Matt Butler: Bamma-lamma ding-dongs, with plenty of real blood

View From The Sofa: Mixed Martial Arts, 5*

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The Independent Culture

Normally, a series of fights in Newcastle city centre on a Saturday night would barely raise an eyebrow, let alone warrant a live TV crew. But what 5*, the Channel Five offshoot that occupies much of its airtime with ageing blockbusters and teleshopping, trained its lenses on was no ordinary brawling.

It was the turn of Newcastle to host the 12th Bamma tournament – Bamma being the British Association of Mixed Martial Arts – and it was, in a word, brutal. The host, O J Borg, was at pains at the beginning to convince viewers that it was not just about two barefoot blokes bashing the bejeezus out of each other in an octagonal cage, but what followed in the next two hours was a series of barefoot blokes attempting to wrestle, box and kick each other into submission. And, to all but the most hardened of fight fans, it was far from pretty.

But as death metal fans and Tracey Emin devotees will tell you, some things don't have to be beautiful to be good. And mixed martial arts is doing something right. The sport has exploded over the last decade and has got boxing extremely worried by the way that it has drawn audiences away from the sweet science. Fans uninterested in umpteen governing bodies trumpeting their own version of a world title have become understandably disillusioned with boxing – and it has been the gain of mixed martial arts. Apart from the relative lack of politics, it is also more varied than boxing. The athletes from judo and wrestling backgrounds prefer eye-popping holds to jabs, whereas the kick-boxers and boxers, well, kick and punch a hell of a lot. Two of the three fights featured on Saturday ended inside the distance, which is a better knockout rate than many boxing cards.

The feel of Bamma is far more earthy than boxing – the show started with Borg standing in the Newcastle Metro Arena outside the cage with Ken Shamrock, a fighter turned commentator, telling viewers what unmissable carnage they are about to see.

Sure, there is a little razzmatazz – hey, the highlight of the first Bamma package broadcast by 5* was the comeback to the cage of Alex Reid (left), the cross-dressing erstwhile spouse of tabloid darlings Jordan and Chantelle Houghton.

But there was nothing Hollywood about the action; the blood we saw was genuine. And the overriding feeling from the show was that we were being let into a secret. From the heavy metal theme music, straight into the shots of the dark arena full of people baying for blood, it was like a scene from Mad Max, a hidden underworld featuring people who make beating each other up their business. But every joint-twisting hold, crunching knee to the opponent's farmyard area or punch to the head showed that these guys fight for real.

The commentary was to the point, if a little stomach-churning, such as this, midway through the first round of the opening fight between Ryan Scope and Luke Newman: "There goes Newman with his elbow, he's trying to take his ear off!"

But the pick of the night's brutality was "Judo" Jimmy Wallhead's pasting of Matt Veach. He pummelled the American's face into a pudding in the first round, leaving him bloodied on the canvas within five minutes.

His post-fight interview with Borg was not exactly Frost-Nixon, hampered by the host's series of inane questions such as "Do you feel you have arrived?" But it was the fights that everyone came to see, not probing discussions.

And the final word from Shamrock summed it up for much of the audience: "I like to fight. Anywhere I go, I like a good fight."