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MMA's Arab Spring: How Cage Warriors Are Taking Over The Middle East

by Mick Bower
25 May 2012

Cage Warriors are taking their respected brand to further afield corners of the globe. Their success reveals hungry and enthusiastic audience for MMA beyond Western parameters..


The second that MC Joe Martinez announces the verdict in favour of Mohamed ‘Felix’ Ali-  the King Hussein New Boxing Arena erupts. The Egyptian looks to the heavens and massed ranks of Jordanians in the stands dance and scream with joy. Over three hard rounds, they had backed their fellow Arab to the hilt: roaring him forward, cheering every hook he crashed into the ribs of his Korean opponent and laughing at his crude showboating.

On the way to the exit, he is mobbed by his new fans and the chant of ‘”Ali, Ali” grows even louder. Eventually, Mohamed has to be ushered out by staff anxious to keep the show on track. Young kids hang over the barriers for a final farewell hand slap. Ali is a slugger with personality, the kind of fighter who will do business anywhere. Think of a cross between Naseem Hamed and Tank Abbott. Post-fight, ‘Felix’ proves he also knows how to make an impact on the microphone:

“I thank God who is responsible for all of this; for me to be able to lift up the flag of the Arabs and the Middle East because you haven’t seen anyone like this in the Middle East. I thank Cage Warriors. I think an entity like this is needed in the Middle East for superior Middle Eastern fighters to have the ability and stage on which to present their skills to the world.”

Fight Night 5 in Amman, Jordan was a clear indication of the progress made by Cage Warriors in recent times. They’ve come a long way from the leisure centres of the East Midlands that used to play host to their shows. The driving force behind the new strategy is CEO Graham Boylan. As the arena emptied, he had a satisfied look after a job well done:

“The atmosphere was great tonight. You won’t see that anywhere else. There were people screaming for guys they didn’t even know. There was hometown support for foreign guys. I’m always speechless after these shows-they blow my mind away”.

The promotion always had a reputation for putting on solid events. While other high profile UK outfits saw tits and ass as the route to success, Cage Warriors was the show for the discerning MMA buff. As well as the cream of the British scene, talent from Europe and further afield would regularly feature. The Cage Warriors banner was guarantee of well-matched fights, but the new regime has taken things to another level. Director of Talent Relations Patrick Vickers, a man with the charm and firm demeanour of a junior Guards officer, outlines what is required to keep the show on the road:

“We announced a full schedule of events at the beginning of the year. I can’t think of any other promotion that does that. There have been a couple of tweaks, that’s life, but we have delivered. In 2012, we will put on 17 shows in 13 different countries. This gives us credibility. People can see we mean business. To put on an event like this, we take 70 people away with us. That is a huge commitment in terms of flights, hotels rooms and everything else. We do it to make sure we maintain the highest standards and to make sure that each show is an improvement on the last”.

Despite the considerable outlay, Boylan is relaxed when questioned about the financial implications:

“You’ve got to speculate to accumulate. I wouldn’t have taken this challenge on if I wasn’t sure that I could achieve my goals. When I came in, I put together a three year plan and we have hit every target so far”.

Solid content and a season of fixtures set in stone have proved attractive to broadcasters. Deals with FX, Sky Sports, Fight Network, Fight Now TV and Sportklub, and ESPN International mean Cage Warriors is beamed around the world into 105 million homes. Live streaming on MMAJunkie.com has also been a hit. Evening, midweek shows translate to lunch time treats across the Atlantic. Enticed by the promise of quality action, increasing numbers of workers are opening up an extra window at their workstations and enjoying an MMA break. With this level of exposure, it’s hardly surprising that the show is attracting a higher calibre of fighter. Ian Dean is the third part of the triumvirate at the core of Cage Warriors. The respected matchmaker, nicknamed Dean-ipaedia because of his all-encompassing knowledge of the sport, is the last remaining link with the old days. The enhanced budget means he has more room for manoeuvre when assembling cards these days.

“It is a team effort. I’m lucky I’ve got support from Graham Boylan and Pat Vickers as I’m a massive pain to deal with. Sometimes they’ll veto some of my whackier ideas and I’m grateful for that. A lot has changed, you only have to look at this arena to see that, but the fundamentals are still there. It’s easier in some ways, it’s harder in others. There are a lot of guys I can use now that I’ve always wanted to use. That’s great and I can be little more creative but then the pressure is on as well. I have to justify all my picks now. We’re on TV, we’re on MMAJunkie.com all over the world. I put myself under pressure because I don’t want the fights to look bad. Putting on good fights with good people is all I’ve ever wanted to do; this purist MMA that I’ve always gone on about.  If the fans like them, if the fans like what we do as an organisation- then I’m happy.

We offer something different. We’re trying to do things the right way. We’ve got great production values, we’ve got TV deals and internet deals- we can really build a fighter. We may not be paying crazy, crazy money, but we can build a fighter’s career, keep him busy and take him around the world”.

The Amman card was testament to the pulling power of the new order. The semi-finals of the tournament designed to find a new promotional Middleweight champion featured participants from France, Sweden, Ukraine and Wales. Although he succumbed to a brutal Pavel Kusch Heel Hook, the self-styled ‘White Mike Tyson’ John Phillips confirmed that he had inked a multi fight deal with Cage Warriors. The Welshman’s camp have reasonably concluded that the guarantee of regular fights, high level opposition and global exposure add up to a smarter career path than starring in domestic main events. Even bigger beasts prowl the Heavyweight division. Californian Bellator veteran D.J. Linderman hopped on a plane and flew 8000 miles on six days’ notice to plug a hole in the headline fight. By winning that eliminator, he secured a shot at champion Mike ‘300’ Hayes, another Bellator refugee who has seen the benefits of signing with Cage Warriors.

Due to the quality of the personnel on show and the narrative provided by the tournaments, the popularity of the events is on an upward curve. An example of the level of interest is the speed with which Sheila Gaff’s controversial eight second KO in the women’s 125 lb tournament semi-final became the talk of the MMA blogosphere. The number of views on Youtube is around half a million and rising.

The decision to stage around half of the 2012 events in the Middle East was greeted with raised eyebrows, but there appears to be method in their madness. As well as having a Jordanian partner on the firm, Cage Warriors had identified the region as a virgin territory that was ready to embrace MMA. In the aftermath of their third show in Amman, Graham Boylan was delighted with the reaction of the crowd.

“It’s big step forward over here. The first time we came they were silent. Now they’re becoming educated. Our whole aim was to get the brand into the region. They are now up for anything we do. They want Cage Warriors and they want to get involved”.

It is tempting to search for psychological and sociological pointers to explain why the populace are so open to the concept of MMA. As soon as you see the guys puffing on cigarettes as they pump gas in the blistering heat, you realise that the health and safety gone mad, risk averse culture of the West has not infected the area. A simpler analysis came from the engineer who was my neighbour on the plane in: “We Arabs- we love fighting”.

Whatever the reason, the residents of Amman have caught the MMA bug.  At the public weigh ins, a healthy crowd turned out to cheer the fighters to the rafters of the Virgin Megastore. The masses stood in line to have their pictures taken with Mike Hayes and the belt he won in Dubai, but the wildest reception was for the Arab undercard boys. At the climax, they posed on the stage for a group photograph, the DJ dropped an Arabian dance track and a spontaneous party broke out on the spot.

The Western attitude to the Arab nations tends to be a mixture of fear and sneer. Rather than merely staging a cookie cutter show for the benefit of the internet viewers, Cage Warriors are going out of their way to cultivate local interest by encouraging the development of a local, grass roots scene. By showing respect, they have side stepped the understandable cynicism about the motives of foreigners and instead benefit from the deep rooted Arab tradition of hospitality to guests.  Cage Warriors’ cocktail of slick production and sophisticated imports mixed with the raw enthusiasm of the pre-lim posse has paid dividends at the box office.

From the ad’s at half time of the Barcelona match on national television to the luxurious fighter accommodation and grandiose venue- everything about the build-up feels big time. The make-up of the crowd is an eye opener for anyone with preconceptions about the Arab world. In general, they appear a trendy, well-heeled bunch- including a much higher proportion of young women than you tend to see in Western fight crowds. The kind of people who like to be seen in the right places. Shadi Tahboub, GM of Midrar Sports and Cage Warriors’ man on the ground in Amman, believes that this is proof that they are getting things right:

“You don’t see that in any competition in Jordan except Cage Warriors. People come in and they know they are in safe hands. A man knows that he can bring his wife, his son, his daughter and enjoy it without anything happening that’s going to affect it. They trust the brand and they know that they are going to have a good time. The lights, the screens, everything you see in this hall, it’s something that we only see on TV. Being in the Middle East has made a connection with the people and let the people see what they are all about. I love it, the crowd love it. Everyone coming out is saying this is the best yet”.

All of them unite as one and go ape, especially for the home boys. Ian Dean can’t hide his glee.

“The quality of the local feature fights is improving all the time. The guys are so keen. It’s really refreshing. You’ve seen the crowd. You had chanting- people from different countries cheering on their people singing their songs and really getting into it. They also love the fact there are experienced pro’s on the main card who they can appreciate and learn from”.

Mohamed Ali has scrapped his way up onto the main card and is the current role model for the up and comers. Every time Cage Warriors have put on a show in Amman, he has been there; winning two out of three times. His loss was the result of inexperience and over exuberance: a first round DQ after a knee to the head of his grounded opponent at Fight Night 2 last September.  He may not have the tools to progress much further, but he is an inspiration to the rough and ready lads from Jordan, Sudan, Tunisia et al who battled it out in the support bouts. To a man, they came back into the stands and stared wide eyed; dreaming of the day that it would be them getting the arena crowd on its feet. As Shadi Tahboub notes, Cage Warriors have kick started a boom:

“Going to go back to the first fight night that we did over here; they were all anxious just to get into the fight and finish, regardless. In their head, they all were all determined to take their guy out but had not put much thought into it. I had a top jiu-jitsu guy against someone who had no clue about the ground game and he lost. It sets him into a different motion. He thinks: ‘You know what, I need the full package: standing and ground game’. So they started training, started taking it seriously and they started putting their all into it. This sport has given them something that the federation couldn’t. Over here, there is a serious lack of international exposure for the fighters. When Cage Warriors came in, we had people lined up, from all over the Middle East and the Gulf. They started training hard and putting themselves forward and taking any fights possible. The crowd we had on fight night one was 700 people, at the last one we had 1500 now we have almost 2000 in here and they went crazy tonight”.

At the end of the evening, audience members are allowed to wander into the cage and have their photographs taken in the place where moments earlier, the blood and leather had been flying. An unexpected gesture of mutual acceptance from both sides. Cage Warriors are not your everyday promotion and the Jordanians that fill the cage are far from your everyday crowd.

An encounter from the night before sums up the positive vibe surrounding the promotion. After the public weigh in, a mini bus transporting fighters and staff from the City Mall to the hotel was almost rammed by another vehicle. Such an incident is barely worthy of note in Amman; a city where the roads resemble a mass participation game of Mario Karts. The other driver stayed dangerously close up, furiously sounding his horn. Again, not behaviour that makes you stand out on these mean streets. Eventually, his persistence attracts the attention of the Cage Warriors crew. The car is over crowded with Arab teenagers; all smiling and waving. They have recognised the fighters on board and want to show their appreciation. One holds a notepad up to the window with a hastily scrawled message: ‘GOOD LUCK’. Addressing nobody in particular, a beaming Pat Vickers proclaims: “People like us here”.

If Cage Warriors keep doing what they’re doing- they’d better get used to being popular.

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