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Most cricketers take to golf after retirement. Adam Hollioake chose mixed martial arts, and came out alive and with a respectable draw, in his first professional fight
May 6, 2012
In nine minutes spent punching, grappling and dodging during a Gold Coast cage fight, Adam Hollioake experienced more of the extreme emotions that have punctuated his life.
For professional athletes, self-analysis comes instantly and as one of England's former limited-overs captains left the ring he was throbbing with adrenaline, excited to have survived his professional mixed martial arts debut without the loss of blood or breaking of limbs. But he was disappointed - almost embarrassed - at his lack of fitness, which led to his inability to finish off an out-muscled opponent, and for ignoring his coach's clipped instructions when being told to target a quickly swelling eye. Hollioake's camp felt he should have won. He landed more punches once he recovered from a mistake in the first round that left him on his back, swivelling and shaking to avoid the shower of punches, forearms and pinning of his stomach. Instead the judges ruled "a majority draw" - two had it even; one had Hollioake slightly ahead - in front of a crowd of around 1500. It was easy to laugh: a former allrounder involved in the type of stalemate that can turn cricket newcomers away.
The fight certainly wasn't a bore draw, and there was no doubt in Hollioake's fizzing mind over which result he now prefers. "The nine-minute one," he tells ESPNcricinfo. "I've got four and a half days to do what I want now. Five days - or four days - to get a draw, it's like, 'What was all that about?'"
After walking back into the shared dressing room, where a couple of the night's headline fighters nodded their respect, he bluntly dissects his new and old careers. "I had more adrenaline out there in one night than I did in 17 years of cricket," he says. "I don't know why I played; cricket was such a boring game."
But the real issue is not whether cricket is more exciting than cage-fighting. It's why a 40-year-old who spent so long involved in the genteel game - most of it as a captain who had to fit within the establishment's constraints - has joined the growing craze of mixed martial artists, whose objective is to paint and pummel opponents using pretty much any method they want. Inside the six-sided wire cage it's a bloodsport, a self-preservation village of the van Dammed.
Outside the ring, the supporters yell loudest when a punch, kick or a knee slams into a head. It's an activity for heavy spirits, not G&T-sippers in The Oval pavilion. "I say, is that chap Hollioake in a choke hold? He never was very good off his legs."
It's easy to wipe the career change away as a mid-life crisis, but there have been crises throughout Hollioake's life. Personal nadirs such as the death a decade ago of his brother Ben, whose England kit was recently stolen when their parents' house was robbed. Or the bankruptcy of Hollioake's Gold Coast property business last year, or his unfulfilled international career. The only time he says he felt threatened in sport was when his batting skills let him down against spin. (Shane Warne broke scores of English batsmen's minds in the 1990s and beyond.)
Now Hollioake is back, fighting for himself. Not to make money, or to prove he can be successful after his business collapse, or to fulfil a family gap. "I'm not doing anything for what's happened in the past, I'm not doing anything for what's happening in the future," he says. "I appreciate my life's a rollercoaster. I've been down to the bottom and I'm edging my way up. I know somewhere down the line I'll fall over again, that's just the path that my life's given me."
|"I appreciate my life's a rollercoaster. I've been down to the bottom and I'm edging my way up. I know somewhere down the line I'll fall over again, that's just the path that my life's given me"|
Honest and easy-going, he is also calm and considerate, forthright and friendly. Definitely more suited to a commune than a cage. But while other men of his era consider buying a mountain bike or a paddle board, or think about splurging on a sky dive, Hollioake has pulled on a pair of black boardshorts and parachuted into this. A 92kg late-bloomer trying to lose his paunch, muscling up against 20-year-olds with abs seemingly chiselled from marble.
The consensus is he's made a crazy choice. Yet decisions on whims don't involve months of training for an experience that could finish with a crumpled face or days of blood-filled urine. Or worse. Rather than feeling unhinged, he insists his mental state is one of his best assets. It doesn't mean there aren't some inconsistencies in his logic.
At Surrey his travelling partner was often Saqlain Mushtaq, a devout Muslim. Islam was a religion Hollioake studied in detail along with Catholicism and Christianity. He feels a higher being, a god, although he's not sure of its name. "I believe in being a good person, living my life," he says. And here's the most extraordinary thing: he says he doesn't want his opponents to get hurt.
"I want to beat them," he says, quickly realising and explaining his choice of words. "I don't mean physically beat them, I mean to be victorious. I pray for the people I fight against, that they're not going to get hurt, that we'll both be okay."
But the nature of cage-fighting is to hurt. The more pain inflicted the better. First pray for the opponent, Adam, then prey on him. It's clear to everyone who has been to a cage-fighting bout or glimpsed it on a TV channel surf that this is a potentially lethal pursuit.
"I could end up dead," Hollioake says, sounding English for the first time with his up-and-down emphasis on the killer word. "People have died. I'm aware of that." He counters by arguing that most sports have risks, including cricket. But a batsman worrying about a bouncer each over is a significantly friendlier prospect than a whirlwind of kicks and punches to a helmet-free head. "Is it going to happen?" he wonders of his life ending in the ring. "Unlikely."
There is no place for anything but realism, no brushing off the danger or the possibility of decapitation. Before the fight he invited me to visit him in hospital if he was hurt really badly. Then at the casino weigh-in the night before the contest, he eyed his opponent while wearing a pair of snug, ankle-high slippers. But he's no thug in uggs. He was never a chance of nibbling anyone's ear, except for an entertaining chat.
In the ring Hollioake also felt too relaxed. It's a common experience for visitors to the Gold Coast, Queensland's major tourism strip, which is known for surf, sky-rise buildings, summer holidays and sleaze. Hollioake lives here now, trains in a local gym, and grew close to the Days of Glory 2 fight promoters.
Inexperience can't be corrected out of the ring and his first mistake came before the bout, when he tried to enter through the blue cage gate instead of his place in the red corner. The referee barked at him, like a capped player snapping at a nervous novice in a 1990s county dressing room.
Another error resulted in him being "mounted" by his opponent, Brisbane's Joel Miller. There is a homo-erotic element to this most masculine of pursuits. Fighters enthusiastically straddle their rival's thighs and chests, wriggling and writhing on the mat to the point of exhaustion. One of the undercard fights ended with "a rear naked choke" manoeuvre that resulted in the loser losing consciousness.
Hollioake's vital signs were promising after he recovered from his early slips and he scored strongly with some booming right hands. They shocked but could not fell Miller in the middle stages of the fight. Hollioake started boxing as a 12-year-old and was not in danger when both men were on their feet.
In the third round he spent most of the time lying on his opponent like he was a surfboard, paddling his right hand about 15 times into Miller's ribs and kidneys when he could muster the energy. Occasionally he jabbed at his rival's head with his left, but couldn't get a clear enough shot to achieve maximum damage.
"It's almost gladiatorial, I love it," Hollioake says. "I hit him some hard shots and he stayed on his feet. We both got in a couple of shots. We'll be a couple of sore boys."
It was far from the most brutal fight of the night. Hollioake finished with some red legs and a few scratches on the side of his head, caused mostly by the scraping of Miller's four-ounce gloves, which offer more protection to a fighter's hand than the receiver's head. Twenty minutes after the fight he was glowing, sipping on a can of beer and promising trainer Stephen Ng that he'll listen to his instructions next time.
If there is a next time. While he's now both a professional boxer and a mixed martial arts fighter, Hollioake is at the bottom of the combat ladder. The purses for a win aren't enough to pay his rent, or for his three children to go to school - and he walked off with a draw. His wife Sherryn, an uncomfortable cage-side observer, will pass judgement on whether her husband's career continues.
"We'll reassess it," Hollioake says. "I might want to go to the moon next." Why not? No England captain has done that either. It would be another gripping episode of Hollioakes, that brutal reality show.
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