Sam Gale at home with his girlfriend.
Sam Gale is going to get beaten up today and I’m going to watch. Sam knows that, but – he tells me – "If I can land that one good punch, I’ll be happy.” We’re at the quarter final of the Hardest Man (HM) competition in Southampton, and Sam is up against MMA fighter Rich Walker, a guy who possesses the arrogance of Muhammad Ali, the face of Grant Mitchell and an in-depth knowledge of various martial arts.
This is the Southampton leg of a nationwide competition that will eventually filter down to one final brawl where Britain's hardest man is crowned, presumably opening the door to a world of suburban nightclub PAs and Christmas lights switching-ons alongside Wolf from Gladiators. At a deeper level, its popularity is proof of how the MMA fighting culture of UFC – previously the preserve of square-headed Americans – has, over the past few years, become an increasingly popular pastime with a good chunk of Britain's male population.
Love it or hate it, it's difficult to dispute that there's a certain egalitarian quality to UFC-style combat. It plays into that ancient idea of there just being two people in a ring, using nothing but their own physical power, mental strength and fighting prowess in a bid for superiority. Unfortunately, the fight I'm here to watch Sam take part in today doesn't feel in any way equal.
Sam fighting Rich Walker.
There’s no weight class to separate fighters in the BHM competition, most likely because the organisers want to facilitate an absolute shit-show. And their tactic seems to have worked, resulting – in this case, anyway – in a scrawny, inexperienced 20-year-old with one fight under his belt (Gale) going up against a heavily muscled veteran martial artist (Walker).
I wanted to look into why exactly MMA has become such a phenomenon over the past few years – why so many people from your year at school are wearing TapouT T-shirts – and came across Gale in my research. Sam's promo videos went viral among the fighting community, chiefly because it wasn't quite clear whether he was being serious or completely taking the piss. At times, his videos seem like acutely observed parodies of the ones that amateur MMA fighters tend to post on YouTube.
But it turned out that they were real, even if Sam himself doesn't conform to the typical perception of a fighter. However, despite being just six-foot-tall with gangly arms and an unusually high level of modesty, he's got an unflinching – and arguably worrying – determination to compete. He struck me as being pretty emblematic of the recent interest in the sport; a guy who's not physically equipped to win jumping into the ring anyway because there's absolutely nothing stopping him. So I took a train to visit Sam at his home in Southampton.
Sam's BHM fighter profile video.
The first thing I discovered is that not everyone is a fan of the underdog. A vast majority of the fighters online apparently tell Sam to either quit the sport or that he's an embarrassment to fighting. "But I don't care when they make fun of me," Sam told me. "I'm pretty tough to all those things. It's when they bring my girlfriend or family into it that it gets me down."
Online, people constantly told Sam that they could beat him with ease. Sam relished the challenge and told his critics that, wherever he goes, he's always got his boxing gear in the boot of his car and, should a proposition arise, he would happily take on whoever it was putting the challenge forward. So far, nobody has ever followed through with their cyber threats.
Not unlike the majority of fighters I've spoken to, Sam's interest in MMA appears to be based on finding a release from other issues in his life. Having been diagnosed with emotional behavioural disorder (EBD) when he was younger, he became irritable around other people: “You could say the slightest little thing to me and I would flip out," he explained, "and then I wouldn’t remember anything that had happened.”
His parents splitting up very early on in his life exacerbated this, which led to Sam smoking a bunch of weed to suppress his constant mood swings. “I went through five years of therapy. My mum thought it was working, but I was just too stoned to argue. When you suppress all those emotions it’s hard getting back to reality.”
Instead of addressing his issues, Sam instead took to roaming the streets to find someone to fight. He’d end up losing basically every time, but learned that he could take a hit pretty well in the process. "My mum said she saw me get hit by baseball bats and that I wasn’t even bothered by it,” he chuckled. Sam and a few friends eventually started sparring together, which is when he realised that venting his frustration through fighting was probably best done in the ring rather than on the street.
Sam told me that he entered Hardest Man because, “They were the only people who would give me a chance to fight.” When I ask him whether he thought he had a chance of winning, he laughed and said, “This is just a bit of fun for me. Everyone says I shouldn’t say that, but I know I’m not gonna win it – it’s highly unlikely. I just see it as going out there, doing what I do with my mates in the back garden and giving it my best.”
Sam’s first fight for the BHM qualifiers was against "Typhoon" Tyrone Cooper. The two were of evenly matched skill, neither having ever fought before. Tyrone’s YouTube videos are infamous in the community for his unique worldview, which – among other things – include his dream to die at 30 in a freak bungee jumping accident.
Through sheer strength of will – and while battling a mild chest infection – Sam beat Tyrone. The post-fight interview went like this:
Hardest Man: Punching is your greatest strength, so why didn’t you use it in the fight?
Tyrone: That would be what he’s expecting.
However, bearing in mind that punching is apparently Tyrone’s only strength, as well as his greatest, this probably wasn’t his best strategy.
Sam with his dog.
In an interview after the fight, Sam says that his biggest worry about progressing to the next round is exactly that: progressing to the next round. It's apparent in his face that he's realised he's no longer up against a challenger at his own level, but a man who will definitely be able to mercilessly pummel him until he taps out.
When I ask him whether he was thinking about quitting the competition during that period of time, he looks at me surprised. “Nah, that’s not me," he shoots back. "The way that I’ve been jumped so many times, people have beat me up a lot worse. So I can stand back up with respect, rather than people saying that I’m a pussy.”
I ask Sam what strategy he thinks Rich is going to employ in the fight, and he’s of two minds; either Walker will beat him senseless, he says, or get him in a submission hold and force him to tap out. When I ask about how long he thinks he’ll last in the fight, he replies, “Either 30 seconds or I’ll make it all the way.”
When I first met Sam, I was struck by how there doesn't seem to be any disconnect between how he acts in his videos and how he comes across in person. He told me that he's simply being himself and that fighting is just one of the many passions that he fits around working for his step-dad's gardening business.
Fast-forward a week and it’s the day of the fight. I'm back down in Southampton to watch and Sam tells me that he's been getting messages from BHM followers on YouTube all morning, all of them keen to tell him that when he loses there'll be "no banter" left in the competition.
Sam training at home.
Once he’s finished his warm-up, the organisers get him to sign a contract on camera which basically says that he can't sue them if he gets injured or dies. Sam laughs nervously on camera and gulps when the lens is turned away from him. BHM organiser Will Martin walks over and, I assume to relieve the tension of a potential death, tells Sam that, if he wins, he gets to drive his Porsche for a week.
It's 1.30PM – fight time. Sam walks out to Skrillex's "Bangarang" (brostep soundtracks a lot of MMA fights) and he seems hyped and ready to fight. It's just a shame, the audience notes, that his opponent is nowhere to be seen. The crowd is soon buzzing with theories of how Sam has delayed Rich, contemplating the possibility that he could get through to the next round without even throwing a punch. Anyone not developing conspiracy theories is shouting the odds of Sam winning, which aren't very high as absolutely no one is betting for him.
Rich finally arrives, about an hour after the stated start time. He enters with no entrance music and changes into his fighting gear in front of the crowd, relishing their stares as he pulls on his shorts. He seems disconnected to everything else happening around him, anxious to get this fight out of the way, defeat the amateur and go on to prove his worth against more advanced combatants.
The fight starts abruptly, with Rich dominating Sam with his speed. Sam lands a good kick and they tussle along to the edge of the mat, but as quickly as everyone had assumed he would, Rich takes Sam to the floor and puts him in a submission hold. Sam looks like he’s in a great deal of pain, but knows that the entire fight counts on what he does next – whether he persists or relents. He relents, tapping out under the strain of Rich's hold. And it's over like that; the inevitable conclusion that took absolutely nobody – including Sam – by surprise.
Sam and Rich post-match.
As soon as the fight is finished, Sam is interviewed in front of the audience. He takes the time to thank Rich for giving him a chance to fight against someone much better than himself. Rich looks disinterested on the other side of the ring, making faces and laughing while drinking a cup of tea. When it's Rich’s turn to be interviewed, he tells the crowd that it wasn’t that hard but hopes that he taught Sam a lesson or two.
Before the fight, I asked Sam what would be the best outcome for him. “As long as I know that I did damage to Rich, then yeah, the respect matters to me," he answered. "I don’t wanna be famous, I just wanna be able to fight properly.”
Follow Dan on Twitter: @keendang
More stuff about fighting:
WATCH - The British Wrestler
WATCH - MMA in Jordan