Mixed Martial Arts Grows in Geneva, Switzerland
Beauty and the beast clash in Geneva
Nives smells victory. She sits astride Eva and pummels away at the Bulgarian’s delicate high cheekbones; sweat flies and blood flows.
The referee has seen enough and declares the 26-year-old Croat the winner of this Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) bout. In Geneva the young sport has a growing number of followers.
“Smack my bitch up…” The raw bass of The Prodigy still reverberates around the Leman Theatre, deep below the five-star Grand Hotel Kempinski, as Eva is led out of the octagonal two-metre-high cage in the centre of the room with a bloody left eye.
The next set of fighters descends into the arena between the packed crowd. Vaseline is applied to cheeks, gloves are checked, and then a last-minute pep talk from the coach as a Playboy bunny girl warms up the crowd.
Then they are off: three five-minute rounds of relentless bone-crunching kicks and blows, mixed with wrestling holds, as each fighter attempts to knock out his opponent or get them to submit.
This is cage-fighting, or MMA as it's more properly known, a combat sport that proponents say brings together several different fighting techniques (boxing, muay thai, judo, wrestling and Brazilian jiujitsu).
The third Strength and Honour Championship (SHC3), which is held every six months in Geneva, is a sell-out with some 1,500 fight fans here to watch 13 fights - and for the first time two all-female encounters.
“I’ve seen it on TV, but it’s much better live,” said Florian, who travelled from Lyon with a group of friends.
Tonight was Eva Valeva’s first bruising introduction to professional cage-fighting. The former international model and kickboxing champion was introduced to MMA about a year ago through a male friend.
“I wanted to try something new,” she told swissinfo.ch. “MMA is a complete combination sport, standing up and on the mat. There is a very special kind of adrenalin.”
But isn’t it unquestionably violent?
“It’s ok,” she said. “It’s not a problem as I’ve finished modelling now.”
Women are a recent arrival to this aggressive macho sport, which has grown in popularity in Switzerland via the American Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), broadcast every Saturday evening on the RTL9 television channel.
But they are increasingly making a name for themselves. In August 2009 a televised fight between Gina Carano and Cris “Cyborg” Santos from the US attracted a TV audience of almost one million.
Emily Geer, who helped organise the event, has been practising MMA for a year now at the Igor Araujo club in Geneva.
“I came from kickboxing. I really liked it but felt I wasn’t progressing and needed a new challenge,” she said.
“It’s very different. Kickboxing is very explosive but MMA is much more about strength and grips. It’s very technical. I wouldn’t say one is better than another; it’s just a different way of fighting.”
Geer said there was a buzz about MMA in Switzerland right now – as in other European countries.
“It’s a growing phenomenon,” she said. “More and more people want to train and are looking for clubs and more shows are being held like SHC and the Shooto ones in Zurich.”
According to Raid Salah, the organiser of SHC3, there are over 20 clubs in Switzerland, each with between 30 and 100 people wanting to learn MMA and Brazilian jiujitsu, the predominant MMA fighting style.
Geneva has ten big clubs; the others are found in Zurich, Lausanne and Lucerne.
MMA is developing in Geneva at an “extraordinary rate”, said Salah, who hopes to become the leading European promoter of the sport.
One person who is not so keen on the recent development is local councillor Charles Beer. The Social Democrat, who is responsible for the cantonal education, culture and sport department, says he would like to see this “pitiful, distressing, disgraceful spectacle” banned in Geneva.
“With this kind of entertainment we have reached an unacceptable level of decadence,” he told the Tribune de Genève newspaper. Beer was invited to the SHC3 but declined the offer.
MMA is permitted in Switzerland and most other European countries, with the exception of France. In the US and Canada professional competitions are allowed in most states and provinces.
Defenders of MMA argue that it is not possible to outlaw such a popular sport and a ban could drive the sport underground. They also cite research like a 2006 study by the Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, which concluded that the overall injury rate [excluding injury to the brain] in MMA competitions is now similar to other combat sports, including boxing.
“This sport is dangerous and aggressive,” admitted Salah. “But these are elite sportsmen and women. They are very professional. Before and after they are friendly to each other but during the fight they are fighters.”
Fighter Moises Rimbon also rejected the idea that cage-fighting was a no-holds barred blood-letting.
“If MMA is barbaric, boxing is also barbaric, as is football and ice hockey,” said Rimbon, adding that since its debut in the mid-1990s, the sport has become much more controlled, many blows and holds are illegal, and bouts are properly supervised with professional referees and ringside doctors.
MMA is meanwhile being closely followed by sporting authorities.
Anne Pellaud, head of non-Olympic sports at the Swiss-based International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA), said there was a need to structure MMA as it continues to grow.
“We are monitoring its evolution very closely. We want to offer an official framework to the discipline to stop it from being demonised,” Pellaud told Metro France.
Back in Geneva, after being slammed against the cage and pinned to the mat in a headlock, Sebastian Grabavek is back on his feet to cheers from the crowd and his girlfriend.
“Go on Sebastian, knee him in the ribs,” she screams.
Simon Bradley, swissinfo.ch
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