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10th May 2023

Cage Warriors 152: Manchester

Combatants blessed by the gods of war put on a spectacle for a bloodthirsty crowd in Manchester.
Cage Warriors 152: Manchester
George Hardwick. Photo: Kappa Kugabalan @ The Mancunion

5:30pm. Bowlers Exhibition Centre. This is the time and the place I arrive to embrace my first encounter with a live MMA event, hosted by Cage Warriors. Entering the arena of shadow, rumbling to music being fired from every angle, I saw the place filled with an audience excited for a night of entertainment. Once shown where the media were to be sat, I was guided past the medical area backstage and upstairs to the interview room. Completely out of my depth, seeing the professionals with their video cameras and me with just my phone, I knew that I was bound for a surreal experience.

The place momentarily entered a complete darkness eventually broken by tendrils of light spiralling around. It was time for the prelims. A valuable asset of MMA is that it is rare for a fight to be boring, meaning that the audience is active right from the beginning, creating a constant lively atmosphere.

Opening the show was Orlando Wilson Prins vs Antonio Sheldon. To their respective walkout music, the fighters entered the octagon and the battle commenced. Throughout the fight, Prins threw jabs down the barrel, whilst Sheldon mostly attained control time by holding his opponent against the cage, and in the end, Prins won by split decision.

During the fight,  a group of giants walked over to the cage-side seats to the chants of “Oh Tommy Aspinall!”. The UFC heavyweight and his sparring partners, standing at around 6’5, had a presence that was hard to ignore.

“Is this the media section?” a journalist asked me towards the end of the first fight. His name was Jamal, and he was telling me about the fighters he’d worked with whilst I showed him where the interview area was. When going up the stairs, I looked behind me and there was Mark Goddard, one of the best referees in the business. The number of monumental moments, like Jon Jones winning the heavyweight title recently, witnessed through his eyes only a few feet away from him is unimaginable.

The next few prelims went as follows: a competitive bout between Liam Gittins and Rory Evans ended with Gittins doing keepy-uppies on his knees with the head of Evans, then there was a dominant win for Michal Folc by ground and pound in the first round, followed by a gory struggle between Bungard and Hughes leading to a split decision win for Bungard.

Gittins vs Evans. Photo: Kappa Kugabalan @ The Mancunion

Despite there being plenty of seats, a lot of people liked to stand around the edges of the arena. Unfortunately, this meant that my and Jamal’s view was often intercepted, prompting us to find seats amongst the audience. A blessing in disguise as now we were closer to the action.

When watching a live fight, a part of you may want to strap on some gloves and try your luck in the octagon. This impulse is quickly dampened though when you’re confronted with the dichotomy of the fight game. I was walking backstage after the Davis fight and saw Hughes who had fought earlier, sitting on a step. Since his cauliflower ear had popped during his fight, he had only just finished his medical. There was the face of a man disheartened and contemplating his loss, and his only company were two members of the CW staff. It’s easy to forget the mental hardships that the losers are confronted with and can become imprisoned by. At the end of the day, the harsh truth is that the life of a fighter is a solitary war, both in and out of the cage.

Throughout the fights, my and Jamal’s personal commentary varied from talking about the action happening in front of us to what the fighters were wearing.

“Is he wearing skin-tight boxers?” Jamal pointed out during the Fleminas vs Mäntykivi fight. “Looks like it. It’s the GSP style.”

Fleminas vs Mäntykivi. Photo: Kappa Kugabalan @ The Mancunion

Eventually, the lights went out again, and Thunderstruck – ACDC began blaring out of the speakers. It was time for the main card. Starting it off was Luke Riley vs Kallum Parker.  Riley got the unanimous decision making him 6-0. After the fight, I managed to have a chat with Riley, who seemed disappointed with his performance.

“When you first got into that octagon, what was going through your mind? I saw you walk past him, staring at him with the face of a killer,” I asked, tryna to see into the mindset of a cage fighter.

“I knew it was going to be a hard fight with Kallum,” Riley explained. “No normal, sane person is taking a fight with me given the hype around me, especially on a week’s notice, flying over here from America. He probably had a bit of jet lag as well.

When asked what skills and training he brought to today’s, Riley was both humble and honest, laughing, “What I worked on and showed today? Absolutely nothing. Honestly, I don’t know what I showed.”

On a reflected, once I pointed out his impressive jabs, Riley revealed, “Well, I’ve known since I was a little kid that I can go to the deep end if I need to, but I don’t want to be there. I just want to be picking people apart like I know I can. I need to watch the fight back to see what I can do differently.”

And how does a cage fighter celebrate post-match? “Go home, eat some food and sleep lad.”

Speaking to Luke Riley was a pleasure, and although he was annoyed with himself, he didn’t let that stop him from being cheerful and respectful to those around him. I think he’ll learn a lot from this fight, maintaining a bright future ahead of him.

In the next fight, Riley’s teammate, Adam Cullen suffered a brutal knockout at the start of the third round against Dumitru Girlean, ending his unbeaten streak. Girlean’s straight right was a piston from oblivion, stealing Cullen’s consciousness before he had even hit the ground. Given the strength and wisdom of the Next Generation team in Liverpool, we will hopefully see Cullen come back from this defeat.

At the end of the second round, James Power earned a win over Łukasz Kopera due to a doctor stoppage after a slicing elbow cleaved open a valley in Kopera’s forehead.

The canvas now embellished with blood, it was time for Nathan Fletcher to enter the octagon against Daan Duijs. Following a back-and-forth between the two, Fletcher ended up on his back and threw a timely triangle choke near the end of the first round, winning the bout. Clambering over the fence, Fletcher leapt onto his coach in celebration.

It was time for the main event, George Hardwick vs Yann Liasse, in which Hardwick was defending the lightweight title. A win for him would mean an opening of the gates into the UFC. He came out smirking and singing but once inside the octagon, he became an entirely different being.

From the start of the round, Hardwick pressured Liasse with timed shots. At one point, he threw a thundering front kick to the body of Liasse that would have been heard by Leonidas I from the grave. After a failed guillotine attempt by Hardwick, he eventually had Liasse against the cage, where he threw combinations that overwhelmed his opponent. The referee intervened, giving Hardwick the win by TKO and a ticket to the UFC.

Whilst waiting to interview Hardwick, I was standing next to Paddy the Baddy Pimblett, who was on crutches due to a surgery he had on his ankle recently. Even with the cast on, the man was in high spirits, and hopefully with a swift recovery, we’ll see him back in the octagon by the end of the year.

George Hardwick. Photo: Kappa Kugabalan @ The Mancunion

I was the last to interview Hardwick, and since he was only being asked questions about the fight, I thought I’d mix it up. On his YouTube channel, he’d been streaming Resident Evil 4 and that seemed a good place to start.

“What’s your review of Resident Evil 4 so far?”

“I haven’t completed the Resident Evil 4 remake. Obviously, I’ve completed the original about triple figures, but I’ve been busy with this training camp,” Hardwock relented. “I haven’t really had time to put the full proper sessions in, so I’ve got another few hours to get that completed. And then I’ll have another ten playthroughs.”

Turning away from video games and towards family, I asked how the cage fighter felt having his brother along for the ride.

“It just can’t be explained. Me and my brother are so closely linked. We’ll communicate complex ideas sometimes and know what we mean just by noises and grunts. I don’t know if two humans can be closer. And the next step is Harry getting that belt, he’s the number one contender.”

Jokingly, I retorted, “I think you’re going to give the Diaz brothers a run for their money,” and Hardwick couldn’t agree more.Oh yeah, we actually cut off the cage and use lateral footwork!”

Lastly, I asked the classic question to any sporting star: “If you could fight anyone from history, who would it be?”

“I don’t know because a lot of historical characters were shorter back in the day, weren’t they? Wouldn’t Leonidas have been 4’8” or something? In terms of MMA though, George St Pierre.”

“At welterweight?” I asked, amused. “Yeah, it’s like lightweight plus a chicken parmesan,” Hardwick says confidently.

With the charisma and the fighting ability Hardwick possesses, stardom in the UFC is inevitable and it will be worth keeping an eye on him.

At the end of the event, it was safe to say that a night with Cage Warriors is a night to remember.

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