Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The British are Coming

This article was first published in the April 2010 of Fighters Magazine

The British Are Coming.

It was billed as a classic striker vs. grappler match; the matrix style jiu-jitsu of Dustin Hazelett vs. the concrete hands of Paul Daley. Even the odds makers couldn’t separate the two. After just 144 seconds it was clear who the winner was. Hazelett lay on the canvas, staring blankly at the lights as Daley sprinted round the cage, serving notice to every one of his abilities and potential. With Dan Hardy lined up to fight George St-Pierre for the title on March 27th and Daley’s star clearly on the rise there can be no doubt that UK MMA is at a new peak; fantastic performances from Ross Pearson, Andre Winner and Michael Bisping have only reinforced the strong position enjoyed by the Brits in the UFC. Paul Daley’s destruction of Dustin Hazelett is the latest in a string of big results from British fighters that have ensured the rest of the world are taking notice. The UK has had a phenomenal MMA scene for a number of years, certainly way more than people think, and it is good to see the bigger organizations eager to make great fights.

It was a British engineer called Edward William Barton-Wright who first introduced England to the idea of mixed martial arts. Following three years spent living in Japan he returned to England in 1898 and announced that he had formulated a new form of self defence. Bartitsu was developed from judo and jiu-jitsu but also incorporated boxing, savate and even stick fighting from Switzerland. Barton-Wright championed his school, The Bartitsu Academy of Arms and Physical Culture, with a series of interviews and promotional demonstrations. The term “Bartitsu” was clearly imbedded in the public consciousness as even Sherlock Holmes was credited as studying the discipline in The Adventure in the Empty House in 1901. Barton-Wright was one of the first Europeans known to have studied Japanese martial arts and also to have taught them to western society.

There have been several key figures in development of mixed martial arts but in looking at the genesis of the sport in the UK there can be no question who the true pioneer was. Lee Hasdell began martial arts in 1979 at the age of twelve, choosing taekwondo before studying boxing and then karate. It was in 1989 that Hasdell began his kick boxing career at 22 years old. Over the coming years Lee began compiling a series of impressive victories and title belts including the WKA British Super-Middleweight title and the BIKMA British Light-Heavyweight title. Hasdell was generating a lot of interest with his stand up career but it was a chance encounter that would open his eyes to a new emerging sport. Hasdell was a standby fighter for K1 in 1994 when he saw an MMA bout and quickly became fascinated with the sport.
“Back then I saw the future of combat sports after watching kicks, punches and submissions in one match.”

Hasdell made his professional MMA debut in 1996 for the RINGS promotion. He took Dutchman Andre Mannaart to a draw but it was his skills and his spirit that impressed the president of RINGS, Akira Maeda, so much that he invited Lee to train at his private dojo in Yokohama. Hasdell would go on to win the World Oktagon Shoot Boxing Tournament, winning three fights in one evening and showcasing his ever evolving skills.

Over the next 11 years Lee continued to fight for a great number of organizations and faced some of the greatest fighters in the world. He would face Gilbert Yvel, Renato “Babalu” Sobral, Mario Sperry and even Fedor Emelianenko and would go on to become the first Daido Juku black belt in the UK. These epic battles, however, are only half of the story of why Lee Hasdell’s role in the development of UK MMA cannot be overlooked.

Total Fight Night took place on October 5th 1997 and was the first professional Mixed Martial Arts event to take place in the UK. It featured future UFC fighter James Zikic and also Valentijn Overeem who would go on to submit MMA legend Randy Couture. Amazingly Lee himself fought on the card and he went on to win via 1st round submission over Sander Thonhauser. Hasdell would continue to promote MMA events in the UK right up to the present day but it was the Total Fight Night and the iconic Night of the Samurai series that first bought live mixed martial arts to this country.

Inevitably there was press criticism of these events and they even prompted a Tonight with Trevor McDonald special on July 22nd 1999. Hasdell’s response in the media was a very educated and informed one.

“In Japan you are seen as an athlete but here there always seems to be a taboo. It’s always on the fringe. People talk about safety but all the fighters are properly trained and the rule book is 32 pages long”

Hasdell would carry on his campaign for years to come and he even appeared on The Big Breakfast on Channel 4 to further inform the nation of the legitimacy of the sport and its importance in the evolution of martial arts. Lee took some fighters from his shows along with him that day, one of whom was a young man by the name of Lee Murray.

Lee had fought on the Ring of Truth card promoted by Hasdell and made short work of his opponent Mike Tomlinson with a Kimura in the first round. It was clear that Murray had a lot of potential and as he continued to rack up the wins on the domestic scene. He timed his ascension through the ranks very well as the UFC was experiencing new popularity all over the world and had even recently come to our fair shores for UFC 38 Brawl at the Hall. This event would prove to the world how far MMA had evolved in the UK thanks to some stellar performances from the British fighters.

Leigh Remedios and James Zikic put on fantastic fights but were ultimately unsuccessful in their bouts but Mark Weir’s 10 second KO of Eugene Jackson ignited the fans at the Royal Albert Hall and Ian Freeman’s bulldozing of much fancied prospect, and future UFC champion, Frank Mir proved that the British fighters had arrived. Lee Murray would go on, spurred by the achievements of his compatriots, to fight for the UFC and looked phenomenal as he put away dangerous middleweight title contender Jorge Rivera in a little over 90 seconds.

Murray’s next fight would be against a far more deadly competitor however, for an organization which would go on to become the largest promotion in the UK scene.
Cage Rage Championships first event was on September 7th 2002 and took place at The Fusion Leisure Centre in London. For such a small promotion it was incredible to see a 13 fight card full of fighters that would go on to become well respected stars in MMA. Matt Ewin, Paul Taylor, Robbie Olivier and Brazilian Jean Silva all fought on that inaugural show and it was clear even from those humble beginnings that the promotion had a lot of potential.

Lee Murray would fight at Cage Rage 8 against Anderson Silva and would take the Brazilian all three rounds which, even to this day, puts him in a very elite group. Cage Rage continued to expand and as the both the names and the venues got bigger, it was also very apparent that the level of British talent was also expanding. Fighters like Brad Pickett, James Thompson, Mustapha Al Turk, Gary Turner and Jason Barrett were all emerging from the various clubs and organizations in the UK to fight for Cage Rage. The UFC even took 2 Brits on its third season of The Ultimate Fighter and the American audiences were impressed by the heart shown by Ross Pointon and the skills of eventual winner Michael Bisping.

There are at present more clubs, more organizations and, most importantly, more talented fighters coming out of the UK than ever before. Gyms like London Shootfighters, Wolfslair and Rough House have shown time and time again that they can produce quality fighters. These gyms boast internationally renowned coaches and their facilities rival many of the best training camps in the world. Michael Bisping no longer has to carry the hopes and expectations of a nation entirely on his shoulders as there is an army of UK fighters looking to prove that they can compete at the highest level. Paul Daley’s explosive KO victory on Saturday sent shockwaves through the UFC welterweight division, but more importantly it proved one thing. The British are coming, and this invasion will not be easily stopped.

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