Words: John Naughton
Everyone’s at it. From Ukip MEPs (allegedly) to UFC grandees (undoubtedly), from mixed martial artists to chicken shop p*ss artists, the playground chant of “Fight, fight, fight” is echoing around the world, much of it caught on phones and sent travelling around the globe more quickly than a Kim Kardashian selfie.
And it’s never been easier to watch it. Never easier to satisfy our innate bloodlust. Whether it’s on Sky’s hyped pay-per-view, the aptly-titled fight channel Box Nation, or a simple download of the latest street fight, we have 24/7 access to men (and women) knocking every imaginable shade of sh*t out of each other.
Should we be worried? Is it wrong, is it right or should we shut up and order the fight? This much is certain; wanting to watch a tear-up is nothing new.
“Anything that looks like fighting is delicious to an Englishman.”
A Frenchman living in London more than 300 years ago wrote those words. François Maximilien Misson was a travel writer who visited England in 1695, and among his many observations about the place, he was struck by our love of a ruck.
“If two little boys quarrel in the street,” he observed, “the passengers stop, make a ring around them in a moment and set them against one another that they may come to fisticuffs.”
Our enjoyment of watching such fisticuffs clearly runs deep. A forthcoming documentary, The Hurt Business, explores the rapid rise of the most recent and brutal manifestation of combat sports, MMA. In the film, UFC Hall Of Fame inductee Tito Ortiz, a former light-heavyweight champion, gets to the heart of the matter. “There’s something about two men getting into a cage and competing against each other that human nature loves to watch.”
To return to Misson, he also wrote that in fight-mad late-17th-century London, it was standard practice for a gentleman to challenge his coachman to a fight if he wasn’t happy with the fare he’d been charged, a challenge to which the coachman “consents with all his heart”.
“I once saw the late Duke Of Grafton at fisticuffs in the open street with one such fellow,” recalls Misson, “whom he lammed most horribly.”
And that last word, “horribly”, touches on an emotion anyone who has witnessed a fight can relate to. Much as we might like to crowd around a scrap, all but the most bloodthirsty of us can be left with a queasy, guilty feeling at the bloody outcome. We’re both attracted and repelled.
For Vlad Yudin, director of The Hurt Business, it was this conflicting feeling that inspired him to make his film. “I was intrigued yet critical of MMA initially,” reflects Yudin, who also directed 2013 bodybuilding documentary Generation Iron. “I thought it was somewhat barbaric, and that there was also something taboo about it. The documentary is really my journey as I find out more about the sport.”
The Hurt Business is a gripping exposition of MMA’s multimillion-dollar makeover, from pariah outsider to mainstream moneymaker and, over the course of his research and filming, Yudin has changed his opinion about the sport.
“I do now watch MMA,” he confesses. “I think primarily because I connect more with the fighters. I can now watch the fights in a more objective way where I can appreciate their technique. But to me, the striking on the ground is still the most shocking element.
“As human beings, if any contest takes place it’s very natural to want to watch it,” he continues. “And if it’s a fight, we rush to see it right away. That hasn’t changed over centuries. The question is, should that be allowed in a society that is progressive, and that is supposed to be educated and righteous?”
The truth is, there’s nothing very educated or righteous about one of the most popular ways in which fights are witnessed today. WorldStarHipHop is the brainchild of Lee O’Denat, who launched the site in 2005 to sell rap mixtapes, but rapidly found success by uploading videos of brawls gleefully captured on cameraphones by bystanders. There’s plenty of far worse material featured on the site, but the fights, disproportionately featuring African-Americans, are grimly depressing.
Compilations of boys, girls, men and women tearing into one another with tacky headlines such as ‘One Punch KO in Columbus Ohio’, while onlookers bay “WorldStar” in recognition of where the material will soon end up, offers a dystopian view of a world seemingly locked in a spiral of violence and voyeurism.
Nor is there any shortage of similar material emanating from this side of the Atlantic. This being Britain, of course, most punch-ups tend to be filmed in takeaways, and the combatants, as a rule, are highly refreshed. It’s not an edifying sight, but the outcomes seem generally more boozy than bruising; damage more superficial. Then again – as in the case of a publicised chicken shop brawl near Oval Tube station earlier this year – they can be the precursor to a serious stabbing.
It’s hard not to feel WorldStarHipHop and similar sites have a desensitising effect on viewers. For John Houston, who opened the first white-collar boxing gym outside London some 10 years ago, such filmed fights are a world away from the real sport of boxing.
“People watch boxing because it’s such an amazing spectacle,” reasons Houston, who first started boxing at 14 and has coached both amateurs and pros all over the world. “It’s like a play that people can get caught up in. They know who they’re rooting for, and it’s got the twists and turns; things can swing one way and then another. Don King used to say it’s showbusiness with blood.”
Houston’s gym, located in the pretty, leafy Oxfordshire village of South Moreton, is a long way from iconic New York boxing gym Gleason’s, where Houston once worked, and where white-collar boxing began. Boxing itself has come a long way from how Houston remembers it in the early Nineties, when crowds were thin and the demand to ban it was vociferous. He’s in no doubt about what has led to the upswing.
“All of this is a reaction to our increasingly ‘health and safety’ society,” he says. “People are looking for that rush from somewhere else, because their lives are so insulated and there are so many things they can’t do. People are going out and taking risks, or they’re wanting to watch other people take risks. I think it’s a kickback against our risk-averse culture.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Vlad Yadin: “For some people, both fans and fighters, MMA is the only way to get the adrenaline rush,” he reasons. “We interviewed a sports psychologist called Bill Cole, and he put it really well. He said, ‘Life is a little too plastic and MMA is very, very real.’”
What’s more, MMA and boxing have the unpredictability appeal.
“We’re all looking for that fairy tale, the Rocky story,” explains Houston. “It could be a freak punch, a cut, injury or somebody just being better on the night than expected. It’s amazing how a crowd can be turned by a valiant performance. Those human qualities of courage, determination and strength of will can show through in a fight.”
For Houston, the best way to improve your understanding of the sport is to do it. He describes the euphoria that overcomes novice fighters after their first bout.
“People just want to talk and talk about it,” he laughs. “They have never experienced being in the position of do or die, the freedom that brings. Believe me, when you are standing in [the ring], you aren’t thinking about your gas bill, your pay rise or whatever. You hear a lot about mindfulness these days; boxing is the ultimate example of mindfulness.”
The experience leaves them with a deeper understanding. “It opens up how hard the sport is, and how technical,” continues Houston. “People are always amazed, and it generally leads to a better appreciation of watching it.”
Yet ultimately, it’s not the middle-aged overweight slugger who draws the crowds, but those superheroes who perform deeds the crowd can only dream of.
“Any combat sport is dangerous,” says Yadin. “I’m talking at the top level here. If you want to fight against the best in the world, you’ve got to be ready to get hurt. You’ve got to be ready to take your body to a place a normal person wouldn’t.”
It’s a truth brought home by a line from the poet Virgil written around 30BC, which is pinned on the wall of Gleason’s gym: “Now whoever has courage and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forward, lace on the gloves and put up his hands.”
“Mankind will always need competition,” concludes Yadin. “Everybody wants to measure their abilities, to compete at the highest level, whether it’s strength, speed or whatever. Combat sports have been there from ancient times, from the beginning of civilisation, and that continues to the present day. We will always watch a fight.”
The Hurt Business is out now on Digital, and on DVD from 2 January
(Images: Getty/The Hurt Business)