Ultimate Fighting: Threat to boxing? It's all the Rage

The latest fad fails to convince big-fight promoters here

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions
Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

How Etsy became a crafty little earner

The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

Don't fear the artichoke

Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
11 best men's socks

11 best men's socks

Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

Paul Scholes column

Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

Frank Warren's Ringside

Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

Khorasan is back in Syria

America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

On the campaign trail with Ukip

Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

Expect a rush on men's tights

Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions