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Tuesday, 7 March, 2000, 17:19 GMT
Fighting over the scraps

Neither "fish-hooking" nor foul: Total fighting hits the UK
By BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley

It seems no one is pulling any punches when it comes to the world's toughest full contact sport, total fighting.

A visceral mix of boxing and wrestling, with a fair smattering of martial arts thrown in, the sport has drawn fire from medical experts and politicians alike.

Given its no-holds-barred reputation, local authorities have been jittery about sanctioning tournaments.

Heavyweight boxer Henry Cooper in 1966
Spash it all over: Sir Henry Cooper says "Total fighting is barbaric"
Milton Keynes is one of the few British towns to have hosted a total fighting bout. Agreeing to an another tournament on 12 March has earned its council some notoriety.

There are plenty who are clearly alarmed by a spectator sport where kicking, punching and choking are not only permitted but actively encouraged.

"Human cockfighting"

In the United States, where "ultimate fighting" has an avid following, no lesser critic than presidential hopeful Senator John McCain has made his feelings about the sport quite clear.

"It is a commentary on the sickness at the heart of American life," said Mr McCain, who has succeed in having several bouts of what he calls "human cockfighting" cancelled.

The British Medical Association (BMA) has, not surprisingly, expressed its concern about any UK-hosted "total" fights.

[Total fighting] is a street fight in the ring

Boxing promotor Frank Warren
However, its calls for a total ban have been backed by some rather unexpected names from the world of boxing - a pursuit with its own detractors among physicians.

Former heavyweight champ Sir Henry Cooper, whose own fearsome punch earned the name "'Enry's 'ammer", reckons total fighting in "barbaric".

knockout blow

Flamboyant boxing promoter Frank Warren, the man behind recent Mike Tyson's one round demolition of Britain's Julius Francis, says it's just "a street fight in the ring".

Glyn Leach, editor of Boxing Monthly, sees no contradiction.

"It may seem like the pot calling the kettle black, but if total fighting had a quarter of the medical supervision boxing has I'd be more sympathetic."

Total fighter Ian Freeman
Total sport or violent pursuit?
Mr Leach likens total fighting to the gaudy spectacle of WWF and WCW wrestling, rather than the sportsmanship and athleticism of boxing.

"Only a failed boxer, who's tired of living, would end up in a total fighting ring. I'm not surprised people nowadays will flock to see it, total fighting is an accident waiting to happen."

Dr Ken Sheard, an expert on boxing from Leicester University, says spectators' desire to see total fighting may be a reaction to the state of modern boxing.

"I wouldn't say modern boxing is safe, some safety regulations are merely cosmetic, but the sport has become increasingly stage managed."

Ring of truth

Dr Sheard says the desire of managers to "nurse" their fighters towards title shots makes for some fairly unequal pairings and extremely short bouts.

While stressing that a well matched boxing contest remains the more exciting event, Dr Sheard says thrill-seekers are attracted by total fighting's comparative lack of regulation.

"It's like a scrap. Though once it becomes more regulated and less visceral it may lose that appeal."

Total fighter Ian Freeman
Ian Freeman: Fighting his corner
Much of the hyperbole which has gained total fighting fans and enemies in equal measure, stresses the sport's lack of controls.

"They all start saying it's no holds barred, but there are rules," says Dr Sheard, adding that the fights he has seen were "quite tame" and "ended quite quickly without bloodshed".

Ian Freeman, a leading light in British total fighting, is keen to dispel his sport's outlaw image.

Headbutts and blows to the groin, throat, back, knees and groin are all discouraged.

Finger of blame

"Fish-hooking" - tearing at your opponents mouth with your fingers - is also frowned upon. Eye-gouging, biting and locks which even appear "threatening" can see a fighter disqualified.

"The referees are on top of you, they really are," says 16-stone martial arts expert Mr Freeman.

Tired of the constant criticism of total fighting, the County Durham man has thrown down the gauntlet.

"I'm quite willing to sit down with the BMA and with the MPs and work out some rules and regulations."

Has Henry Cooper ever applied a guillotine neck choke?

Total fighter Ian Freeman
Mr Freeman is scornful of claims his sport is more dangerous than boxing. Using an painful arm lock to force an opponent into submission involves less risk than pummelling them into unconsciousness.

"I'd say the number of blows to the head delivered during total fighting is only a tenth of that you'd see in a boxing match," says Mr Freeman, who claims to have never been injured while competing.

The boxing fraternity has turned against total fighting out of jealousy, says Mr Freeman.

"Britain's behind the rest of the world when it comes to total fighting, but they know in the five or 10 years it will overtake boxing."

Crowd pleaser

Mr Freeman, who is set to compete in the Milton Keynes contest, reckons the sheer variety of moves in total fighting will win fans over.

"You know what's going to happen in a boxing match. Two guys come out from the corners, hit each other, then go into a clinch. In total fighting it's when you get into a clinch the action starts."

Henry Cooper fights Muhammad Ali in 1966
"Come and have a go, 'Enry"
Mr Freeman, who admits to street fighting in the past and has received "unbelievable" offers to return, fears total fighting will be forced underground in the UK.

Such claims are refuted by most commentators, who say only a minority of fans would risk breaking the law to attend a totally unregulated fight.

Nevertheless, Mr Freeman remains keen to take the wind out of his critics' sails. Asking for a calm debate on the subject, he questions so-called expert input by the likes of Sir Henry Cooper.

"Has Henry Cooper ever applied a guillotine neck choke?"
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