Cage-fighting: A brief, brutal encounter

Tonight, Wembley Arena will host Britain's biggest cage-fighting event. Ticket sales for the sport are up 800 per cent - but the BMA disapproves. Guy Adams goes a few rounds to see why

Alex "Reidernater" Reid takes hold of my face, and grinds it into the floor. His knee pummels my kidney, and a forearm the size of Popeye's slips round my neck and begins to squeeze. I'm being throttled, and it hurts. Five more seconds, he tells me, and I'll lose consciousness.

For about the 15th time that afternoon, I tap Reid's back to signal that he's won our little sparring contest. He drops me like a crushed insect and grins. There are 72 hours until his next professional fight, against Tony "the Freak" Fryklund, and I've just provided a gentle warm-up.

This is cage fighting, an extreme form of martial arts where two men beat each other up ... in a cage. To some, it's the most exhilarating form of combat ever invented, a flamboyant mix of kick-boxing and wrestling. To others, it's a brutal and violent spectacle that demeans fighter and audience alike.

Either way, this human blood sport has become remarkably popular. Tonight, Wembley Arena will host the Cage Rage 18: Battleground, Britain's biggest event. More than 8,000 seats have been sold and action will be televised across four continents.

For up to £1,000 for a ringside seat, the sell-out crowd will see fighters called Machine, The Beast, Professor X and Gentleman James cause each other extreme pain. They'll get dry ice, loud music, scary tattoos and girls in bikinis.

"Four years ago, we were playing in a leisure centre in somewhere like Romford in front of 1,000 people," says Rob Nutley, a former fighter who now commentates for Sky TV. "Since then, there's been an 800 per cent increase in crowds. In fact, very few boxing fights would now draw our sort of numbers."

But the British Medical Association has called for the "highly dangerous" event to be outlawed, saying: "People face a serious risk of severe brain damage if they take part in boxing or close-combat events of this kind. All such events should be banned." Many local authorities agree. Last year, a fight in Birmingham lost its public entertainment licence after medical experts intervened (it was held in Evesham).

"They say what they say," adds Nutley. "But if you go back through time, people have always watched men fighting men. It's natural, part of human nature, and has been since Roman times. In a sense, we're bringing back the gladiatorial spirit."

The promoter of tonight's card, Andy Greer, says "every step" has been taken to minimise the chance of serious injury when his fighters knock seven bells out of each other. "I can't deny there's an element of risk," he says. "It's a full combat sport. There will be blood and people will get hurt. But I believe as many safety measures as could possibly be taken have been. We've never had a death, whereas in boxing you get deaths all the time. What we're doing is safer. Yes, the aim is to knock people out, but you don't get repeated blows to the head. People can win by submission, a referee's decision, or by points."

Cage fighting was invented in the US during the 1990s, when an organisation called Ultimate Fighting decided TV audiences would pay to watch an organised version of the no-holds-barred Wild West bar-room brawl. Top fighters in the States now command purses of £500,000 per bout, and viewing figures may soon overtake those commanded by WWF wrestling, the staged combat "sport" made famous by characters such as Hulk Hogan. The UK is fast catching up.

Part of the draw is a technical marriage of four combat sports: Queensbury rules boxing, kick-boxing, ju-jitsu, and Greco-Roman wrestling. Another hefty part is the prospect of witnessing a gory spectacle that resembles a human version of cock-fighting. Like many combat sports, it also boasts more than a passing acquaintance with the underworld. One of the suspects charged in connection with the £53m heist on a Kent Securitas depot in February was "Lightning" Lee Murray, a top fighter. He goes on trial next year.

Grant Waterman, who will referee tonight's fights, describes cage fighting as: "More addictive than crack, more complex than chess, and more athletic than triathlon." But Waterman and his colleagues do not wholly conform to the stereotypes. As well as working as a nightclub doorman, Waterman has a part-time career as a lecturer in mechanical engineering at Portsmouth University.

In an effort to scotch the myths connected to cage fighting, they invited The Independent to a session at London Shootfighters, an old-fashioned spit-and-sawdust gym underneath a railway arch at White City. I fought Alex Reid, a former Hollyoaks actor (he played a character called Jason Cunliffe) who fights on tonight's under-card. The encounter was brief, brutal, and one-sided, since the rules forbid all my favoured playground fighting techniques, apart from the "nipple cripple" and "Chinese burn".

And despite being repeatedly smeared across the canvas, it was invigorating, genuinely enjoyable, and surprisingly technical. There was also a (very brief) moment of glory: I accidentally caught one of Reid's colleagues in the face with a stray elbow, causing an explosive nosebleed. Watching my opponent attempt to repair the damage with a bloody handkerchief, I felt like Russell Crowe in Gladiator. This, I suddenly realised, is the sort of "moment" that will bring the 8,000 baying fans to the Coliseum of Wembley tonight.

The rules of cage fighting

* Anything goes, except butting, eye-gouging, biting, hair-pulling, fish-hooking, groin attacks, putting a finger into any orifice or into any cut or laceration, joint manipulation.

* For safety reasons, no striking to the spine or the back of the head, no striking downward using the point of the elbow, no throat strikes, including, without limit, grabbing the trachea.

* When on the ground, no clawing, pinching or twisting the flesh, no grabbing the clavicle, no kicking, kneeing or stomping the head of a grounded opponent, and no kicking the kidney with a heel.

* Throwing is permitted, except spiking an opponent to the canvas on his head or neck, throwing an opponent out of the ring or fenced area, holding an opponent's shorts or gloves.

* No spitting, no holding ropes or fence, no abusive language, no attacking during the break, after the bell has sounded, or while the opponent is under the care of the referee.

* Timidity, and the corner throwing in the towel during a contest is forbidden.

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