Sunderland has fast become a breeding ground for successful mixed martial arts fighters. Katy Wheeler spoke to one of the city’s fighters who’s gearing up for his next bout.
ICEBOX by name, Icebox by nature. O “Icebox” Okunnu’s stone cold expression is helping to make him an unpredictable opponent in the world of mixed martial arts.
As a professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter, the 26-year-old from Ashbrooke draws upon techniques such as grappling, wrestling and a range of martial arts including Jeet Kune Do and Jujitsu in a duel of strength, wits and skill.
He emerged victorious from a fight last month against former Commonwealth boxer Craig “The Doc” Docherty and he’s hoping to repeat his success at a forthcoming fight on November 11 against Nicklas Berghman at the Federation Brewery in Gateshead.
So far his professional fighting tally reads as three wins and one loss and the former Sunderland University student says that key to his success is where he lives.
“Five years ago when I started as an amateur you’d go to fights and no one would have heard of Sunderland, but now the city is really on the map,” he said.
“Sunderland has three fighters – Ross Pearson, Phil De Fries and Andy Ogle – who fight in the UFC, the biggest fighting promoter in the world.”
O, who works as a fitness instructor, trains 12 times a week at gyms across the city including Northman Fight Academy, based at Fitness 2000 in Roker, as well as sessions under coach Ian Storey.
“The growth of the sport here has been exponential,” he said. “I think it’s due to the fact that Sunderland is a very physical place. For its size, there are so many gyms here.
“There are so many bodybuilders, mixed martial artists and we even have an Olympian boxer. I think before Sunderland, Manchester was known for having the most fighters.”
But for the scores who flock to see MMA fights, the sport has its detractors.
“People have preconceptions about the sport,” O explained.
“I had them before I started fighting, I actually thought it was illegal. But when you step inside that cage there are so many rules and regulations, like you can’t kick or knee grounded opponents.
“Poking in the eye and shots to the groin are not allowed – these things happen, but if the referee thought you had done that on purpose you’d be disqualified.
“They used to allow things like that years ago but they are eliminating certain elements to make the sport a lot more universally acceptable.
“It’s so it can be shown more on TV, but also to ensure fighters’ safety and to allow for their longevity in the sport.
“It’s all about the fighters’ safety and the moment you don’t want to be in the cage, the fight’s over.
“It started off being a brutal sport but now I’ve seen more serious injuries occur from football.”
In the weeks leading up to his next fight, O is in a rigorous training regime as he performs a “Swot Analysis” of his opponent, weighing up his strength, weaknesses, opportunity and threat. O’s coach says he thinks he’s got a fighting chance of success.
“You can’t fault O’s preparation,” he said. “I think someone would have to be exceptional to beat him.”
Ian, who has been involved in martial arts for 30 years, says he is particular about who he chooses to coach. He explains: “You have to be particular about who you teach certain things to, otherwise it gives the sport a bad name. You get one bad apple and everyone gets tarred with the same brush.
“But it’s like every area – you get good and bad journalists, good and bad footballers, and good and bad fighters. MMA is not for everybody, it’s the toughest thing to be competitive in and you soon get found out if you fall short. It’s not just about being tough, which is a common misconception, it’s a mindset.”
Every win under O’s bantamweight belt brings him a step closer to fulfilling his dream of fighting in the UFC.
“The big goal for everyone is to make it to the UFC, the big show, and I feel confident I can get there through my coach because he’s more than my coach, he has my best interests at heart,” he says.
Speaking about why he’s so passionate about a sport that’s not for the fainthearted, he said: “I think what makes this the most exciting sport right now is how versatile you can be with your fighting style. Some fighters have a wrestling background, some have a boxing background, some have a Jujitsu background.
“I think sticking to a mould only gets you so far as a fighter, but with this sport you can be fluid with your style and no one can say you are wrong.”
He added: “Until recently I didn’t realise what I loved so much about the sport but it’s the ability to express yourself in the most honest place. It’s the most physical way of seeing your hard work rewarded and when you test yourself that much, you get the truth.”
n The Supremacy 8 Fight Challenge, featuring O “Icebox” Okunnu versus Nicklas Berghman, takes place at Federation Brewery, Gateshead, on Sunday, November 11. For tickets, Tel: 07411 447 947.