There are 31 things you cannot do if you’re in the ring on a Colombo Fight Night (CFN). They cover the spectrum from No.2 (no eye gouging of any kind) to No. 29 (no timidity, i.e, you aren’t allowed to wimp out.) Somewhere in the middle is the sweet spot – the space where pure ferocity is tempered by sportsmanship. A fighter must train hard for a mixed martial art (MMA) event like this – even a master of one style can get knocked out with humiliating ease if he doesn’t adapt. For spectators, the event offers an exhilarating, entirely visceral thrill. Describing it as “one long adrenaline rush,” Dr. Haren Jayasinghe, President of the MMA federation of Sri Lanka and a promoter of CFN says, “watching live fights happen in front of you is an incomparable experience. I urge everyone to try it at least once.”
With CFN 5, held at the sub-arena in Sugathadasa stadium last week, a surprising number of people chose to take Haren up on his offer. It is part of a clear trend; beginning with CFN 1 back in late 2010, each night has brought in new fans and CFN 6 (on August 20th, 2011) is likely to be the most popular Fight Night yet. CFN is slowly going mainstream. It’s now held every month and is even filmed for television. You’ll find in depth coverage, videos and facebook fan pages dedicated to MMA in Sri Lanka and to individual fighters online and the federation itself is registered with the Ministry of Sports. (There’s a complete history up on http://fightinglions.tumblr.com)
Still, the real bump has been in the number of combatants signing up. The event is open to all martial artists over the age of 18, most of whom are men. (We met a few women who had begun training at CFN 5, so that might change in the near future.) The most successful are the hybrids that have mastered techniques like striking, grappling and ground fighting. “The best fighters are made in the clubs and the Dojos where they do hard training, pad work and full contact sparring. Endless Katas and arranged sparring done in some clubs may look fancy but are next to useless in a fight,” says Haren.
“It’s my passion to see MMA succeed as a popular sport in Sri Lanka and for our fighters to compete and win abroad in the near future,” says Haren. For CFN to succeed, he has had to ensure that the sport is actually less brutal than it looks. Like the wildly successful Ultimate Fighting Championships, CFN too follows safety standards set by America’s Nevada Athletic Commission. “Nose bleeds, broken noses, bumps and lumps, sprains do occur as they are part and parcel of any combat or contact sport such as Rugby or Boxing. Anything more serious is preventable for the most part by early stoppage of fights and good referring,” he says.
A good referee though is hard to find – in as much as the fighters have had to learn new techniques, so too have referees. It’s why Haren imported Dave London from Canada to run CFN matches till the year is out. It will give referees-in-training like Tithira Perera time to step up.
At CFN, Dave usually oversees 6 to 7 full contact professional MMA fights plus a WWE Luta Livre style wrestling match. The former are broken into 3×3 minute rounds with fights being decided by Knock out (KO), Submission (tap out) or Referee stoppage. Winners are awarded a purse.
For all the skill involved, a Fight Night is also about pure entertainment. “I always try to match exciting fights that will give the audience a nail biting tension filled experience,” says Haren. It might surprise some to find a doctor at the centre of something like this but Haren is a fighter himself. He says he’s been studying martial arts for over 2 decades and has a background is in Muay Thai, freestyle wrestling and Brazilian Jujitsu. Having lived abroad most of his life, Haren returned to Sri Lanka only last year. (A qualified surgeon, Haren is the director of Sri Lanka’s only Follicular Unit Extraction (FUE) hair transplant clinic, based in Battaramula.) He set Colombo Fight Night as a great testing ground for local fighters.
As the coach of the Colombo Fight Club (CFC), he’s training some of them himself and so far his boys have been on a winning streak. Young fighters like Tiran ‘Tornado’ Thakshala, Kumudh Pathirana, Chamalka ‘King Cobra’ Abeywickrama and Lalitha ‘Jiboia’ Epaarchchi did well at CFN 5 but Haren says they’re beginning to see some serious competition. (Jagath Chandana, Prasanne Jayaweera, Asela Kandewatte, Thamara Nissanka and Prasanna Lanka Thalpahewa all head clubs affiliated to CFN). Haren couldn’t be more pleased. As far as he’s concerned, it brings them all a step closer to the big leagues.
Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on July 24, 2011. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by M.A Pushpakumara