Mixed Martial Arts – what’s the appeal?

As a relatively new fan of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) I find myself engrossed in the world of this ever-changing combat sport, with my love of it growing on a day to day basis. Having previously watched the odd fight here and there including Jon Jones 2011 victory over Maurício ‘Shogun’ Rua – a fight which I have no recollection of watching at the time – I now find myself determined to watch every fight as it happens live. Most of my attention is directed towards the UFC – the sports premier organization, but I am keen to watch fights from other organizations including Bellator, Rizin and ACB (Absolute Championship Berkut) to name a few.

Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia

Similarly to when I started following ice hockey, I quickly became determined to learn about the history of the sport and familiarise myself with the pioneers that paved the way for what I am able to watch today. Through the use of the UFC’s ‘Fight Pass’ – a tremendous application that can only be described as the Netflix of MMA – I feel like I’ve managed to quickly brush up on my history over the last year or two. As a result, I believe that this has made me more appreciative of the sport as a whole and become even more fascinated with it than I already am. However, on a regular basis, I’m met with a question: what’s so appealing about such a brutal sport that involves fighting?

My first and probably most important reason of all is the purity of it. While I have followed many team sports throughout my life, MMA leads to two individuals being locked in a cage to dual it out until a victor is crowned. Although it is very primitive, there is no better way to determine who the better competitor is. While both fighters will have a team of coaching staff and fellow fighters to support them, when the cage door closes, it’s very much a ‘you or I’ situation. They can have all of the verbal support in the world behind them, but it is up to the competitor to rise up and prove that they have what it takes to be crowned the winner. In football, if you make a mistake, a teammate may be there to correct that error. In the cage, if you make a mistake, it could very well be lights out and there is nobody else to blame. The real winner will be whoever has put in the effort in their training and who has the desire to be the best. It is up to the competitor to perform.

Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia

Second of all, I’m taken in by the stories behind many of the fighters.

As American film writer Max Landis said, “We love watching people grow, change, and struggle. Good people, bad people, we don’t care. We want to see it.”

There are many fighters who have lived lives full of tragedy or went from rags to riches and these are the kind of stories that as human beings we like to get behind and are delighted when we see people succeed. Some of these stories are relatable and others aren’t, but the thrill and agony of this wonderful combat sport tugs at the heart strings of viewers worldwide for reasons differing from one person to the next. Learning what inspired someone to step into the fighting world can inspire others and it demonstrates why some fighters have this supernatural determination to succeed.

Current UFC fighter Daniel Cormier’s father was shot and killed when he was seven years old. He was bullied relentlessly as a child. He lost his infant daughter in a car accident. He found an out in competing and decided to take up wrestling. Fuelled by the desire to succeed due to the tragedy in his life, he went on to become an Olympic wrestler representing his country at the highest level. This led to him transitioning into the world of MMA.

Today, Daniel Cormier is regarded as one of the most dominant fighters on the UFC roster and he is currently the UFC’s Light Heavyweight Champion. He has a net worth of around $4 million.

José Aldo – one of the sports most dominant competitors (despite his 13 second loss to Irishman Conor McGregor) – grew up in Brazil and was as poor as can be. He would go days without any food as he grew up in a family too poor to afford it. Naturally talented when it came to fighting, he had one goal in mind: owning his own house.

He earned over $500,000 in his last fight alone.

While the sport involves a massive amount of risk, the reward for those who elevate themselves to the top can be life-changing. It is diverse and open to people from all walks of life regardless of their geographical location, their gender and their lifestyle. Rich, poor, light, heavy, heterosexual, homosexual – none of it matters. For those who are willing to get involved, the opportunity is there. Unlike a sport such as ice hockey where expensive equipment is required and a rink to play on, the martial arts can be practiced anywhere. This opens up a massive amount of opportunity for those around the world.

Photograph courtesy of Flickr

Last of all, the atmosphere at an event is unrivaled.

As human beings, something draws us in to watching two people dual it out. Whether it be at school watching a fight break out in the playground or seeing two drunk folk slug it out on the street, something makes us want to see what’s going on. While I am entirely against fighting in an unsafe environment – which sounds like a paradox in itself as getting hit in the face surely isn’t great for your health – there are rules and regulations in place to ensure that the fights going on in the cage are ‘safe’. In years gone by, there would be open knuckle brawls with very little rules. Attempting to kick the head off your opponent in true soccer style was acceptable. In modern MMA, this is definitely not allowed. There are doctors on hand who can call an end to the bout at any time and there are several measures taken to ensure that the sport is as safe as can be.

Due to the safety measures taken, it allows you to immerse yourself in the action. Watching on television is entirely different to watching a live event as it does take away an element of the reality of what is going on, but inevitably you can convince yourself that everything is fine. Standing or sitting alongside thousands of like-minded fans in a sold out arena and sharing the same ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ moments is truly something to behold and it’s pretty difficult to put into words how it feels unless you experience it for yourself. Being able to watch a legend such as Dan Henderson fight his final fight, or cheer on the hometown guy such as Michael Bisping is something that is enhanced after learning about the fighters and their upbringing. While this isn’t professional wrestling where the story-lines are scripted, these real life people with real stories adds a whole new dimension to the fights that take place.

To conclude, the world of MMA allows individuals to express themselves via the purist form of competition which is combat. The sport is diverse and can change the lives of those who truly devote themselves to it. While a tad primal, it is a lot safer than it was in years gone by and only the toughest competitors will succeed. The people involved are relatable and this allows us to become engaged and immerse ourselves in this sport.

However, good luck trying to convince me to try it out for myself. Ouch!

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Following the NHL: a labour of love for British fans

“Get in the fast lane grandma, the bingo game is ready to roll!”

Those were the words yelled by veteran play-by-play announcer Mike Lange on Sunday evening, as the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the San Jose Sharks to win their fourth Stanley Cup trophy.

Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia

While history was being made on the ice in the SAP Center in California, all eyes were on the National Hockey League for thousands of devoted British hockey fans, diligently watching every second go by over five thousand miles away.

The passionate NHL fans on these shores are unfazed by the puck dropping at 1.00am or hearing the final buzzer go as the sun begins to rise.

While the birds tweet to start the day, fans spend their time immersed in the NHL Twittersphere – tweeting on their smartphones and becoming part of hockey organisations that they’ll likely never get to witness in the flesh.

Many pose the question to them – what draws you towards a team that’s playing on another continent across the Atlantic?

For some, it could come in the form of a player. Tuning in to witness the brilliance of hockey legends such as Jaromir Jagr or ‘Le Magnifique’ Mario Lemieux is enough to captivate an audience and create a fan for life.

While many players come and go, certain individuals have the star power to attract fans towards the organisations in which they ply their trade.

Others may end up following a team due to visiting a certain destination and falling in love with the place, making their choice of an NHL team an easy one.

Locations such as the city that never sleeps – New York – have iconic sports teams and fans are attracted to the history that franchises like the Rangers have to offer.

Perhaps video games have played an influence.

Whether it’s latching on to a team due a player such as Sergei Federov being deadly for the Detroit Red Wings in the early NHL games, or choosing to play as the Penguins due to them being your favourite animal, the reasons people have for following a specific franchise are endless.

Once drawn towards a team it’s extremely easy in the modern day to go from being a casual follower to a frantic fan.

With social media connecting the world, fans can keep up-to-date with the latest news surrounding ‘their’ team at the click of a button.

This globalisation allows people to immerse themselves in the online community of their hockey team.

Websites such as Google and YouTube allow fans to learn about franchise history and clue themselves up on the pioneers of the modern day game.

Books and documentaries provide a wealth of knowledge and it doesn’t take long to gain an extensive knowledge of their chosen allegiance.

Through insider accounts and backstage broadcasts, it can almost begin to feel as if these larger than life hockey teams are on our doorsteps and, in essence, they are.

While people may think it is out of the ordinary to stay up until the crack of dawn to watch a hockey team play on a screen, they simply don’t understand that this is normal behaviour for the typical NHL fan on this side of the Atlantic.

Many schedule their day-to-day lives around a variety of tasks. We schedule our lives around hockey.

Would Trevor Gillies really be what Clan need?

As time ticks along in the Elite League off-season, the rumour mill continues to go crazy, and in the west of Scotland one name has cropped up for the second consecutive year – Trevor Gillies.

The 6’3″ Canadian is nearing the end of his career and is one of the most notorious names in ice hockey due to his multiple NHL suspensions.

The enforcer has featured in 57 NHL games but only managed to tally up three points, playing no more than eight minutes in a single game.

The majority of Gillies’ career has been spent in the minor leagues in North America – or, more specifically, in the penalty box.

The feared fighter boasts an impressive résumé having gone toe-to-toe with just about every tough guy who’s ever laced up a pair of skates, including multiple bouts with Nottingham Panthers’ enforcer Cam Janssen.

Social media has been rife with rumours that Braehead are interested in bringing Gillies across the Atlantic, but is he really the missing piece of Clan’s title contention puzzle?

Travis Hughes, editor of SBNation.com, wrote in an 2014 article: “Trevor Gillies does not belong in professional hockey. He is not an effective hockey player, but he is a danger to his opponents.”

The 2014/15 Elite League season was one where the Clan had arguably their most physical team ever and missed out on a championship by a single point.

Many looked to point fingers and believed that the downfall of this side was they were too aggressive.

Last year saw a much more reserved approach and the team finished in third place – five points off top spot.

Others argued that had the team had a Fitzgerald-esque (Zack Fitzgerald) player, the Clan would’ve been able to clinch the title.

With a guy like Trevor Gillies, teams know exactly what they’re getting – a forward who’s played over 800 professional hockey games and scored less than 20 goals.

He’s made a career out of smashing heads on the ice (quite literally – it earned him a twelve game ban in the AHL) and is a guy that people would pay money to see.

Who wouldn’t want to go and see their team play while their ‘goon’ runs around beating everyone up? You would much rather your team beat everybody up than being on the flip side.

These guys are unique attractions in our sport.

Photograph courtesy of Creative Commons

However, in the modern day players need to be more than one dimensional which is largely why enforcers are gradually being shunned.

Players like Fitzgerald or Matt Nickerson get the crowd going, become fan favourites and have opponents shaking in their skates, but at the same time they know how to play the game of hockey.

They’ve adapted their game throughout their careers and have the ability to both play and fight – Trevor Gillies does not appear to have that ability.

Playing for the South Carolina Stingrays in the ECHL last year, the forward only managed to score two points in 46 games.

Compare that to Kevin Westgarth who ended his career with the Belfast Giants. His final season in the NHL saw him tally seven points in 36 games.

After moving to Belfast Westgarth was mocked by Elite League fans for his career going downhill.

Despite being one of the best enforcers of our generation, he scored almost a point every two games for the Giants.

A warrior on the ice, Westgarth demonstrated that he was able to put up points and play a bit of hockey.

As the Elite League gets tougher and tougher, teams need guys who have the ability to step up to the plate when things get physical.

A fine balance is needed between players who can out-skill and out muscle their opponents, but it leaves a lot to the imagination to think that Trevor Gillies would be the answer to Braehead’s title aspirations.

Attendances are already soaring and bums are already on seats, so it will be interesting to see how the Clan assemble their roster ahead of the 2016/17 season.

Will they look to utilise having an out-and-out goon on their roster, or will they continue to try and have a best of both approach?

So far, Clan have only announced the return of two players – captain Matt Keith and forward Bari McKenzie.

London – are there more questions than answers?

With the recent news that MK Lightning will be stepping up to the Elite League, and that the addition of a new London-based franchise is on the horizon, things couldn’t be looking more prosperous for the EIHL.

Photograph courtesy of British Ice Hockey

Immediate views from a fan perspective seem positive – new places to visit, new fans to meet and, most importantly, new teams to see. What more could you want as a hockey fan?

However, this is a rather naïve and basic outlook on what could turn out to be a very, very complex situation.

Current Nottingham Panthers and Braehead Clan owner, Neil Black, recently announced he is heavily involved in the creation of the new London outfit, although he has not confirmed if he will be at the helm of the ship.

While the ownership of two hockey teams in the league has worked well so far for Black, history has taught us that it’s not always been the case.

Fans will start raising questions about whether or not their team is being given an equal amount of attention – such as when Paul Ragan owned both Cardiff Devils and Sheffield Steelers.

Although things have been plain sailing so far, being involved with three teams and effectively a quarter of the league may open up a can of worms.

It would be fair to assume though that plans would be put in place to make sure this is sustainable.

The next issue that may crop up is attracting a dedicated EIHL fanbase in London. While the English capital is huge, there are many EPL teams based close to the London area.

EPL fans are some of the most passionate around, with many arguing that the product on display in their league is more exciting and entertaining than the tier above them.

This seems to be a minor issue. London is the busiest and most populous city in Britain, so with the correct amount of advertising and marketing a franchise could thrive in the capital.

It worked with creating a team based in the Glasgow area – which is not traditionally a hockey city – so why wouldn’t it work with London?

The addition of these two new teams in the near future raises the question of what is going to happen to the current conference system in the EIHL?

Would these new additions mean Belfast Giants would move to the Gardiner Conference to even up the numbers? And just how fair would it be to have two first-year EIHL teams playing in the same conference?

While all this merely scratches the surface of the effects a league expansion would have on everyone else, there are certainly several questions to be asked and issues to be raised that will all be answered over time.

Perhaps the important question is just how much is it going to cost for a pint in London?

If the league does expand into the capital, visiting fans better start saving up – it’s not cheap down there!

Clan season has been a roller-coaster ride!

Without trying to sound too much like a Ronan Keating song, life is a roller-coaster, and for the Braehead Clan this season has been a story of several ups and downs.

Photograph by Carol Ann Jardine

Starting off the campaign with a European adventure and flying high in the Elite League, Clan looked like the team to beat before a dip in form and a plague of injuries began to crush their title hopes.

A defiant and resilient outfit, Ryan Finnerty’s team have managed to bounce back and following their weekend double over Manchester Storm they now have their sights set on Gardiner Conference glory.

The results also put an end to the Storm’s play-off ambitions.

Led from the front by captain Matt Keith, who has been in spectacular form since returning from an injury sustained at the start of February, Braehead are buoyant.

After the victory at Manchester, Keith said: “Things are upbeat in the room. Confidence is a huge part of winning. Finner has talked a lot about knowing what it would take and what is at stake for us to get the Conference.

“There are still two big games this weekend coming up so we aren’t there yet.”

Finnerty praised the impact of Keith and teammate Scott Pitt earlier this week, saying the duo had helped the team get their “confidence and swagger back” during a run of five victories from their last six games.

A double over Edinburgh Capitals in the final weekend of the regular season would see Clan snatch the Conference title away from Fife Flyers at the final hurdle.

The Purple Army will be well aware that despite the Capitals being on an 18-game losing streak, anything can happen in the Elite League.

The Caps helped put the final nail in the coffin to end Clan’s title pursuit last season, and nobody wants to see a repeat of that this year.

Edinburgh sit at the bottom of the table with only two victories in the league since the beginning of December, but everyone is well aware that a team playing for pride can be as dangerous as anybody.

It’s safe to say that all eyes in Scotland – both east and west – will be fixed on Braehead Arena and Murrayfield this weekend.

In a league as tightly contested as the EIHL, it’s no surprise that the final weekend looks as if it will provide an abundance of excitement for the fans, and that’s without even shifting the focus to who will potentially win the title.

Either way, some fans will end up delighted and others will be heartbroken, but I guess that’s just the beauty of our sport.

What a time to be a fan of Elite League ice hockey!

BBC coverage a step in the right direction!

This week’s announcement that Sunday’s Elite Challenge Cup Final between Nottingham Panthers and Cardiff Devils will be aired live on the BBC Sport website and on selected Connected TVs is a huge step for the sport in Britain.

Photograph by Karl Denham

In an ever-changing world where we can consume our media at the click of a button on our laptops and smartphones, the Elite League will be on the front page of the BBC Sport website – a website which receives over six million hits per day.

Britain’s top league regularly attracts around 30,000 fans every weekend and, for many fans like myself, all it takes is a glimpse of the sport to have you hooked on what many consider to be the greatest game in the world.

The BBC have dabbled into the world of ice hockey over the past few years, including featuring games from the 2014 Winter Olympics, but for many it appears to be an area where people believe the sport is often overlooked – especially in the Elite League era.

The league’s media consultant and BBC radio presenter, Seth Bennett, also believes this is a step in the right direction for the sport in Britain.

“I think it’s great – there’s been a lot of hard work that’s gone into this on all sides, but hopefully that will be rewarded on Sunday with a good game and a good final,” said Bennett.

“It’s a chance to put British Ice Hockey out there on a plate for people to consume. It gives a chance for Johnny or Jane sports fan to have a look. Spend ten minutes with us and you might decide that you like it.”

With the decision taken last season to reinvigorate the Challenge Cup by changing to a one-off final, it looks as if this will pay dividends to the Elite League.

There already appears to be a real buzz about the event, and with the prospect of reeling in new fans to the fastest team sport in the world this Sunday looks as if it’s going to be a great one.

This is a step in the right direction and possibly the first of many in regards to having the Elite League featured more often on free-to-air television.

The Chris Bruton/Chris Holt saga

AS a fan of the Braehead Clan since their inaugural season and an avid member of the ‘Purple Army’, I’ve seen the rise of a formidable force in the west of Scotland. The team has evolved from showcasing their talent to a couple of hundred fans into one of the most ‘must-see’ sporting teams around the Glasgow area. The organization continues to grow and thrives on maintaining an image as one of the most professional outlets around in the Elite League. At least, that’s what I thought.

Photograph by Carol Ann Jardine

You can imagine my surprise following the recent ‘Bruton/Holt’ saga, if that’s what you want to call it.

For anyone who is unsure of the back story, here’s what I can gather. Chris Bruton, a former fan favourite of the Braehead Clan, was apparently a ‘bad’ team-mate and the Clan wanted rid of him. The opportunity to trade Bruton to the Coventry Blaze and in turn add former Clan player Neil Trimm to the roster came along. The Clan seized this opportunity, and the trade was made.

Now here’s what should have been all that happened. The trade is made, and each team send out a press release. The press release states the new signing and that things did not work out with their previous employee. The players pack their bags, and are wished well on their future endeavours. The fans are now aware of the news of the trade and that something sparked the decision. As expected, the rumour mill goes into overdrive, but that’s okay. The clubs involved have handled the situation with diligence and maintained the utmost of professionalism at all times.

Photograph by Carol Ann Jardine

Now here’s what shouldn’t have happened, in my opinion. The Braehead Clan’s netminder Chris Holt opens up about the situation on the fan-orientated ‘Purple Army Podcast’ and slates his team-mate Bruton, calling him a ‘cancer in the dressing room’ and openly discusses how the entire Clan locker room are glad to see the back of Bruton.

I won’t lie. When it appeared on my social media feed that Holt was giving the inside gossip about the whole situation, I was a little bit curious about what he had to say. I’m passionate about the team I follow and like everybody else, I wanted to know what happened, even if I have absolutely no right to. I just didn’t expect it to be done in such an unprofessional manner. Hearing a veteran player and an apparent professional air his dirty laundry on a podcast was a little bit over the top. In turn, Bruton responded with a statement of his own, wanting to rise above the ‘public banter’ and maintain respect for the game at all times.

When used correctly, social media can be a wonderful thing, but it also has it’s downsides which is evident in this scenario. Current players using social media outlets to publicly slate former team-mates and exacerbate a situation is ridiculous. Public spats make a mockery out of the game of hockey in this country, especially when collectively we are all trying to raise the profile of what many of us consider to be the greatest game in the world.

Photograph by Carol Ann Jardine

On the contrary, I can understand why people would be eager to hear what Chris Holt had to say. As fans, we have no God given right to know what happens behind the scenes, so sometimes it’s good to get a look behind the proverbial curtain.

To conclude, I leave you, the reader, with a question:

Was it right of Chris Holt to speak out publicly about the Chris Bruton situation?

You can listen to Chris Holt’s comments here and Chris Bruton’s statement here.