They scrap like wildcats in an octagonal metal cage, kicking, punching and jumping all over each other, inflicting the sort of bodily harm normally dished out down back-alleys. In America it is called Ultimate Fighting, a brutal amalgam of martial arts and mayhem that is becoming something of a cult here as Cage Rage. And it reckons it has mainstream boxing on the ropes.
In December, more than 14,000 fans packed the MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas for an Ultimate Fighting Championship bill, twice as many as watched Ricky Hatton's world title bout against Juan Urango further down The Strip a fortnight later. It is catching on, and its biggest catch is Marc Ratner, the commissioner who ran boxing in Nevada, who has jumped ship with the state's leading boxing doctor, Margaret Goodman.
The US senator John McCain - a likely Republican presidential contender - has dubbed it "human cockfighting", but this has not stopped the cable channel HBO, the biggest players in televised boxing, allocating six of their big-fight broadcast slots to a form of combat which only a few years ago was outlawed and took place underground. HBO claim it is outselling boxing on the box twice over.
Now Cage Rage is all the rage here. Next Saturday, a week before Frank Warren's promotion at Wembley Arena featuring Audley Harrison and Amir Khan, Cage Rage takes the stage at the same venue. Promoters Dave O'Donnell and Andy Geer, who describe themselves as "entre-preneurial businessmen" claim it will attract a bigger crowd, with 8,000 tickets already gone at up to £200 ringside. Over 7,000 saw their last big event, at Earls Court.
O'Donnell, 45, a fast-talking Cockney from Peckham, is a former judo champion and dancer who also trains some of the country's 200 cage ragers, most of them semi-pros. Combatants come from the world of boxing, wrestling, karate, taekwondo and jujitsu. The top referee is a Portsmouth university lecturer.
O'Donnell claims: "This is the decathlon of martial arts. I used to love watching Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank, but where are the mega-fights now? Where are the warriors who have you on the edge of your seat? Cage fighting has you there all the time." So why a cage? Doesn't it make it all rather, er, animalistic? "It's there to protect the fighters. To stop them falling out of the ring."
Is it fixed? "Absolutely not. This is not wrestling. OK, there's a bit of the old wrestling razz-matazz before the fights, but that's all. When that cage door shuts there ain't one punch pulled."
From what you can see on their website (cagerage.tv) or on Sky for two hours most nights, Ultimate Fighting is all hands, knees and plenty of boomps-a-daisy. Gouging, biting, butting and punching to the groin with the four-ounce fingerless gloves are prohibited during the three five-minute rounds, but you can hit a man when he's down. Ground and pound, they call it.
O'Donnell's gym on a housing estate near London's Elephant and Castle (above) is filled with a score of mainly young, fit blokes gripping, grappling and kicking each other as O'Donnell bawls and bullies like an Army PTI instructor. No girls, though there are a few who fight as Cage Babes. "They're vicious. My girls could choke out any man."
O'Donnell says his fighters are reasonably paid: "We are talking in thousands but not hundreds of thousands." Among the top attractions is an actor-cum- Pentecostal minister billed as Jason "Bad Ass" Barrett: "12 stones of twisting sex appeal". He says: "What cage fighting does is get a synergy between boxing and martial arts. It has that WWE edge plus the reality of boxing."
He fights on the Wembley bill, where the main event features a 24st ex-debt collector, James "Colossus" Thompson, against the American heavyweight Butterbean, who once bounced his 30st around in orthodox boxing. So, should boxing really be worried? "Mate, they should shake in their shoes," says O'Donnell. "If this gets on mainstream TV like it has in the States everyone will be hooked."
Boxing people demur. Frank Warren, who himself began as a promoter of unlicensed boxing, says: "No way will it take over. It is totally different, and from what I've seen it's not that exciting. It doesn't have the 200 years' tradition that boxing has. It will never match the appeal of Oscar De La Hoya versus Floyd Mayweather or some of the big fights we put on over here. I don't want to glamorise it by saying it's brutal, but it's pretty basic. There'll be a fatality one day. The British Medical Association have been on our backs for years, but you'd think they'd be looking at this."
Fellow promoter Frank Maloney adds: "I saw a show at Wembley. It was well organised, but I walked out after 20 minutes because it was boring. Boxing has its problems, but this won't replace it. It will have its 15 minutes of fame."
The British Boxing Board's Simon Block questions its legal-ity. "Boxing is a clearly defined sport and licensed as such. Ultimate Fighting may not be prohibited but it would be a very interesting test of the laws of this country regarding assault." But he adds: "I am not going to dismiss it, but whether it is successful or not boxing will continue to flourish in its own right."
True. As a sport, mixed martial arts will never supplant the noble art. But as a spectacle? As they say, the decision has gone to the judges' scorecards.