25 minute read
By Alistair Hendrie
Shortly before entering the UFC, Joanne Calderwood earned her sixth professional win at Cage Warriors 53 in 2013, breaking down the American Sally Krumdiack in round one. The Scot delighted the Glasgow crowd as she boxed at range before finishing her rival with ground-and-pound. She had already signed for Invicta, but Cage Warriors gave her a chance to appear in her back yard.
Ian Dean, Cage Warriors’ matchmaker, told me: “That’s what we’re trying to do – give people opportunities. We’ve given women a chance to fight on live broadcasts in a safe, professional setting rather than framing them as a freak-show. I know it’s very cliché but Cage Warriors has always been about trying to do something new and take the sport forward.”
They did exactly that by putting on Calderwood, Rosi Sexton and Kate Jackson a combined five times between 2010 and 2015. It was no exaggeration to state that Cage Warriors had leveraged British women more than any other promotion. But their influence didn’t end there. Founded in 2001 by Tommy Gilmour, Cage Warriors’ early shows in London, Coventry and Cork were the stuff of legend.
Sexton fought on one of Gilmour’s shows in 2002, but it was when Graham Boylan joined as CEO in 2010 that Cage Warriors stepped up their support for British women. Indeed, Sexton’s victory over Aisling Daly at Cage Warriors 47 in 2012 brought new eyes to the scene. Remember, Rosi wouldn’t be far from the UFC by then.
Closer to the present day, Boylan’s stable had continued their support by promoting top class British talent such as Liverpool flyweight Molly McCann, Colchester strawweight Wendy McKenna and Belfast featherweight Leah McCourt.
Cage Warriors made their biggest statement of intent back in 2013, though, when they signed 20 of Europe’s most talented females including nine Brits. It came at a time when young females were energised by Sexton’s appearance in the UFC, not to mention Nicola Adams’ gold medal in boxing at the London 2012 Olympics. But the women’s fight community was still stunned by Boylan’s move, and so was I. It’s difficult to explain the gravity of the situation, but thanks to Cage Warriors, British women went from scrapping in small halls to competing on arena shows with worldwide broadcast coverage.
In the bantamweight division Boylan signed Bristol wrestler LJ Lewis, Hove fighter Laura O’Brien-Howarth and Inverness stand-out Amanda Kelly. Other bantamweights to arrive were Colchester striker Kerry Hughes, Kent judoka Emma Delaney and Cornwall starlet Hannah Stephens, while Bournemouth rookie Gemma Ruegg joined later. Those to put pen to paper at flyweight were veteran Jackson, Leeds battler Chloe Hinchcliffe and Brighton upstart Rachael McMillan. Elsewhere, McCann-Pearson and London flyweight Kirsty Davis earned amateur bouts.
There was no time for British women to bed themselves in though. Over the next two years they would take on the likes of Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Lina Lansberg, both bound for the UFC, as well as touted contenders such as Agnieska Niedzwiedz and Pannie Kianzad. To me there was a sense of romance about the young Brits coming through. It reminded me of the early rounds of the FA Cup, when the smaller teams are only a step away from a golden ticket.
Still, in November 2014, Cage Warriors began a 16-month hiatus, and the women’s scene fell apart momentarily. Although the promotion had worked wonders in nourishing the women’s side of the sport, they didn’t do it without encountering setbacks. I was determined to interview Boylan about the future of Cage Warriors’ women’s divisions. Try as I might, I couldn’t reach him.
I messaged Boylan on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. I even reached out to Cage Warriors’ press officer, Paul Dollery. Still no luck. Indeed, Boylan was one of the most guarded personalities in the sport.
Thankfully, Dean was more approachable. Once I’d introduced myself, he became one of my favourite people in the industry. He was as frank as they come when discussing Cage Warriors’ strengths and weaknesses. First of all though, he told me about where it all began.
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Put simply, Dean lived and breathed his work. It was tough to think of anyone with a stronger knowledge of European MMA. He broke a fight down probably as well as Sexton, and fans referred to him as “Dean-ipedia” thanks to his legendary knowledge. If he was ever on Mastermind, his specialist topic would be MMA, and you could bet he’d fire correct answers left, right and centre. But for such a workaholic, Dean made for relaxed, informative interviews whenever I called him or chatted to him on Skype.
He revealed how he met Cage Warriors’ founder, Dougie Trueman, at Cage Warriors 2 in 2002. “I remember seeing Dougie on a few forums back then and I liked a lot of what he posted,” said Dean. “He did things the right way and was very personable – he was dead nice when we met and to cut a long story short, I said if there was anything I could do for Cage Warriors just let me know. A couple of months later the company started a website so I began doing news, interviews and promotional work. I built a list of contacts and because this was before social media, it was a really good way to research fighters.”
Dean’s DIY approach reminded me of Guy Ramsay in Glasgow. “I learned a lot about the business,” he added. “In those days there weren’t many shows and the MMA scene was really small – you’d meet the same people at every show. By 2004 it got the point where I was quite a good contact for Dougie - I started helping out at weigh-ins too. By the time Andy Lillis joined the promotion in 2005, Andy took me under his wing and I started acting as a matchmaker for our old events at the Coventry Skydome.”
It was around this era that Michael Bisping and Dan Hardy won Cage Warriors belts. Dean mentioned matchmaking was “natural progression, for want of a better term. Because Dougie and Andy were so busy, I started talking to a lot more people and fell into matchmaking. People forget that at the smaller shows people would ask you for help with things. You could reach out and touch the sport a lot more.”
However, between July 2008 and May 2010 Cage Warriors promoted only three shows – two of them in America under the guidance of Tommy Gleeson. Trueman and Lillis left the brand, deciding that they’d done all they could, and it was time for Boylan to come in with a fresh perspective.
“In June 2010 a bunch of Middle Eastern investors bought the brand, which we’d heard rumours of for a while. We went to a lawyer’s office on the Friday, signed the papers and Graham had taken over by the Monday. I’d never heard much about him before he came in but I knew he’d been running his MMA Clinic gyms for around 18 months.
“We were really going into the unknown. But I remember when I first met Graham – we sat down in a pub, chatted, and he said he had a vision for the brand. He wanted to bring it back. By that October we’d already done our first show together. It was typical Graham – set out a plan and do it.”
Cage Warriors had gone from strength to strength with Boylan, picking up worldwide streaming on UFC Fight Pass and a broadcast deal in Britain with BT Sport. Their expansion had taken them to arenas in Denmark, Ukraine, Bahrain, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Let’s not forget their talent pool either. Jedrzejczyk and McGregor joined in Boylan’s tenure before earning three UFC belts between them.
And then there’s the future. Colchester featherweight Arnold Allen impressed with Cage Warriors before joining the UFC in 2015. Donegal lightweight Joseph Duffy also reached the big time five years after defeating McGregor at Cage Warriors 39. As such, it was fair to say the British scene would have been weaker without Cage Warriors.
“Rosi called a lot of people’s bluffs,” said Dean. “She contacted a lot of female fighters and asked if they’d like to sign for us. It was quite funny – I think Graham and Rosi had chatted about it more in-depth on their own but one morning Graham just walked into the office and asked how I’d feel about doing more women’s fights. I just said: “Yeah, OK.” We had the database and it went from there.”
In July 2013 the brand announced their new signings. “I think women were just being overlooked unless a promoter was trying to push someone,” said Dean. “There’s no real incentive sometimes. There’s not a great deal of depth in the divisions and putting on women’s fights isn’t easy – it’s ridiculous. There was a lot of excitement for some of the women when we first made the signings. I’m not going to be patronising and say we’re going to give you opportunities you won’t get anywhere else and all of that kind of thing, but we gave women a chance to really go somewhere.”
Although Sexton did the brunt of recruitment, I was interested to know which fighters Dean was excited to see. Who did he have hopes for? “Lewis is fantastic, very aggressive, very well-rounded, decent grappling as well,” said Dean. “We can’t take too much credit for her because she’s one of the most established names in the bantamweight division. Jackson was superb for us as well. We’ve had setbacks in the divisions but we’ve also had a few stars – Catherine Costigan from Dublin at 105, Kianzad at 135.”
Lewis claimed the brand provided a “massive platform” for British women. “It’s such a well-known, professional brand,” she said. “I’ve never fought for such a well-run show. It’s so smooth and easy for us which makes such a difference in an intense experience when you’re preparing for a fight. All women have the dream to get to America and fight for the UFC or Invicta and I’ve always really struggled to get matches, so I’d love to fight for Cage Warriors again.”
Hughes told me: “When Cage Warriors made their first lot of signings it was big because nationally and internationally, women struggle to get matched. It was like boxing a few years ago – they didn’t want women fighting, they found it to be distasteful. “Can’t have birds fighting”, they thought. But the more sensible promotions realised that having female fighters was a good idea because generally our friends are more supportive, so we sell more tickets. Our fights are also more exciting because women’s MMA is in its infancy.”
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I noticed Cage Warriors had a wider impact on British women’s MMA. “Cage Warriors meant suddenly we got sponsorship that wasn’t there before,” added Hughes. “Suddenly MMA clothing companies realised that women and men aren’t the same shape and maybe it would be a good idea to make some clothes that fit women.” Very dry from Kerry, which is what I’d come to expect from her. “It’s the little things you really don’t consider – for me Cage Warriors is massive for women in the UK.”
One fighter I was looking forward to seeing was Kelly, who scooped up multiple world titles in muay Thai while training with Bill Judd at KO Muay Thai in Bethnal Green. The Scot shone with her striking at range, and looked devastating when she stopped Stephens at Cage Warriors 60 in October 2013. However, Kelly walked away from MMA in 2014 after successive defeats to O’Brien-Howarth, Hughes and Lewis.
“Sometimes you realise that just because a fighter is successful in one discipline, this doesn’t mean they’ll succeed in MMA,” explained Dean. “Kelly looked spectacular at one point; she was a potential star and really got people talking. But for everyone who succeeds there’s a Royce Alger – to use a really old example. He was an American collegiate wrestler who really bombed in MMA some 15, 20 years ago.”
Dean described Lewis’s victory over Kelly – as part of Cage Warriors 72 in September 2014 – as “a masterclass.” He had a point. Lewis used her background in rugby to time and executive her takedowns perfectly. She dominated the contest before sealing a rear naked choke in the third round. “It was a good fight for me because I managed to go three rounds and get the finish in the end,” said Lewis.
“I was happy with how I adapted to her and got the takedowns. In the third round I knew she was going to change it up and stay at range, so I couldn’t bull-rush in. I had to pick my moments. Credit to her, she’d obviously been working on her grappling and her hips were so strong. I made sure I controlled positions in a clinical manner, because I knew she could hurt me if I didn’t stay active on top.”
If Lewis’s stoppage over Kelly was a picture of how to stifle a fighter from top position, Hughes’s win over Amanda – at Cage Warriors 69 in June 2014 - showed how to fight fire with fire. Hughes stood and banged with Kelly before decking her out of nowhere in the second frame. “That impressed a lot of people,” said Dean.
It was a huge upset after all, with Hughes taking a look and exchanging fast combinations in the first frame. Both women were hurt throughout the bout and put up a gutsy effort, but in the middle round, as Kelly dropped her guard, she walked into a right hand on the button. Time stood still as Kelly staggered. Hughes pounced, darted in with ground-and-pound and earned the most significant win of her career. That result, Hughes told me, meant so much more given her decision defeat to Niedzwiedz at Cage Warriors 62 in December 2013.
“I wasn’t as fit as I’d liked to have been when I fought Niedzwiedz,” said Hughes, who missed the bantamweight limit before that meeting. “If I’d been offered it now I probably wouldn’t have taken it. But this was my first fight for Cage Warriors so I was like: “You know what, this is such a good opportunity that I’ve got to go for it”. I think I can beat anyone in and around my weight class, apart from someone like Cyborg. I was thinking Cage Warriors was the biggest thing that could have happened to British women, so I didn’t want to miss an opportunity and not be welcome back.”
The new opportunities, she said, produced a nerve-wracking environment. “It’s not like we’re international footballers or anything like that so when you’re getting ready for a fight, you do what you do in the gym, but then at Cage Warriors you’ve got the pyrotechnics going, all this production, cameras in your face... I sometimes think: “What am I doing here?” It’s so surreal.”
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Elsewhere, O’Brien-Howarth fought three times for Cage Warriors between December 2013 and August 2014, taking decisions over Emma Delaney and Kelly before suffering a TKO against Lansberg.
“For whatever reason, it wasn’t O’Brien-Howarth’s night against Lansberg,” admitted Dean. Indeed, the Dane dominated the striking exchanges, picking off O’Brien-Howarth in violent fashion until the English woman wore a mask of blood. Her corner pulled her out by the end of round one, expecting things would only get worse. “These things happen – I got over it and moved onto better things,” said O’Brien-Howarth. “To be on mainstream TV was amazing though.”
“The Channel Four coverage was big for all the women involved,” added Dean. “It was an insane opportunity, even for the fighters to say to their friends and family: “Here’s my fight, you can watch it.” People in MMA are always going on about opportunities. Around 13 years ago I spoke to guys who were fighting for free in a sports hall with no idea that they were going to get anywhere. They said to me: “I’d go somewhere if I had an opportunity”. You’ve got make that opportunity and run with it, and fair play to those that do.”
Still, as I’ve already discussed through this book, building the MMA scene is a work in progress – especially on the women’s side of the sport. “I enjoy putting on women’s fights with Cage Warriors but with paper-thin divisions it’s always a bit of a risk,” said Dean. “I might be unpopular for saying this but women’s MMA can’t develop unless women are ready to fight at a professional level. Our problem is that as soon as we have an injury, we can’t just magically produce someone. You can’t just fly someone out from the States for someone who is still lower-mid card. These are just facts of life – it’s reality.”
O’Brien-Howarth added: “Women are difficult to match in the UK and it’s always difficult for women to get opponents. It’s all well and good for Cage Warriors to sign these women but if they haven’t got the right opponent, they’ll need to wait until they can fight at the right level.”
Forming competitive match-ups is one thing, but then there’s the politics. Women can find the right opponents, but they still need to check their ego at the door, forget about their record and take those riskier fights. After all, Sexton and Jackson are advocates for going in as the underdog in order to stay active.
“The trouble when a promotion like Cage Warriors tries to build divisions is that nobody wants to fight anymore,” said Lewis. “Fighters don’t want losses on their records. I think it’s silly because if a woman fights for Cage Warriors, it gives them great exposure which is important. The more people that see us, the more people who know us and that makes us extremely appealing to the UFC and Invicta moving forwards. Someone like Calderwood proves that – the UFC would have been stupid not to sign her and market her to the Scottish fans.”
Indeed, British women live in hope that Cage Warriors will continue propelling young fighters like Calderwood towards the UFC. Dublin’s Daly and Germany’s Sheila Gaff have also ran out for the UFC after appearing for Cage Warriors, so does Dean see the brand continuing to build women’s MMA?
“I’m open-minded,” he said. “I really like to build divisions but it’s tough to do in women’s MMA. If you look hard enough there are a few stand-out names like Helen Harper and Bryony Tyrell – there’s others coming through but it’s tough to say which divisions are going to be strong. I’m not saying we won’t make women’s fights because if the fights make sense we’ll make them happen. The short answer to your question is we’ll see what happens.”
Alistair Hendrie's Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women's MMA in Britain, is available now from Amazon on Kindle and the free Kindle app.