x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Supine sweets of the cage

Proposals of marriage after beating an opponent to a pulp only serve to add to the charm of mixed martial arts.

Marcos Oliveira, top, fights Neil Wain during the final bout of Abu Dhabi Fighting Championship at the weekend.
Marcos Oliveira, top, fights Neil Wain during the final bout of Abu Dhabi Fighting Championship at the weekend.

Around midnight last Friday in the Abu Dhabi Exhibition Centre, a hefty Brazilian fighter who had just pounded a hefty English fighter sobbed deliriously against the cage and then toppled himself supine.

His girlfriend with the lyrical name of Carolina entered the ring among revellers, and within moments he had proposed marriage and slid a ring on to her finger.

She had said 'yes'.

Look, if you think you can do much better than this for a weekend diversion, then please do invite along the rest of us to wherever you're going.

The unanimous decision for Marcos Oliveira over Neil Wain pushed Oliveira into the final of the Abu Dhabi Fighting Championship of mixed martial arts (MMA). It landed him opposite Shamil Abdurahimov of Russia, whom he will fight next year for the prize of Dh1 million.

It dredged tears from a rugged man, and it caused in a witness the common human condition you might call Brazil Envy.

"With the Brazilian guys all the time, everybody is so happy, everybody," said Fabricio Werdum, the gracious Brazilian MMA star, visiting from Los Angeles. "The Brazilian guys have very good vibration, very good energy all the time."

MMA has its rational detractors, just not here today. My principal worry - that performance-enhancing drugs might be a prerequisite for competitive balance - merely matches my worry about almost every other sport with the notable exception of sailing.

My first step into this world came in 2007 in an Ultimate Fighting Championship event in Manchester, England. To start, I interviewed four 20-something fans from nearby Wigan who themselves aspired to the cage.

One yanked up his shirt and asked me to punch his rigid gut, and I declined out of potential embarrassment plus a fear my company might have a policy against punching interview subjects.

Raptly, I watched the spectacle and heard the incessant noise. Some matches had tedious swatches of limited strategy or pinned, writhing fighters, but others had enthralling jolts, none more booming than the last. In the final bout, the mighty headliner and - yes - Croatian parliamentarian Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic crashed shockingly in a head-kick knockout from Brazil's Gabriel Gonzaga. He lay unconscious for some hushed seconds, then rose and left the arena groggy.

I left the arena with the unforeseen feeling of being uncommonly awake. People find various appeals from watching MMA, its large audiences impressive for a newly organised sport, but for me it comes from watching people so vividly surmount profound hardship.

Two such Emirati cases highlighted Friday. The Dubai-trained Ali Mohammed Ali Abdullah Ahli seemed submerged in speed and force early in his professional debut, yet he achieved the hard trick of keeping his head, showing enough fortitude and thoughtful variety to win on a split decision.

Hassan al Rumaithi, the UAE champion, bled enough from his nose against Paulo Lamberto, the Italian, that it did qualify as jarring, but with these athletes unusually accomplished in conquering common fears, al Rumaithi fought on almost as if barely noticing, winning on unanimous decision.

And then of course, no sport all full of Brazil can go entirely wrong, and the exhibition centre benefited from Brazilian energy and esprit de corps.

The Strikeforce circuit star Werdum helped, standing watch by the cage and alerting the referee when the opponent of the Brazilian Michel Maia improperly clasped his fingers around the cage to gain leverage. Maia looked profoundly overmatched and found himself corkscrewed upside down yet rallied to win on a submission.

Later came Oliveira and his joy. Werdum, author of arguably the biggest upset in the sport last June against Fedor Emelianenko, who had not lost since 2000, said he hopes to fight in Abu Dhabi. He called Oliveira "very good … a smart fighter ... Everybody knows fighters have a lot of training, and so maybe for four months he's not stopped training. He's so happy because it's so emotional for him."

That exhilaration wrung from escape wrung from toughness, from people thinking and muscling their way out of poundings and pinnings and injuries and training, might explain why MMA can make a viewer feel more alive. Blood, after all, shows in many a sport including rugby and American football.

American football, too, has detractors who worry rationally about the human body, even as its popularity rages on long after its first game, on a college field in New Jersey in 1869, when an angry professor waved an umbrella toward the participants and shrieked: "You will come to no Christian end!"

Nowadays, American football and American Christianity go culturally tethered, especially in the American south east. Makes you wonder how the general public might view MMA 140 years on.

cculpepper@thenational.ae