NASTY, BRUTISH AND SHORT
ULTIMATE FIGHTING’S ALL ABOUT ‘BLOOD AND GUTS.’SO WHY ARE PARENTS SIGNING UP THEIR KIDS?
Ross Millette is watching a video of two men fighting in an eight-sided wire cage. One has mounted the other and is holding him down while punching his mouth and head. The man on the ground is pinned up against the mesh. His jaw and brow are bloody, and he’s taking multiple blows to his brain, but even lying down, he’s still throwing left and right hooks at his adversary. Ross watches the fight closely. “My dad explains things. Like this guy is trying to punch this other guy right in the face.” The reason Ross is learning about the finer points of this fight is that he’s in training to emulate the ultimate fighters on the screen.
Cage fighting used to be considered a brutal, violent and illegal sport enjoyed by only a bloodthirsty few, but today it’s hard to miss. Turn on the television, and ultimate fighting is no longer on the fringe; instead, it is primetime viewing. It remains illegal in Ontario, Vancouver and in the B.C. Lower Mainland, yet it is shown on the three major Canadian sports channels, on U.S. channels such as Spike TV, and on pay-per-view. That popularity has spurred parents to sign up their children, say coaches such as Mark Stables, who runs a Toronto club.
Ultimate fighting goes by different names— cage fighting, mixed martial arts. Some ultimate clubs teach the sport, or the core elements of the game, but don’t clearly advertise what they do. Vito Brancaccio trains kids in mixed martial arts in Mississauga, Ont., but the sign on his club says, “All-Canadian Martial Arts Academy.” Because of the ban, he says, “it’s easier to get insurance when you say you are just teaching kids karate.” (In Ontario, promoters of cage fights get around the law by having them take place on native reserves, most recently at the Six Nations of the Grand River, southeast of Brantford, Ont., last month.)
Despite the legal issues, the sport has grown increasingly popular, says Stables, who teaches children the grappling program—Brazilian jiu-jitsu—and the other moves-kicking, punching, chokes, arm locks—all of which are combined together to make up ultimate fighting. At Stables’s club, kids can start when they are eight. Some clubs take younger kids. At the Tristar Gym in Montreal, which trains the former UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, children can begin at five. Joslin’s Mixed Martial Arts and Cardio Kick-boxing in Hamilton, Ont., where Ross trains, starts teaching children some of the basic techniques at three.
Ultimate fighting began in 1993 with a question: who would win if you put two fighters from any two martial arts disciplines in a cage, threw out most of the safety rules, and told them to keep fighting until one man
gives up? The early cage fights aimed to come up with the answer by pairing up fighters from different disciplines. Karate black belts took on Brazilian jiu-jitsu champions. Kickboxers were paired with wrestlers.
The fights were often nasty, brutish and short. Later, the various martial arts were combined together to get the “anything goes” style of fighting you can see on television. While the lack of rules has always been one of the attractions of the sport, ultimate fighting has introduced limitations as the sport has progressed. Today, hair pulling, eye gouging and clawing your opponent are illegal. So are groin shots and head-butts, although in the heat of the moment, these still happen.
With the concern over injury, the British Medical Association has called for a blanket ban on the sport. On Sept. 5,2007, the association released a report warning against a major cage fight tournament that was to be held in London later in the week. “Ultimate fighting can be extremely brutal and has been described as human cockfighting. It can cause traumatic brain injury, joint injuries and fractures,” wrote Dr. Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics for the association.
“This kind of competition hardly constitutes a sport—the days of gladiator fights are over and we should not be looking to resurrect them. As doctors we cannot stand by while violent fighting tournaments are allowed to take place. Large amounts of money can be earned by participants, promoters and others linked to ultimate fighting, but no amount of money can compensate for permanent brain damage and premature death. As a civilized society we should be campaigning to outlaw these activities.”
Two weeks after the release of the British Medical Association’s report last September, the city of Vancouver did exactly that, banning the sport, and saying it needed more information on whether it was safe for adults to compete in professional cage fighting competitions. (There is a paucity of data on the injury rate since the only people keeping track of who gets hurt are fight promoters, and they choose not to promote this data. To date, three deaths have been attributed to cage-fighting matches. Florida-born fighter Douglas Dedge died after taking too many blows to the head in 1998; a South Korean fighter identified in the press only as “Lee” died after a mixed
martial arts match in Seoul in May, 2005. Houston-based fighter Sammy Vasquez collapsed during a match in Texas in October 2007, fell into a coma and died six weeks later.) Still, despite the deaths, injuries, known as “the damage,” are discussed in glowing terms. They’re even seen as one of the sport’s key attractions, says Vito Brancaccio, who trains several world champion ultimate fighters, and has his own club. Knee and elbow shots can cut a face, and even minor head wounds bleed profusely. The fingerless gloves have less padding than boxing gloves, so the knuckles are more likely to tear flesh. “People want to see blood and guts,” he says. “It’s promoted.”
During a fight in Montreal, billed as the Freedom Fight 2005, between JeffJoslin, who trains Ross Millette, and American fighter Jon Fitch, for example, Jeff was head-butted: he broke his nose and had a tooth knocked out. The blood spewed into the audience and dripped into one spectator’s beer. Photos of the golden brew mixed with red blood were popular among fans, says Ross Millette’s father, Dallas O’Regan, who watched the fight.
Parents sign up their children to compete in ultimate fighting for a number of reasons.
Some, such as Tracy Barran, a network analyst, are fans of the sport—it requires years of training to fine-tune the body so it can defend and strike in a cage fight—and they want their children to learn the discipline this demands. Barran introduced his two boys, Brandon, 14, and Skyler, 10, to the sport, and father and sons train together at the same mixed martial arts club, Kombat Arts Training Academy in Mississauga. The 14-year-old—Brandon—is thinking about becoming an ultimate fighter; he trains two to three times a week. He keeps his dreams to himself, though: “I don’t tell their cousins what they do because they’d think it was too rough,” Barran says. “They’d say, ‘What are you, crazy, having your son fight?’ ” Other parents choose ultimate to toughen their kids up. Before Matthew Zhao started training, he was a really timid kid, one who found it difficult to stand up for himself, says his father Robert Leeder. Since he learned how to fight ultimate, he’s no longer afraid of the kids who used to intimidate him, Leeder explains. He’s now become “obsessed” with the sport, according to his coach. Mark Stables has been training Matthew, now a star
ONE FATHER EXPLAINS THAT HIS SON WAS ‘BORN TO BE A FIGHTER. ALL NY SONS WERE.’
student of ultimate, since he was eight. When the 10-year-old Torontonian isn’t sparring and competing—his bedroom is full of the Brazilian jiu-jitsu medals and trophies he has won—he plays cage-fighting video games, or watches one of his 78 ultimate-fighting DVDs. Watching the best fighters in action helps his own game, Matthew says. One slip can leave a fighter taking a heavy beating, or result in a “takedown,” in which someone is knocked to the floor.
“As soon as he [fighter Hugo Duarte] put his face down, Tank just started pounding his head from behind,” Matthew explains as we watch a DVD of David “Tank” Abbott, a heavily built fighter delivering heavy retribution for an opponent’s mistake.
Like a growing number of boys—ultimate fighting is dominated by males—Ross Millette has wanted to become a cage fighter ever since he was little, or more precisely, ever since his dad first suggested it to him. “Ross was born to be a fighter,”
explains Ross’s dad, Dallas O’Regan. “All my sons were. They get it from me.”
Even his name, Ross, was chosen to honour a cage-fighting family, the Grades, who are considered gods of ultimate fighting. The Brazilian Gracie clan—Royce, Rorion, Relson, Rolker, Royler, Robin and Rickson—were trained to fight from an early age and went on to win several world championships. Dallas O’Regan is trying to do something similar with his three sons: Riley, 6, Reichal, 1, and especially with Ross, 10. His mother would like him to go professional too, but only if that’s what the 10-year-old wants from life. Dallas isn’t so equivocal. “I’d be disappointed if he wasn’t a professional,” he explains, as Ross sits beside him at the kitchen table. “He’d probably take a beating from me. Just tackle him and let him know. Straighten him out.” Ross nods and assures his dad that he is passionate about the sport, and that everything will go according to plan, and he will grow up to be a professional cage fighter. Once Ross is 16, O’Regan hopes he will win “submission of the night.” An opponent “submits” when he is put in a position that could
cause him serious injury—for example in a choke or an armlock—and he gives up before the fight has finished. In the UFC, a particularly good “submission” gets a $5,000 cheque, and O’Regan excitedly talks of Ross winning the money.
Any ultimate fighter learns how to defend himself, but also how to inflict injury on another. However, Ross’s dad has warned him not to hit others outside the gym—unless he is attacked first. This has happened on a few occasions. Once when Ross was in Grade 5, he put his cousin in a headlock after a taunt. (The cousin backtracked after Ross squeezed his head.) Another time, in Grade 4, a kid jumped on Ross’s back while Ross was walking through the playground. Ross used one of the moves he had learned in training and threw the kid onto the ground. Some kids saw what had happened and it didn’t take long for word to spread round the school. Soon, he’d gained a bit of a reputation. Lots of kids were really impressed, and wanted to be his partner at school, or him to be on their sports team. He even had several older girls wanting to be his girlfriend.
Ross often trains with his father, who tries to make the sessions fun so his son stays focused. A recent training session at his club had the boy learning a few new moves.
One was the “ground pound,” in which the 10-year-old straddled his opponent, held him down with his weight and boxed his head. Then there was the “plumb clinch”: a competitor holds his opponent’s head in his hands, and brings it into an upcoming knee. Actually, Ross would have been badly hurt if the plumb clinch had been executed, but Dallas stopped his knee before it hit the boy’s nose so the 10year-old didn’t get hurt. None of the boy’s opponents put their weight behind the punches, but after the training session, Ross pulled off his foam head protector and said he was tired. When his dad said the fight had left him feeling “knocky,” indicating that he’d taken a few blows that had knocked him about, Ross replied, “me too.”
Some coaches discourage children from competing. Until earlier this year, most children who trained in ultimate fighting would not be put in the ring or cage together to compete. Instead, kids like Matthew would compete in “grappling” tournaments, where competitors fight Brazilian jiu-jitsu without the more dangerous moves, such as chokes and armlocks. “A 10-year-old doesn’t have the technical knowledge to do mixed martial arts,” Stables says. “It’s too dangerous.”
However, that is changing. The first mixed martial arts competition for children in Canada took place in the fall. About 400 kids and adults from across Canada and the United States competed in Sport MMA, a competition in Ottawa in September 2007. The rules were similar to the ones that apply to the television fights, but kids wore helmets and protective booties. Head blows were not allowed for children under 16. “Submissions” were ruled out for kids under 12. The scoring system was also different, to encourage light contact rather than heavy blows. Fighters fought on a mat, rather than in a cage.
“You got to do exactly what you see on television, but in a safe and controlled environment,” says Scott FitzPatrick, who co-organized the contest and teaches children and adults at Therien Jiu-Jitsu and Kick-boxing,
a martial arts club in Ottawa. “Kids can get out and participate rather than just watching from the sidelines.”
Some parents regard the “grappling contests” as a bit tame. Robert Leeder, Matthew’s father, believes it would be better if kids could do the chokes and armlocks in competitions— more like real mixed martial arts. Dallas O’Regan agrees. He wants Ross to compete in next year’s kids’ ultimate contest, and hopes he will bring home the gold. “I’m starting him out now, so he’ll be more than ready to fight in the UFC. When he’s 16, he’ll have had 10 years of training. With all those years of working on his game and his submissions, he’ll be able to take home submission of the night,” he says, turning to his son who is quietly listening to his dad’s plans for his ftiture. “Right, Ross?” M