Just before UK lockdown began, top European MMA promotion Cage Warriors took place in a hauntingly deserted arena, with no audience bar a skeleton crew… Including long-standing commentator Brad Wharton. Here’s his eye-witness account of a historic evening for mixed martial arts.
I’ve worked for Cage Warriors in various capacities for close to eight years now and throughout that time, I’ve never felt the need to justify a single step the promotion has taken. It felt strange then, in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, being somewhat on the back-foot in the court of public opinion.
With the UFC cancelling their annual visit to these shores over impending travel restrictions and venue owners AEG shutting down the O2, there was a growing sense that Cage Warriors’ herculean efforts to make an event happen in the midst of the chaos were becoming more trouble than they were worth. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was a difficult decision when staff were asked to re-confirm their attendance, but it was the first time I’ve had to think about my answer.
Cage Warriors prides itself on having a smooth mechanism in place as far as event week protocols go, so that whether a card takes place in London, Antwerp or Al Fujaira, the practicalities look and feel the same for all involved. Not this time. Guidelines and pointers suddenly became hard and fast rules. Three fighters would weigh-in at a time, with only one second present. Any one of a number of symptoms? Don’t bother turning up. Present with a symptom at the hotel? Go home. During the trimmed-down on-site production meeting attendees were told in no uncertain terms by company President Graham Boylan that if they were caught socialising or wandering about the empty venue, they’d be slung out both literally and figuratively.
While their living conditions were tighter than a hipster’s jeans, there was a palpable sense of relief and community among the card’s slated participants once they’d checked in to the hotel and were assured that the event would actually take place. Some of us shook hands, some bumped elbows… we were all ultimately just glad to be there; to fight, to work and to get paid.
I’ve seen some odd stuff over the past decade or so, but CW113 was a chart topper in terms of the most bizarre MMA events I’ve ever taken part in. To give that statement a measure of context, I once travelled under armed guard via mini-bus through a bandit-ridden mountain range in Chechnya, in order to put on a show for local warlord Ramzan Kadyrov.
On fight day most of us travelled from the hotel (or home) separately. Three judges from the same town all arrived in their own cars. Upon check-in, security escorted us to a medical staging area where we were checked for symptoms and issued a stamp to confirm that we’d been cleared. Things really hit home upon entering the main hall.
The BEC Arena – known simply as Bowler’s to the locals – is in essence a converted warehouse on Manchester’s Trafford Park industrial estate. Two weeks prior it had played host to the city’s first ever Cage Warriors event, albeit under a completely different set of circumstances. Somewhere between two and three thousand fans had filled seats wedged in up to the back walls of the main room, with bars and food stalls in and around the venue doing a roaring trade. Special guests and local celebrities shared fizz and hard liquor within the confines of a hidden bar which, for reasons that remain unclear to me, was a replica of the Cantina from Star Wars.
This time though it was desolate. No food, shuttered bars and most strikingly the complete lack of an audience. The cage stood in a tiny, curtained off partition in the corner, giving it a sense of intimacy not usually associated with Cage Warriors productions. In a way it felt incredibly retro, rocking up to an empty building with just a handful of close allies to indulge in some cage fights. Were it not for the gravity of the state of affairs that brought us together that night, it might have been quite cool.
The event itself was a blur. A few hours spent catching up sharing road stories is often the best part of event day, but this one was strictly business and a sombre affair. From the medical via a quick production meeting, I was in my seat barely 30 minutes after arriving. Fighters and coaches were all kept in separate rooms. The majority left immediately following their bouts.
I don’t know whether it was the unusually massive audience (the event was heavily promoted via the UFC’s social platforms, including the personal accounts of company execs like Dana White), not having my usual broadcast partner of seven years by my side or the fact that I’d just found out the pubs were being shut, but as the ‘On Air’ clock ticked down its final seconds, I suffered an absolutely sickening wave of anxiety. Still, the show must go on.
We’ve all seen fights with tiny crowds on seasons of The Ultimate Fighter and the Tuesday Night Contender Series, but they were nothing compared to the emptiness of the BEC Arena. I often slip one half of my headset off to get a feel for the crowd during walkouts, so to be faced with a deafening silence during Paddy Pimblett’s charged up entrance was dumbfounding. Chopping kicks, deep breaths, the creaking fence; everything felt like it had been cranked up to ten, possibly one louder.
Strangest of all was the realisation that the combatants could hear every word we were saying. I would never utter anything on commentary that I didn’t feel comfortable saying to someone’s face, but getting the side-eye from someone as you’re critiquing their takedown defence while they get ragged to the matt for the fifth time that night definitely made me second guess my words from time to time. There’s also the danger of effectively coaching a fighter out of a bad spot, but luckily the action came thick and fast so we didn’t have time to worry And just like that, it was over.
When the enormity of Covid-19’s societal impact was realised, it sparked a debate within our community as to how we – as promoters, staff, media and fans – should proceed. By virtue of being the last major broadcast event to press forward, Cage Warriors quite rightly bore the brunt of the negative fallout. Did the event need to happen? No, absolutely not. But did we do more good than harm? Yes, I believe we did.
They say bad times don’t last, but it’s tough to see the light at the end of the tunnel as far as MMA is concerned. There will almost certainly be no events in this part of the world for the next two or three months, leaving many in the industry out of work and shelving fighters at critical career junctures. Some shows may not survive at all. We’ll cross those bridges when we come to them and hopefully build new and better relationships in what can often be a fractured industry.
That’s a worry for tomorrow though. On Friday, March 20th, for a few hours at least, things seemed...normal. Fingers crossed, everyone came out of the event healthy, fighters got to compete and fans were able to forget about the stresses and strains of the real world for a while. Even some of the detractors seemed to have enjoyed themselves and that was the whole point, right? A bit of normality in abnormal times.
Brad Wharton is the commentator for Cage Warriors. Follow him on @MMABrad48.
This article first appeared in Battles of London 20/20