THERE was a time when professional boxing was the greatest show on Earth. That time is no longer. Too many belts, too many divisions, too much corruption and not enough fights people want to see mean the sweet science has gone from force of nature to spent force; the bloated sporting equivalent of Robert de Niro’s aging bull Jake LaMotta.
But, crucially, people do still want to see fights; we live in comparatively civilised times but the desire for mano-a-mano combat is undiminished. Pat Spillane recently said that if a lifetime in teaching taught him one thing, it was that at the centre of every large gathering in the playground was always a scrap.
So, where do a planet-full of fight fans turn when big-time boxing has punched itself out? Well, even a sports-phobic pacifist cannot help but have noted the rise and rise of Mixed Martial Arts.
“You will never see the best of the best fight each other in their prime in boxing because there’s too much politics going on. It’s got too diluted. Whereas with MMA you will see the best of the best fight each other regularly because that’s what sport’s about; that’s what people want to see and the UFC will put that on.”
So says Graham Boylan, director of Cage Warriors – Britain’s longest-running MMA organisation and feeder to the world-conquering UFC.
Boylan, 37, originally from the northside of Cork city, has had a rapid ascent in the realm of MMA.
“It’s just snowballed,” he says.
Three years ago Boylan was training with a dozen fighters in a gym in Covent Garden. “There was no cage in central London so myself and Paul Hynes [MMA coach] thought we’d get a little studio somewhere and put a cage up. We could use it in the evenings and just lock it up during the day. And then if you could get a couple of lads who’d chuck in a couple of quid every time they’d used it you’d have the rent paid for. Three months after opening it we had 200 odd members.
“Six months after that we had a gym in Romford. And that doubled in membership. Then we got into Ireland and it just went from there.”
Indeed, the snowball has continued to gather size and pace and today Boylan oversees six gyms in five countries (England, Ireland, Illinois in the US, Australia and Jordan) and this year Cage Warriors will put on 17 shows in 13 different countries.
Most of his English shows take place in north London’s Kentish Town Forum. The next happens on February 18 and 1,400 fans will pay between £25 and £40 to watch 12 bouts – one of which features hotly-tipped Dublin featherweight Conor McGregor.
The evidence of expansion is clear, and Boylan feels education of the wider sporting public is key to MMA becoming a heavyweight mainstream attraction.
“Which is more dangerous – boxing or MMA?” he says. “With pro boxing it’s a 25-30 minute fight, repetitive punching to the head. If you look at MMA, it’s 15 minutes, that’s three five-minute rounds. You could be on the floor grappling doing jiu-jitsu for 15 minutes with maybe two or three punches to the head.
“The cage probably scares or gives a stereotype to the uneducated eye but it’s only the arena they compete in. Football teams compete in a pitch, boxing happens in a ring, MMA happens in a cage.”
Make the point that there’s nothing inherently scary about a field of grass, or even a boxing ring and Boylan argues that the cage is for practical, not atmospheric, reasons. The nature of the bouts means fighters would go through the ropes far too regularly for their – and the fans-in-the-front-row’s – comfort.
“It’s not the WWE,” he says. “We’re not playing Hulk Hogan or the Macho Man. This is a proper sport and these guys wrestle, do boxing, kick-boxing, karate, muay Thai. There’s a lot of jumping and flying kicks. They might go for big takedowns. If that was a ring they’d go straight through. They have to be confined. It’s not a case of: they’re locked in, now fight to the death! There are rules and regulations and these guys are so dynamic and fast, they can’t end up in the crowd every 10 seconds. If you could put them in a bouncy castle and the cameras could see through the whole time then we’d put them in a bouncy castle.”
Fighters first stepped into the cage, as opposed to the bouncy castle, to settle a few scores: which combat art was the more effective? Now, says Boylan, you have to be an all-rounder to compete. If a world champion boxer stepped into the cage?
“They’d be taken down, taken to the floor. Straight away. Every fight starts standing so therefore he’d have a pretty good shot, but if he doesn’t land that one shot, he’s on the floor and the fight would be finished in 10 seconds, simple as that.
“The sport has evolved, they cannot just be one thing anymore. They’ve got to be at pro-level boxing, they’ve got to be able to hold their own with a high-level jiu-jitsu guy, a high-level grappler. It’s no longer a boxer against a wrestler. They might have come from one background but you’ve got to learn all these other sports.”
As a kid growing up in Gurranabraher (or Graun to natives) there was all these other sports too: basketball, hurling and football with Na Piarsaigh, boxing at Fr Horgan’s gym. Boylan was into his sport but not into his studies. He was “chucked out” of the North Mon by the age of 16. He then trained as a plumber before moving to London as a 19-year-old in 1994. Going from a small city, where it took him “40 minutes to walk from Patrick’s Bridge to the Parade”, because you have to stop to greet so many familiar faces to anonymous London was tough at first.
“The only thing that stopped me going back was that everyone told me I’d be back in six weeks,” he says. “Any time I decided this is not for me, those voices in the head kicked in.”
He lived all over: Hackney, Islington, Camden, Finchley. “Just a bunch of Irish lads, there was seven or eight of us living in a house all the time, working day-by-day on building sites … I was probably on fifty to a hundred quid a week back then, the standard of living wasn’t what it is now, there was no Starbucks-five-quid-a-coffee back then,” he says gesturing at our surrounds in Camden.
The years rolled by and building sites gave way to security work and a two-year stint as a trainee cameraman. Then it was on to Middlesex University where he studied computer science. Boylan was then tempted back to his original trade of plumbing when a massive job came up in Canary Wharf. Money was made and a house was bought in the east London financial hub.
“The property market at the time was starting to go through the roof so I bought another house, another house, another house. I ended up selling them all in the end and I went to Australia, lived there for the best part of two years. I came back and thought, ‘I’m not doing anything I don’t love doing’ so I got into full-time personal training.”
From training wealthy clients in Covent Garden, eventually came his move into the world of MMA; the start of the snowball.
That it’s gathered so much mass and velocity has something to do – reckons Boylan – with the year he was born, 1975. Those born between 75 and 80, he says, are the last generation of Irish people equipped to deal with the harsh nature of this world. Those who grew up with the Celtic Tiger are a different proposition.
“The kids that were born in the 1980 onwards, they don’t have a clue what’s going on,” he says. “I remember picking up coal on the street with the mother. Things were that bad at one stage.
“Kids that grew up in 90s … mammy and daddy got them a car, new clothes. I was saving six months for a pair of trainers.
“A trip to Youghal was a holiday for me. Their first holiday was Lanzarote on a cruise … Disneyland … Maybe that’s me being harsh but you hear some people talking, then ask them: when were you born? [adopts dopey voice] 1983 boy.
“Open your eyes kid. I’ll tell you exactly why you’re not looking likely. [It’s the attitude of] F**k everyone, I deserve everything. Why haven’t I got it?
“It’s like Beverly Hills 90210, they think everything should be given to them while people born from 75 to 80 work their balls off.”
It’s a colourful view and it’s one I find it hard to disagree with. So, I ask, are we thirtysomethings in danger of becoming curmudgeons before our time?
“You can become a grumpy old man but I also think it can make you pretty cool though, because you can either get pissed off and depressed or get f**king moving.”
Spoken like a man in a hurry. That snowball could turn into an avalanche yet.