ASK any sports reporter how difficult it is sometimes to prise a quote from a football player, stop a boxer for a moment of his time as he shuffles from defeat in the ring or interrogate an under-fire coach about “the mood in the camp”, and he’ll recount the horror stories like he’s tracing the scars across his battered body.
Now try being a nuisance to an ultimate fighter and – THEN – get into the Octagon with him.
Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a full contact combat ‘sport’ that allows a bloody rainbow of fighting techniques, from a mixture of martial arts traditions to be used in competitions. The rules allow the use of striking and grappling, while standing and on the ground. The results are graphically vicious. The UFC – MMA’s most popular proponent – rolled into Dublin recently like an all-kicking, all-punching vaudeville act where freakishly big men are paired off in a cage – – encouraged to, ultimately, fight.
I took on Ireland’s first man to enter the UFC, young Dubliner Tommy Egan, just days before he made his debut at the O2 Arena.
In these recessionary times, it’s no harm to identify alternative career paths, I reasoned.
On the train to Dublin, surrounded by business types and day trippers, who were blissfully unaware they were in the company of a man who was about to bring the ruckus to the Octagon, I read a book I had recently received as a birthday gift.
Entitled, ‘Writing Mysteries: A handbook of the mystery writers of America’, one of its principle rules is: if there’s a gun on the mantelpiece in Act 1, it better go off in act 3. Striding into the room for the start of the drama, biceps popping from his shirt sleeves, scent of fear in his nostrils, Thomas ‘The Tank’ Egan – my opponent – certainly looked like a loaded weapon who would probably bring my day to a cliffhanger close.
Not that anyone has ever been killed in the Octagon. Irish boxing Olympic hero Wayne McCullagh, a UFC ambassador (as if this organisation is like Amnesty with its ambassadors) weakly reassures me, like an inexperienced surgeon, telling himself more than the anxious patient that he’ll be okay.
“Umm, yeah, I’m sure you’ll be fine. Have you asked about insurance?” he half-laughs, eyes darting about the room, perhaps looking for where an ambulance can back in.
“I have actually Wayne, but I don’t think you understand where I come from; I just hope the Tank has paid his Bupa subs.”
My bravado is insulated in ignorance, of course. I’m no fan and have never really seen a UFC brawl before – certainly not ‘in real life’. If I knew what was in store I might have asked him to take it handy, boss.
I’m like French writer Guy de Maupassant, a crank who objected to the building of the ‘grotesque’ Eiffel Tower.
After its construction his favourite restaurant was the bistro atop the now-famous French landmark. This, you understand, was the one place in the city where he could dine while drinking in a Tower-less Parisian panorama. And here I now am, at the centre of what I thought an ugly boil on the sporting visage; but at least I didn’t have to watch it at home.
So at last my time had come; (Dun-dun-dun-dun-do-do-do-do-do) I tiptoe barefoot into the ring, like Rocky with verrucas. ‘The Tank’ nonchalantly threw a few kicks inches in front of my face, unleashed a flurry of punches that I feel tickle my cheeks before standing back and smiling proudly. So what’s the mood in the camp, Tom?
The ‘ring’ is surrounded by UFC employees, hangers-on and the worried PR person who set this up. The question is, considering the relationship between those in her profession and mine; would her career be hurt or boosted by the death of a journalist on her watch? One English UFC officianado, and seemingly an employee – a guy who looks like he spent his spare time watching dog fights on YouTube in a blood-spattered Millwall shirt – shouted suggested moves ‘The Tank’ could bring to the Irish Examiner.
But you don’t enjoy the chicken burgers which Cork city centre’s lively chippers has to offer for the best part of a decade without learning how to take a punch. And come up with your breast still in your bun.
Let’s. Get. Ready. To. Rumb… suddenly, ‘The Tank’ has me turned over with my head in a vice-like lock and my arm twisted behind my back. He could’ve at least bought me a drink first. He locks it in even tighter at the request of the baying mob before letting me droop to the ground like a plastic-bag man.
The photographer enquires giddily, above my wheezing and heavy sobbing, if Egan would do that ‘one more time’ while I drenched the visibly upset PR person in a sheet of spittle and my face morphed into that of Alex Ferguson’s after a particularly boozy stag-do. No he can’t do that again, I insisted. He’s a busy man.
Using the element of surprise (lashing him a dirty stroke) I lurched at ‘The Tank’ with a quick right which he caught expertly and using my frenzied momentum, took me down. I went the scenic route – head over heels – to the soundtrack of my trousers ripping violently and the last of my dignity melting away.
Later, I would interview some of the UFC’s big names – including the two brawlers who would headline the show in the O2, Dan Henderson and Rich Franklin – with my arse, literally, hanging out of my pants.
And, after the scare ‘The Tank’ had given me I wouldn’t have been 100% confident of passing the doorstep challenge if Marty Whelan turned up with a box of Daz.
‘The Tank’ was a gent and he’ll go far, no doubt. He locked in a few more leg moves which could’ve ended my Salsa dancing days but I eventually limped off to a dark corner. I was ringside when he made his mixed martial arts debut a few days later to a hysterical welcome from the partisan Irish crowd before he was stopped in the first round by up-and-coming Englishman John Hathaway.
But then, he had been softened up, hadn’t he?
* Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter: @adrianrussell