Two men cautiously circle each other. Neither makes any commitments. One man flicks out a punch to gauge distance, and then lets go of a powerful kick that thuds into the thigh of the other, leaving a distinct red welt. They continue to circle each other with balletic precision.
One of the men shoots in like a human spear, wrapping his arms around the hips of the other, swiftly and effortlessly taking him to the ground. With his opponent on the ground and with the gathered crowd screaming and egging him on, he reigns down blows to the head.
This is not a choreographed scene from a Hollywood movie, or an exchange of drunken bravado played out under luminescent streetlights. This is the sport of Mixed Martial Arts, better know by its acronym, MMA. The sport is also referred to as cage fighting, extreme fighting or by the popular brand name Ultimate Fighting.
However, it is the spectacle of the cage that has raised the legality and legitimacy of mixed martial arts as a sport, particularly in Melbourne where competitors may fight in a ring, but cage fighting is banned. According to Carl Drapper, owner and head trainer of Hangar4 Mixed Martial Arts, and managing director of Primal Fight Promotions, ‘it’s not cage fighting, the cage is what they fight in, the sport is mixed martial arts’.
Mixed Martial Arts is a fusion of boxing, wrestling, Muay Thai/kick boxing, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It requires mastery of the various styles and ranges of fighting, from the close-range chess-match of grappling, to the long-range blitzkrieg of punches and kicks.
The multi-disciplinary nature of MMA makes it a uniquely difficult sport. The image may be of a maniacal fight-to-the-death, but it is actually incredibly skilful. ‘MMA is every really good martial art there is all put into one style,’ said Drapper.
Anyone who follows this sport, or who participates, quickly realises this is not a free-for-all. It is not a brawl. It is two well-trained, disciplined athletes trying to win a match through skill, guile and endurance.
Successful fighters need to be extremely disciplined with their training. Ashley Powell, an MMA fighter out of Hangar4, trains four hours a day six days a week.
His day begins at 5:00am with a 5-kilometre run or a weight training session before work. At 4:30pm he is in the gym where he will ‘hit the pads, and do some sparring for my boxing and Muay Thai until 6:30pm. Have an hour break, then do another hour or so of grappling or wrestling’. Today’s MMA fighter has the strength of a powerliflter and the endurance of a distance runner.
On November 12, 1993, the Ultimate Fighting Championship made its debut in Denver, billing itself, as a no-holds-barred brawl. There were a few rules — no eye-gouging, no biting — but victory, according to the promoters’ hype, could be earned only by ‘knockout, surrender, doctor’s intervention or death.’ There were no weight classes and no gloves.
‘It was pretty brutal. It was barbaric no one wants to go back to those days these guys weren’t athletes these guys were thugs. Besides a few top guys a lot of guys in the cage were just absolute thugs’, said Drapper who has had a 25-year association with Muay Thai and MMA.
The basic conceit of the early fights, held in an octagonal cage, was to answer the often-asked question. Could a boxer beat a wrestler? How about a kickboxer versus a Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner?
The sport’s immediate influence was Brazilian vale tudo — ‘anything goes’ in Portuguese, and invoked the spirit of Roman gladiators in its marketing. A more accurate historical parallel is pankration, the most popular event of the ancient Olympics. ‘Pankration was a savage all-out brawl, where only eye-gouging was banned’, Tony Perrottet writes in The Naked Olympics (2004), his history of the ancient games. ‘The more brutish participants would snap opponents’ fingers or tear out their intestines’; the judges approved of strangling. Some competitors accepted death rather than surrender.
Although still evoking the spirit of the Roman gladiator, the sport has been transformed. Gone are the days of uninhibited brutality. Now it is all about athleticism. The fighting world has witnessed an entirely new breed of athlete, one that has evolved to the point where they excel not only at striking and grappling, but also have the endurance to finish a match without completely exhausting themselves.
Nestled in the industrial area of Preston, in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs, Ashley ‘The Executioner’ Powell is beginning another training session at Hangar4.
Hangar4 boasts a hardcore conditioning room that even the fighters are a little afraid of: the ropes, pulleys and heavy objects are more torture chamber than fitness centre. There are kettle bells that can be used in a variety of ways: Turkish get-ups, clean-and-jerk, tossing. Rope climbing, tyre flipping and pounding a tyre with a sledgehammer are also common practices.
You can make out the faint traces of blood on the grappling mats, as bodies writhe and contort around each other with efficient and calculated precision. A ring looms ominously in the corner. Two fighters adorned in boxing gloves and shin guards – to prevent injury – viciously attack each other while receiving instructions and advice, ‘hands up’, ‘combinations’, ‘move – move, hit then move’. These are the sights and sounds that envelop your senses as you walk up the stairs into the main training area.
Powell began his fight career seven years ago taking up boxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, eventually progressing into mixed martial arts, because he ‘loves the competitive aspect of MMA and its versatility’. He has earned a reputation as a fierce, aggressive, and courageous competitor within the Australian fight community.
To step into the cage or ring repeatedly requires courage. You fear the danger and threat of pain, and rationally confront them. It requires aggression, but also patience – recognising one’s limitations, and having the virtue to calmly, and thoughtfully work through them.
Powell is the current Victorian WMC (World Muay Thai Council) welterweight champion, and Australian national Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion in his weight division.
The demands of the sport are not for everyone. According to Drapper, it takes approximately two years to prepare someone to fight MMA. ‘I won’t let them fight without two years experience’, said Drapper. ‘They have to be a blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and have fought one or two stand up fights either as a novice or an amateur’. The primary concern for Drapper is always his fighter’s safety.
Most people don’t really know how it feels to be kicked in the head. They don’t know the sharp pain of a knee to the body or an elbow across the face. Most have never experienced the primal fear of suffocation suffered when the thighs and ankles of a jiu-jitsu practitioner have entwined their neck.
Having completed a training session, Powell takes the time to discuss an upcoming fight. Along with Hangar4 teammate Lindsay Sheehan, Powell is one of four Australian MMA fighters selected to represent Australia in Chicago, Illinois, on a fight promotion called True Fighting Championships on July 31, 2010.
‘It’s a great opportunity, for exposure and experience, an opportunity to fight in the established promotions in the United States and Japan, and a step closer to fighting on the big shows,’ said Powell.
Draper is more philosophical. ‘It’s a life experience, I just try to help these boys develop their careers’, he says.
Author Norman Mailer wrote that in no public arena does the individual as a unique physical being assert himself so imaginatively as in professional fighting. Welcome to the world of mixed martial arts, a sport that has created the ultimate athlete.