Kiddie Cage Fighting: Let Them Scrap

Ignore the sensationalised media spin on youth cage fighting. Mixed Martial Arts is a worthy contact sport for our youth and deserves better than the reactionary condemnation it's suffering.
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Boys will be boys...

The current kiddie cage fighting furore has the three key ingredients required for a modern moral panic: tabloid scare stories, the British Medical Association calling for a ban and a knee jerk response from a government minister.

The Sun and Mail have been full of righteous anger about children fighting; quite surprising as their pages are usually filled with calls to beat some discipline into our youth. The message seems to be; kids getting hit by adults like coppers and teachers is good, kids- kids hitting each other, even in a controlled athletic environment, is bad.

Always remember this maxim: If the Daily Mail is against something, you should support it and if the British Medical Association wants to ban something, it’s probably really enjoyable.  A spokesman for the BMA is quoted in The Sun: "This example of cage fighting among young children is particularly disturbing, especially as they are not even wearing head guards…The BMA believes there are many other sports, such as athletics, swimming, judo and football, which require discipline but do not pose the same threat of brain injury."

The video at the centre of the storm, filmed at an event on September 10th at the Greenlands Labour Club in Preston, features an eight year old and a nine year old. Contrary to the headlines about depraved crowds paying to see primary school boys go at it- this was actually an adult mixed martial arts show. As a prelude to the full contact fights, the promoters put on a kid’s grappling match. If the BMA dude had actually watched the video, he will see that no striking was allowed, making the wearing of head guards irrelevant. Under these conditions, the contests are very similar to judo- one of the sports the spokesman goes on to advocate.

Safety is of paramount concern to any respectable promoter. In Preston, experienced paramedics were on hand, ready for the main card, and the match was refereed by Neil Hall. For the uninitiated, Hall is one of the most knowledgeable officials in the game. Just last month, his Batley gym hosted a seminar for MMA officials aimed at raising safety standards in the sport. Having him refereeing a kids' grappling match is like having Howard Webb officiating at a school’s seven aside tournament. It is hard to think of a sporting scenario in which the participants would be in safer hands.

The BMA may have noticed that there is an obesity problem in this country. Martial arts training takes the natural exuberance of boys and channels it into something positive. Anyone who understands the martial arts will appreciate that the lads in the video must have put in a lot of hours in the gym to develop that level of grappling ability. Surely this is something the guardians of our health and welfare should see as a good thing.

Always remember this maxim: If the Daily Mail is against something, you should support it and if the British Medical Association wants to ban something, it’s probably really enjoyable.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the Mail: “it feels very barbaric and I know there are concerns about children that young doing a sport like that.”

It is easy to take anything out of context, present it to an uneducated audience and provoke outrage. Imagine what would happen if rugby union was a new sport. Clip a few images of Maori war dances and meatheads stomping on grounded opponents, throw in some statistics about spinal injuries and the Mail would be screaming for us to ban the barbarians (and the Barbarians).

Politicians scoring cheap points by attacking MMA is an old story. In the 90s, Senator John McCain was the most high profile opponent of the sport, famously describing it as ‘human cockfighting’ (by that logic; 400m running is human greyhound racing). McCain has since changed his opinion of MMA, although cynics will say that his conversion is due to the growth of the sport in the US. Major corporations are now on board as sponsors and next month, the Ultimate Fighting Championship will make its debut on network TV on November 12th, when Cain Velasquez fights Junior Dos Santos live on Fox. There is little political capital to be made in a nation that now understands the sport, particularly a nation where wrestling is part of every day school life.

Jeremy Hunt is only guilty of doing what we expect a government minister to do; going along with whatever the Daily Mail want him to say. The Mail and the Tory party parrot rhetoric about self-reliance and discipline; pretty much the values the martial arts are built on. For years, we’ve heard stories about people whose lives have been turned round by boxing and MMA is now playing a similar role. The combat sports require tremendous discipline. Participants learn about themselves and grow as people as they put themselves through it in the gym and then test themselves in the ring and cage. After spending the riot torn summer calling for increased discipline every five minutes, it seems that the bastions of British morality now seek to condemn a sporting activity that encourages self- respect and respect for others.

The Mail witch hunt called on the police to take action, but that line of hysteria hit a brick wall when the Lancashire Police told them that they had: 'looked into this matter fully and there are no issues for us to pursue'.

If you accept, as most people who actually take the time to watch the video do, that the kids were involved in a grappling match that was as safe as a recognized Olympic sport such as judo- the only thing left to get worked up about is the way the bout was presented.

The general public is only presented with an image of the sport that is coated in sleaze and sensationalism.

The cage is a problem for many casual observers. In 1994, the original Ultimate Fighting Championship event that kick started the modern sport was conceived as a cable TV spectacular. Before they settled on a plain octagonal cage, the organizers seriously discussed having barbed wire round the top and a crocodile filled moat to create a sense of danger. As MMA developed from a lurid spectacle into a fully-fledged sport with a functioning set of safety conscious rules- the cage remained.  Japanese shows would often take place in a conventional ring- resulting in constant restarts as grappling fighters would be tangled in the ropes and even fall through them. The cage fence stops this and, as well as preventing injury, it has become an integral part of the sport by encouraging clinch fighting.

Other criticisms of the now notorious video have centered on the environment the event took place in. News reports have bemoaned the idea of youngsters fighting for the benefit of a ‘baying crowd’, who were drinking beer and ogling ‘scantily clad’ ring girls. Would it be better if the lads had been grappling at an interclub event in a sports hall? That’s a matter of personal taste. For me- the over-riding concern with any promotion is safety. REPS MMA who promoted the show had taken care of that- anything else is irrelevant detail that could apply to activities like singing and dancing contests.

MMA is still a minority sport in the UK. Possibly the only thing that unites the Daily Mail and the BBC is the fact that neither will give the sport any meaningful coverage- except the shock- horror nonsense like we’ve seen this week. As a result, the general public is only presented with an image of the sport that is coated in sleaze and sensationalism. Over the years, certain promoters have tried to cash in by marketing their shows to the lowest common denominator and they must also share some of the blame for the myths and misconceptions that hold MMA back.

One question that has cropped up in interviews and phone ins this week is: ‘Would you let your child do it?’ I have two daughters: one plays football, the other prefers training in jiu-jitsu at an MMA club. On the touchline at football, I am often alongside ‘baying’ parents who shout abuse at the ref. On the field, I see nine year old kids diving to get an advantage, disputing every decision and feigning injury. Every goal is over celebrated to rub it in. At the MMA club (complete with fitted cage), my six year old loves all the training but especially enjoys the sparring. Each mini match is started and ended with a hand slap and fist bump and nobody can leave the mat before shaking hands with every other kid. Although she has the capability, daughter B is no more likely to choke someone out in the playground than daughter A will slide tackle a stranger on the pavement. Both are having fun, but I know which one is building up a skill set that could save her life one day. I know which one is operating in a culture that discourages egotism and celebrates humility. I also know which one is engaging in a sport that accepts anti-social behaviour as the norm.

Of course, I don’t want football to be banned. I simply want people look beyond the sensational non-story that is doing the rounds at the moment and give mixed martial arts a fair shake.

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