Daniel Almedia receiving medical attention. Photos by James Gouldin
Earlier this month the government of Victoria, Australia, lifted its ban on cage fighting. The ban's reversal has attracted all sort of criticism, including from the Victorian Police Commissioner, Ken Lay, who told the Herald Sun that cage fighting is "extreme violence masquerading as entertainment." The combat sport industry, however has long claimed that MMA fights are less violent inside cages, since they makes it impossible for fighters to be thrown out of a ring.
I wrote an article on cage fighting a few weeks back and the president of the Melbourne-based Australian Fighting Championship, Adam Milankovic, invited me to check out the sport firsthand. So I teamed up with my photographer friend and we headed to the Melbourne Pavilion on a warm Sunday afternoon.The Australian Fighting Championship (AFC) had hoped theirs would be the first cage fight in Melbourne, but rival MMA company, Hex, beat them by a week. Even so, Sunday's event sold out, with an audience of over a thousand. Demographically it was what you might expect: mostly male, mostly between the ages of 20 and 40, mostly white.
Tattoo artists and combat sport aficionados Beau and Joel recently had to travel to Albury to get their cage fighting fix, so they were thrilled it's now back in Victoria. "It has a reputation for being a brutal sport," Beau told me, "but they're martial artists; they train hard, they study for years. They're not going to go out and fight in the street, these guys. They're professionals." Beau rejected the suggestion that the sport is aggressive. "It's like chess," he said.
John "the Animal" Beirouti described any talk of the cage provoking a more brutal fight as just hearsay. "It's just the term cage that gets people going," he told me. "If it was made out of flags or something people might think differently, but yeah, there's no barbed wire or anything, you can tap out when you want. It's all safe."
Safety, safety, safety. Everyone wanted to deliver the same line, which is stupid because clearly cages exist to look badass. And then the first fight began and my judgment looked validated: The cage allowed fighters to corner their opponents between the canvas and the fence and really pummel the shit out of them; a technique known as "ground and pound." The Animal used it effectively against his opponent, choking him with a guillotine hold until the guy lost consciousness. The crowd loved it. After a few snaps my photographer overheard an official say, "He's not dead! He's blinking," as if there was very real possibility that the guy could die. That said, it was one of only two KOs on a 12-fight card, with a lot of tap-outs and times when the action just looked like intense hugs.
The Animal celebrated his win by whooping around the hexagon (which is what they call the ring) with a piece of paper in his hand, hollering in a wavering voice that he held the memorial card of his deceased best friend. For a night built around testosterone, that wasn't the only unexpected display of emotion. Families cried in the stands, friends hugged in celebration. After losing his bout, fighter Nick Davis proposed to his partner Hannah in the middle of the hexagon. (She said yes.)I asked Hannah later if she was scared seeing him in the cage. "Tonight I was really nervous," she replied, "but maybe it was pregnancy nerves." She explained she was always nervous that he could get hurt, but "it's what he loves doing, so I'll always support him."In general, AFC 12 turned out to have a strange undercurrent of love and warmth, which Joel and Beau were keen to highlight as we left. "Look at this", Beau said, gesturing at the crowd dispersing quietly into the neighborhood. "We've been sinking beers all day and look at it out here. No fights. Imagine what it would be like if we were all leaving a club?" He was right. The crowd hadn't turned on itself in an orgy of violence-inspired-violence. But then on the other hand, the cage hadn't offered all that much extra. As Kit "the Killer" Campbell told me earlier, beyond safety it basically means a slight shift in tactics.Photos by James GouldinFollow Chris onTwitter.