Bar maybe bullfighting or anything else that involves stabbing animals with little swords, MMA is easily the most controversial sport going. Last week, Peter McCabe—chief executive of brain injury association Headway—called for "the barbaric and dangerous activity" to be banned, following the death of 28-year-old fighter Joao Carvalho after a Total Extreme Fighting event. But with New York becoming the 50th state to legalize MMA last month, it doesn't look like it's going anywhere fast.
Keen to provide an opportunity to disabled combat sports fans who wanted to train and compete, in 2006, Colin Wood founded Wheeled Warriors, an inclusive combat sports organization. He started out with boxing, but in 2012 announced that he would be holding the world's first ever wheelchair MMA competition, under the name MMMAWW (Modified Mixed Martial Arts Wheeled Warriors). Considering the controversy that already exists around MMA, it's no surprise the announcement drew a fair amount of criticism at the time.
The competition never happened—because of "behind-the-scenes politics," according to Wood. But the Wheeled Warriors founder says he's spent the past few years going to great pains to adapt the sport, so it's as safe as possible. He now plans to hold the event next year. I got in touch with him to find out more about his organization.
VICE: What motivated you to set up Wheeled Warriors?
Colin Wood: I was involved in a semi-professional rugby league, but unfortunately I was told ten years ago that I was going blind. That opened my eyes to how discrimination against disabled people is there at the highest level, and it made me want to do something about it in the sporting world. Obviously it made the issue very personal and important to me. I started working on designing a special rugby ball for the blind, and the RFL [the governing body for Rugby League in the UK] got in touch with me and was interested in it. I ended up creating a ball with bells on it that comes with a Velcro glove that's made, so you cannot only catch the ball but also release it.
How is this MMA competition going to work?
It'll involve four guys who are all trained in BJJ [Brazilian jiu-jitsu]. Two of them are American, one's Brazilian, and one guy is English. They're all paraplegic.
Can you tell me how their wheelchairs have been adapted?
We've had to make a couple of modifications. I've invented a wheelchair that can be used with no hands. A smaller version will be used in the MMA competition. With the wheelchairs that you've got at the moment, when you throw a person to the floor, there's a fair distance to go down, which is why they will need to be small. There will also be other adaptations so that people can be safely toppled out of the chair. That's something we're working on. It'll involve new technology that I don't really want to say too much about at the moment. We won't go live with it until all four of the gentlemen who are competing are happy with it. At the end of the day, safety is the most important thing for us.
You seem to enjoy inventing things. Did you have any kind of design background before making the rugby ball, or was that a first?
My professional background was as a chef. The rugby ball was the first thing I invented. I've developed all the designs and concepts myself, but it's just my way of giving a voice to disabled people and allowing them to be included in things that they deserve to have a chance to be involved in.
How do the rules of wheelchair MMA differ from those of conventional MMA?
We've built up a set of rules and regulations around each segment of disability, as there's a lot of variation. Some people can move their wheelchairs properly and some can't. We've got a points structure in place that matches equally disabled people with one another. In the past, other people have done things like putting a quadruple amputee against an upstanding MMA fighter, which made me think, Something has to be done about this.
Will the grappling element of MMA still be included in wheelchair MMA?
There's technology that can enable it.
So the groundwork would still take place?
Yeah, the smaller wheelchair will help with that.
How do you respond to critics who say wheelchair MMA is an inherently bad idea—that it's too dangerous?
To tell you the truth, I'm not fussed if people want to criticize us. There are a lot of people on this planet, so there's always bound to be someone who doesn't like what you're doing. Some people say, "How can you have disabled people abusing one another by competing in that sort of manner?" A lot of people also assume that people in wheelchairs always have head injuries, which isn't the case. We need to stop mollycoddling people and open our minds to adapting things for those who can't fit into the known structure associated with a sport. At the end of the day, whichever sport you're involved in, you've got to look at ways of including everybody, which is where a lot of people go wrong in their thinking. They don't fully examine all the opportunities for inclusion.
Will there be any additional safety procedures in place?
There are differences in terms of the training ethics. There are also quite a few other things that we've adapted and made sure we've got one hundred percent right for safety purposes.
What has the reception to the idea of wheelchair MMA been like from the wider MMA community?
It's been mad, actually. We've had quite a good response from Ken Shamrock, Dan the "Beast" Severn, and Jamie the "Real Deal" Hearn, to name a few names. To tell you the truth, I don't think a lot of people in the world of MMA and boxing will like us, because we've got a "no cutting corners" policy. A lot of people don't give due care to the health and safety side of things in combat sports, and we're aiming to look after the well-being of any athlete who wants to compete.
Do you think wheelchair MMA will eventually gain mainstream acceptance?
Yeah, definitely. It's going to take time, like anything else, but what people have to realize is that we need to help and include the guys who want to take part, and also need someone to make sure that his or her health and well-being is considered at all times. That goes for all sports, not just combat sports. What we should be working toward is a world where people can do any sport they want, whether they've got a disability or not.
Besides the MMA competition next year, what can we expect from Wheeled Warriors?
On August 27, we're laying on a show in Rugby. There'll be wheelchair boxing, and we're looking to get some people with Down's Syndrome involved as well. We're also bracing ourselves to become a community interest company. We're intent on making sure the money we get is put into the athletes' pockets and will also be trying to make sure that athletes who are on the dole or financially disadvantaged are cared for. We're looking for sponsors who would like to invest their money into something that's going to allow people with a variety of different disabilities to go professional.
To find out more about Wheeled Warriors, follow them on Facebook.
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