Cagefighting hits Melbourne

Welcome to the bizarro world of cagefighting.

It is a sport, apparently, which comes across more as a brutal and violent form of theatre – but it’s a lot safer in Victoria than it was two weeks ago.

Earlier this month the state’s new Labor government followed through on a pre-election promise to lift the ban on the use of ‘the cage’ for mixed martial arts (MMA) events.

Previously such bouts have been staged in a boxing ring, but the grappling nature of MMA occasionally meant fighters slipped through the ropes and tumbled to the floor, increasing the (already significant) risk of injury.

Last night’s HEX Fight Series event at Melbourne Pavilion was the first in Victoria to use an octagon cage and I was in attendance for The Herald Sun.

Police and community groups claimed lifting the ban would add to the glamorisation of extreme violence, and I have to admit to surprise at what was considered standard procedure during the course of the evening.

Two bouts ended when fighters were rendered motionless in ‘submission holds’ and medical assistance was required to revive them.

In the greatest mismatch of the evening, Andrew Jacobs took an absolute beating from his bantamweight opponent Sean Gauci, and blood gushed unhindered from a number of head wounds before the mauling was eventually stopped by the referee.

The lack of concern over a bloodied fighter was one aspect which set MMA apart from boxing, but the atmosphere in the arena was more familiar.

The fake chandaliers, coloured lighting and various VIP areas contributed to the same contrived opulence – and there were still scantily clad girls, auctions of pointless sporting memorabilia and the standard MC with slicked back hair, a sharp suit and a love of using his expansive tonal range.

It’s what happens in the cage that’s different.

At first glance it resembles a bar brawl without weapons but, as the fighters increase in skill and fitness, it becomes more like a muscular form of chess.

You begin to appreciate the greater variance in fighter – how their strengths are defined by their nationality or background – kickboxing, wrestling or boxing.

There’s a significant amount of close-in grappling as fighters work toward unbreakable submission holds, where the opponent must physically or verbally ‘tap out’.

On one occasion, however, Sunbury-based welterweight Callan Potter passed out before he could tap out when locked into a scissor hold by Western Australia’s Steven Kennedy.

Potter was clearly off in the land of Nod for at least five seconds and appeared confused as to his wherabouts when he was slapped to consciousness by a medic (I know this because he had a stethoscope).

But soon after he was on his feet giving a congratulatory hug to Kennedy, who bizarrely had taken a post-bout phone call, and all was normal again in cage-fighting land.

It’s not quite Wrestlemania, but there’s still a strong element of travelling roadshow about the whole thing. International fighters are announced as representing ‘Australia’, in a broader sense, like working out at LA Fitness once last year might qualify me to fight for California.

Most participants seemed significantly hindered by the amount of sponsorship on their trunks and, in the main event, Queenslander Ben Wall proudly pranced into the cage wearing a kind of pink pleated skirt with the word ‘Manimal’ printed across his backside.

Perhaps this is what caused knuckle-dragging local hero Nick ‘Banjo’ Patterson’s sporadic laughter throughout his ‘boring’ bout with Wall – which he eventually won on points.

Fighters from earlier bouts mixed with the crowd, drinking beers, and cheering on their pals and there is certainly a significant amount of respect and camaraderie in the community.

Nor is the size of that community insignificant. Now the cage has been legalised the big show is apparently coming to town later in the year when a Ultimate Fighting Championship will probably sell out Etihad Stadium.

Labor has unashamedly admitted their decision was mostly about big sporting tourism bucks and, having witnessed the MMA spectacle, these guys are undoubtedly safer without having to worry about falling a metre or so to the floor mid-grapple.

That it paves the way for MMA to appear on a bigger stage in Melbourne and whether that will add to the normalisation and general acceptance of violence in the community is a more wide-ranging debate.

I played rugby union for 15 years so I understand something of man’s primal need for physical confrontation, but MMA certainly takes it to another level.

But does the brutality of a bout on pay TV desensetise the viewer to violence any more than witnessing the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Iraq on the news?

Perhaps the issue at hand is the acceptance of such a ‘sport’ to the same arena that hosts Australian Rules Football, that most hallowed and untouchable of Victorian pursuits.

And footy isn’t violent – just ask the AFL.

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