with a
proliferation of new clubs opening throughout the country, and more and more fans drawn in by
its ferocious, almost brutal contests. Originally from the States, it’s essentially a mixture of
martial arts, boxing, kickboxing and wrestling. The only moves not allowed are biting, head
butting, eye gouging and attacks to the groin area. The best cage fighters come from Russia,
America and Brazil. In Japan, where the sport is also immensely popular, fighters can earn vast
sums of money for championship fights, and some have become household names. Amongst
Japanese school children, some Cage fighters now achieve a degree of popularity rivaling that of
traditional sports stars. Furthermore, Sumo wrestling, once dominant in Japan, is now seeing its position eroded by this new and violent sporting interloper from the west.
Championship contests in Tokyo, regularly attract crowds of up 50,000, and when TV and other
media outlets are factored in as well; you really do begin to get a sense of the sport’s popularity.
The cage is designed with high-ridged netting, surrounding an octagonal canvas area. If the
sport lacks finesse, it definitely makes up for it as a spectacle. The fighters wear fingerless
leather padded gloves, and their own designed shorts, emblazed with there fight names.
One of Dave’s fighters is 29-year-old IT specialist Ed Smith from Sydenham in South East London. Ed stands at around 5-ft 10 inches and weighs in at 200 pounds. He’s been coming to the gym for 3 years now and loves everything about the sport. He will be fighting at the Streatham Cage-Rage night next week, so he’s in full training for his big fight.
‘This will be my second cage fight. I used to do boxing, but then got into the cage-fighting thing. ‘I’ve been fighting since I was 13-14; started off boxing, then moved to Thai boxing, and everything in between. At the moment I’m in full training for the contenders’ fight night in May at Caesar’s Palace. I just like fighting, and I’ll fight anyone. With cage fighting, there’s no bullshit, just fighting. You’re on your own, one-to-one with a stranger, I get to test myself.’ I ask Ed whether he ever gets frightened. ‘No, a little nervous, but the nerves makes you stronger. It’s not very nice when you see your mate get knocked out in 9 seconds in the fight before mine, but that just makes me doubly sure that I don’t go the same way. The fighting’s bit brutal and it’s really hard on your body. My last fight I threw a punch at my opponent and dislocated my thumb, I had to flick it back into place during the fight. So every time I threw a right my fist got worse and worse. But then the adrenaline kicks in and you forget about the pain until after the fight.’
It’s Sunday afternoon backstage in Caesar’s Palace on the Streatham High Road. Dave arrives at the dressing room downstairs, an area designed to comfortably accommodate two people, but now taken over by some ten fighters preparing for their bouts as well as a number of miscellaneous friends and hangers-on. Some of the fighters sit quietly in the corner applying tape to their hands, some shadow boxing to the thumping drum and bass in the other corner, whilst others practice fight moves with their trainers on the floor, oblivious to the people milling around them.
I greet Ed with a thin smile, but he scarcely acknowledges me, just nods before finding a bit of space to put his kit down. There’s a definite sense of pre-fight nerves. I can see he’s already in ‘the zone’, that intense mental state which many sportsmen seem to enter before an important event. I toy briefly with the idea of asking him how he feels, or what is going through his mind at this moment, but I don’t. Something tells me just to leave him be.
Forty fighters from across Southern England are here tonight, from lightweights to heavyweights, each with a gaggle of faithful followers in tow. The noise and atmosphere builds steadily. A group of young men, sitting at a table near to the ring are checking out another group of guys a few tables away. I watch for a minute, sensing the possibility of some secondary action outside the ring. No action, though, just a little beer-fueled bravado. I had expected a crowd akin to boxing, but this seems to be a much younger set, and the room is peppered with a surprising number of young women.
Backstage and downstairs in the complex warren of small changing rooms, the music has become louder, the number of fighters and trainers has multiplied, testosterone and the tension of the evening are all colliding together. It is a heady cocktail. I search out Ed; three different people appear to be advising him simultaneously. I stand in a neutral corner and wait, leaving him alone with his friends. It’s half an hour before his fight is due to start.
“You got to remember Ed, this guy ain’t your mate, he don’t like you, you’re gonna have to kill the bastard. No fear Ed, No fear, do you ‘ear”.
Ed nods his head is silent agreement, while pumping the air with his fists.
I make my way down to the cage area. The crowd are in full voice now, the previous fight lasted a couple of seconds as Ed’s training mate was knocked out after only one punch. I arrive to see the fighter lying semi-conscious on the canvas and having an oxygen mask being fitted to his mouth by one of the medics.
I ask the guy next to me if he saw the fight,
“ell of punch” the man replied, “the guy never saw it coming, right on the chin it was”.
The medics help the fighter to his feet. He still has the oxygen mask over his nose and mouth. One of the medics holds up three fingers in the front of the fighters face, he stares vacantly back and is then helped out of the Cage and back to the dressing room. Ed is still warming up in the shadows behind the stage.
“ Ed Smith, you alright?’ asked a voice, ‘You’re up next’.
Ed nods in agreement, and punches the air faster. The music starts again to welcome the fighters to the ring. Simply the best by Tina Turner welcomes Ed to the top ramp above the stage. He raises his arms and dances on the spot for a couple of seconds as the crowd chants his name. He dances his way down to the cage and enters, all the while shadow boxing to the music and the sound of his name. Ed looks good under the ring lights, almost as if he’s grown a few inches.
Then without warning the lights move back to the ramp and the music changes. The eye of the Tiger, the standard boxing anthem bellows out from the speaker system and the challenger appears. A stocky looking Irish man Dorian O’Malley punches the air with both hands, his fans cheer him down to the cage, and he bounds in looking every inch like a cage fighter should look. The two fighters give cursory glances at each other, and are called together by the referee.
I take a position outside the cage jostling with a few others for a better view of the big fight. The noise from the crowd rises, as the two fighters are given their last instructions by the referee. The bell goes and the two men rush at each other both trying to get that all important first punch in on their opponent.
Ed uses all the fighting skills he’s learnt over the years on his opponent, from punching and kicking to headlocks, but this opponent’s no pushover. He slams Ed to the ground and begins to beat his head like a drum with fast hard punches. Ed uses his feet to quickly kick his opponent off balance and gets back to his feet. The bell goes for the end of the first round. The crowd cheer with appreciation for the two evenly matched fighters. ‘This fight could go the distance’, says the guy next to me, ‘I still fancy Ed to do him though”.
The bell for the second round goes and this time the two fighters are much more circumspect towards each other. They pace the cage eyeing each other, waiting for the right opening. The wrong move could prove fatal. The heat around me is becoming near unbearable, sweat begins to fall into my eyes and the crowd around me are becoming more and more excitable. A female fan starts screaming for Ed to ‘Fucking kill ’im’. I move away slightly, but am pushed back by the two guys trying to climb the cage above me.
The fight moves in the third and final round. Ed is slightly ahead on points as his corner urged him on for one final effect, “ Go on Ed, get in there first, remember get in first’. Ed lunges at O’Malley and mangers to lock him in a head hold. The fighters are motionless for a few seconds, locked in some sort of deadly embrace. A quick turn of the O’Malley’s body and they tear themselves apart. Ed takes the full force of a kick to his face. Blood begins to pour from a gash to Ed’s forehead into his eyes and drips onto the already bloodstained canvass. The roar of the crowd rises to a crescendo, his corner men rush to the front of the cage, panic etched collectively on their faces. ‘Breath Ed, breath’, shouts one of his corner men. ‘Deep breaths mate’. Ed manages to get ahold of O’Malley’s legs and takes a well-needed rest. His corner issue more instructions on what to do next. The referee steps in and brings the fighters to their feet. The tension outside the ring is tangible, people are standing on chairs some on tables, some hanging from every available vantage spot, so as to see the fight of the night.
Ed throws a right hook which lands plump in O’Malley’s face, the fighter goes down, I notice the fear on his face as Ed rushes in for the kill. The crowd go wild around me, worked up into a capable frenzy; they can see that the end is near for Ed’s opponent. The bell goes for the end of the fight. Both are exhausted, I look stunned at Ed’s battered and bruised face and think my god, and he’s the winner! The cage then suddenly fills up with people from both camps, both trying to get to their man first. Ed raises two tired arms as he is hoisted rather unceremoniously onto the shoulders of his jubilant corner men. Ed fans chant his name, as his followers rush to the cage. Ed savors the crowds applauds, lapping up his fans approval of a decent fight. ‘Ell of a fight’ says the guy next to me. I nod my head in agreement, wondering whether he’s an IT specialist too.