By Jeremy Aitken.
It is 8.00 pm on a Saturday night. I am standing near the sliding glass entrance doors of a large suburban function room. The room is packed. Well-dressed diners are seated, eating entrees and drinking wine. In the middle of the room there is an 8-sided cage covered in chicken wire. Apart from the cage it looks like a reception for an expensive wedding.
Then over the sound system, “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” by Iggy Pop starts playing loud. The doors slide open, and a three-person film crew slowly walk backwards into the dining room. One has a huge camera rig attached to her, another, lighting and a microphone and a third moves the cables that connect the lights to the camera. They are filming a dude dressed in lycra.
As they enter the dining room, the guests all turn to look at him. He raises his arms up into the air. As he does a voice over the PA screams “party people!” and the diners start cheering and clapping. Then, “Woomp There It Is,” by Tag team, starts playing really loud.
Over the top of the song another voice comes over the PA. It is one of those voices that rises on the end of each syllable stretching it. “In the red corner… is 29 year old actor Ranjeet Manjrekar, and in the blue corner 30 year old artist and finalist in last year’s Archibald prize, Jamie Preisz.”
I’m thinking “What? Did I just hear that? An artist is gonna fight an actor? For real? This is going to be an awesome night!”
I’m a writer and current nursing student. I’m working backstage as a First Aid officer, at a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) night, called, “ALTA MMA Training” at Rosehill racecourse, which is in Sydney’s West near Parramatta. A suburban slug fest is going down while second course is being eaten. Tonight, men and women, rise from their white-collar sedentary jobs, put on tight lycra and beat the crap out of each other for entertainment. It is one of the more bizarre part time jobs I’ve ever had. It’s confronting, loud, bright and with all the officials, fighters, trainers, production crew, lights, music, monitors and stage, really exciting.
Now I’m a full-time student, I’ve become skilled at finding jobs that give me quick cash during study breaks. There was a cool job on the student job board “Wanted First Aid Officer, to work at ALTA Mixed Martial Arts competition. Must be reliable and have own transport. Twenty-eight dollars an hour, car allowance and two months gym membership.” I needed the money and a couple of months gym membership would help me stretch my limited cash.
I didn’t know anything about MMA before I started this job. I thought it was a subversive fringe culture, and as a writer I’m really curious and I had to see it myself. So, I applied.
The job was for a gym called Customised Fitness Solutions. The owner Jon Leven interviewed me over the phone. My vaccinations, first aid, and police clearance checks were all current.
“Do you have your own car? Rosehill is a pain to get to on the weekend. I really need someone reliable who can get to and from the venue. The hours are flexible, minimum of five but it might be longer. You cool to work late?” he said. I answered yes to everything and was offered the job. I told him that I knew nothing about the sport but was interested in MMA and what happens on the night, and I told him that what I really wanted to know was what motivated people to fight.
Jon, laughed, “Cool. Ok, well there’s a lot to cover. Come early and you can check it out. I’m happy to chat.”
“Cool,” I said and forgot to ask about the gym membership.
For research I watched Cobra Kai, the follow up series to The Karate Kid and then Squid Games on Netflix. I was super psyched.
I arrived at the venue mid-afternoon while the place was being set up. A large production staff were already working. Wires for the sound and lights were being laid and video monitors and sound boards checked.
Jon Leven was not what I expected. A former MMA champion, he runs a gym with his wife, Maddy, in Kirrawee a suburb in the south of Sydney. About six feet tall, bald, gravelly voiced, with a disarming broad smile, I guessed he was in his early 40s. He looks like a cross between Joe Rogan and Vin Diesel. He came across as a mix of self-help councillor and Zen fighter. He spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully and he spoke a lot, happy to be given a chance to talk about the life affirming virtues of this sport.
He explained what the night was about and who was going to compete.
“ALTA MMA Training is a stripped back version of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC),” he said, and explained that contestants with no fighting experience train for twenty weeks from 5am in the morning till 6.30am on fighting, martial arts and fitness. The goal is to get into the ring and fight someone who is matched with the same weight and skill as them.
“It’s an immersive program, I try to make it as close to the experience of fighting in a UFC match. From training with a former MMA fighter, to the weigh ins, the cameras, lights, music everything. I want to give someone the experience of what it is like to fight in a cage as an ultimate fighter,” he said.
“Isn’t it dangerous?” I asked.
“It’s a PG plus version of the real thing, dangerous enough to give them a complete opportunity to see and feel what it is like but little to no chance of permanent injury.”
“Little?” I question. And he laughs adding “Life is all about balanced risk, isn’t it?”
“I guess,” I said.
“Think of it like an extreme Michelle Bridges fitness course. But here after weeks of training instead of putting on new clothes, and weighing yourself you put on gloves, strip down to lycra and get in the ring to fight for 3 rounds of 3 minutes, you should try it,” he says, for the first of many times that night.
I noticed that Jon does this thing where he raises his hands to chest height and presses his palms together, like he is praying and slightly bows his head like an Indian guru to say, “thank you or you’re welcome,” at the end of each conversation. I asked him what it was and how he picked it up.
“Well, I spent a lot of my life being trained by Buddhist martial arts masters and their philosophy of balance is how I see the world. The hand gesture is a Buddhist blessing. It shows humility to each other and respect to the god spirit in each person and to say thank you to the universe.”
I suddenly thought of him as a Sutherland Shire Mr Miyagi, with his new age Zen vibe about facing fear, looking for balance, and finding your authentic self. I couldn’t help but like him.
“Why do people want to do it?” I ask.
“Lots of people have it on their bucket list. They want to see what it’s really like to fight, to test themselves, you know, see how they would act under stress. There are people here from all walks of life doing it for all kinds of reasons. For some it’s a personal challenge, a mental test. Some want the excitement of fighting someone. Some want to get fit. Some are overcoming some life trauma and want to prove to themselves that they can mentally tackle anything, it gives them confidence. There is this one guy who is fighting tonight who was in a really bad accident. He ended up in a neck brace, got really depressed and lost motivation. He wanted to pick himself back up, if he could do this, he can do anything. He’s already won. To really understand why you really have to do it yourself or it doesn’t make sense.”
“Why do you do it?” I asked.
“I want to test my skill against someone,” he said.
“Don’t you worry about getting hurt?”
“No, I never worry about possibilities. I focus on what’s in front of me. I’ve had lots of injuries, but it’s the moment that’s important, not what might happen.” And he paused and added, “plus I want to put on a good night. I get paid to entertain. People pay a lot of money to see us perform.”
I think about this comment a lot during the night.
I’m working with Jon who is running around checking that the fighters have been taped, have mouth guards and are getting warmed up.
The back room I am in is packed; there are more officials than fighters. The fighters are getting toey and want to get on with it. The checks begin months in advance. Firstly, the fighters must complete a fight certificate, checked by physicians as being physically and mentally fit. They must have completed the necessary training at an authorised gym by a registered trainer. At the venue are then checked by the fight doctor who gives them a medical and signs off on their general fitness. They are then checked by a concussion team. Once this is done the fighters can then start to get ready, and tape is strapped to their knuckles. They put on gloves, one of the fight officials, in my section a woman named Jess, then checks that the taping and gloves are approved and correct. They then put on shin pads and a helmet, again Jess must be present to ensure that these are correctly put on. After this the fighters go to their trainers to warm up.
After every safety check has been done, the fighters come to my station. I am the final check they go through before they pull back the curtain and enter the cage. I manage the ice bucket which I give to their trainer. My one is silver. In it is a bag of ice that has been double bagged in zip locked sandwich bags, latex gloves, a towel, a spray water bottle, and a metal enswell. The enswell is a heavy piece of metal with a flat edge and handle about the size of a hand. It is cooled by the ice and used between rounds to stop cuts from bleeding and the face from bruising. After each fight I disinfect the bucket, water spray bottle and enswell, get fresh ice and re-bag it, and a fresh towel and gloves.
What is awesome about my station is that I’ve got a great view of all the action that happens backstage, and I get to see the fights. The fighters wait by my station for their names to be called. I watch how each of them deal with the tension before their name is called the curtains are pulled back, the crowd yells and their entrance song starts. Each of them has their own ritual, some hug their trainer and pray, others jump up and down, psyching themselves, some stand alone and seem to stare into nothing, others concentrate on their breathing. A couple were nervous and couldn’t stop shaking. Lots drape themselves in their home country’s flag. Pakistani, Chilian, Brazilian, English, Indian, and for some reason, a lot of Irish.
After their names are called, they walk out into the light, pose for claps, wave their flag and then shadow box as they make their way to the cage. They are stopped just before they get into the cage by officials who check them to make sure that everything is safe and secure. They then enter the ring, and the announcer gets them to touch gloves and the fight begins.
My job has a few moments of intense pressure. A few of the fights finish quickly, and I have to rush to get the bucket disinfected and re-iced for anxious trainers.
Another fight is called, and the announcer introduces the two contestants. The first is an I.T guy, the second is a self-employed financial adviser and accountant. The fight begins and the I.T guy comes out of his corner and throws an impressive number of punches at a fast pace into the slightly off-balance financial advisor who tries to block them but is hit a lot in the head. The crowd makes a “oohhhhh,” sound. The ref stops it and declares it a victory for the I.T manager. It was all over in 50 seconds. The two fighters hug and smile. The crowd claps just a little. The defeated financial advisor walks past Jon and I with a look of confusion on his face.
“You fought well,” says Jon.
“I don’t know what happened, it was very quick,” said the man.
“You get that, these things happen, you did really well, I was impressed,” said Jon. And the man walked off to have a shower.
“See, you can never tell the outcome of the match. There is that element of complete surprise, and the other guy got the upset, good for him.”
“I’ve noticed a lot of the fights end really quickly.” I said to Jon.
“Yeah, some are just luck, like that one. A good start, a few blows connect and the ref calls it before it gets out of hand. But it’s hard to pick how someone will act the first time they get into a ring. That’s why these nights are so interesting. Some dudes are big and skilled, and you think they’ll win for sure and then something happens, they get hit or hear the crowd and they listen to that negative voice in their head and it messes with them. They forget their training and become emotional and think that they don’t have the advantage and they lose.”
“So, you think it’s more mental than physical?”
“Absolutely. Most of it comes down to how much someone wants it. Most of the fight happens before they get into the ring. People have to fight against their primal instinct to run out of the cage. I train my team to overcome that fear. Lots of the people here are fighting to get confidence. I tell them that the real opponent is in their heads.”
“So, you always think you can win?”
“Always. I never give up. No matter what is in front of me my philosophy is to win. Check this,” he says and raises his arm to show me a tattoo that says, “Pain is temporary, quitting is forever.”
“Have you ever lost?”
“Sure, and sometimes badly. If you want to watch me get beaten up there are a couple of fights of me on Youtube. But I always fight the best I can for me, and I want to put on a good show.”
I admit that I don’t really understand how to fight or what putting on a good show is and I’m not really sure I’d want to but I am enjoying myself. Jon nods and smiles.
The PA is deafeningly loud, and it is hard to hear over the top. I can see patrons yelling drink orders to the waiters who run off to fill them.
The crowd is hungry for second course and blood in equal amounts. The second course is either grass fed beef tenderloin with forest mushroom and tempura onion rings or confit chicken with stuffed zucchini flowers. There is even a vegetarian option of pumpkin ravioli, with a toasted pine nut and lemon sage butter sauce. I want the pumpkin ravioli.
I feel guilty for taking my eyes off the fight and looking at the food. I’m not sure where to look or what I want. Action or food? I realise I’ve mixed the two, food and violence.
I watch another fight and Jon comes over to me “great fight.” He says. “That guy had a fantastic take down. What did you think? Enjoying yourself?” I got the impression he was on a crusade to convert me.
I am enjoying myself, but I explain that I know what I’m looking at.
“The take down is where one uses wrestling to force the other to the ground,” he said. He explained that MMA has three different components to it. Kickboxing, wrestling and Brazilian jui jitsu. The fighters can punch, and kick, this is called striking and then wrestle their opponent to the ground and once on the ground use jui jitsu to hold, choke or force the other person to say “enough!” and tap out or surrender. The other way to win is to knock the opponent out by punching or kicking them and they can’t get up, or the referee thinks that the person has been punched, kicked or choked enough and to continue would be to cause serious injury or death.
I was happy to know that there were some rules.
“You can’t kick someone in the groin, poke them in the eye or headbutt them,” said Jon.
“So apart from that, everything you do in the ring is nice and legal?” I said, and Jon must have picked up on my discomfort because he added “To understand it you need to try it out. Come and take a few lessons with me at the gym.”
I sort of nodded and went back to my station.
A few people were fighting to represent charities. One of the participants, Russell Hagan, was fighting for his charity the men’s mental health organisation “Been There, Done That, Lets Chat.”
He told me that the fight gave him confidence, and hopefully could show other dudes who had problems that they could do something positive, as well as raise money, and awareness of men’s mental health.
I few things about the night that interested me. One were the songs that the fighters chose to enter the cage to “We are the Champions,” and “Another One Bites The Dust,” by Queen. “Not Many,” by Scribe was played twice. “Thunderstruck,” and “Back In Black,” by AC/DC. “Hall of Fame,” by The Script, Lose Yourself,” by Eminem, “Eye of the Tiger,” by Survivor, The Brazilian national anthem, a song in Hindi by Mawa Iaage were all in the mix. One woman came out to the haka but by far the most popular song of the night was “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” by U2.
A cool moment happened halfway through the night, a tall, red headed, very intimidating dude, came out carrying an Irish flag and as he raised his hands and flag into the air. An Irish flute started over the PA and then the song “Sons of Erin Isle” played, it was very beautiful, weird but cool and I thought that perhaps the fighters might start drinking whisky and cry. It made me think of what song I’d choose.
I asked Jon what his entrance song was “Killing In The Name. By Rage Against the Machine,” he said.
“Absolutely,” he said.
Another interesting thing were the occupations of people who fought. Mainly I.T programmers, civil engineers, accountants, and account managers were fighting.
I ask Jon why these occupations were so heavily represented.
“It’s all about balance. People want to experience something that is very different to how they live their lives normally. Don’t you think?” he said.
“Yeah, but probably because they are frustrated with their jobs. I mean, wouldn’t you be?” I asked him if he could match up dudes based on their professions like an I.T programmer verses a systems analyst or Mac guys verse Microsoft.
“The possibilities were endless,” I said. But he was not hip to my suggestion and smiled and walked off.
I was thinking about occupations I’d pair together to fight when another fight started.
“In the red corner 35 year old civil engineer in the other a 43 year old I.T programmer…..” This fight will consist of 3, 3 minute rounds. The buzzer goes and two men touch gloves and then start to throw punches and kicks at each other. To me it looked like a school fight where a guy just ran and tackled another dude on the ground and put him in a head lock and choked him until the referee said stop.
Jon walked over to me. “Nice take down,” he said.
I told Jon that I thought it was brutal.
“Dude, it’s not real violence, no one is getting really hurt. Really,” he says.
“It looks pretty brutal to me,” I said.
“These guys have only been fighting for 12 weeks, most have office jobs, I.T or accountants and don’t have fighting experience. They aren’t going to have the strength or skill in that short time to do real damage, and the umpires call the fight off real quick if they see any possibility of injury. The most damage these dudes will get is a split eye or a hand injury. This gives them a chance to see what they would do when they lean just a bit out of their comfort zone. This is a night where they forget about I.T for a while,” he says and smiles.
I asked the Civil Engineer guy why he did it. “Really?” he said “I didn’t know what it would be like to get hit. I wasn’t sure how I’d respond.”
“How was it?” I asked.
“Weird, nothing like I thought.”
“Glad you, did it?”
“Shit yeah!” he said touching his cheek.
“Does it hurt?” I asked.
“Umm, nah, not yet. Guess I’ll find out tomorrow. Right now, I’m gonna celebrate!”
While people eat and drink, they watch people fight. I can’t help thinking of the decadence of Rome and gladiators and Jon’s comment about putting on good entertainment.
During a break a woman named Anne-Marie, came over to my station to ask to ask about the fights.
“I think I’d like to do it just once.” She says, “I think it might be the Filipino in me” and she laughs, then adds “But I’m not sure about the bruising, it might look bad for my next job I start on Monday.”
It turned out she was a nurse working a part time job for the film crew. When she found out I was studying nursing she hung around to chat. “If you like this you could always do a course and get trained up in concussion. It’s in high demand and the pay’s good,” she said, and then she very coolly gave me a drink and a nut bar from the film crew’s food stash.
I asked Jon about the concussion course. “Yeah, it’s good but if you want to get close to the action then you should be a cutman?”
“Yeah. It’s the guy who puts the Vaseline on the fighters’ eyebrows and stops any cuts from bleeding between rounds.”
I was disinfecting the bucket and thinking about my career options when the song “Let Me Entertain You,” by Robbie Williams started to play. I started to laugh; it was absolutely perfect. Then over the PA the announcer said, “in the red corner 53-year-old business owner, Kirk Barden and in the red 30-year-old Mark ….”
Jon came over. “This should be good. I know them both, they’ll put on a good show.”
The two men touched gloves and started striking each other aggressively, testing each other for weaknesses. Halfway through the first round Mark started to connect some solid strikes onto Kirk. Kirk raised his hands to protect his face and Mark pushed Kirk into the wire (Jon said that pushing someone into wire and rubbing their body against it to wear them down was called a ‘cheese grater’ move in his gym), trying to take him to the ground looking for a submission on the floor. (Jon said this move is called a ‘ground and pound’). Kirk managed to stay upright, and the buzzer sounded to end the first round. Both men were panting, Mark less so. The first round went to Mark.
The buzzer rang to start the second round and Mark confidently went to attack. He was aggressive, throwing a lot of kicks at Kirk’s legs trying to get Kirk near the cage wall and take him on to the mat. Kirk fought defensively moving away from Mark to avoid being cheese grated, throwing punches to keep Mark in the centre of the cage. The buzzer went and round 2 ended. Mark clearly won that round also.
The third and final round began. The crowd were calling for Mark to finish Kirk off. Mark again went out to strike Kirk and force him into the wire. He struck Kirk hard in the stomach. Kirk moved backward to regain his balance. Mark took the opportunity, lined Kirk up and launched himself into the air, tackling him around the waist. He hit Kirk hard. The crowd went “Ohhhhhh,” as Kirk shuddered and hit the ground. Kirk used Mark’s momentum and swept him over. In that single moment the entire flow of the fight changed. Kirk was now on top of Mark, sitting on his chest. He threw punch after punch at Mark’s head pounding him into submission. Mark could only raise his arms to block. The referee called the fight off.
The crowd was really happy, and cheered both fighters as they hugged, exhausted.
“See,” said Jon. “It’s mainly mental, a lot of skill, and some luck but it should always be entertaining,” he said as he went off to congratulate both fighters.
I had to agree. I managed to get pictures of the fight and want Mark and Kirk to know how much I enjoyed it. I hope they read this and know that I am putting my hands together, bowing my head and thanking them and the Universe.
I managed to speak to Kirk afterwards. He had organised a table of his friends to support him. He was super pumped, and I watched him for the rest of the night standing so full of adrenaline that he could not sit down, his face stuck in a huge grin, he hugged everyone who approached his table to congratulate him.
I asked him why he did it.
“I turned fifty-three and wanted to be the fittest I’ve ever been, and my misses said we needed to spend more time together. Then Covid stuffed up our travel plans, and she said why not train and do the competition together? Use the refund from the holiday. A family bonding session. Way better than therapy! She’s here tonight and is going to fight later on. We thought it’d be a cool thing to sit back later in rocking chairs and tell stories to our grandchildren about when we were MMA fighters. All her idea and it ended up perfect!” And he laughed, said “wooo” and hugged me.
I watched the fight between Kirk’s wife, Kim Barden, and a fighter called Natasha. The announcer asked Kim why a fifty-year-old woman possibly thought that the best way to improve her life would be to get into a cage and have someone punch her in the face.
“Well, I thought why not?” she said.
It was an impressive fight. Heads down, blow for blow, no mercy, no backing down and no thought about personal safety. By round two they were both so exhausted that it became a fight of endurance. They kept the fight going for the full three rounds, the audience cheering and clapping them on.
Natasha won on points, and I congratulated her afterwards. She had corn row hair that had been coloured pink. A cut over her eye bled freely but she didn’t care she was so pumped on adrenaline.
“I did it!” she said.
Her coach, an outgoing Canadian guy called Brian said that the women are amazing to watch,
“Way more entertaining than the men. They are faster, and just go for it while the men tend to pose a bit more.”
I went back to the see Kirk and Kim. I told Kim and that it was a good fight. She was also really happy.
“It’s been a long twenty weeks. I’m glad I did it. But I’m even happier it’s over. Now I can sleep in.”
The night comes to an end, the crowd was full, and content. People seemed to be genuinely happy. A few were waving Irish flags, some wearing them. I helped Jon clean up and load his car.
“Well, what did you think?” he said
“It was cool. I had a really good time watching people fight and I can’t quite explain why I did.”
“You get that,” he said and gave me a knowing smile, adding “Think you’ll come to the gym?”
I gave him a vague promise that I’d come, but I wasn’t entirely sure.
I got home and watched more Cobra Kai. I realised I am older and less Daniel and more Johnny. I was going to take up my gym membership and Jon’s training offer.
That night I had a nightmare where I was fighting in the cage that was surrounded by thousands of actors who were all staring at me, in absolute silence. Then one whispers, “Break a leg,” and they all start laughing just as my song “I Am Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred starts.
I woke up terrified and realise I need to do a lot of work on my song of choice.
Jeremy is a Sydney based writer, former UNSW Global English Lecturer and now first-year nursing student at Wester Sydney University.
He is also the author of the novel Crystal Street and in 2006 was Highly Commended in the Australian/Vogel for his manuscript, ‘The Bike’, a semi-autobiographical novel.
His piece for A Sense of Place Magazine ‘Suburban Fight Club,’ is based on his part time job as a first aid officer at a suburban MMA fight night where people fight for the entertainment of the diners who enjoy a three course meal with matching wines.
SEE MORE OF JEREMY AITKEN’S ADVENTURES IN THE AUSTRALIAN LABOUR MARKET PUBLISHED IN A SENSE OF PLACE MAGAZINE