17 July 2017

Cage Fighting in Canberra

| Kim Huynh
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Kim Huynh attends a cage fight to consider the nature of violence and entertainment in Canberra. See this RiotACT article by Doug Dobing for Ben Edwards’ background story.

Before his Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) debut last Saturday night, I asked Ben ‘The Guv’ Edwards what we should expect from the fight. The Guv playfully responded, ‘I’m goin’ to get blood in someone’s tiramisu.’

I was reminded of this comment when I entered the ballroom of the Rex Hotel to find that the corporate tables were being served three-course meals.

One of the other questions that I asked the former world kickboxing champion was, ‘Do you consider yourself to be a violent person?’

‘In a fight, I’m very violent,’ he replied. ‘We all have that in us if you dig deep enough. You can be the most left-wing pacifist ever, but if someone goes after someone you love… it’s going to get physical.’

The Appeal of Violence

During the undercard bouts, I wondered about the appeal of MMA and violence more generally.

The event at the Rex, organised by the Monaro Fighting Circuit (MFC), was sold out. MMA – also known by the arguably derogatory term ‘cage fighting’ – is often cited as one of the fastest growing sports in the world.

It has succeeded pro wrestling in the same way that reality TV has usurped soap operas. MMA and the premiere Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) provide a sense of authentic drama and action for audiences that have grown both weary and wary of scripts. It offers an avenue for ordinary folk to become megastars without having to jettison their ordinary folksiness.

In the crowd at the Rex there were many big, bold and beautiful Canberrans: guys who browse in supplement shops; #fitspo or fitspirational women; people who esteem physical prowess; today’s warrior class.

Perhaps it was because I hadn’t had enough dinner before arriving, but I couldn’t help but notice that no-one sitting at the tables around me had nominated a vegetarian option. And the plates were pretty much clean after each course, except for a few untouched bread rolls, which suggested a preference for protein over carbohydrates.

Because the undercard fights were comprised of three two-minute rounds, the action was non-stop. Fighters often returned to their octagonal corners exhausted. The fastest bout was over in 28 seconds.

The third and final rounds were all adrenalin-filled with the fighters motivated by the knowledge that even the widest points deficit can be bridged with a knockout.

Critics of MMA and combat sports contend that any activity in which the goal is to inflict physical harm is unethical. They argue that while fights can be professionalised, they can never be safe.

After Jeff Horn’s recent victory, a professor of neuroscience pointed out the introduction of one-punch laws in Australia should go hand-in-hand with a realisation that boxing is inherently dangerous and should therefore be banned.

Ben Edwards’ response is that, ‘Martial arts have saved countless lives, probably including mine. If I didn’t have this, God knows where I’d be now…. Having respect for yourself and others is the thing that combat sports all have in common, and it’s such an essential part of being a human.’

Coach Duke Didier and Ben ‘The Guv’ Edwards at training

The Main Event

Edwards’ opponent from Wollongong, Brandon ‘Zilla’ Sosoli, came out with the desserts.

He had the chest and arm markings of a Maui-type demigod. When it was announced that Sosoli weighed in at 130kg, I did not doubt it.

Sosoli waited quietly for Ben, without any theatrics.

I was reminded of Ben’s observation that, ‘Professional fighters are pretty gentle and have soft personalities. Nothing keeps you humbler than training and fighting every day, knowing how fragile we are as people.’

When the Guv entered the auditorium, the music thumped and a thousand Canberrans cheered.

As the fighters stood toe-to-toe it was clear that each of them was eager to demolish the other.

In our pre-fight interview, the Guv informed me that he saw his opponents not so much as a people, but rather as a set of strategies and skills that he had to figure out and overcome. Outside of the ring, they become people again, who he often gets on with very well.

This camaraderie has something to do with standing nigh naked before one another and taking on in unison the ultimate challenge of skill, strength, smarts and will.

They share and communicate this experience via what Norman Mailer called, ‘languages of the body’. For Mailer, two fighters, ‘address one another in a set of conversational exchanges which go deep into the heart of each other’s matter.’

The dialogue between Edwards and Sosoli began with both men exchanging punches, kicks and knees to the side.

Sosoli stayed close, often trying to clinch and take down Edwards, knowing that he had little wrestling experience.

After the undercard fights, the thought of a five-minute round seemed long and terrifying.

Then Sosoli dodged an uppercut and deftly snuck under the Guv’s arm to tackle him. Suddenly both men were on the canvas. Sosoli was on top and in control. With his right arm, he jabbed the Guv in the gut. His left arm smothered his face. His forearm and then elbow battered his head. He was robbing the Guv of his breath.

Sosoli’s supporters yelled, ‘Ground and pound! Ground and pound!’

Edwards’ coach and former Australian judo champion, Duke Didier, directed him with volume and composure. ‘Underhook! Underhook. I need you to get your right arm to your hip. Hip! Hip! Hip! Start twisting now! Twist! Yes!’

When the Guv wriggled free and got to his feet, so too did the crowd in ecstatic applause.

Now Edwards was on the attack as he stood in the centre of the cage, moving his opponent from corner to corner.

Sosoli got under another punch and again tried to clinch Edwards. This time the Guv leapt up and came down on Sosoli, smothering him with a flurry of savage strikes.

While still atop his opponent, Edwards paused and spat out his mouth guard to proclaim the fight over. Thankfully, the referee agreed.

Kim Huynh is a RiotACT columnist, lectures politics at the ANU and occasionally presents Drive on ABC Radio Canberra.

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