At the end of last night’s BRAVE CF 24, the hundreds of staff working the event; hostesses, waiters, security, waiters, PRs, more waiters – left London Olympic Park’s Copperbox Arena and walked through the cloying midnight humidity towards Hackney Wick train station.
They, like the rest of us, probably spent the time trying to make sense of what on earth the preceding four hours even was.
A showcase of MMA? An official state military celebration? The most over-the-top company summer party imaginable?
A bit of all three would be closest to the truth.
It’s safe to say that BRAVE doesn’t do things by half measures.
The Bahraini promotion ensured that each of last night’s some 350 tuxedo and evening dress-wearing attendees were never more than three feet away from a similarly kitted-out waiter – hands clasped behind their backs, awaiting an order of something, presumably.
Exactly what the VIP guests could have wanted remains unclear; aside from ferrying the three-course set menu from the kitchen to one of the twenty-something tables – each covered with a dark tablecloth, decked with crystal glassware and a single white balloon – there wasn’t much else for them to do. Just stand on ceremony, watching the night unfold.
Media members had more of an idea as to the night’s proceedings – if only slightly. Over the course of 25 emails in 17 days leading up to last night’s show, the BRAVE PR machine flexed its swelling muscles (the cramps this morning post-show must be unbearable). In each, the amnesiacs amongst us were reminded – within the first paragraph in the case of most – that this was no ordinary MMA event.
The bugling told us that much.
Positioned at the entrance to London Olympic Park’s Copperbox Arena, the British Army Buglers, in full regalia, and a lone saxophonist (always good to have one just in case a mood-boosting Sir Duke rendition is required) heralded the most distinguished of the 350 VIP’s arrival.
Before the show began, as the anointed guests somehow picked their way through the hordes of waiting staff to their tables, the Buglers were hurried from the front door to the balcony overlooking the arena. The company’s owner, His Royal Highness Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa was about to take his cage-side seat.
Or as he was introduced last night, “The Prince of Gladiators and Heroes”…
It was at this point, we realized that we were in for an interesting night. The crowd was treated to a dramatic Sheikh showreel video at several intervals throughout the evening, learning his passion for the sport of MMA, physical wellbeing (from the requisite deadlifts, cycling, and battle ropes footage) and charitable causes.
Marketing videos and fanfare aside, we also learned how popular HRH is amongst his employees. BRAVE’s answer to Bruce Buffer, Carlos Kremer – who’s MO of ‘the louder, the better’ became slightly painful as the night progressed – had this to say of his royal employer.
“As a former marine captain, I have seen some powerful leaders. But I have never seen a leader more impressive or make so much powerful change as our leader, His Royal Highness Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa.”
There was a subtle military undertone to the night as a whole. Sorry, correction. There was a massive underlying sub-plot, a brightly painted elephant, that invoked a considerable sense of unease bearing in mind the much-celebrated political and financial influence of the event’s attendees.
In some cases, it was obvious. The Royal British Legion was the night’s charitable cause, ceramic poppies from last year’s Tower of London exhibit and a flight in a Royal Air Force combat aircraft were among the items in an auction held at the interval. In others, it crept its way into the narrative and lingered like a slightly bad taste – Kremer at one point proclaiming one of BRAVE’s primary objectives as:
“To promote world peace, through violence.”
Prior to the event we were, however, made very much aware – by virtue of death by email – of the impact last night’s BRAVE CF 24 would have on the sport of MMA.
But a first look at the seven bouts tasked with “empowering and transforming the sport of mixed martial arts forever” didn’t leave you picking your hat back up off the floor, and unfortunately, that feeling continued as the first four contests played out.
Bahrani fighter Hussain Ayyad led the night off with a nice first-round stoppage over 0-1 youngster Mitchell Johnson, giving up landing strikes in mount to hunt for the submission which eventually came in the form of a triangle choke.
By all accounts, it was an exciting finish and one that probably would have got great crowd reception as a kick-off to the event.
But therein lies the story of one of the night’s biggest failings; there wasn’t a crowd.
Until Kramer got back on the mic and started screaming blue murder, the “government officials, military officers, celebrities, businessmen, reputed athletes, and distinguished members of society” were too busy basking in the soup of their collective influence to really notice the fight had finished.
The next three fights were uneventfully fought to decisions (including a victory for Russian-Bahrani prospect, Gamzat Magomedov, who received a pre-fight hug from HRH the Sheikh).
After each, Kramer’s post-fight orations increased exponentially in both volume and persuasive rhetoric, reminding any and all that this WAS the greatest night in MMA history, lest we forget.
The night’s headline bout was somewhat of an anti-climax. The featherweight strap returned home on the horse it came in on as Bubba ‘I’m a Bad Man’ Jenkins stopped Lucas Martins, a man whose fearsome portrayal in the pre-event PR push came to a spluttering halt, in the first round.
Instead, the night’s biggest moments came in the main card’s first fight, and the co-main event; albeit at the expense of two bright UK MMA prospects.
Young Welsh bantamweight, Aidan James had been on a tear with BRAVE, and a win over journeyman Cameron Else would insert his name straight into the title shot conversation.
Else had other plans, knocking James stiff with a beautifully timed overhand right 59 seconds into the first round. To that point, the UK and Ireland were running 1-4 for the night, so hopes rested on SBG bad boy Cian ‘The Warrior’ Cowley, who’s sizeable entourage of friends, coaches, friends’ wives, and kids had provided a cheerful and friendly atmosphere on the viewing balcony throughout the night.
Sadly, the mood didn’t continue past the second minute of the second round, with Cowley meeting a similar fate to James, crumbling under a thunderous Maciej Gierszewski straight right.
Both men, in the interest of safety, were led away before their respective results could be screamed across the speaker system; why add tinnitus to a potential concussion?
Unfortunately, the same courtesy wasn’t reserved for the rest of the crowd.
Deafening renditions of both British and Bahrani national anthems, complete with waving CGI flags on the big screen, started the night with a ring in the ear. From there, there was scarcely a moment over the course of the remaining four hours that did not involve the speaker system imposing its will.
The numerous PR ‘Sheikh shorts’ played throughout the night, accompanied with *insert inspirational instrumental here* that regularly reached Spinal Tap levels of discomfort. Two brief but deafening performances from Electronic String Quartet group, Electric Blaze followed, as well as the continuous sound of a heart-beat whenever the fight clock was running.
We’ve all had someone turn their favourite song up way beyond the capabilities of a car’s dated speaker system to the point of distortion; no knock on the musicianship, but noise doesn’t necessarily translate to a better experience.
This is somewhat the story of the night as a whole.
The invite-only exclusivity of proceedings was both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the lack of a crowd meant that fighters could mingle, unencumbered, with friends, family and coaching staff throughout the building; creating a friendly atmosphere.
On the other, one of the greatest elements of the sport is the collective participation of the masses in attendance, both for event atmosphere and fighter performance – who could argue with the notion that fighters are not encouraged to over-deliver when the place is rocking?
Speaking with some of the fighters in the lead-up, they could not be more complimentary as to BRAVE’s treatment of their talent – a most welcome sentiment, and one that BRAVE should strive to continue.
But ultimately, that’s what it’s about.
The fighters and their fights.
As the VIPs (Simon Webbe from Blue being the most well-known by the media row’s measure) entered the cage after Jenkins’ title defence was over, posturing and taking selfies, it became apparent that they were the night’s real headliners – a fact that, moving forward, simply won’t fly with the sport’s true fans.
Rhodri Morgan is a combat sports writer based out of London, England. When not covering MMA, he can be found roaming the halls of a south London Wholefoods, finding a dog to befriend and rolling in the doomed pursuit of the perfect kimura.