Female cage fighters Lisa "Lights Out" McCallam and Stacy "The Hammer" Hayes have been locked in an on-going feud since Lisa won victory over Stacy during a title match two years ago. Now, the girls are back in the ring. It's Saturday night and I'm standing three metres away from their cage where Lisa, dressed in a sports bra and short skirt emblazoned with the word "Mum", has Stacy on the floor, and is continuously pummelling her in the head.
This is the UK's female cage-fighting scene. Otherwise known as MMA (Mixed Martial Arts), it's a full combat sport which combines different fighting techniques including Muay Thai, Judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. But while the female scenes in Japan and the US are thriving – this year the American reality TV show The Ultimate Fighter launched a series with an all women cast – the UK is falling woefully behind. There are only five weight categories for women and in some of these there are only one or two fighters.
"What's hard with female MMA isn't the training or the fighting", says Dave O'Donnell, aka. Cage Rage Dave, a promoter who first pointed me in the direction of Lisa and Stacy, "It's finding opponents – they just don't have that many to choose from". Up until 2013 the Ultimate Fighting Championships did not allow female fighters to participate, meaning that they had to look to led prestigious promoters to fight. This created a glass ceiling for women that not even the best were able to smash through, and though the rules have now changed there's a long way to go before the female division matches the men's in terms of popularity and profits.
Dave has been a fight promoter for almost 20 years and is a born entertainer – on fight night he's dressed in a shiny silver suit jacket and diamond earring, and revels in the drama and excitement of the MMA scene. "I've done it all", he says, "When we first started promoting MMA no one wanted us to do it. We wanted to put Cage Rage [his original MMA promotion] on in Wembley and all these politicians were saying it was too barbaric".
Lisa McCallam vs Stacy The Hammer Hayes in 2012
It's Dave who is promoting the big fight between Lisa "Lights Out" and Stacy "The Hammer". The first and last time Lisa and Stacy fought was in Romford, Stacy's hometown in 2012. Watching it on YouTube it's clear that the crowd is very much behind their home-grown talent: while Lisa comes on to a soundtrack of jeers and Nicki Minaj, Stacy is received with applause. The fight ends with Stacy being knocked out, but the way this happened is clearly a point of contention between the girls. Lisa tells me that Stacy's all mouth. Stacy says of Lisa, "She can't accept I made a mistake and was rushing and not thinking. She didn't lift her knee up, I landed on it."
Lisa and Stacy found their way into fighting from very different backgrounds. Lisa's a loud and proud Romani gypsy – she announces her self as the "Gypsy Queen" on Twitter, incorporating her upbringing into her image. "I was born and raised on a Romani gypsy site on Montagu Road in Edmonton," she tells me, when I visit her at her North London gym. "I've grown up around that kind of environment, like bare-knuckle boxing and stuff. It wasn't rough exactly, but I guess it's an open space where fighting is more normal."
Still living at home in the family caravan, Lisa's mum Maria accompanies her every day to the gym – she was there when I interviewed Lisa – and it's clear that the family and the people who train her form a pretty impenetrable group around her. "I don't really feel like I've missed out on anything growing up. I mean, what do teenagers do? I had my first fight when I was 16 and what do other 16-year-olds do? Go out drinking and smoking. Same thing now with 20-year-old girls. When I finish a fight I go out and have a dance, but I go with my Mum."
30-year-old Stacy, like Lisa, assures me that she is a natural born fighter. "I chose to do MMA because it's what I'm good at really. I walked into a gym four years ago and just started training and was really good," she tells me when we spoke on the phone, a couple of weeks after I had talked to Lisa. "I was a foster kid so I had it quite hard. I practically brought myself up from the age of 12. I could have grown up to be someone on the dole, drinking, in and out of prison. I could have been angry at the world and stayed there like that but I'm not that sort of person. I always want to better myself, that's why I'm always working."
As well as being a fighter Stacy is also a qualified computer technician, dog trainer and has her own hair extensions company. She's clear on the differences between her and Lisa. "I'm not like her, I've got a completely different life to her. I came from nothing, I came from abuse. I was beaten and neglected from a child really bad. Lisa doesn't realise, she's lived a sheltered life with her family." For Stacy, fighting is therapeutic. "My struggles are all going into this fight," she tells me.
In a sport where there are so few competitors this kind of authentic rivalry is helps shift tickets. Stacy tells me she thinks she'll sell 150 seats for the fight and Cage Rage Dave agrees. "Everyone does have their own fan base and people come to see their fighter fight. The majority of tickets are through the fighters' sales – between the girls there are going to be 200 to 250 fans there on the night." The main appeal to see two females fight seems to be that it's such a rarity. As Stacy plainly puts it, "No disrespect to the other fighters but everyone loves to watch two girls fighting in a cage."
The day before the fight there's a press conference held in the top room at the Troxy in Limehouse, the venue for the main event. It's one of the few times the girls have seen each other since the much-debated fight in Romford and it's not exactly cordial. "I don't like her," Stacy says when asked. "I'm being honest, I know what's been said and I'm going to smash her up tomorrow." There's also a disagreement about weight, with Stacy claiming that it's been increased by 7kg meaning she has to constantly keep increasing hers in the run up the fight.
The girls are called to the front where they "face off" – pressing their foreheads against each other and basically looking like they genuinely want to start the fight there and then. "Did you see her when she took her top off?" I hear Stacy say to her friend after it's all done, "She looks fat."
When fight night rolls around, the atmosphere is a surreal amalgamation of drama, testosterone and bad EDM music. I watch women in tight dresses and stilettos tottered along the carpeted floor, tightly holding on to the arms of gym-built guys stuffed into shiny suits, as they made their way to the round tables all facing the cage. As a smoke machine produces small clouds of vapour, six girls in black knickers and crop tops paraded around, with one teetering down the runway in a huge pair of stilts.
I could see Lisa's family on one table, all wearing black T-shirts with "Gypsy Queen" branded on the back. From the sound of the cheers Stacy also seemed to have a number of fans in the audience. The girls were close to the end of the line up and by the time they stepped in to the ring the crowd was baying for a fight.
The blows came just as brutal as in Romford. Lisa managed to back Stacy against the side of the cage where they grappled for over two minutes, each trying to knee the other in the stomach. This position also had the unfortunate side effect of making Lisa's top fall down but she finally managed to get Stacy down on the floor where she really began going for it, jabbing her face and body continuously before the referee stepped in.
Lisa was announced the winner but the fight was apparently not over yet. As Stacy stepped out the ring I could see Lisa's mum and aunt approach her and some kind of altercation took place. Stacy spat at Lisa's family and security had to step in.
I emailed Stacy a couple of days after to find out what happened. "They attacked me," she wrote back. "They were rowdy at the weigh in too, and then they attacked me as I was getting out of the cage and said they were going to get me outside." She goes on, "UCMMA rules state no contest for that behaviour but nothing's been done except they've been banned from UCMMA and Lisa is not allowed to fight on the next show."
I called Dave to confirm all this and could tell he was pissed off at how it had all ended. "It just puts a bad feeling over the whole event, you know," he said, sighing. "They didn't attack Stacy but they were shouting verbal abuse at her. It was just fucking pig-headed really. It's a shame but it's what drink does. Of course you get riled up, it happens." So has he banned the "Lights Out" brigade? "Lisa's not banned but the mum and aunt are banned for two events. If it puts people at risk around the cage, you can't be having it."
None of this drama seems to have phased Lisa. A couple of days after the fight she seemed to still be buzzing from her win. "Did I celebrate? Hell yeah – I had a cookie. I am the cookie monster and I have to cut them out in training so was nice to let the monster out after the fight. I was on a high I went home to my brothers kissed them and conked out in bed ?with my title beside me." A sweet image. But has her feud with Stacy also been put to bed?
Lisa seems certain that they'll never fight again. "Stacy's not on the same level as me and the promoters won't match us anymore."
Stacy, perhaps unsurprisingly, hasn't replied to my emails. I email Dave to ask if he's planning on putting on any more female fights. "Yes, I've got a fight between Stacy and Claire Smith coming up." When I ask if Claire's a well-known fighter I get the rather curt reply, "I'm not sure. She challenged Stacy and I said yes." I have a sneaking suspicion that Dave is getting a bit sick of me.
When we speak for the last time Lisa informs me that Rosie Sexton, the first British fighter to compete in the UFC announced her retirement in June this year, explaining that, "She's too old to fight now". Perhaps this means the UK female MMA scene is dying a death already, but it more likely paves the way for Lisa. As she puts it herself, "Gypsy Queen Lisa 'Lights Out' McCallam is coming! UFC World champion is what I'm driving to and I won't stop 'till I get it."