Steph Erasmus
Steph Erasmus

Rocking to and fro, heel to toe, the two fighters circle each other, feinting strikes here and there, gloves raised defensively. Then, fast as lightning, a foot lashes out at shoulder height and clips the smaller woman on the chin; she shakes her blonde ponytail, momentarily stunned.

This is not a fight; it’s a technical sparring match, designed to train the eye to anticipate an opponent’s blows. But the two young women are engaged in serious training for what is widely recognised as the most brutal professional martial arts style — mixed martial arts or MMA.

For both fighters — compact amateur newcomer Steph Erasmus and lean Jada Ketley, a titled professional fighter transitioning to MMA — actual purse-bearing fights are still some way off. Ahead lies a punishing training regimen in which both Erasmus, having no prior fighting experience, and Ketley, who has to adapt her highly stylised traditionalist format to MMA’s dynamic environment, will develop their own signature moves.

In a sporting field that boasts several styles that reach back centuries and are shrouded in myth and tradition, MMA is the rowdy new kid on the block. But over a few decades the sport has eclipsed established forms to become perhaps the world’s most popular fighting form, second only to boxing.

A fighter’s MMA career may well last longer than a boxer’s. This is because MMA — despite its hardcore reputation — is a combination of upright striking and floor grappling techniques that "tends to leave fighters less punch-drunk", says Ketley, 23.

A former model, Ketley originally had no interest in martial arts. Hailing from Australia’s Gold Coast, she had spent seven years living in Thailand. Despite her parents both being karate instructors and her brother Daniel a professional fighter in Muay Thai — the highly ritualised kickboxing style marked by its high kicks — she could barely bring herself to watch a match.

"I didn’t like martial arts; I couldn’t understand why two people would want to get into a ring and do that to each other … I watched my brother fight once and he got cut open badly across the face and there was so much blood, and for me I didn’t want to watch any more," she says.

The world’s wealthiest woman female MMA fighter, Ronda Rousey. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/LEVY RIBEIRO
The world’s wealthiest woman female MMA fighter, Ronda Rousey. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/AFP/LEVY RIBEIRO

But a motorcycle accident in 2012 left Daniel with an eye socket so damaged that he could no longer fight for fear of being left blind. Ketley, back in Australia in 2016, decided to take up Muay Thai both to get fit and as a way to bond with her brother, who trained her for the first six months.

Still, it was merely a hobby — until one day in December 2016. "I saw John Wayne Parr, 10-times world champion in Muay Thai, fight caged Muay Thai — Muay Thai rules but in MMA garb in a cage — and in that moment I called my dad … and told him, ‘I think I want to do this legitimately’ … I ended up a week later on a plane to Thailand."

After the thrill of winning her first Muay Thai fight, a rush of bouts came Ketley’s way. Last year she was declared the "up-and-coming female fighter of the year" in Australia. Not bad, given that Australia currently rates sixth in the world for female MMA fighters.

Ketley moved to SA in July to transition to MMA under Joburg-based Richard Quan, "the Yoda of MMA", who has trained the US Marines, among others. She says: "There is more serious money to be made, and a lot of career possibilities in MMA compared with other martial arts … It is easier for an amateur MMA fighter to get sponsorships than for professionals in other disciplines to do so."

The world’s wealthiest female MMA fighter, Ronda Rousey, is worth $12m.

The involvement of women in MMA should come as no surprise to anyone. After all, one of the legendary "Five Elders" of the most venerable of styles, Shaolin kung fu, was Buddhist nun Ng Mui, who developed several "arts of deflection" that are used in MMA today.

Shock and awe

Surprise is the key element in winning any engagement, and with the entire world’s martial arts to draw from, it is the unexpected that makes MMA so exciting. For example, a fighter might find herself with an opponent trained in a military close-quarter combat style like Systema. For those not in the fighting loop, it’s a Russian special forces method, derived from sixth-century Slavic combat, which stresses core strength and flexibility to avoid blows, get inside the attack and black the assailant out.

Or the fighter may encounter the 1920s Brazilian school of Gracie jiu-jitsu — the main root of modern MMA — which borrows its punches from boxing, but takes the game to the mat as soon as possible, with vice-like wrestling holds designed to force the downed opponent to submit.

Such flexibility makes MMA far more unstructured than traditional disciplines. But it is not unregulated: you will not find ninjutsu’s opportunistic weapons (like car keys) here, nor will the combatant be allowed the groin-strikes tolerated in Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do.

Jada Ketley and Steph Erasmus
Jada Ketley and Steph Erasmus

Also outlawed are strikes to the back of the head or spine, and strikes to the head of an opponent with both hands on the ground. But, unlike in Muay Thai, there’s no eight-second recovery allowed by a referee for fighters to reorientate themselves when they get up off the floor: in MMA, the assault is relentless.

Matches run for three rounds of five minutes each, and title bouts run five rounds, though most fights don’t last the full set as the punishment is swift and unforgiving. Fights end either with a knock-out, technical knock-out or submission — or a ref may call a halt if a fighter fails to defend him-or herself.

Ketley says that though MMA fighters score points for their take-downs and the number of strikes they make, as well as their technical prowess, flair also counts in climbing the rankings of leagues such as SA’s Extreme Fighting Championship or the US-based Ultimate Fighting Championship. It also helps attract sponsorship from the likes of fight-gear company Dragon Do or Reebok.

Still, Ketley admits, "MMA is brutal, especially the ‘grounding-and-pounding’ [when a downed fighter is pummelled on the floor]. It’s just like a modern-day gladiator fight … the only difference is they aren’t actually killing each other; it’s people beating each other up for entertainment."

That, says 22-year-old Erasmus, means endurance is one of the key areas in which MMA fighters must train. Core strength, flexibility and speed are also essential.

Born in Alberton, Erasmus as a young girl was fascinated by fighting video games, but she had to wait, earning her own money as a bartender, before she could start learning MMA — something she did last September.

"When I started, I didn’t have any background in any martial arts, so now I am doing a bit of boxing, a bit of Muay Thai, trying to find my style," she says.

"I’m just starting, just beginning to understand what I need to do to get into my first amateur fight, which will only be in about a year or so."

"It’s actually insane what you can do in a fight; you can get proper fucked up. There is no way [my parents] want to accept this, my dad especially — and I’m only training at this point. When he sees bruises, he’s not happy; [my parents] don’t see how it can be a career."

Women only engage women in MMA. However, because so few women contest titles, they often pit themselves against men while sparring. But the scarcity of women does make it easier for a tough fighter to climb the rankings.

Still, it’s an uncertain career and a severe injury can end it in an instant. Ketley is sang-froid about the risks: "They bleed; I bleed — but there is no feeling like winning a fight."