Recently a story concerning eight-year-olds grappling in a cage at a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) event in Preston, Lancashire   came to light in the National Press. Much of the press commentary has focused on it being ‘cage fighting’ – which has its own particular reputation both nationally and internationally – rather than it being grappling. Journalists have centred on how barbaric the activity is , how disturbing the activity is  , why it was allowed to happen in the first place and why the police weren’t doing anything about it  , which suggests that their journalistic contributions were more fuelled by ignorance and sensationalism than they were about a true moral outrage.
Advocates for MMA, Gareth A. Davies, a journalist, and Tom ‘Kong’ Watson, a professional MMA fighter, have made spirited and encouraging analysis both of what happened that night and the media’s reaction to it. Gareth Davies’ article can be found on the Telegraph website here and Tom Watson’s intelligent, well articulated and well reasoned contribution can be found here. They both make the point that this footage does not depict cage fighting – it shows a grappling match inside a cage.
Grappling and the law
Lawful sporting activities have always been afforded special treatment in relation to offences against the person. Sir Michael Foster explained in 1792 in the 3rd Edition of Crown Law that a special status was accorded to sporting activity because it was a ‘manly diversion’ which tends ‘to give strength, skill and activity, and may fit people for defence, public as well as personal, in times of need’. It is equally long established in English law that wrestling is a lawful activity. Stephen J. said in R v Coney (1882) 8 Q.B.D. 534:
In cases where life and limb are exposed to no serious danger in the common course of things, I think that consent is a defence to a charge of assault, even when considerable force is used, as, for instance, in cases of wrestling, single-stick, sparring with gloves, football, and the like
Lord Jauncey of Tulichette in R v Brown  1. A.C. 212 said:
Swift J. also observed that the passage from Stephen, Digest of the Criminal Law…needed considerable qualification in 1934. He went on to consider exceptions to the general rule that an act likely or intended to cause bodily harm is an unlawful act. Such exceptions included friendly contests with cudgels, foils or wrestling which were capable of causing bodily harm, rough and undisciplined sports or play where there was no anger and no intention to cause bodily harm and reasonable chastisement by a parent or a person in loco parentis.
Lord Mustill, again in Brown, refers to East’s Pleas of the Crown (1803), vol. 1, ch. V, pp. 268-270, paras 41 and 42:
manly sports and exercises which tend to give strength, activity and skill in the use of arms, and are entered into merely as private recreations among friends, are not unlawful; and therefore persons playing by consent at cudgels, or foils, or wrestling, are excusable if death ensue. For though doubtless it cannot be said that such exercises are altogether free from danger; yet they are very rarely attended with fatal consequences; and each party has friendly warning to be on his guard and if the possibility of danger were the criterion by which the lawfulness of sports and recreations was to be decided, many exercises must be proscribed which are in common use, and were never heretofore deemed unlawful
Lord Mustill’s powerful words demonstrate that wrestling has been both lawful and acceptable in the public eye for 129 years. It is conceded that opponents of these activities could pick on the passage included ‘private recreations among friends’ and highlight that these activities took place in a licensed venue open to the public. In rebuttal it should be noted that its location does not make it a public affair because individuals who had not paid could not witness the event, therefore, to some extent it was a private event.
That, however, is beside the point. If the same children participated in the same activity in a different venue, very little would be said. The only difference is that it (a) took place in a cage, (b) was watched by adults and (c) as part of a larger event of MMA. The decision to put such a bout on at the same event where adults were fighting was tasteless, and if anything, more damaging to the activity it is trying to encourage. None of those facts however make what happened in that cage a crime.
Far more dangerous than grappling, as Tom Watson pointed out, a documentary called Strictly Baby Fight Club, broadcast on Channel 4, depicted muay thai fights between 11-year-olds taking place in a cage three years ago. By comparison, this received very little media opposition; despite happening in a cage, that wasn’t cage fighting either.
Appendix D of the Law Commission’s Consultation Paper Number 139, ‘Consent in the Criminal Law’, discloses martial arts that were recognised by the then Sports Council, now UK Sport, which includes ju-jitsu. UK Sport‘s website displays that judo has received £7,484,100 in funding and wrestling has received £1,435,210 in funding for the Olympic games. UK Sport would not donate so generously to these sports if they believed them to be illegal.
There was a question that the activities breached the licence of the venue which held the event. The police refuted such claims, having investigated the licence and concluded that they did have the requisite licence to put on the event. Note 6 of The Licensing Act 2003 (Permitted Temporary Activities) (Notices) Regulations 2005 states:
The licensable activities are:
- the sale by retail of alcohol;
- the supply of alcohol by or on behalf of a club to, or to the order of, a member of a club;
- the provision of regulated entertainment; and
- the provision of late night refreshment.
Please refer to Schedules 1 and 2 to the Licensing Act 2003 for fuller details of the definitions and exemptions relating to regulated entertainment and late night refreshment.
Regulated entertainment, subject to specified conditions and exemptions, includes:
- (a) a performance of a play;
- (b) an exhibition of a film;
- (c) an indoor sporting event;
- (d) a boxing or wrestling entertainment;
- (e) a performance of live music;
- (f) any playing of recorded music;
- (g) a performance of dance;
- (h) entertainment of a similar description to that falling within (e), (f) or (g).
This quite clearly demonstrates that the activity was lawful, and the venue in which it took place was legally licensed to put on such an event between two children.
The scenes in the video capturing the grappling match do not demonstrate a kick or a punch being thrown by either participant. The individuals responsible for organising the event conceded that kicks and punches were not allowed and, if performed, resulted in immediate disqualification; therefore, what took place in the video cannot be mixed martial arts or, as it is commonly known, cage fighting.
The subsequent commentary by the British Medical Association was undeserved and, frankly, uneducated. A spokesman for the BMA said it was disturbing, as the body are opposed to boxing and cage fighting:
This example of cage fighting among young children is particularly disturbing, especially as they are not even wearing head guards… Boxing and cage fighting are sometimes defended on the grounds that children learn to work through their aggression with discipline and control… The BMA believes there are many other sports, such as athletics, swimming, judo and football, which require discipline but do not pose the same threat of brain injury.
What took place that night in that particular bout was not cage fighting. The comments then made were coloured by the BMA’s ignorance. The children were practising techniques that originate from either wrestling (Greco-Roman or freestyle) or judo (and its descendant ju-jitsu). It is, however, unsurprising that the BMA has taken the stance that it has. The Association has long held the view that Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) should be banned. It states its position towards MMA on a webpage intended to outline its attitude towards boxing :
As with boxing the BMA opposes Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighting and calls for a complete ban on this type of contact sport.
The BMA goes on to state that:
Because of its ‘no holds barred’ nature, the UFC fighters are open to a myriad of injuries, including subdural haematoma, thought to be the most common cause of fatalities in boxing.  In addition to fractures, tears, sprains of the ligaments and muscles, primarily knees, shoulders and ankles, there is also the risk of subclinical electroencephalographic perturbations due to the use of neck-holding manoeuvres. 
Injuries sustained in full-contact fighting arts, in particular martial grappling arts and professional MMA competitions, have not been well catalogued in peer-reviewed medical and scientific research methods, there is however, some evidence of increased risk of brain and joint injuries; with brain injuries more common in striking sports while joint injuries are more common in grappling sports. 
It can be seen that the BMA calls for a ‘complete ban’ on a sport which they suggest causes injuries yet has ‘not been well catalogued in peer-reviewed medical and scientific research methods’. The BMA, rightly, once took a very strict stance on the sport of boxing and its efforts helped it to reform how it is practised so that it is now much safer. They are now, however, making a judgement call on an activity that has not been well catalogued, and indeed, the most well-known study regarding injury in MMA, performed by Johns-Hopkins University School of Medicine , concludes that the rate of serious injury is much, much lesser than boxing.
It wasn’t MMA. It wasn’t cage fighting. It was grappling in a cage.
That distinction may be lost on the media, the BMA and the NSPCC, however, it is an important distinction to understand. Holding a grappling match in a cage used for MMA does not make ordinarily lawful activities unlawful. Any outrage at the activities is not motivated by concern for the safety of the participants but by the imagery of where they are competing. If the BMA or the NSPCC had instead released a statement that they felt it was unsafe to allow children to practise a joint hold which affects the knee and ankle, as depicted in this picture, then no challenge could legitimately be brought against their comments. Such holds are banned in Amateur Mixed Martial Arts contests and forbidden in Brazilian ju-jitsu competitions until one has attained a requisite age (18) and sufficient knowledge (Black Belt) to be able to defend the hold. Their comments, however, were influenced by where the event took place, the location of their competition and the context of the event, and not by the actual activities performed.
In conclusion, the outrage exhibited in the press was not justified legally. The incident demonstrates, however, that the United Kingdom, its media and professional bodies have some way to go before they treat MMA with the same level of respect as the American press are starting to. MMA isn’t helped by incidents of promoters who exercise poor judgement by (a) putting children in a grappling match on the same event as professional MMA fights, (b) signing athletes to fight who have seen one too many Ultimate Fighting Championships while inebriated and think that they can also be an athlete, (c) by an uneducated media encouraging the public to consider MMA as barbaric rather than educate them, and (d) presenting the only representative of MMA to be a celebrity starved Kickboxing Champion, once married to Katie Price, who has faltered at every stage when tested against true MMA competition. MMA is a young sport and it is going through its growing pains – even football was thought of badly because of deaths caused by reckless tackles and falling into an opponent’s sword. It is, however, unfair for the media to lead the condemnation of events by calling a perfectly lawful activity something it is not.
-  Mirror – Cage fighting kids: Children as young as eight filmed taking part in Lancashire fight night – View Article
 Guardian – Eight-year-old cage fighters on bill at Lancashire fight night – View Article
 Mirror – Cage fighting for kids is slammed by experts as “barbaric” – View Article
 BBC – NSPCC: Wrestling children video ‘disturbing’ – View Article
 Telegraph – Children filmed in ‘disturbing’ cage fight – View Article
 BBC – Police to investigate boys’ fighting event in Preston – View Article
 Sky – Police: We Won’t Stop Child Cage-Fighting – View Article
 BMA – Boxing – View Website
 Lampert PW & Hardman JM (1984) Morphological changes in brains of boxers. Journal of the American Medical Association 251: 2676-9 – View Article
 Landa J (2004) Risk and injuries in contact fighting. Journal of Combative Sport – View Article
 Dominguez OJ Jr (2001) The injured coach. Emergency Medical Services 30: 102. – View Article
 Rau R, Raschka C, Brunner K et al (1998) Spectral analysis of electroencephalography changes after choking in judo (juji-jime). Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 30:1356-62. – View Article
 Incidence of Injury in Professional Mixed Martial Arts Competitions – Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2006) CSSI, 136-142 – View Article
- Steven Baxter in the New Statesman – Cage-fighting kids? The real problem is the kneejerk reaction