Cage Fighter: Pugilism Can Help Society

Mike Townsley, barber turned cage fighter, on his final fight and getting kids off the streets and into the gym

How were you introduced to the sport of cage fighting?

I was introduced to mixed martial arts/cage fighting through my first Sifu, or instructor, Trevor Addison. I was cutting his hair in the barbers where I work one day about four years ago when it arose in conversation. I thought I'd give the training a go and see how I got on. I was instantly addicted.

As a young man living in east Belfast, how and where did you train to become a fighter?

Over the years I have trained in various boxing gyms and martial arts clubs in Belfast, and outside Belfast, such as the International Fighting Systems gym in Antrim. I used to go in and train at ten o'clock at night, because I liked to work hard with no distractions.

When was your first fight, and who won?

I had my first mixed martial arts fight about a year ago, against a fighter named Gary Carlin in Armagh. He won in the first round by technical knockout, but the decision could have been questioned.

Cage fighting is a full-contact sport. What are the rules, and what can't you do?

It's actually a very skilled sport. You can't pull hair or poke eyes. The rules are clear: kicks, punches and knees to head and body are acceptable, so it's similar to kickboxing, only we have the added option of fighting on the ground if we can't take our opponent on our feet... it's a sport for the complete fighter.

How do you prepare in the run up to a fight?

You go into a vigorous training camp. You find out how your opponent likes to fight and train to fight his style, learn the counters to his attacks et cetera. Cardio is a big push in training. As one of my old coaches said, 'Fighting is 80%, cardio 20%.' We go through two, three hour sessions grappling, striking, cardio strength training. You name it, we do it.

Each fight is made up of three three minute rounds. Have you ever gone the distance?

The worst thing about cage fighting were the five minute rounds, resulting in most fights finishing in the first rounds. So promoters and regulaters have now changed it to three three minute rounds to make the fights more interesting for the fans and to help fighter safety. My next fight – my last fight in the Ulster Hall – will be the first fight I will do under the new rules, so if I don't finish it in the first round, I may go the distance.

Some people would say that cage fighting is a savage sport, dangerous and ultra-violent; they may be appalled to learn that you train boys as young as fifteen to fight. What would you say to those people?

They would need to see where these kids come from before judging. These are kids that people on the streets have no time for. They may have messed up in life and people wash their hands of them. But without these kids our society has no future. We need to take time with impressionable young kids and help mould them into respectful, dedicated young men.

The sport saved me from some bad choices in life, and I can see how it helps young lads focus on achieving their goals. One of our guys was 15 when he came to us, into drugs, drink and crime. Since starting to fight he has become one of the most respectful kids in the area. He has really turned his life around, and the best thing about it is that other kids see what he's doing and see hope for themselves.

Where would people rather have them: on the streets getting up to all sorts, or in the club pushing their bodies to the limit in a highly skilled dedicated sport? Cage fighting is skillful and requires a high amount of dedication, which is just what these young lads need.

Your two boys, Michael and Bobby, suffer from ADHD and autism respectively. Are they aware of what you do?

Michael is nine-years old and is training with me vigorously. He wants to be just like daddy. By the time he's 15, he will kick my ass! And he's a comedian. I had decided not to fight again after my last fight, but Michael woke up one morning and asked, 'Daddy, when are you going to fight again?' I said, 'Why son?' And he replied, 'Because it makes me proud to see you up there taking on tough guys. And you're starting to get fat. You might need it!' It can be hard to juggle all this – work, family, fighting – but I have a good woman at home who understands what I'm trying to do.

Who or what do you fight for when things are getting on top of you?

I always fight for my boys: my two sons and the boys in the club, we are all family. So when I'm getting pounded on, I hear them in my head saying, 'Get up, it's time to get this done.'

Cage Wars is set to be your last fight. Why are you bowing out?

After this fight I want to focus on the young guys in the club. I want to help them get where they want to be.

Cage Wars comes to the Ulster Hall on Saturday, August 27. It is also available on the Extreme Sports channel.