In 2005 some bright spark at Zuffa, the owners of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, had the idea of creating an “Ultimate Fighting” reality show. This show aired on a minor network in the USA and culminated in an absolutely epic war of attrition between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar. This fight signalled the explosion of the popularity of the UFC and is regarded as the turnaround point of Zuffa’s fortunes.
This past Saturday at the Birmingham national indoor arena, the fourth instalment of the British fight promotion BAMMA took place. BAMMA got off to a rocky start when they first hit the UK scene, owned by a TV company (which was unheard of in the UK) the premise was always to try and position themselves as the premier UKMMA promotion. With TV backing they had a strong hand to play in order to achieve this, but the first show wasn’t quite right. They went back to the drawing board and came back with a great show for BAMMA 2 and seemed to be making their mark already on the UK scene, especially with the TV deal in place to broadcast the show on the Bravo channel. The TV deal in itself was not a first, other shows had that but the production values of BAMMA seemed to set it apart from other UKMMA events that had been on TV in the past.
At around the same time a mixed martial artist called Alex Reid was becoming known as Britain’s most famous “Cage fighter”, due to his budding romance with the walking media circus that is Katie Price (AKA Jordan). Reid was a decent enough MMA fighter and with his extremely extrovert personality, the tabloid press published story after story about him, always referring to him as a “Cage fighter” and bringing a lot of attention to the sport of MMA to the general public of the UK.
Then some bright spark hit on the idea of selling a fight between UKMMA’s most (in)famous name (Reid) and the guy who sat atop the domestic rankings of Reid’s weight class – Tom “Kong” Watson. BAMMA 3 was sold literally on the back of this fight. There was a lead up reality series on Bravo focussing on Reid and “the fight of his life”. Unfortunately Reid was injured and the fight was called off, a late replacement being found in Matt Horwich, who was duly dispatched by Kong after a hard 5 rounds of action.
A small section of die-hard UKMMA fans began to ridicule Reid on the internet, saying he had bottled it and was too caught up in his celebrity lifestyle and too busy hanging out in London nightclubs or following his glamour girl wife around to horse riding events to take his training seriously. He hadn’t fought in three years and was on a 6 fight losing streak prior to that. In the period of 2004 to 2007, Reid fought 11 times, winning only twice. When you look at these statistics and you saw pictures of Reid in the press in drag and saw him on his reality TV show learning ridiculous moves that you would never see grace the octagon in a million years. When you heard him compare himself to Ghandi even, it was easy to see where these disillusioned fans were coming from. Why was Reid the new figurehead of MMA in the UK? Why aren’t the real athletes who train like animals and take on all comers getting the publicity they deserve? Was Alex Reid making a mockery of our beloved sport?
It was easy to overlook Reid’s heart and fighting spirit that he demonstrated in the cage time and time again in his fight career. Sure he was never the best fighter, but he had heart and you can’t teach that. He lost a lot of fights, but look at who he lost to: Dave Menne the first ever UFC middleweight champion, UFC veterans Jorge Rivera, Mark Weir and Tony Fryklund and of course Murilo Rua a legend in Japan after some blistering performances in Pride. These are all highly regarded fighters and Reid stepped up. Those who had followed MMA for a long time knew that Alex was tough, but even so many of them still expected a decent win from Tom “Kong” Watson when the hastily announced rescheduled fight did eventually take place.
Watson had been active as an MMA fighter only since 2006 and had made a swift impact. After a couple of losses, he left the UK in search of the best training he could get and now fights out of Jacksons MMA in Canada alongside the likes of Georges St Pierre, Rashad Evans, Denis Kang et al. In the time that Reid had been out of the game, Watson had racked up 8 straight wins inside the cage, half of which were by KO or TKO stoppage. Watson himself was disgruntled with Reid in the run up to BAMMA 3 and the way he was left high and dry with a late opponent change because of the injury. He alluded in interviews to the fact that Reid maybe spent more time being famous and beating up snowmen in Celebrity Big Brother than he did in the gym taking the fight game seriously.
The stage was set then, for a grudge match at BAMMA 4. This was to be the first time a UKMMA main event was broadcast live on television, a legitimate landmark event for the sport in this country. The NIA was a sell-out and the viewing figures for the bravo show on TV are said to be estimated to far exceed the normal audience for the 10pm-11pm slot on the Bravo channel. The UK mainstream press would be watching to see if tabloid fodder Reid really could cut it in the cage.
It started bizarrely enough with a strange Transvestite and bondage themed entrance from Reid, complete with what looked like a leather effect boxers robe worn with a giant diamante “R” on the back. He walked to the cage being showered with petals by the circus freaks accompanying him to cage side. A non-plussed Watson strolled out the strains of “Vienna” by Ultravox. As the “this means nothing to me” line rang out, you almost felt that it was an echo of Watsons own feelings on the fight. He was going to get in there, put the beating on Reid, take his cheque and move on with his career, all contractual obligations fulfilled.
What followed however didn’t quite play out like that. In fact it may just prove to be the UK’s Griffin vs. Bonnar moment. Reid started really strongly, scoring with front kicks and straight 1-2 combinations that were beating Watsons looping punches to their target. Watson looked a little shocked and as the round played out with both men exchanging it was clear that Reid was winning. Obviously no-one showed him the script. I sat, a little shocked myself to be honest. Surely Reid wasn’t going to get out of the second round? But the second played out a lot like the first. Watson had a few good moments in the round, but on my own scorecard in my head I had Reid taking that round too (just). By the end though he was looking pretty gassed and I texted a friend of mine: “Reid isn’t getting out of the third round. He’s done” (or words to that effect). The third round saw Watson cruise ahead on the cards and score with some excellent shots: Big punches and knees finding their target. But Reid was still moving forward and still scoring with the odd shot himself. The theme continued going into the fourth and then the fifth rounds. Both men were marked up and bleeding, both men continuing to press the action and whilst the edge was clearly to Watson in the last three rounds. Reid manfully kept coming at him. In the break between the fourth and fifth rounds the camera was in Reid’s corner and his corner man Alexis Demetriades said to him, “do you want this?” Somehow Reid managed a smile as he said “oh I want this” and got ready to step back in front of Watson for the last round and defy the vast majority of UKMMA pundits – professional and amateur alike – in making it to the final bell.
It was a truly great fight and both men earned the respect of the other. Watson keeps his title belt but Reid takes home something that probably means more to him than the title: The respect of the fight fans. For some long time followers of UKMMA who had written him off (and I include myself in this) it was a big slice of humble pie to eat.
Whilst the vast majority of the attention will be on Reid for the performance, let us not forget Watsons own tremendous show of heart. Not only did he go five hard rounds on Saturday, getting stronger as the rounds progressed, but this is a man who had just gone the distance in another hard fight back in Canada only two weeks previously! Two weight cuts and two gruelling fights in two weeks is no picnic and Watson, already a firm fan favourite will have gained himself some new fans too. I don’t know if they pay fight bonuses at BAMMA, but I hope both men got a little extra something in their pay packets after that fight.
Whether or not this will be the start of big things in UKMMA remains to be seen. But if the ratings figures are confirmed as being as high as expected, then surely other TV companies will want a piece of the action. If demand for quality Mixed Martial Fights is there, there are plenty more events coming which can deliver and they are right around the corner: Next weekend the UK’s longest running MMA event (and one of the most popular in the eyes of the UKMMA purist), Cagewarriors, returns and they themselves recently announced a big TV deal. In two weeks the UFC comes back to the UK for UFC120 once again this will be aired on TV and everyone who follows MMA knows what a big deal the UFC is. The timing of such a great BAMMA event could not be better. I for one really hope that this leads to big, big things for MMA in the UK.
Having been involved with the sport in some way or another since the very early days, I can look back three or four years and see how far we have come already. All this MMA on TV. Fight shows all over the country ever weekend, it’s amazing. Maybe in a few years time we will look back on how the MMA scene was and be able to point to this fight as another turning point in the popularity of the sport in this country and one that exploded it into the mainstream consciousness. Even if that isn’t the case, the hardcore fans can just enjoy the fact that we all got to see a fantastic display of heart, courage and tenacity from both fighters. Some purists will say that it wasn’t a great technical display and I’m not disputing that. The fact is – who cares – this was something more: It was raw, it was real and you could see that both men left it all on the line in the cage on Saturday night. Neither could have given more. That is what makes MMA so great to watch; hopefully the mainstream audience will have seen that on Saturday night too.