Mixed martial arts, the game-changer

2013-08-18 14:00

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Mawande Mvumvu takes you inside the sport that has recently exploded in Africa and is uppercutting boxing’s popularity

Former amateur mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter Cairo Howarth (31) founded the Extreme Fighting Championship (EFC) Africa in 2009.

With Howarth currently its president, EFC is the only African martial arts organisation and is the sport’s premier promoter on the continent.

“Our vision is to give the best mixed martial artists from the continent a platform to showcase their skills and find out who’s the best of the best,” says Howarth, a former karate and judo practitioner, who stands at a towering 1.85m.

His organisation is the continent’s answer to the US-based Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

As he puts it, EFC is exclusively for African warriors who live in Africa.

The main reason for this exclusivity is to maintain the highest level of performance, as many now believe Africans are the world’s best exponents of the sport. The Fight of the Year in 2011 was an EFC Africa bout and EFC has twice been named promoter of the year by MMA: Inside the Cage, a US-based TV show that features fights from across the world.

“I do not think there has ever been a sport that has grown with such pace in Africa, looking at how we’ve grown in such a short space of time,” boasts Howarth, who was born in England but now lives in South Africa.

EFC’s stats make for good reading and, as Muhammad Ali once said: “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”

Howarth says: “It’s amazing we’ve grown this fast. There’s nothing fake about MMA. This is the ultimate stage to test one’s true athletic ability and where boys are separated from men.”

EFC Africa learnt a great deal from the US version but did not simply “copy and paste” from it.

Coincidentally, as MMA is on the rise, boxing, its main rival for competitors, spectators and sponsorships, is suffering.

Any fight fan who has witnessed both sports would agree that boxing in SA is a bit stuck in its old ways.

The new kid on the block is in full control of everything, from high-quality TV production to exciting arena setups for live events, ensuring that spectators are entertained.

EFC Africa’s fewer rounds and the different dimensions it offers in every fight – allowing everything from grappling to pinning, kicking and punching – can grab and hold one’s attention and the imagination.

MMA also comes the reputation of it being too dangerous. But, with very strict rules in application, safety comes first. A participant can concede defeat with a simple physical or verbal “tap out”, which reduces the risk of being severely injured.

“You’ll be shocked to realise safety concerns are unfounded when you look at the facts,” says Howarth.

Records show that, globally, only three MMA athletes have died since 1993. This is in sharp contrast to 75 fatalities in the boxing ring over the same period.

Most fight nights are convened at Carnival City’s arena in a stadium-like setup that avoids too many possible physical engagements among the sport’s fans, whose excitement at times can boil over emotionally and become aggressive.

When asked about plans to attract black audiences to his live events, Howarth is optimistic.

“That is changing as the sport grows and new athletes from different backgrounds are coming on board,” he says, adding that plans are afoot for isiZulu commentary to be introduced.

And there’s no end to Howarth’s ambition for the sport. “We aim to be the second-biggest sport in Africa after soccer. This is a huge challenge, because soccer is the biggest sport from a participation point of view.

“We would like to get more people participating, watching and getting to understand the sport in detail. Our target on the continent is to get every individual (participating).”

» Talk to us: Why is Mixed Martial Arts gaining such popularity?

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