Into the cage: what drives a mixed martial arts fighter

Into the cage: what drives a mixed martial arts fighter

Labelled as bloodthirsty and brutal, cage fighting is booming in Australia. Scott Hannaford and Rohan Thomson went behind the scenes with fighter Paul Franchi to find out why.

It's less than 24 hours before the fight of his life and Paul Franchi is dying.

His body has shed 3 kilograms since he woke up and shakes constantly from hot and cold chills.

His kidneys have started shutting down.

He turns to his partner Maddison and says, "I'm this close to going to hospital right now."

A tough training session for Franchi.

A tough training session for Franchi.Credit:Rohan Thomson

With a racing pulse and a woozy head, he gets in the car and they begin to drive.

But Franchi doesn't go to the hospital, he pulls into another car park, goes inside, strips down to his Calvin Klein boxer shorts and steps onto the scales.

The digital screen lights up – 69.3 kilograms. He's made the cut.

By the next morning he's managed to hold down a light breakfast and has been taking on water, as energy begins to flow back into his emaciated body.

Paul Franchi in the ring.

Paul Franchi in the ring.Credit:Rohan Thomson

By the time he arrives at the converted basketball court in Canberra's south that afternoon, his weight is back to nearly 75 kilograms.

"I'm not going to lie to you, it's been one of the toughest things I've done," he says, as he reaches for the bright red headphones that will not come off until just before his fight begins.

After a narrow previous loss in the heavier middleweight category, he has decided to target a lower weight group.

But to get below the 70 kilogram cutoff Franchi has had to slowly carve 14 kilograms off his frame, much to the distress of his Italian mother, who struggles to understand why he chooses to torture himself this way.

I know people do struggle to understand it, why would you want to go in there and get punched in the head, elbowed and kicked?

Paul Franchi

No sodium, no carbs, brutal workout sessions lasting hours, running before work and again after, body fat scans and months of bland food – this has been his life for the last 18 months to get him to this point.

Now, with no more work to do, he and Maddison head out to get their hair braided for the occasion.

According to fight promoter Storm Oshyer, Franchi's approach is becoming the norm for an increasingly professional breed of mixed martial arts fighters.

Highly trained athletes as disciplined as the most elite runners or football players are replacing the stereotype of thuggish brawlers.

"People do still see it as human cockfighting, two people forced against their will into a cage with no rules, but that's changing as education improves," he said.

"People are used to seeing a boxing ring, but a cage is still very confronting for many people who've never been to a fight."

While still a relatively fringe sport regarded as shocking and bloodthirsty by many in the Australian community, mixed martial arts, or cage fighting, is one of the fastest growing sports in the world.

Legislators have been forced to confront the rapid growth in popularity as organisers and promoters seek to expand into previously untapped markets.

In the United States, its popularity is threatening to overtake ice hockey in terms of total fans.

Among 18 to 34-year-olds MMA is already more popular than both the National Hockey League and NASCAR racing.

No longer just practised in the basement of pubs, jurisdictions around Australia have been grappling with whether to allow cage fighting or try and push back against the tide of popularity.

Event promoters argue the cage is a much safer venue than a boxing ring, where fighters risk being thrown out of the ring, but it remains a confronting sight for those unfamiliar with MMA.

In May South Australia will host its first Ultimate Fighting Championship bout to an expected sellout crowd of 12,000, much to the dismay of the Australian Medical Association's state branch, which has called for it to be banned.

In Victoria, the first mixed martial arts bout held in the octagon cage popularised by the UFC will also take place in November, after the state government moved to lift the ban on the enclosures last month.

Canberra has hosted 10 MMA competitions in a cage to date, with Oshyer's next event making a move out of the basketball centre to a new venue featuring large playback screens, instant replays and live internet streaming.

"I get that people still see it as a brutal bloodsport," says Franchi, "but there is so much technique and skill to this sport, it has changed my life. I used to go out drinking, to parties, not anymore. I want to be the best, I want to make it to the UFC."

As old-school rap music pulses through the red headphones, Franchi starts to bounce, throwing dummy punches at the mirror of the backstage warm-up area.

Soon it's time and he moves behind the screen as the caller booms out his name over the PA system. As lasers dance around the inside of the darkened, fog-filled hall, his opponent Joe "The Bogan" Pollock makes his entrance.

Franchi has spent months studying Pollock's previous fights, planning his moves, looking for weaknesses and working out how to create an opening to get in the signature kick he's spent hours perfecting in training.

Pollock's flashy entrance, peeling off layers of flannelette shirts as he makes his way to the cage, is in stark contrast to Franchi, who opts for bright red Nike trainers, red lycra bike shorts and a simple black top. The bogan versus the athlete.

As the siren sounds, Franchi begins to dance.

The two circle each other, sizing up their opponent and throwing exploratory jabs. Pollock throws himself forward but Franchi's moving fast, rounding on him, constantly circling and taking his time, using his superior endurance to wear down Pollock.

They lock briefly before Franchi launches a barrage of fists that catches Pollock off-balance.

Seeing his window open up, he launches the kick, as Pollock misjudges and turns the wrong way.

Franchi's foot and shin crash into the back of Pollock's skull with devastating force, splitting it open as a stream of red pours down the back of his neck – the now roaring crowd explodes as blood begins to drip onto the canvas.

Medics enter the ring, assess the injury and seal up the wound, but it's already over for Pollock.

As the siren sounds in the second round, Franchi's already flying.

He smashes Pollock to the ground, straddles the cowering figure and starts to pound fist after merciless fist into the beaten man's head.

Moments later and the officials on both sides have seen enough – the bout is called.

The referee takes both men by the wrists, turns to face the cameras and hoists Franchi's left arm towards the ceiling.

This is the moment he's been working for, this is what the sacrifice has been all about.

"It's something only a fighter can really understand," he says, a fortnight after the fight.

He admits he's been pigging out and giving himself a mental break from the rigours of the weight-cutting regime.

With Maddison also dominating her first fight on the same night, the pair headed out for cronuts for breakfast the following morning, a treat they had been promising themselves for months.

X-rays confirmed his foot isn't broken, just badly bruised from its collision with the back of Pollock's head.

"I know people do struggle to understand it, why would you want to go in there and get punched in the head, elbowed and kicked? But for me I like to do things at 100 per cent, and if you don't give this 100 per cent you're going to get hurt," he said.

"When I was younger and I was playing AFL, I partied a bit too much, I wasn't serious enough. I'm older now and I understand what's required."

Days after getting on the cronuts, his body was fighting back.

"I felt worse than when I was cutting the weight, it was time to get back to it, I've got to keep the momentum going, keep it ticking over."

A supplements company watching on the night was impressed with Franchi's potential and has started sponsorship talks that may include a nutrition plan to allow him to take in more calories while keeping his weight down.

He has also signed on for another of Oshyer's fights in August, Storm Damage 7, and is looking at another major fight, Brace, to be held in May at the Australian Institute of Sport arena.

"I've had a lot of people encourage me after the fight, and I've started a website. [Brace] will be broadcast live on Ten Play, so it's extra exposure," Franchi said.

"There's a lot to learn, but I'm committed to it now and I want to go as far as I can. I don't want to die wondering."

Scott Hannaford is a reporter for The Canberra Times.

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