If there were ever a sentence that might be best left unsaid before a potentially painful and difficult fight, it is this one: “Her opponent goes by the name The Queen of Violence”. Still, that is where Inside the Cage: The Rise of Female Fighters (BBC3) takes us. This likable documentary follows three British mixed martial arts fighters at different stages of their careers. It is, we are told, one of the fastest growing sports in the world and more women than ever are signing up to pummel and be pummelled in a cage.
Annie Price is our Dooley-esque host. A personal trainer by trade, over the last couple of years she has developed a sideline as an amiable documentary presenter, making films about her family history, the global plastic surgery industry and becoming a mother. Her approach here is to play everywoman rather than expert and she comes at the business of female fighters with seemingly few expectations. “Look at the badges,” she tells “Meatball” Molly McCann, who is halfway through her first yearly contract with the top-tier Ultimate Fighting Championship. “Badges? These are actually world titles,” McCann replies gamely, placing her hand on a cabinet heaving with glittering belts.
Clearly, Price and McCann have a rapport so, not surprisingly, it’s McCann who dominates the film. When Price asks if she can have a go at training, McCann talks her through the basic rules of MMA. “No eye-gouging, no fish-hooking,” she says (a fish hook is exactly what you would imagine, if you replaced the hook with a finger, and the fish with a mouth). And you are not allowed to go for the chest or privates. Choke-holds seem to be fine, though. We see the state of McCann’s eye, swollen and bloodied after one fight in which she suffered an orbital fracture. “Her eye ... it looks like it exploded in her own head,” notes Price, with an uneasy mix of awe and horror. McCann reels off her broken bones like a shopping list. This is not a sport for the squeamish.
So why do it, and why would anyone want to? There is money involved, particularly when fighters reach the higher echelons, but it is not as much as you would think, given the years of intensive, full-time training that being the best demands.
Shanelle Dyer is an 18-year-old up-and-coming talent who is trying to take her career to the next level (she will need more wall space, given the number of belts already hanging up around her bunk bed). She hopes any potential prize money will enable her family to move out of the part of west London where she grew up. Her peers are getting stabbed and friends of friends have been killed. “Happens a lot around this area,” she says. “What’s a bloody punch in the face compared to getting stabbed up the road?”
“Fair enough,” Price reasons.
Dyer got into MMA through her father, who took her with him to the boxing gym to give her mum a bit of space. A third fighter, 19-year-old Cory McKenna from Colchester, was introduced to it by her mother, with whom she has fought and sparred. There is something in the parental connection, though it is never fully explored. McCann talks about how she was not academic at school, but sport allowed her to express herself; it just happened that MMA was the one that made her feel most comfortable in her skin. She talks of her single mother, who was an addict and later sobered up. After winning a crucial bout, she says, heartbreakingly, “I just wish my mum was here.”
The psychological elements are handled lightly, though, as is the notion that these are three women trying to make it big in a world traditionally dominated by men. On one hand, it was nice to watch a documentary about women in sport that didn’t dwell on their gender, but rather their talent and ambition. On the other, the world of MMA is very male, at least as it appears here. The trainers and teams we saw were all men. Even in the US, at a big Ultimate Fight Club night, only three of the 11 fights on the slate involved women. I couldn’t work out if failing to discuss this in depth was progress, somehow, or an element that was missing.
By the end of the film, Price seems fully immersed in the world of MMA and does a good job of persuading viewers of its appeal to both spectators and participants. In North Carolina, she ends up screaming support for McCann as she takes on her biggest opponent yet. It is tense and the stakes feel high, not least because half of McCann’s face is covered in blood. But then, I suppose, The Queen of Violence will do that to you.