A polite and softly spoken farm girl hailing from the NSW countryside, you wouldn’t necessarily pick Claire Todd, 36, as a brutal force to be reckoned with – but when she gets in the cage, that’s exactly what she is….Not that she’d necessarily look at it that way.
“I never really looked at it as a brutal kind of thing,” Todd tells SBS Online.
“Yes it is a violent sport but in essence it’s a test of your skill. Because you’re learning something - In reality it’s no different from being a gymnast or a dancer.”
“It’s much the same. You have a set of skills and you go out and perform those skills.”
Todd is one of three very different young Aussies featured in the upcoming documentary Caged, airing on SBS this month, who all passionately pursue the extreme sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) popularly known as cage fighting.
To the outsider, the sport itself may seem thuggish or violent: a full-contact combat in the cage where anything goes: Muay Thai, Jiu-Jitsu and wrestling rolled into one. As Claire explains though, “it’s a very controlled environment.”
“As far as punching someone in the face – it’s no different to taking someone down in rugby. In the broad sense of it.”
“I’m not going out thinking ‘I’m going to beat this person up’.
“Anyone can do that, anywhere. That’s just plain old violence.
“But when you’re with a consenting person on the other side that says ‘yeah sure, you hit me: I’ll hit you’ it’s all cool at the end. That’s the way I view it.”
Claire didn’t always look at it that way though.
“When I first started to watch MMA I was like ‘Oh my God! I’ve just signed up for this – what the hell?!?”
“After my first few fights, my dad said to me once, ‘what are you doing this for?’”
“He never outright said don’t do it – he was always supportive of me.”
In the end it was Claire’s skills on the farm, working alongside her dad on the family property at Hobbys Yards, NSW, that convinced him she was equipped with the right physical attributes to battle it out in the cage.
“After a while he said “well, you work with big animals – 5-600 kgs, and if they wanted to, they could seriously injure you at any time’.”
“Because we work in such close proximity with them, you’re getting under them, picking up their feet…
“So he says ‘really, what you’re doing with someone of equal proportion is nowhere near as dangerous as what you’re doing with something of such…disproportion’”
In the end it was her dad’s justification that helped reassure Claire she was doing the right thing too.
“I thought ‘Oh that’s a good way of thinking about it’,” she says.
It’s not necessarily what goes on in the cage that forms the more physically intense aspect of cage fighting though, it’s what these athletes put their own bodies through in preparation for a fight.
With the goal of “making weight” 24 hours before a match, fighters will drain their bodies of as much fluid as possible in the dangerous practice of “weight-cutting” by dehydration.
The idea is that the weight that they then regain after replacing their fluids following weigh-in might give them the upper hand they need over their opponent.
It’s a practice not without its risks though, as Claire finds out first-hand when her body is pushed to the brink in a chilling incident in Caged.
Speaking about the incident now, Claire says “A lot of people have said ‘you went too far, you shouldn’t be doing it.’”
That doesn’t stop her from rationalizing the extreme practice though.
“Yes, it was an extreme and yes I suffered heatstroke and yes I was hospitalized,” she says.
“But at the same time (and I didn’t know this until a long time after I was back home) in a different hospital and with a different doctor, there was a guy admitted in the same condition as I was – with heatstroke. And he wasn’t cutting weight or sitting in a sauna.”
“Heatstroke and dehydration can happen anywhere – not just with weight-cutting,” says Claire.
“I don’t see that it’s so massive. I just made a mistake – and you can do that driving a car, you can do that taking medication. It can happen. Maybe I’m trivializing it.
“Everybody still drives their cars even though everybody knows someone that’s had an accident or died in an accident.”
So the big question then is, would she do it again?
“Yes, I’ll weight cut again.”
“I’ve done a weight cut many times before. I did it earlier in the year and everything was hunky-dory. Something went wrong this time and so be it.”
“I would weight cut again, but like everything, you live and you learn – you just do it a little different.”