LONDON — Footage of two slender boys wrestling in a cage in front of a cheering crowd in a British social club drew harsh condemnation Thursday from government officials and children’s advocates who blasted the match as barbaric.
The 8-year-old and 9-year-old wore no protective padding or headgear, and at one point one was shown crying.
Politicians and medical experts expressed alarm and police launched an investigation after video emerged of the Sept. 10 fight at Greenlands Labour Club, a bar and social club in Preston, northwest England.
Video posted on the Internet showed the boys grappling in a cage, watched by dozens of adults. The government’s culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, who is responsible for sports, said he found the images shocking.
“Getting more young people doing sport is great but I do ask myself whether it really does have to be in a cage,” Hunt told the BBC Thursday. “It just feels to me, it feels very barbaric and I know there are concerns about children that young doing a sport like that.”
Cage fighting, also known as ultimate fighting or mixed martial arts, is a no-holds-barred sport that lets participants use a variety of techniques borrowed from boxing, wrestling and martial arts.
It is fast-moving and often bloody, but proponents say it has a lower injury rate than other contact sports like boxing.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the British Medical Association condemned the participation of still-growing children in violent sports like cage fighting.
But Greenlands club manager Michelle Anderson said the boys were never in any danger during the brief demonstration bout, which preceded a slate of adult fights.
Video showed the fights taking place in a venue where alcohol is served, and skimpily dressed women – known as ring girls – parading close to the cage.
“The children were not doing cage fighting, they were just grappling,” she said. “There was no punching, kicking or striking.”
“If you criticize this, then you’ve got to ask yourself if it’s all right for kids to do boxing or judo,” Anderson said.
Nick Hartley, whose 8-year-old son Kian was one of the participants, said the boy “loves the sport.”
“It’s not one bit dangerous, it’s a controlled sport,” he said. “He likes to do it. He’s never forced to do it, he wants to do it, so leave him to do it.”
Police they would not be charging anyone over the fight.
Battling youngsters have sparked controversy in other countries, including the U.S., where children as young as 6 participate in organized cage fighting matches in some states. In other states it is a misdemeanor for children to take part.
In Australia, a kickboxing match earlier this year between two girls aged 7 and 8 was condemned by the government.
Some British cage fighting advocates said images of young boys fighting were bad publicity for a sport trying to shed a brutal reputation and move into the mainstream.
“It’s not illegal, it’s immoral,” said Mark Lyons, head of the British Cage Fighting Association.
“If it was in a gymnasium or a club environment, it’s quite acceptable, but in an environment where there’s alcohol involved and scantily clad women knocking about, it’s not the ideal situation for any child, ” he said. “Any parent who sticks their kid in an environment like that has got to be a moron.”