Troy Henderson is on leave from Matilda Snapshots this week. Filling in is Mohamed Taha from the ACIJ’s Reportage Online.
Exhausted, Richie wipes the sweat off his forehead and takes a seat on the gym bench to recover. "Just icing it," he says, nursing his rolled right ankle with an icepack after injuring himself while training.
27-year-old Richie Finau is one of many Australian fighters embracing what is arguably one of the fastest growing sports in the world, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).
With a track record of two amateur wins in his heavyweight bouts, Richie knows full well why he fights.
"I fight for my family," he says. "I’ve had a rough upbringing so this is how I channel my anger out."
Australia is the fastest growing audience for the US-based promoter, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which dominates MMA on the international stage.
Australians seem to have embraced the theatrical nature of the sport; everything from "The Octagon" fighting cage to its merchandise, nicknames, reality television feel and its down-home aspects — men fighting barefoot and shirtless, just gloves, sweat and tears.
But Richie comes from an unrelated sporting background altogether. Growing up in a rugby union household, the New Zealand born fighter of Tongan heritage played the game all his life.
Richie moved to Australia nearly 10 years ago and played rugby union most recently for Sydney University before he took up MMA a few years ago.
"I was a little rowdy [on the field]and just wanted to let loose on people. But doing MMA has helped me with a lot of self-control and discipline," Richie says.
But it remains difficult to win over family support for his decision.
"I don’t really talk about MMA when I’m with my family because they’re like ‘oh you know, why are you doing that? It’s a rough sport, you should just stick to union.’ I’m like ‘yeah’, but I know they care for me… There has to be a fighter in the family."
Australia has a small professional MMA scene. The majority of MMA participants train in amateur gyms and take part in amateur fight events.
Lion’s Den Academy in the southern Sydney suburb of Kingsgrove is where Richie hopes to become a professional. The gym itself carries much credibility.
In fact the UFC recently signed a deal with a Lion’s Den Academy fighter, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu specialist Hector Lombard.
Luke Pezzutti, director of Australia’s biggest MMA event company Cage Fighting Championship (CFC), has operated Lion’s Den Academy for over 16 years. Pezzutti is also a martial arts coach, and is a first-hand witness to the rise of MMA in Australia.
"Back then it was such a small thing. At the time it was more of a spectacle, it wasn’t the sport it is today where people say ‘wow let’s get in and do this’," he says.
Highly respected for his efforts in building MMA in Australia, Pezzutti has built the CFC from the ground up and indicates it has little to do with the UFC.
"We’ve just signed a five year TV deal with Asia, we’ve got ongoing TV deals with Australia and New Zealand. We also just did our first live broadcasting Internet pay-per-view worldwide," says Pezzutti.
CFC’s events air on Fox Sports and the latest 18 May event featured international mixed martial artist superstar Bob Sapp.
"I’m fortunate that the competition we’re running is the top end of the scale. It’s the UFC of Australia," he says.
But opinion worldwide is split between those who see discipline and athleticism in MMA, and those who see barbarity.
Rob White, Professor of Criminology at the University of Tasmania, is critical of the way that the sport glorifies violence as a spectacle.
"This kind of spectacle entrenches the worst forms of aggressive behaviour," he says.
Professor White likens MMA’s approach of cage fighting to a "blood sport".
"[It] has few apparent rules…as distinct from other ‘sports’ such as boxing or Tae Kwon Do that have visible rules of engagement and evident protective gear," he says.
Richie shakes his head in disbelief at the description of MMA as a "blood sport".
"Instead of taking your anger out on other people in public you can take it to the cage," he says.
Richie understands why MMA may seem like a blood sport but contends it’s a "self-disciplined sport more than anything".
"It’s sort of like boxing. You train for a fight then you fight. It’s what fighters do," he says. "You come in; you take it out on the other person… You’re pretty humble at the end of a fight. You have a lot of respect for the other fighter that’s come in to have a go with you. You shake hands, show respect and walk away."
With a gruelling training regime consisting of three days a week of intense cardiovascular, strength, conditioning and fighting sessions, Richie argues MMA is neither for the weak nor for hotheaded heroes.
"You train in martial arts and are prepared to fight. It’s not like ordinary people just come off the street and jump in," he says.
During his latest bout, Richie says he had no doubts about his safety.
"I said to myself ,‘This is what I’ve trained for’. I had to perform and put all my skills to the test."
Professor White says he encourages more regulations and explicit rules, but is still concerned that MMA is "sold" on the basis of extreme combative violence.
Zach Arnold, founder of FightOpinion.com, blames the UFC for this perception.
"The problem right now for MMA is that UFC, the leading promoter in the sport, has simply done a poor job of implementing an effective public relations strategy to combat the sport’s negative image," he says.
Arnold, who wrote many stories on the rise and fall of Japan’s PRIDE Fighting Championships, warns that the biggest problem facing the sport isn’t the training and fighting regime, but "doping".
"So many guys are getting ‘mark’ doctors [doctors who are fans]to write up prescriptions for synthetic testosterone, growth hormone, and other PEDs [Performance Enhancing Drugs] that a heavy portion of top MMA headliners are users right now. It is a scary landscape," says Arnold.
In NSW, professional MMA fighters must be registered. The promoters are licensed, government officials monitor the events and there are compulsory medical checks.
Steve Perceval, founder of the Mixed Martial Arts Officials Australia (MMAOA), was instrumental in setting up rules and guidelines for the MMA industry in NSW.
"Professional MMA fighters do follow strict regulations before being allowed to compete, especially regarding medical and blood serology testing," he says.
Perceval was the first Australian to referee the UFC and has now refereed on all three of their events in Australia. In an effort to bring legitimacy to amateur MMA, he recently created the MMAFA (MMA Federation Australia) that now sanctions amateur events.
"I immediately brought in the same criteria as that used for professional MMA events. This includes medical and serology blood testing for all competitors, the use of well trained, qualified officials, a sliding set of modified rules for the safety of the fighters and promoters are required to supply a safe environment for the competitors."
Sydney MMA writer Dan Herbertson contends that contrary to what many may think, studies indicate that MMA may not be as harmful as other more commonly accepted sports.
"MMA is still a young sport and we are yet to see what the long term effects will be on veteran fighters."
"If you are ever unable to intelligently defend yourself in mixed martial arts, the fight is over. If a referee sees that you are hurt, the bout is stopped. If you suffer a concussion in a regulated mixed martial arts bout, you are legally unable to fight again until cleared by a doctor," says Herbertson.
The NSW Combat Sports Authority is the official regulator issuing permits for amateur fight events, usually held by smaller promoters. Perceval and CFC director Pezzutti remained concerned about standards.
"I’ve been to shows where there hasn’t been a doctor, where there has only been a first-aider," Pezzutti says.
Pezzutti only uses ER doctors for CFC shows but understands why smaller promoters cut corners regarding safety due to the high expenses involved in running a show.
"If they [smaller promoters]can get a St Johns first aid ambulance for $100 or get a doctor that’s going to cost them $600 for the evening, they’ll probably choose the cheaper option."
But controversy aside, Arnold predicts that Australia and Asia are primed to be the top future MMA markets. His advice to the CFC is: "Don’t be like the UFC. Don’t be like PRIDE. Be unique. Promote to the cultural tastes of your market and don’t copy what others are doing just because they are doing it."
Pezzutti anticipates the future of MMA in Australia as bright due to the high level of interest and number of participants.
"That’s probably the best indication that a sport’s healthy; when you’ve got people signing up to it at the very lowest level, at the gym level," he says.
Back at the gym, the health implications don’t seem to faze Richie.
"Most of the time you’re training hard, you don’t really pay attention to it. You overcome it at the end of the day," he says.
"This is what I do in my free time and for my fun times."
As he stretches his legs, Richie stares at the framed photo of Hector Lombard on the wall above him, itching for inspiration.
The excitement on his face is evident.
"I want to train my butt off to become a professional mixed martial artist and hopefully be part of the UFC," he says.
Massaging his ankle, Richie knows it’s no easy road chasing UFC glory.
"Give me five or 10 minutes and I’ll be back training," he jokes.
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