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Ballet of violence hits Sweden

Mixed Martial Arts, ‘the fastest growing sport in the world’, has hit Sweden with a bang. Jonathan Rothwell takes a ringside seat and talks to TV star Musse Hasselvall about the development of the sport in Scandinavia.

Ballet of violence hits Sweden

The sport of Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA for short, has exploded worldwide in recent times. Nowhere has this been more evident than in Stockholm where new schools seem to open almost weekly. Instructors have also reported a huge increase in practitioners – reminiscent of the boom following Bruce Lee’s on-screen appearances way back in the 70s.

The sport of MMA has struggled for recognition and funding in many countries but with the global success of organizations like the UFC in America and Pride in Japan it seems clear that the public have a thirst for events of this nature.

Getting official sanctioning for MMA has taken time in Scandinavia. Norway, for example, still has very strict legislation, making boxing and MMA events difficult to organize there. At a time when interest in hockey and football has slowly declined, Sweden’s more receptive approach has given much more structure to the combat sport.

Earlier this month, international competitors met in the ring at Stockholm’s Fryshuset venue — Superior Challenge: The Uprising pitted Irish, English, Brazilian, Spanish and French fighters against their Swedish counterparts.

Television celebrity and local boy Musse Hasselvall took on Takashi Hasegawa of Japan in the lightweight division. While other more macho fighters might be guilty of bravado, these two experienced lightweights, whose respect for one another as Martial Artists was obvious, entertained the crowd by pulling faces and cracking jokes.

“The drama of fighting is very simple overall,” Hasselvall confided. “With MMA you have the feeling that anything can happen. It can turn really, really fast. The first time people see MMA they think its really brutal but after they watch it closer they can appreciate the technique in it.”

Ultimately, and somewhat controversially, his fight was ruled a no contest after Hasselvall accidentally grazed Takashi’s eye with his finger half way through the second round. Though the event is a full contact combat sport, just like boxing there are strict rules in place to protect the fighters from any serious injury.

Takashi broke down in tears upon hearing the doctor’s decision to stop the fight and, though it was not his fault, Hasselvall seemed genuinely troubled by the decision. Overcome with emotion the two embraced centre stage, each trying their best to console the other. It was a nice reminder of how important these events are to the professional athletes taking part.

Out of the ring Hasselvall explained what happened. “I really enjoyed fighting the guy and even though I felt really relaxed and strong I also felt anything could happen – and I would have even been happy if he knocked me out or finished me in a submission.

“I was throwing my jab and when he kicked I realized that he totally dropped his guard. So I tried to counter this kick with my left cross but when I hit him I made a mistake. I don’t want to poke anybody in the eye and I don’t want to hurt anybody so I felt really, really bad.”

Despite this, the atmosphere in Fryshuset remained buoyant throughout the 10 fights. With the talent on offer most of the fights proved very evenly matched, which added to the anticipation ahead of each new bout.

“I had a feeling that this crowd was quite educated,” said Hasselvall.

“I mean people weren’t leaving for coffee half way through a fight like I’ve seen at other tournaments. There was a good mix of people and not a lot of brutes screaming for blood!”

Hasselvall’s colleague Hamid Corassani did not have anything like as smooth a ride as his TV star compatriot. Through relentless pressure, Darren Hughes of Ireland destroyed the Swede, securing victory through TKO by referee stoppage in the second round.

Hughes’ comrade Owen ‘Rowdy’ Roddy rocked Navid Yousefi on a number of occasions only for the Swede to claw his way back into the fight. In the second, however, a flush knee to the ribs reverberated around Fryshuset – doubled up in pain, Yousefi was unable to continue.

After the fight Roddy told The Local he was “delighted with the win and looking forward to getting back in the ring again soon.” He added that “the crowd here are great – very respectful, like how it is in Japan”.

Crowd favourite Reza ‘Maddog’ Madadi goaded Aidan Marron from the off. For this lack of respect and much of the first round the Irishman let his fists do the talking. To and fro they went but a somewhat stunned Madadi hung on to clinch a split decision victory in a fight that could have gone either way.

Rodney Moore, having spent much of his fight on his back, was comprehensively beaten by Tor Troeng. Similarly Danny Doherty had a disappointing showing against Magnus Cedenblad. Both Irishmen looked a little flatfooted and never really in the fight.

Later both he and Rodney Moore confirmed as much. “The journey over to Stockholm, whilst also cutting weight had left us tired. We were still in the sauna at 10pm cutting weight last night. Fighting at this weight we just ran out of gas.”

Earlier in the night Bobby ‘Danger’ Rehman took the win over Lloyd Snakehips Clarkson in a bloody full on brawl. What they lacked in finesse they made up for in heart and the two bruisers earned the respect of the 8,000+ crowd in attendance.

Well organized, government-backed events like Superior Challenge are crucial for the development of martial arts in Sweden. But they also help create a platform and a community to help foster home-grown talent. As professional athletes, it is possible to achieve an increasingly prosperous career in what has been touted as ‘the fastest growing sport in the world.’

“In the beginning, the first events we had in Sweden were really only followed by the people who trained, as well as gangsters or biker organizations,” said Musse Hasselvall.

“But it is a lot better now when there is this whole bunch of different people interested. Now everyone goes.”

Judging by the interest in this month’s event, the future looks bright for MMA in Sweden.

For more information visit the Swedish MMA Association.

Jonathan Rothwell

SPORT

Could Scandinavian countries lead the way in taking stand against Qatar World Cup?

Vehemently opposed to Qatar's hosting of the 2022 World Cup, football federations in the Nordic countries are putting pressure on Doha and FIFA to improve conditions for migrant workers in the emirate.

Workers during construction of the Lusail 2022 World Cup stadium in December 2019. Football federations in Nordic countries led by Denmark have spoken out against Qatar's hosting of the event.
Workers during construction of the Lusail 2022 World Cup stadium in December 2019. Football federations in Nordic countries led by Denmark have spoken out against Qatar's hosting of the event. Photo: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters/Ritzau Scanpix

Together with rights organisation Amnesty International, the federations of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland have ratcheted up the pressure in recent months, raising their concerns and presenting recommendations in letters, meetings with officials and pre-game protests.

“We are against holding the World Cup in Qatar, we thought it was a bad decision,” the head of the Danish federation DBU, Jakob Jensen, told AFP.

“It is wrong in many ways. Because of the human rights situation, the environment, building new stadiums in a country with very little stadium capacity,” he said.

Denmark is the only Nordic country to have qualified for the tournament so far. Sweden face a playoff next year to secure a place and Norway, Finland and Iceland have been eliminated.

Leading the charge, the Danish federation regularly publishes the Nordic countries’ letters sent to FIFA and holds talks with Qatari officials, including an October meeting with Qatar head organiser Hassan Al-Thawadi.

The main concern is migrant workers’ rights.

Qatar has faced criticism for its treatment of migrant workers, many of whom are involved in the construction of the World Cup stadiums and infrastructure.

Campaigners accuse employers of exploitation and forcing labourers to work in dangerous conditions.

Qatari authorities meanwhile insist they have done more than any country in the region to improve worker welfare, and reject international media reports about thousands of workers’ deaths.

The Nordics have also raised other concerns with al-Thawadi, Jensen said.

“Will homosexuals be allowed to attend the World Cup? Will men and women be able to attend the matches together? Will the press have free access to all sorts of issues to do investigations in the country?”

“And all the answers we received were ‘yes’. So of course we’re going to hold him responsible for that,” Jensen said.

The Danish federation said its World Cup participation would focus on the games played on the pitch, and it will not do anything to promote the event for organisers.

It will limit the number of trips it makes to Qatar, the team’s commercial partners will not take part in official activities there, and its two jersey sponsors will allow training kit to carry critical messages.

In Norway, whose qualification bid fell apart when its best player Erling Braut Haaland missed games through injury, the issue culminated in June when its federation held a vote on whether to boycott the World Cup.

READ ALSO: Norway’s economic police call for boycott of Qatar World Cup

Delegates ultimately voted against the idea, but an expert committee recommended 26 measures, including the creation of a resource centre for migrant workers and an alert system to detect human rights violations and inform the international community.

Like other teams, Norway’s squad also protested before each match by wearing jerseys or holding banners like the one unfurled during a recent match against Turkey, reading “Fair play for migrant workers”.

But the Nordic countries have not always acted in line with their own campaign.

Last month at a Copenhagen stadium, a Danish fan was ordered to take down his banner criticising the World Cup in Qatar, as FIFA rules prohibit political statements.

And Sweden’s federation recently scratched plans to hold its winter training camp in the emirate as it has done the past two years.

Sweden’s professional clubs had protested against the hypocrisy of holding the camp there while at the same the federation was leading the protests with Nordic counterparts.

The professional clubs wanted to send a “signal”, the chairman of Swedish Professional Football Leagues, Jens Andersson, told AFP.

Individual players have also spoken out. 

Finland’s captain Tim Sparv last week issued a joint appeal with Amnesty demanding that “FIFA must ensure that human rights are respected”, adding: “We are in debt to those people who have worked for years in poor conditions.”

So far, none of FIFA’s 200 other member federations have joined the Nordic campaign.

“Hopefully all these Nordic neighbours of ours and us taking these steps will have an impact on other countries,” Mats Enquist, secretary general of the Swedish Professional Football League, told AFP.

“We need to ensure that all the aspects of football, not just the richest, are really taken care of when we come to a place.”

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