When placed in a threatening situation we instantly choose between ‘fight’ or ‘flight’.

But there’s a certain sub-group living among us, namely MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighters, who voluntarily step into a threatening situation and choose ‘fight’, every time they enter the cage. They’re addicted to it. And most will continue to choose ‘fight’ until either injury or age forces them to stop.

What type of man decides to enter the octagon and fight, win or lose, and then a few months later enter again? Rico Hattingh, a former MMA fighter and coach of a current champion, believes he can see a future pro-fighter pretty soon after the guy starts training at REPS Fitness, his MMA and CrossFit gym.

Hattingh, who might be the kindest man you’ll meet in Cape Town’s Northern Suburbs, believes that it’s not a dragon tattoo, or an aggressive attitude that marks a fighter.  Instead it’s the presence of a few key attributes: determination, discipline, a genetic disposition, a brain for the sport, and a certain sense of vision that sets apart future pros from the guys who just want to practice the sport for fun and fitness.

Hattingh saw these qualities in Gideon Drotschie, the current EFC (Extreme Fighting Championship) light heavyweight champion, when he first walked into his gym in 2010.

“There are guys who actually tell me where I want them to go. That’s exactly what I saw in Gideon and some other guys. . .That’s how I know I have someone who can be a potential champion.”

Drotschie recalls that first session for a more painful reason, “I always played rugby [before] the first time I trained with Rico. A rugby game wasn’t so bad. Everything was sore. I struggled to drive home afterwards. Luckily, I stayed close to Rico.”

Once the bug bites, it seems that aspiring pros can’t help but choose to fight. “They’re so determined, they might as well come and stay in the gym,” says Hattingh.

Their decision, to choose the ‘fight’ option and pursue a career in MMA is no longer frowned upon by society with the same level of intensity. The old stereotype – of a brutal cage brawling contest with no rules – is gradually losing its value to a broader, more informed understanding of the sport.

Gideon Drotschie EFC light heavyweight champion

Gideon Drotschie EFC light heavyweight champion Photo – Provided REPS Fitness

Nowadays MMA is big business.

In the US, more than a million viewers regularly pay to watch UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) bouts. The UFC’s highest earning fighter, George “Rush” St-Pierre, reportedly made in excess of $13 million dollars last year.

In South Africa, MMA has ceased to be a small unheard of sport. Fight nights of the EFC (Extreme Fighting Championship) Africa, which occur eight times a year, are broadcast on Supersport, in Ster Kinekor cinemas and across various international networks.

Although MMA happens in an hexagon or octagon-shaped cage, with the goal being to either knock out or submit your opponent in one of the three five-minute rounds (title fights consist of five five-minute rounds), it is also not the wild west of combat sport. It has rules.

Among others, you can’t strike your opponent in the groin, on the neck, on the back of the head or kick him in the head while he’s lying on the ground and although MMA involve violence, it’s also a little bit like chess.

Any professional fighter will tell you that to beat your opponent you often have to outsmart him. Whether it’s during grappling on the ground, or trying to devise a strategy to breach his defences with a series of well-aimed strikes, winning takes experience and applied intelligence.

When the fight card for latest rendition of EFC (number 30), was announced, two aspiring fighters who train at Hattingh’s gym – Nathan Fredericks and Luke Michael were on the fight card and set to make their professional debuts. Both are undefeated as amateurs.

Fridericks(28), a soft spoken fighter from Stellenbosch, fell in love with the sport while working in Taiwan. He decided to turn pro because he wanted to test himself, to “find out how good I really am, or can be.” For Michael, who’s only 19, it seems that the sport is an addiction. “It’s what I want to do. There’s nothing else, nothing else I want to do,” he told documentary video maker Eric Uys.

Once Fredericks and Michael found out that they were scheduled to compete at EFC Africa 30, what commenced makes the Rocky IV training camp look like a Sunday school picnic in Russia.

The men train for up to six hours a day, six days a week for 12 weeks before their bout. All while being monitored by their team of six specialists.

“You get your head MMA trainer then you get your stand-up or kickboxing coach. You can have a ju-jitsu coach to help you on the ground, and you have a strength and conditioning coach, depending if you have to cut body weight and that sort of thing,” explains Hattingh.

Besides MMA drills, the fighters make use of whatever CrossFit or bodybuilding techniques their team believes is essential to get them into optimum shape.

The team has to work closely, not only to monitor the fighter, but also in figuring out a game plan. Any recordings of the opponent’s prior fights are closely studied, his weaknesses identified and targeted.

Hattingh explains that they also try and figure out the opponent’s likely strategy and then get sparring partners to attack their fighter in the same way the opponent would.

The team also employs the infamous ‘shark tank’ drill.

“You have one fresh fighter coming in every minute. So, for example, the fighter can be on top of his opponent, looking good. But when a minute is done, a fresh guy jumps on his back. It’s not a fair fight. . . Your opponent will never be as fit as five fresh guys, he will never be as strong. . . But in a fight you might get knocked a bit and suddenly when you look the guy is in a different position. Or you get caught by surprise,” the drill forces the fighter to deal with any eventualities.

Nathan Fredericks and Luke Michael spar during training. (Leigh Schaller)

Nathan Fredericks and Luke Michael grapple during training. Photo -Leigh Schaller

But Training and Dedication Don’t Always Equal Success

As with a rugby player preparing for the World Cup (think Pier Spies in 2007),  just because you’ve put in the hours, doesn’t guarantee you’ll make it to the event, much less win.

Michael found out about a week before EFC 30 that he wouldn’t be allowed to fight.

Doctors found a “temporary abnormality”, thought to be a small bruise, on his brain after Michael underwent mandatory MRI and MRA brain scans as part of the EFC’s pre-fight medical checks.

Hattingh says that in his time, despite having fought in both South Africa and the US, he hasn’t before seen the thoroughness of the current pre-fight medical testing that the EFC now uses.

The EFC is under massive pressure to show that they’re serious about safety following the death of one of their fighters – Booto Guylain – earlier this year after suffering a serious head injury at EFC 27.

Despite being treated on scene and admitted to hospital, Guylain died 6 days later following swelling and bleeding on the brain. His death is the first in the EFC, but not the first in MMA, by some counts he is the 10th fighter in the world to die due to injuries related to an MMA fight since the sport took off in the early 1990s (Although many of the deadly injuries occurred at unsanctioned events.).

Boxing has recorded 35 deaths in South Africa alone in its long history and even cheerleading reportedly has 42 recorded deaths between 1982 and 2007. Regardless of the comparative statistics, or safety measures taken, death is a risk anyone who steps into the octagon faces.

Michael may feel in his words “really bummed” at not making his debut, but he’s not the first fighter to suffer injustice from an injury.

Moments before Drotschie’s last title began, he suffered a torn Achilles tendon. It could have ended his reign, but Drotschie went on to win the bout by technical knockout in the second round.

Hattingh has also suffered at the hands of injury. He had to call time on his MMA career at its peak.

“I was losing my right tricep I didn’t know it was because of my neck. I thought it was because of my arm. My fingers started tingling,” explains Hattingh. Neurosurgeons determined that he would need a neck operation and advised him to retire from the sport.

Although fighters love MMA, the sport doesn’t always love them back, but that doesn’t seem to matter. The fighters will continue to choose the ‘fight’ option.

Michael hasn’t stopped training. He’s hoping the EFC will grant him another bout as soon as August. Come win or lose for Fredericks, he will carry on fighting. Drotschie will attempt to defend his title soon and who knows where he will go from there. Nowadays Hattingh puts in the same passion into coaching as he did into training for fights, guiding them through the rigorous training and molding their level of mental toughness needed to compete in a sport where a happy ending is never guaranteed.

– Written by Leigh Schaller