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…on Cage Rage 21 vs. UFC 70

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Andy Geer, Cage Rage co-promoter, lets the side down by going open-necked

Considered the lesser of the two announcements in the past week, the alliance between FEG and ProElite, the parent companies of K-1 and EliteXC respectively, was formalised at the announcement of the co-promotion of Dynamite USA, FEG’s first effort in the US, to be shown on Showtime. However, the announcement of other promotions joining the promotional alliance was altogether more curious. While Northern Californian promotion Strikeforce was already involved with ProElite, it seems that the additions of bodogFight, Cage Rage and Spirit XC came out of nowhere.

To most, Cage Rage will be a name that represents “some promotion from England”. However, Cage Rage Championships, to give them their full name, represent a massive success in the UK, drawing crowds to large arenas and becoming the home, albeit a temporary one, to some of the world’s top independent fighters. They have accomplished this with questionable levels of mainstream media coverage. Their events are shown on the top sports channel in the UK, Sky Sports, and their news is regularly featured in men’s weekly magazines Nuts and Zoo. However, MMA still does not receive the coverage of boxing, despite far exceeding its attendances in many cases, especially with the mainstream printed press. Picked out by PRIDE as a strategic partner before their recent buyout, Cage Rage do not get as much credit as they deserve.

For all their recent success, just a year ago Cage Rage were a good prospect mired in the pack. They held shows in the 2,500-seat Wembley Conference Centre, main evented by a former big name from PRIDE or UFC and with an undercard made up mainly of fighters from the local area. Some were fighters on the way back, like Anderson Silva, some seemed to be on the way down, like Tony Fryklund. The closure of the Conference Centre and Cage Rage’s expanding fanbase saw them offered a slot at the nearby Wembley Arena and a potential 8,000 seats to sell. Never ones to shrink from a challenge, promoters Dave O’Donnell and Andy Geer set about putting together a huge show for July 30th 2006, topped by the return to action of Ian “the Machine” Freeman to take on then-World Light Heavyweight champion, Melvin Manhoef. While Freeman lost via an early knockout, they rose to the level of a big arena show, returning to Wembley Arena twice since, with a crosstown sojourn to the larger Earls Court for Cage Rage 19.

This expansion has also come at a time where they have extended the brand to smaller shows called Cage Rage Contenders, which are either franchised to other local promoters or run centrally by Dave and Andy. Their next expansion is into Ireland, with a Contenders show in Dublin. With the take up on their franchises initially slow, it has been left to the main Contenders shows in London to fly the flag. The reports have been initially very favourable and the up-and-coming fighters that have made main Cage Rage shows have been very entertaining, in particular the Ronnie Mann-Ashleigh Grimshaw rematch that made the Cage Rage 20 undercard.

In the recent press conference, Dave O’Donnell admitted that they expected to help the UFC, not compete with them. The UK is a country of 60m people, there’s enough for everybody to get a fanbase in a growing sport. However, running head-to-head with Cage Rage on an already-established date smacked of arrogance and, with the same bulldog spirit that saw London through the Blitz, Cage Rage refused to roll over.

With UFC 70 being shown on the fledgling Setanta PPV channel, Cage Rage approached their current broadcast partner Sky, the biggest digital subscription TV service that is in over eight million homes, and managed to get Cage Rage 21 shown live on Sky Sports. Previously, events have been shown weeks later. Providing this service on a subscription service available and not on PPV like UFC could prove to be the biggest master stroke. While consumers are constantly changing, the UK is still not a pay-per-view territory in the same manner as the US and this local knowledge give Cage Rage a distinct advantage. They had already signed Bob Sapp, Vitor Belfort, Evangelista “Cyborg” Santos and Murilo “Ninja” Rua. Cage Rage mean business.

They have shown ambition to make 2007 their year, even if they have to compete with UFC. Unlike UFC 38, where the best and the brightest of British MMA were queuing up to fight, these fighters know where their bread is buttered this time and UFC have only managed to sign low-carders. UFC are even reported to have made a play for Cage Rage’s head referee Grant Waterman only to be rebutted. Both promotions could be headed for the courtroom, as Cage Rage have been sued over the usage of the phrase “ultimate fighting”. For somebody so boorish, Dana White seems awfully tetchy over these non-competitors.

This show would also provide the opportunity for Cage Rage to ramp up the glitz. While they already have more girls in skimpy outfits than any MMA promotion in the world, they have brought some increasingly strange elements to their shows. Scantily clad women on stilts that were part-table dancer, part-Cirque Du Soleil were present at the opening of the last show and it would not surprise to see more money spent to make the presentation more of a PRIDE-like spectacle. The investment in a larger cage was a start and increased investment would make their shows more aesthetically-pleasing still. However, this show may provide the last we see of the Open Guard rule. With talk of a commission being developed, it has been admitted that the popular rule may be on the way out of Cage Rage. Andy Geer has maintained that they will stand firm and still prevent elbow strikes on the ground.

Of course, Cage Rage is not without critics. I have heard rumblings that they do not present MMA in a serious enough way. Some have accused Cage Rage of faux-gangsterisms and talking about bouts as if they’re a couple of men scrapping in a pub car park. I can understand some people’s distaste for elements which seem to play up the Guy Ritchie movie element there, it is a MMA promotion based in London. How else can it be presented. For want of a better word, they’re being real and true to themselves.

Another accusation fired at Cage Rage is their usage of American fighters of questionable ability and drawing power, while ignoring good European fighters. While we can look to British-based Eastern Europeans like Zelg Galesic and Tengiz Tedoradze as success stories, they have only really tapped France for fighters. The next step for Cage Rage after Britain and Ireland would be continental Europe so development of marketable foreigners could be key to the next evolution of Cage Rage. However, once across the North Sea or the English Channel, a whole new set of problems emerges. In France, MMA is banned and the legalities of using the cage in some countries is very dicey. Germany would probably be the next sensible target.

Ultimately, Cage Rage are a very useful and underestimated component of the new K-1 alliance. They have the will and the contacts to hold some ground against the UFC in the main territory into which they seek to expand. This deal looks to work both ways. Cage Rage 21 will play host to the first cage kickboxing bout in Cage Rage’s five year history, as Canadian Michael “Black Sniper” McDonald takes on British kickboxer James McSweeney under K-1 rules, while Paul “Semtex” Daley looks a major possibility to fight on Dynamite USA. Dave O’Donnell also announced that Cage Rage 21 would mark their US television début, though would not say which TV network would be showing it. With their new alliance, one would assume that the likely destination is Showtime. With several recent departures from their ranks, including world champions Melvin Manhoef and Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro to HERO*s, this could see a replenishing of their international fighter base and possibly the return of the aforementioned pair. With their strategic alliance with PRIDE over, this provides the perfect fit.

Only time will tell if this serves both sides well. However, Cage Rage exists because of the hard work, vision and dedication of Andy Geer and Dave O’Donnell. They are men that like the challenge. That is why they took a small, successful “one time only” show held to buy new mats for their martial arts class and turned it into the biggest MMA promotion in Europe. They will not go quietly into the night. Cage Rage will not roll over.

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Written by Michael Farrow

April 3, 2007 at 1:09 pm

Posted in MMA

Tagged with , , ,

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