Great UK Article on PRIDE/MMA

From the famous UK newspaper, The Guardian:,,1763940,00.html

"There's Joachim Hansen, a shrewd competitor who scores knockouts using cold logic. There's Luiz Azeredo, whose balletic grace conceals a vicious arsenal of flying knees, kicks and stomps. There are youngsters making their debuts, veteran crowd favourites and two newly crowned champions. Inside Tokyo's Ariake Coliseum, anticipation runs high. As they wait for the fights to begin, fans pore over the night's programme, examining statistics, discussing the odds.

The alchemy of a fight card is a mysterious thing. Even the most meticulous matchmaking can sometimes misfire. Tonight, however, the fragile magic succeeds - by the evening's end, the card will deliver four knockouts, four submissions and three hard-fought judges' decisions. It will also feature a stunning upset. Modern sport can be an ugly convergence of commerce and celebrity, but it still has the capacity to move a crowd. And tonight the crowd is heaving.

Japan's Pride Fighting Championships is currently the world's largest promoter of mixed martial arts. The sport is variously described as cage fighting, extreme fighting, no-holds-barred and full-contact fighting; the rules permit anything from punches and kicks to chokes and head stomps (elbows to the head, blows to the groin, head butts, hair-pulling and eye-gouging are barred). Fast-paced and relentless, a good fight will include elements of boxing, wrestling, submission grappling and judo. It will also be closer to a real fight than any of its component parts.

Fighting first arrived on the Japanese sports scene in the 1990s, at a time of recession and high unemployment, and has since displaced sumo wrestling as the national sport of choice. Broadcast on primetime television and regularly attracting crowds of 50,000, its biggest stars are celebrities. They can earn $2m a fight and appear everywhere: on magazine covers, talkshows and in commercials, where they use high kicks and shadowboxing to flog everything from razors to beer.

It's a version of Japan far removed from cherry blossoms and geishas - but one that still, cannily, manages to echo traditional values. Yukino Kanda, one of the founders of Pride, believes that the sport's success in Japan is rooted in the culture. "Japan has a long history of martial arts," she says. "Here, the martial arts are regarded as a mental as well as physical discipline." One of a new breed of Japanese businesswomen, Kanda's role is to promote the brand in foreign markets, where fighting is regarded with more scepticism than it is in Japan.

It's difficult to identify why two cultures will react differently to the same sport. It is true that fighting is a violent sport. It is also true that there is no moral distinction between boxing and fighting, and that, of the two, boxing is, if anything, more damaging to the body (unlike boxing, no fighter has died in a sanctioned mixed martial arts bout, though more than a few have ended up in hospital).

It comes down, then, to a question of aesthetics: whether it is more acceptable repeatedly to pummel a swaying man or to soccer-kick a downed opponent. Outside the ring, neither option is especially palatable. In their context, however, they are precisely what give a fight tension and excitement.

The Temecula Valley High School is located near the California interstate, set amid wide, blue skies, shopping complexes and 24-hour fast-food restaurants. The hour is late and the car park is empty. Inside the wrestling room, top American fighter Dan Henderson is busy schooling one of his team-mates, a kid with a tenacious chin and a handful of professional bouts to his name.

Henderson is in an affable mood. He jokes as he spars; he discusses petrol prices. The kid ignores him, concentrating hard. Henderson playfully drops a spinning backfist - a manoeuvre in which the fighter turns around very quickly and strikes the opponent with the back of the hand. The back of his hand hits square and with an audible whack. He grins. The kid gingerly touches his nose. Henderson shrugs and the session ends shortly after. As his team packs up and leaves, they move slowly. Only Henderson seems fresh, as though immune to the tedium of training.

"See you tomorrow," he calls out cheerfully. The kid gives him a dirty look.

Currently Pride welterweight champion, Dan Henderson has spent nearly a decade commuting between Temecula and Japan. One of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world, this two-time Olympic wrestler is known as much for his night-ending right hand as for his powerful wrestling.

In a sport that tends towards the uproarious, Henderson can often look like the only sane man standing. In one recent bout, after knocking down rising Japanese star Ryo Chonan, he reluctantly landed a few more shots before giving the referee a look of polite exasperation. Later, he would state that he felt the fight should have been stopped earlier. Henderson is both winner and champion, but he is a star largely because he embodies certain characteristics - unfailing sportsmanship, a willingness to fight larger opponents, and the ability to make the fight game an authentic sport.

"It is a sport," he says. He tries to explain. "Have you ever played basketball against a friend and really wanted to win? You want to win. It's the same thing. It's maybe a bit rougher, but it's the same mental state."

For most of his career, Henderson has fought outside his weight class, weighing in around 195lb against opponents of 220lb or so. Long a top contender in the middleweight division, Henderson was finally persuaded to drop down to his natural weight class last year. He tore through the welterweight division and within a matter of months was crowned champion.

This evening in the Ariake Coliseum, he will fight his first match since winning the title. In Kazuo Misaki he is facing a tough competitor - but, on paper at least, Misaki is no match for Henderson. In fact, the Japanese fighter's only relevant asset may be the reckless determination of the underdog.

Outside the arena, a young mother takes a cigarette break between fights. Her son practises karate chops as he waits for her to finish. I ask who his favourite fighter is. He turns shy.

"He likes that guy - what do they call him? The Fireball Kid?" says his mother.

Takanori Gomi?

"That's it. He wants to fight like Gomi when he grows up. That's why we're here. Because of Gomi."

Although Pride was established to showcase the martial arts, an area in which the Japanese purportedly excel, its champions have been Russian, American or Brazilian, never Japanese. Pride has long been waiting for a Japanese champion - there have been false prophets and a string of fallen idols, but finally, in 2005, Takanori Gomi emerged as both local hero and lightweight champion.

With 10 consecutive wins against top-ranked competition, Gomi is as close a thing to infallible as there is in the fight game. If Gomi has a weakness, it is that he is prone to boredom, tiring of his own prodigious talent. He therefore makes for an intriguing champion. Though he is only 27, much is already riding on his success in Japan. Here, he packs out stadiums; here, he is a fighter to whom the next generation aspires.

Like Henderson, tonight Gomi will be fighting for the first time since winning his title. He is facing a skilled ground fighter in Marcus Aurelio, but few are giving the Brazilian more than a sporting chance. These two bouts are top of the bill, the final matches of the night - Henderson versus Misaki, Gomi versus Aurelio. The card has already delivered a run of knockouts, submissions and upsets. Now the crowd is impatient for the champions.

Entering the ring, Gomi looks unfocused. Early in the first round, Aurelio executes a flawless double-leg takedown that sends Gomi crashing to the canvas. From there, the fight unfolds with slow inevitability. Gomi does nothing. Aurelio does everything. He attempts several submissions before securing a perfect side-choke. The stadium gives a collective gasp as the choke sinks in.

There is nothing like the shock of seeing a fighter you consider invincible lose in the ring. The referee steps in and ends the fight. Aurelio and his corner celebrate frantically, seemingly caught in the same wave of giddy disbelief that is sweeping the stadium. Spectators sit open-mouthed. Some get up and leave immediately.

Fans of the sport are fond of saying there are a hundred different ways to win a fight. It follows that there are also a hundred different ways to lose a fight. In the press room after the fight, Gomi confesses that he had hardly trained for the match. There is monotony in a never-ending winning streak, tedium in a champion's belt. In the end, it may have been this, as much as anything, that handed Gomi his loss.

Henderson, by contrast, uses his fight to showcase a series of new moves, including a spinning backfist that wows the crowd. Older, wiser, more consistent of heart, Henderson dominates the fight and wins by unanimous decision.

After the fight, Henderson goes out to celebrate with his team. He is joined by Ryo Chonan who, since getting knocked out by Henderson, has begun training with his former rival's camp. Dinner is a convivial affair. At a neighbouring table, a birthday boy is opening his presents. He unwraps a box containing mitts and gloves. Looking up, he catches sight of Henderson. Emboldened, he comes over and begs Henderson to hit him with his famous right hand.

The birthday boy holds up the mitts and declares he is ready. Henderson taps him once. The birthday boy tells him to go harder; he tells him he can handle it. Henderson throws a good-natured right-left combination. The birthday boy grimaces, but doggedly maintains his position. Henderson lands a few more soft shots. Finally, clutching at his elbow, the birthday boy capitulates.

The whole restaurant has been watching the impromptu sparring session, and now people are lining up to have their picture taken with Henderson. His food is growing cold and his beer warm. Meanwhile, the birthday boy is flexing his elbow cautiously. Undeterred, he hands his camera-phone to a friend and moves into position beside Henderson. He half-smiles, half-winces, and waits for the camera's flash.


Never thought I'd say this, but well done the Guardian. Excellent article


Papers in the UK are better written than "intellectual" magazines anywhere else (in English).

Good article. It defends the sport for once

That was surprisingly good.

Not just that it was pro MMA, but well written.

not bad.. but they make it look like GOMI is the only good japanese fighter.

which is not the case.

nevertheless a good article for beginners.

Too true Dommy, the majority of reports in the UK give the usual "human cock fighting" BS and are full of inaccuracies.. its embarrassing. One BBC news reporter even held up a Best Of WWE Cage Matches DVD at the end of their report.....

The more of the Guardian reports the better. Well done to them.

Yeah that was a pleasant suprise!

ttt for the broadsheets!