Why is the world going mad for mixed martial arts? Sharon Brettkelly goes along to an Auckland gym to find out more. 

On a dark winter morning inside a gym in central Auckland, Neil Diamond is blaring out as a man shouts to dozens of people to “squeeze!”.

They grab their partners around the waist and lift them off the floor at the same time as trying to squeeze the life out of them for 30 seconds.

Then they’re ordered to drop to the floor for 30 seconds of “sprawl”. Then repeat and repeat and repeat.

There’s lots of grunting and puffing but also lots of laughter. They have signed up for this every day for five months and when the course is finished some of them will end up in a cage – kicking, punching and slapping their opponent.

It’s called mixed martial arts and it is one of the fastest growing sports in the world. Its professional promotional side is the Las Vegas-based Ultimate Fight Championship which has its own YouTube channel with more than 12 million subscribers, broadcast rights worth billions of dollars and prize money for the best of $1 million per fight.

Critics call it street fighting, followers call it the best thing they’ve ever done physically, spiritually and mentally.

But it is also surrounded by controversy. Earlier this month Doug Viney, the co-owner of this gym, City Kickboxing, had to apologise for an Instagram post mocking the transgender weightlifter Laurel Hubbard; local UFC hero Israel Adesanya had to apologise for a rape comment he made ahead of a fight, which led to luxury car brand BMW dropping him as ambassador.

On the positive side, Adesanya also made a touching tribute to a young Tongan fighter, Fau Vake, who died after an attack in central Auckland, making a plea to the Government for harsher penalties over so-called “coward punches”.

Warm up time for Leilani Momoisea before her big fight. Photo: Penina Momoisea

Today The Detail goes to a beginners class with RNZ‘s Leilani Momoisea to find out why this sport is so popular and why she ended up doing something she never expected – fighting in a cage while her family and friends watched.

“I didn’t realise that people didn’t like combat sport until I started working at Radio New Zealand and one of the sports reporters said something disparaging about boxing and that was such a shock to me.

“If you’re Samoan you’re very proud of people like David Tua and Mark Hunt and Joseph Parker, but I think once you watch it you start becoming a fan of the sport as well.”

Momoisea describes to Brettkelly what it felt like to receive her first blow and to give her first punch.

The Detail also talks to the gym’s co-owner Eugene Bareman about why people choose a sport that hurts others.

“Funnily enough a lot of people who do this for a living and doing this regularly, that’s something that they struggle with.”

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

Sharon Brettkelly is co-host of The Detail podcast.

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