In the smoky blue light of a studio a semi-naked fighter steps towards the camera. With a pair of superman pants peeping out from above his shorts and a malevolent look in his eye, he proclaims: “I’m Jason Bad Ass Barrett and I’m the best at everything. I’m the son of God and the son of thunder. I’m super J.”
To those not in the know, 31-year-old Bad Ass is a mixed martial artist who fights in the brutal world of Cage Rage, the UK’s version of ultimate fighting, a violent and increasingly popular mixture of boxing and martial arts that the British Medical Association wants to see banned.
But what makes this particular fighter so unusual is that outside of the ring he is the Rev Jason Barrett, a fully ordained Pentecostal preacher.
Ad: Vacation? City Trip? Weekend Break? Book Skip-the-line tickets
This weekend Bad Ass will step into the ring at the Wembley Arena Cage Rage showdown and attempt to bring down his opponent with a barrage of kicks, punches and throws. But on Sunday, the British fighter will swap his greased-up torso and shorts for a cassock, dog collar and cross.
Bad Ass Barrett sees no problem with fighting in a ring one day and preaching the next. “My faith helps me to fight and fighting has helped my faith,” he told The Independent. “I say preach what you practice: fighting has taught me not to show fear, and the Bible says ‘Fear not, for I am with thee’.”
Ultimate fighting, known in the UK as mixed martial arts (MMA), sees two men battle it out in an enclosed octagonal ring, protected only by a gumshield, a groin guard and a pair of shorts. Instead of boxing gloves, fighters wear padded fingerless gloves and virtually any form of attack is permissible apart from kneeing an opponent in the groin or stamping on his head.
Many within the medical profession say ultimate fighting is inherently dangerous but the swelling ranks of fans say the sport holds true to the spirit of competitive fighting, something which they say commercial boxing has lost.
Christian elders, including the bishop who ordained Mr Barrett and his mother, have been vocally sceptical at the compatibility of ultimate fighting and Christ’s teachings of love and tolerance. But the Rev Barrett, who preaches at a church he set up eight years ago in Manchester’s Moss Side, disagrees. “People have taken Christianity and packaged it until it’s all nansy pansy and ‘turn the other cheek’,” he says. “It’s not about getting bulldozed over; you’ve got to remember that the Crusaders were all Christian.”
Knocking back isotonic health drinks alongside his fellow fighters in the lobby of a Wembley hotel, Bad Ass waxes lyrical about the mixed martial arts fraternity; a brotherhood of men who may fight tooth and claw in the ring but remain firm friends when the fight is over.
When Lee Doski, Barrett’s opponent for today’s big fight, walks into the bar, there is no gnashing of teeth or muttered abuse. On the contrary, Barrett stops the interview, leaps from his seat and bounds over to give his nemesis a bear hug.
“It’s like Lord of the Rings, man,” he explains. “It’s the fellowship of the ring. You’ve got to respect anyone else that does it, because it’s tough and they’re going through the same process.”
A lot of the world, it seems, shares his enthusiasm. Ratings on American pay-per-view channels for big matches are regularly higher than American football matches and major boxing bouts, while in Japan upwards of 30 million viewers sometimes tune in.
In Britain the sport’s popularity is also increasing. Two weeks ago the US version of Cage Rage, the Ultimate Fighting Championships, managed to sell out the 20,000-seater O2 Arena and the UK is a regular date on the MMA world tours.
The astronomical viewing figures are down to its reputation as one of the world’s most violent sports. As Cage Rage promoter Andy Geer explains: “The baddest man in the world is no longer the boxing champ, he’s the mixed martial arts champ.”
A recent fight in Liverpool resulted in one player having a dislocated and fractured jaw, several fractured ribs and concussion.
In the past two years alone the Rev Barrett has dislocated his arm and suffered an “exploded” eye socket after a punch shattered his cheek bone.
Such injuries are why the BMA wants to see ultimate fighting banned. “They just knock the stuffing out of each other until they can’t get up,” says Dr Peter Maguire of the BMA. “That’s not a sport, that’s a gladiator fight.”
But according to Geer, a culture of submission ensures that fighters are not too proud to say when they cannot continue: “If you lock someone’s joint to the point where it’s going to snap, there really is no option but submission.”