wo men go in, one comes out
"‘Fists, elbows, foreheads, knees and feet are the weapons. Only biting and gouging are banned’"
16 March 2003
By Martin Hannan
THE gladiators enter the arena, snarling and cursing each other. They wear neither gloves nor body protection, and by the end one of them may be dead. The audience for this hardcore event ranges from the super affluent to the small-time punter, all eagerly baying for blood.
The two protagonists enter a metal cage, about the size of a small boxing ring. Two men enter standing up, only one will leave walking. Fists, elbows, foreheads, knees and feet are the weapons. Only biting and gouging are banned in this contest. EverADVERTISEMENT
y other way of disabling a man, to the point of killing him, is allowed.
One of the fighters, a home-town hero, begins by lashing out with his feet. His opponent, though still in his 20s, is a seasoned veteran from another country who grabs the local hero’s leg and throws his man to the ground. Instantly, the visiting fighter is on top of his prone opponent and quickly smashes him into unconsciousness with fierce blows to the face.
Some of the crowd jeer, some cheer, most grab the cage and rattle it in frustration at the defeat of their man. The winner manages to escape their anger, and is rushed from the scene.
Everyday life in the Colosseum in ancient Rome? A clip from Mad Max ? No. This fight took place in 1988 in a car park near the Eiffel Tower in a city that loves to call itself the most sophisticated in the western world.
The man who came out of the Paris cage upright was Carl Merritt, a Londoner who went on to become one of the best exponents of cage fighting, an utterly brutal and highly illegal extreme form of pugilism which has flourished in abandoned warehouses, badly-lit car parks and remote country fields around the world for at least the last two decades, and probably for a lot longer.
Now 37, and long-since retired from his painful way of life, Merritt has just penned his explosive memoirs, called Inside the Cage. Working with ghost writer Wensley Clarkson, Merritt tells his story exactly as it happened to him, with only the argot of the East End edited out.
In doing so he has lifted the lid on a hidden underworld which makes the brawling depicted in the 1999 film Fight Club - ranked as one of the most violent films ever given general release in Britain - seem as harmless as a playground scrap.
Merritt recounts fight after fight in places as diverse as Las Vegas and a barn in Ireland from which he escaped only because his minders produced guns to ward off a crowd shouting for the neck of the "Brit bastard" who’d just beaten their man to a pulp.
"I must visit Ireland in daylight," Merritt said, "as I’ve only ever been there at night. They would fly me in while it was dark and fly me straight back out after the fight."
The possibility of winning huge sums of money by betting on and against Merritt and other cage fighters made the scene hugely attractive for high-rollers but dangerous for the participants. It was money which was the primary reason for Merritt’s decision to go into the cage. He had been a decent schoolboy amateur boxer, but while he was still a young boy of 13 he beat a man in a game of pool, and was beaten senseless with an iron bar in return.
The plastic plate needed to fix his jaw and cheekbone meant he would never pass a Boxing Board of Control examination. Illegal fights were the only channel for his natural aggression.
"It wasn’t the violence," he said. "Don’t get me wrong, I did get a buzz out of it, especially in the early days - but it was mainly the money."
Having succumbed to temptation, his ‘managers’, named in the book as ‘Bill’ and ‘Kenny’, took over his life. Merritt started out in the prize fights which have long been a feature in the pubs of London’s East End. He earned £35 for his first illegal fight, but it was when his two managers persuaded him to go into the cage fighting scene that he earned serious cash. His last fight in Las Vegas in 1997 earned him £32,000 - enough for him to call time and walk away.
All the years that he was fighting, Merritt was living a lie - his girlfriend Carole, who later became his wife and mother of their two children - did not know about his secret life until his last year in the cage. If he came home bruised he told her that he’d been beaten up while working as a bouncer.
Most times, however, Merritt was relatively unscathed because of his prowess in the cage. He was even matched against - and beat - the toughest cage fighters in the world in America. Carole found out what was going on and almost left him, but Merritt promised to quit and kept his word after the Vegas fight.
Some fighters did not get out in time and paid the ultimate price. With little or no medical help on standby, fatalities were inevitable inside the cage. One of Merritt’s opponents had a brain haemorrhage and died a few days after the fight. Merritt will never know whether it was his blows which killed the man. An Irish gypsy opponent who cost his supporters a fortune by losing to Merritt was hauled away by a howling mob. Merritt later found out that the beaten man was burned to death in a car.
While still a novice, Merritt himself was once beaten so badly by an opponent that he was rushed unconscious to hospital where he nearly died. As it was, he survived with a broken jaw, ribs and collar bone.
It would be easy to dismiss Merritt’s story as mere gangland fantasy, but his depiction of a lawless demi-monde is no myth. It isn’t too difficult to find corroboration of his claims - search for cage fighting on the internet and you’ll see why.
He is also aware that some people may want to kill him for going public on the cage scene: "They will not like what I’ve written and may come looking for me - I’ll deal with that when and if it happens."
The most compelling and galling scenes in the book are where rich, beautiful people gather in underground car parks to watch two men almost kill each other. Merritt professes himself unsure what the attraction was, apart from the huge sums being gambled.
"People get a kick out of the violence," he explained. "The kind of people that I saw in the audiences, if you want to call them audiences, were mainly well-to-do people. I suppose it was just like the gladiators in Rome - people get off on that sort of thing.
"I didn’t pay much attention to them, because I was working, but the people around me such as the minders would talk about how the people watching were getting a thrill - I think it was just bloodlust, simple as that.
"Professional boxing isn’t what it was, and people are looking for something more basic - you can even see Ultimate Cage Fighting on television at the moment, and it might take over from boxing eventually."
The televised version of cage fighting is a joke compared to the real thing, he says, and even the brutal scenes in Fight Club do not come close to the reality .
"Yeah, it was pretty much kill or be killed," he said casually.
The tragedy of Merritt is that his life could have been so very different. He came from a home which his father left when he was still an infant, replaced by a stepfather who beat up his mother. When he was just 15, Merritt went to Rochester borstal for beating the man to a pulp.
"It happens to any child who comes from a broken family, particularly with the absence of a father figure.
"I didn’t get much in the way of an education but I liked the painting lessons in Borstal. I don’t know if I could have been a great artist, but if I’d managed to get an education I know I would have been a totally different person - definitely."
Merritt has his own kind of morality: "I never got into the gangland crime scene - that doesn’t interest me at all. I’ve helped people out to protect my ‘manor’, but I’ve got a good life now, and I’m happy with Carole and the kids."
Carl Merritt got out of the cage alive, relatively intact and with money in his bank account, but it’s a good bet that somewhere in Britain fighters are even now in training to enter the cage, and that not all will have his good fortune.
Inside the Cage: My Life in the World's Deadliest Fight Game, by Carl Merritt with Wensley Clarkson, published by HarperCollinsEntertainment, £16.99