Battle Arena 43: The Review Part 1

A five second KO, two disqualifications and the crowning of a new champion. If you’re a fan of drama, and I mean more drama than an Eastenders Christmas Day wedding, then Battle Arena 43 was the show for you.

Having travelled to a few venues to report on Battle Arena over the past year, I’d have to say, Oxford was one of the better ones. I know the Kassam Stadium is a bit of a white elephant for Oxford United, and being located out of the city on a commercial park would probably make watching football a bit soulless; but there was no danger of that with the MMA show though, as the crowds packed into the function room at the Kassam to watch the stars of tomorrow perform for their friends, fans and families.

One of the biggest issues facing amateur shows is the late pull outs. As always, Battle Arena had a few to cope with, including their opening fight. Less than 24 hours before the touching of gloves, Jason Luc Englebert dropped out of his bout with Prime MMA’s highly rated prospect, Faisal Kayani. Roger Gracie Academy in Aylesbury stepped up to the plate to save the day, providing MMA debutant Harvey Stacey to step into the void.

Stacey isn’t quite as green around the gills as you’d assume though, holding a tae kwon do black belt, to go alongside his moniker of ‘the next big thing in BJJ’. Still, MMA is a completely different animal, and this was his debut, so taking the fight at such late notice, against a dangerous opponent was either going to be a brilliant or incredibly stupid move.

As the young men made their way to the cage, Kayani looked focused. The ‘Free Palestine’ t-shirt added to the grimace of expectation as he cut a mean figure stomping onto the canvas. Stacey couldn’t have been any more opposite if he tried. He strolled into the arena, looking like a disinterested work experience child, calmly stepped into the cage as if he’d been doing it all of his life. Referee Alan Jackson went through the rules, the fighters touched gloves and the action started.

5 seconds. That’s all it took for Stacey’s shin to kick the soul clean out of his opponent. You could hear the crack before you saw the movement, as out of nowhere he threw up a head kick (I can’t even remember with which leg, that’s how fast it was) and Kayani went stiff as he fell away. Landing on the canvas he seemed to momentarily regain consciousness, but Stacey was clinical in his approach, diving on top of his opponent, hammer fisting him back into dreamland, with the ref jumping in between them after a mere 10 seconds on the clock.

A clearly distraught Kayani left the cage on his feet, which is always a relief to see. He shouldn’t be disheartened by this loss though; you cannot account for that clean a strike. World champions lose the same way, and having seen his talent shine through in previous bouts, he’ll undoubtedly bounce back in his next showing. Saturday night was all about Harvey Stacey though. What a debut and what a start to the show.

The next two contests saw dominant victories for Will Welch and Andrew Taukchi, picking up first round TKO and submission victories respectively. Fight four was a war of attrition as Max Pearson and Dan Nghiem went back and forth for nine solid minutes, barely stopping for breath, before Pearson took home a split decision victory.

Fight five was another of the late replacements, and gave us another seminal performance. Elite Training Centre’s Tom Gibbs stepped in to face Prime MMA’s Duncan Djillali. The distance between Prime’s Dunstable location and Elite’s Leighton Buzzard base is a mere 8 miles, so over the past 12 months, Djillali has been going across to Elite to train with them during the day and at his home gym in the evenings. As a result, a friendship has grown between the two young bantamweights. A sensible conversation was had and the young men agreed to put their friendship aside for a few days, then for nine minutes as they went toe-to-toe for real.

It was clear from the beginning that Djillali comes from a gym which prides itself on it’s striking, as his shots landed cleaner and his movement was slicker. Gibbs was no fool though, he knew his advantage was in the grappling exchanges, so ate a few shots to get inside and lock up his taller, rangier opponent. The first round was close, but Gibbs appeared to edge it.

The combatants came out for round two and Djillali seemed to have got his mojo. He circled the cage, maintained the distance and punished Gibbs every time the Elite Reaper tried to get inside. Although still a 10-9, round two was clearly Djillali’s. He even left no doubt in the judge’s minds by securing his own takedown on Gibbs and planting a solid straight right on the jaw of his opponent before the buzzer went.

Round three saw both fighters dig deep. This was beautiful to watch, as the two competitors refused to back down. Gibbs hurt Djillali with kicks to the body. Djillali kept his poker face, but was more measured than he had been in the previous round. As the clock ticked down, Gibbs tried to drag the fight to the ground, throwing his legs up in an attempt to secure a triangle. Sensibly, Djillali used his long limbs to maintain adequate space between his shoulder and his carotid artery and see out the last 10 seconds intact.

In the post-fight interview, the respect between the two men became even more evident, as Djillali was effusive in his praise of the coaches from both camps and most importantly of his friend who stepped up when others wouldn’t. A classy performance both during and after the bell from this rising star.

Fight 6 provided us with a glimpse of one of the names being whispered on mainland Europe as a potential star of women’s MMA as Norwegian Elin Salmonson took on Zoe Southam. Salmonson is another young BJJ blackbelt, with accompanying tae kwon do skills. Couple that with her long limbs, Southam had a difficult night, as the Frontline MMA prospect dominated the first round, getting full mount on her opponent twice, before the exhausted SBJ athlete succumbed to a standing guillotine in the second.

The first DQ came in the seventh fight of the night. BMAC’s Jack Field came out to loud cheers, as the Banbury faithful made themselves heard. Sean Costello, on the other hand, came out to a cacophony of noise as the McLeods crew whooped their man into the cage. From the get-go you could see why he was the club’s poster boy. His timing, his accuracy and his power were nearly too much for young Field to bear, as every time he tried to get any sort of offense going, Costello punished him. Tossing his opponent around like a rag doll, he threw vicious, vicious knees into the midriff of his downed opponent. On the feet he threw side kicks into Field’s solar plexus which sent the BMAC man sprawling halfway across the cage. It looked to be all over as Costello took Field down again, but in his exuberance, seemingly forgot that this contest was taking place under B-Class rules (so no strikes to the head of a downed opponent) and landed headshots to finish the fight.

The McLeods fan base went wild, whooping with delight as their man celebrated in the cage. It was only as the MC read the result that the realisation hit home and Costello found out that he’d not won. Whilst he can be understandably disappointed to not have a ‘W’ next to his name on Tapology, you can rest assured that he’ll be racking them up soon enough. Watch out welterweight division, Sean Costello is coming.

Fights 8 & 9 saw comprehensive victories for Tom Brookes and Salman Iqbal. Brookes by second round guillotine and Iqbal with a first round rear naked choke.

Stick with us for part two of this breakdown. Coming soon.

Photographs courtesy of Laura Peil Photography.