Steven Berkoff

‘Kill him, Jimmy!’ A night at the cage fight

So we went to Wembley Arena to witness for the first time what is called ‘cage fighting’.

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So we went to Wembley Arena to witness for the first time what is called ‘cage fighting’.

So we went to Wembley Arena to witness for the first time what is called ‘cage fighting’. The reason for this being, of course, that the combatants go to war in a rather large cage. The cage is bound in with a net of the kind of wire you might use for a chicken coop. There are no seats for the weary gladiators to rest on between their violent bouts, and so they stand or lean against the wire. Their seconds come into the cage through an opening in one of the sides and check them out or wave a towel to attempt to cool them down between rounds. The first thing you notice as you approach Wembley are the spectators, mostly youngish men but quite a few punchy and tattooed middle-agers and a few ‘birds’. Birds cackle and squawk.

So they turned up just before the fight started, scheduled from 6 p.m. onwards, full of that blokish, shouty enthusiasm, poking gestures, yelps and shouts to mates, underdressed, just in T-shirts, blazoned in tattoos, clutching Coke cans, puffing on snouts and quite buoyed up, larfin’ their heads off at nothing in particular, and occasionally a serious muscle-wrapped beast would stroll by with his bird, well pumped-up with arms entwined with tattooed snakes.

We then decided to at least take our seats and breathe in the atmosphere before the match. We threaded through the corridors which sold nothing apart from booze and hotdogs at high prices and then entered the arena. The last time I was here was to see the famous Viennese riding school, which was indeed astonishing. We found our ‘comped’ seats, graciously arranged by my mate Dave Legeno, who was down to battle halfway through the evening. Legeno is a warrior of a bloke whom I met on a movie in which I had a walk-on role. During a chat this actor confided to me that he was also a ‘cage fighter’, which I found astonishing. Out of dumb curiosity one night — failing to see anything on the box which interested me — I had watched a few minutes of ‘cage fighting’ and had never seen anything so savage, so disgustingly brutal in my life. So when my new acquaintance revealed his ‘other life’ my attention shot up several notches and I regarded this actor-fighter with no small degree of awe.

He then invited me to witness his big punch-up at Wembley a month hence, and so here we were. As we entered the arena we were blasted with sound, a kind of cheapo rock beat which thundered through our entire bodies. The arena was just a quarter full at this stage with the flotsam and jetsam of the Brit world. A few were ‘dressed’ for the occasion in leather with cut-off sleeves, some with punk hairdo’s and Essex birds yacking on the mobile. I said a quiet prayer of thanks that at least I wasn’t sitting with the hoi polloi but in the posh seats at the front.

I’d bought a programme for a fiver and studied the form. These were the Cage Rage championships apparently, subtitled ‘Hard as Hell’. We were in for quite a treat. Outside the cage sat a group of judges and the fighters’ supporters and a roving TV cameraman. The photos staring out of the pages of the programme all looked tough and, indeed, as hard as hell. They didn’t look like boxers, except maybe a few, but most looked like killers, assassins or gladiators in a Ridley Scott movie. They were as impressive a bunch of men as you were likely to come across just this side of hell.

The announcer stepped into the round wire cage and began his spiel. It’s loud. Too loud — but everything is loud here, the music, the announcements and the screaming birds whose piercingly high vocal chords outdo any yobs, shouting ‘Kill him Jimmy ... kill ’im!!’

Just a few seats away her piercing shriek is like an arrow in my ear. The object of her devotion is heavyweight James ‘Machine’ MacSweeny, 6ft4 and weighing 107kg. He does indeed fight like a well-oiled machine and devastates his opponent, a huge well-built Mark Buchanan. James is awesome. So fierce is the combat, using light gloves, knees, feet, boxing, wrestling and just about everything thrown into the pot that the fight can only last a maximum of 15 minutes, in three five-minute rounds. He triumphs over his formidable adversary. MacSweeny’s face is unmarked, perfect, like a model. He finished and performs his ritual of triumph by climbing the wire pen and straddling the top like a proud barbarian or like some primitive beast of the forest. His fans shriek and bay. They love it, and him, and the loser is swept away or just slinks off. Sometimes the announcer begs a little appreciative show from the audience for his loser’s bravery.

And so they go on, one after another leaping, throwing each other to the floor and then belting them, belting them when they are down, belting them hard on the face, the nose, the ears, when they are on their backs. The victim tries to cover up and also belts back even from a recumbent position. This must be the closest I have been to what I have read about the Roman Colosseum. The bodies come and go. Some are dispatched rapidly and some take the punishment or deal it out for the full five-minute rounds. In boxing if your opponent goes down, you do not hit but give the man time to recover. Not here, not in this brutal arena. I am still waiting for my ally, Dave ‘Death Wish’ Legeno. Suddenly he appears at my seat with the news that his bout has been shifted to near the end. ‘You don’t have to wait,’ he says (such a gentleman) but of course, he is why we are here and so we stay. A break is called and so we all pile out for drinks, a pee, a fag. We opt for a fag outside and pass through a rigmarole of checks, gates, turnstiles and then we’re out. What a relief and how sweet and normal seems life outside this armpit of hell. Soon my friend is on and we keenly await what promises to be a slaughterhouse since he is revved up and keen to demonstrate his lethal powers. He looks over, of course, we cheer him on. ‘Come oooon Daiiiiive!!!’

His opponent is a black American, Herb Dean, who doesn’t look too threatening, and wears his hair thick, long and tied back. Dave advances like a killer and momentarily alarms the American. He strikes at great speed and it looks as if it might be over in seconds. Dave will prove what he can do. He is proud. But wait. Suddenly the American charges him in the stomach and pull his legs from under him. Oh! What is happening? Dave is pinned down and is being clobbered but at the same time using his brute strength to wriggle out. But the Yank is huge and it’s not easy. This is a battle of the Titans for sure but Dave is striking back from the deck since one of his powerful arms is still free.

Dave is 42 and maybe at the upper end of the ages fighting tonight. He cannot have much time left in this monstrously unyielding sport but he fights on gamely and is awesomely fit. The bell goes and he gets up as if little has happened, but I can see he is furious with himself. He’s let himself down in front of his fans and us. His second attempts to mollify and pat him down but he brushes him away. This black American guy is much tougher than he thought. He’s 36 and of ju-jitsu background. This now is evident. I worry for Dave. But low and behold, the black guy, who looked like he might be the winner if he could keep up this murderous pace, suddenly throws in the towel. He won’t go on! Bloody hell! What’s happening? The crowd starts booing. He points to his right eye. He claims he can’t see out of it. The announcer relays this to the audience. More booing — now intense. I can’t quite believe it but here it is.

Now sweaty and hot, Dave comes to our row and sits next to me and explains that he wasn’t hurt and that he was popping the black opponent while under him! He may have actually hit him in the eye. I thought at least he might have changed first before telling us, but obviously he didn’t want to miss us and so, still steaming, he slides along our row and tells us his side of the story. It’s a weird world, as they say, but we were both delighted that he broke through the ‘fourth wall’ so to speak and came to see us. We thanked him and left. What an amazingly brave bloke. We escaped into fresh air. Believe it or not, the night before we had been at Glyndebourne. Of course they shout there too. ‘Bwaaaaavoooo! Bwarvooooo!’ Everybody likes a shout.