HELEN GRANGE speaks to Andrew van Zyl, a physical education high school teacher, who gets physical regularly at MMA. The cage-fighting spectacle is growing in South Africa.
The bloodlust of early Romans and their emperors, heartily indulged in the famous Colosseum, all came to an end in the sixth century. But if you’ve been introduced to the spectacle of a mixed martial arts (MMA) fight, you’d be forgiven for thinking the gladiators had been resurrected.
Peopled by muscle-bound tattooed men bursting with testosterone and their young woman groupies, the MMA “games” in South Africa fall under the auspices of Extreme Fighting Championship (EFC) Africa, which has more than 70 of the continent’s toughest MMA athletes contracted.
Fights take place at venues like Carnival City, Emperors Palace and Northgate Coca Cola Dome, in a hexagon “cage” to keep the muscle, sweat and blood contained and away from the yelling fans, many of them women pitched well over the men in tone and aggression.
My introduction to an MMA fight was at Africa’s biggest MMA event yet, held this month at the Dome. “Fight Night” started at 5pm and there were to be 13 five-minute bouts, including two championship bouts – lightweight and heavyweight. What struck me first was the near-uniformity of the twenty- to thirty-something spectators – the women in killer heels and minis, the men in chest-hugging tattoo T-shirts and designer jeans.
The fighters were heralded into battle with big screen introductions of them and their mean-faced caveats, the voiceover done in an American accent, and a lot of thumping rap music pumping up the atmosphere.
Between the rounds of visceral fisticuffs, kicking and wrestling, the sexy “ring girls” swaggered around the cage holding up round cards.
“Get him, get him! Knee! Elbow! ELBOW! Excellent!” yelled a middle-aged blonde from the back.
The adrenalin was palpable. And if this wasn’t such a tightly regulated sport, the kill would surely have been real.
The first fighters were lightweights Wentzel “The Animal” Nel and Terrence “Trigger” Griessel, followed by six other pairs with battle names like “The Threat”, “Bam Bamz”, “Law and Order” and “The Punisher”, but the fighter I came to see was 29-year-old Andrew “One Gear” van Zyl, who was fighting Ruan “Fangzz” Potts, 33, for the heavyweight title.
My interest in him was because, as a physical education and life orientation teacher at Parktown Boys’ High with an honours in clinical psychology, he didn’t seem the typical MMA fighter.
I had hooked up with him days earlier at the school, where I found the bearded beefcake in a red T-shirt and white shorts, looking rather more bed-head boyish than belligerent.
“I always wanted to try something besides the rugby and water polo, and when an old school friend suggested I try martial arts, I gave it a bash,” he told me. “At that time MMA in South Africa was pretty much unheard of and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was in its infancy, with Rodney King as one of the few pioneers.
“It was pretty much a case of you went in, got thrown in the deep end, and if you could hack it, Rodney was prepared to work with you. The classes were tough and we had a high dropout rate, but the guys who stuck around are now some of the country’s best fighters and instructors.”
Andrew does 10 or 11 sessions of training a week, each between 45 minutes and 1.5 hours, early in the morning or after work, at the Hot Box boxing gym in Glenhazel and B&J’s MMA in Randpark Ridge.
“MMA is a combination of the best combat techniques, so with conditioning and strengthening you’re learning technique,” Andrew says.
The name “One Gear” was given to him by King “because at first I didn’t know how to tone down the intensity of my training”, he laughs.
This trait would have something to do with the fact that, in 1999, Andrew was headboy at Parktown Boys’ High, and today practises the strictest discipline with his high-protein, five-meals-a-day diet. He prepared for a solid 10 weeks for Fight Night, which meant “no booze” and downing a lot of Titan bodybuilding supplements.
Has he ever been seriously hurt?
In his first fight at 19 at Emperors Palace, he got his “head smashed in” in round one by Kobus Huisamen who’d had more than 100 professional kickboxing bouts.
But, after getting a slap from MMA instructor Bobby Karagiannidis – who shouted, “Are you actually gonna throw a punch? Get back in there and do what you do!” – Andrew went back in, clinched up, took it to the ground, “got mount and won by arm bar” (legs across the opponent’s chest, with one of his arms between your thighs).
Since then he’s had “cuts and bruises”. “It looks brutal, but actually there are fewer injuries in this sport than in boxing or rugby,” he said.
MMA wasn’t always this safe when it started. Some of the first MMA events in the country were hosted by Ultimate Fighting SA in the early 2000s, maintaining an underground following. Sporting bodies have since come and gone, all claiming to regulate MMA, with responsibility for safety standards resting mainly on individual promoters.
Towards the end of 2009, EFC AFRICA was launched to bring a high-quality world-class MMA production, including higher safety standards.
So although some know this as no-rules fighting, MMA now has an extensive list of rules, including 31 fouls. These rules include no head-butting, eye-gouging, biting, hair-pulling, fish hooking (too leery to ask), groin attacks, putting a finger into any orifice or into any cut or laceration, small joint manipulation or striking at the spine or the back of the head.
“The most common injuries I have seen in MMA have been skin abrasions, lacerations, nasal fractures, concussions, contusions and dislocations,” says Dr Ewoudt van der Linde, head of Event Doctors, an on-site emergency medical team that oversees all EFC Africa events.
Fast-forward to Fight Night. By 8pm the Dome is full and pumping with adrenalin, naked aggression and pheromones. But for teacher Andrew, it ends in bitter disappointment, as he loses to Potts.
But life goes on, even after a night of bloodletting. It even gets better, for Andrew at least. On December 10, before kicking into the Christmas holidays, he marries his sweetheart, attorney and ballerina Lianne Olivier, formerly from Parktown Girls’ High.
Headquartered in Johannesburg, EFC Africa now produces eight live MMA events a year. The events are broadcast live to Nu Metro cinemas across South Africa, reaching thousands more fans.