Been a long time since I blogged here. Have seen a few discussions on forums and twitter, as there often is, about the greatest UKMMA fight(s) ever. So I decided to write up my own list. I have had this one ready to go for a while. It is a long but hopefully enjoyable read. Any comments – as always – are welcome. Leave them here or hit me up on twitter. Apologies for the lack of pictures for those with shorter attention spans! I will try and get some screen grabs to add to this article later on. In the mean-time pour yourself a cuppa and reminisce (if you were there) or visualise (if you weren’t) as I take you back to one of the most epic UKMMA fights ever.
Alex De Souza vs Roberto Atalla – Full Contact Fight Night 1. Easter Sunday 2004.
The internet: An almost infinite source of information and entertainment. It is also a place where differences of opinion can explode into all out verbal warfare in an instant. Whilst this is often entertaining for the people watching it unfold, after the choice words have been spoken – or in this case typed – the fuss dies down and it all comes to nothing. This can be disappointing for some spectators, who secretly hope that the cyber-feud really will evolve into a real-world encounter: Albeit more for their own slightly sadistic “lulz” more than anything else really.
On MMA forums – where macho posturing is a given- the arguments can and sometimes do escalate as far as a promise that differences will be settled in the cage or ring. Anyone who has been a longtime member of forums like Cagewarriors or SFUK (if you go a little further back into UKMMA history), will have seen it many times before. Normally however, a reason/excuse is found not to press ahead and settle the dispute with a spot of regulated violence. Back in 2004, one such dispute erupted on the forums when Brazilian JiuJitsu instructor Roberto Atalla, posted that he felt that BJJ training should always take place under the supervision and instruction of a black belt in the art. This was a time in the UK when both BJJ and MMA were still very much in their infancy and there were only a small handful of high grade BJJ instructors available. This meant that a lot of smaller schools were run by purple and even blue belts.
One such blue belt, Alex De Souza – a Bournemouth based Brazilian who ran a few small but successful BJJ sessions in and around his hometown – took exception to this opinion. The forum lit up as the two passionate Brazilians voiced their respective sides of the argument and various other posters added their own opinions and fanned the flames of the burgeoning inferno that this particular feud was to become. Fortuitously for MMA fans, at around the same time as all this was going on, a south coast based martial arts instructor Darrin Richardson and Cage Rage referee Grant Waterman had decided to go into partnership to create a new MMA promotion – Full Contact Fight Night. Ever the opportunist, Waterman had seen the argument between the two Brazilians gain more attention and spotted an opportunity. He approached both parties, offering to provide them with a stage to settle their dispute.
So it was then, that with a weight limit agreed and contracts signed, the headline event of the first Full Contact Fight Night was set. As if to mark this one out from any other ‘ordinary’ fight, co-promoter Waterman had insisted that the fighters agreed to three ten minute rounds rather than the usual five. Which was unprecedented in the UK at the time and to my recollection has never been done since. This only added to the hype, it could only have been more raw if they were going bare-knuckle with headbutts and nut-shots allowed.
The news that this was one forum fight that really was going to be settled the old-fashioned way went viral immediately and forum melt-down ensued. The fledgling promoters had their job of getting coverage and recognition for their event made incredibly easy by the power of the internet forums. It was a no-brainer that the inaugural Full Contact Fight Night event was going to be a sellout.
The UK’s first ever MMA match agreed solely based on an internet grudge, took place on South Parade Pier in Portsmouth on Easter Sunday 2004. The pier wasn’t your classic venue for an MMA event. There was no cage, only a small boxing ring dimly lit by one large spotlight over its centre. A few VIP tables surrounded the ring and a small cordon fenced off the area from the rest of the crowd. The choice of venue only added to the atmosphere of the event. It was ‘fight club-esque’ in its ambiance. In fact it could easily have been a dingy, smokey basement, were it not for the picturesque views of the Solent out of the windows of the warm up rooms.
All day leading up to the fight, the tension between the two men was palpable – At the rules meeting you could have literally cut it with a knife. The two men did not take their eyes off each other the whole time that the referee was talking the gathered fighters and corners through the formalities. It was as if they were ready to go at it right there and then.
The event progresses through a series of matches with Amateurs (including yours truly) and Pro’s taking center-stage. A certain mr Paul Daley also made an appearance in an early “UK1” match too. But the extremely vocal crow were only really there for one thing. They roared louder and louder as they waited for the main event, ensuring all the while, that their blood alcohol levels were maintained at a suitably high percentage, which only made them louder as time went on. When the main event was announced by the MC, the intimacy of the venue, anticipation of the fight and noise levels of the crowd made for one of the most intense atmospheres I have ever experienced at any UK show to date. The dim lighting combined with the cigarette smoke and alcohol fumes that filled the air only added to the grittiness of it all.
Everyone in that room that night got a feeling that a classic fight was about to unfold. Atalla came out cornered by a couple of representatives from the infamous Northern Cartel, who were ubiquitous in the early days of the UKMMA scene. De Souza came out with bleached blond hair and ceremonial head-dress, cornered by none-other than Vitor ‘Shaolin’ Ribeiro, his instructor and mentor.
The ref motioned the fighters to get ready and called them to action. The first round saw Atalla dominating position on the ground, but De Souza was always in the fight and constantly striking from every position he found himself in and attempting submissions off his back. The two men returned to their corners after ten minutes of action with De Souza probably down on points, but his rival already looking bloodied and bruised.
The second stanza saw Atalla looking to get the action to the mat but his foe was always looking to get up and strike, keeping very busy with his guard when he was grounded. De Souza looked to be the stronger of the two in the brief standup phases but Atalla had a clear edge on the ground and inflicted some damage of his own from top position.
By this point, the atmosphere was threatening to blow the roof off the pier and even the commentators were on their feet screaming into the mic in a vain attempt to make themselves heard over the crowd. After the bell sounded for the end of the second round and the ref stepped in to break up the action, De Souza threw a punch up at Atalla from his guard. Infuriated, Atalla threw back and the two men seemed ready to disregard the interval altogether and just carry straight on into round three.
Separated by the referee and their respective corner teams, the two men returned to their corners. De Souza’s bright yellow hair had turned a pinkish hue, tainted with blood from both fighters and Atalla showed all the visible signs of being in an absolute war of attrition. Yet still there were ten minutes of the fight left!
The third round played out in similar vein to the first two, with neither man giving his opponent an inch. After the action had stagnated on the ground and perhaps urged on by the “stand em up ref” chants of the crowd, the referee brought the action back to the feet. True to form they clinched immediately and tumbled to the mat with De Souza landing in mount. As he was the local fighter and enjoyed the support of the majority of the audience, the baying crowd let out a mighty scream, somehow finding another notch on the volume that already seemed to be at maximum. The round ended with every single person on their feet screaming at the two fighters in the ring. Both men had been fuelled by rage and pride for a full thirty minutes and had thrown their all into every exchange. There was to be no handshake or gestures of goodwill as they rose to their feet to await the decision. Both felt they had done enough to win, but it was not to be: The fight was scored a draw. Despite the disappointment of having no real resolution to the dispute, these two fighters did put on one of the most intense fights I have ever seen live. They fought for twice as long as a standard pro-rules MMA fight and a full rounds length longer than NSAC Championship fights, and neither stopped trying to win. The pressure cooker atmosphere created by the crowd had threatened to spontaneously combust South Parade Pier and I returned home that night having lost my voice, with my ears still ringing from the noise.
It was definitely a close fight, positionally dominated by Atalla which in modern MMA scoring may have got him the nod. But scoring on damage inflicted, you only had to look at the two fighters to see who bore the brunt of the scars from the fight. The fighters themselves doubtless feel differently, but I honestly don’t think debating the winner adds anything to this match up. Everything about it: The buildup, the atmosphere at the event and the fight itself, for me, make this a UK Classic regardless of the result. It was a true example of “leaving it all in the ring”. I’m pretty sure nobody in attendance that epic night could find grounds to disagree.