It’s March in Ballerup Super Arena, and two men dance around each other in an eight-sided cage. They struggle to stay upright, slipping in the sweat that streams from their bodies as they punch and kick and grapple. Then, in the fourth round, after nearly 20 minutes of combat, one lifts his foot to the other’s face, bringing him to the floor. The fight is over, and ‘Nicolas Sharpshooter’ Dalby is the new champion.
Dalby, 29, seems an unlikely Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter. A self-confessed geek with a weakness for computers, mountain biking, and photography, he took up karate at age 15 to protect himself from bullies. Fourteen years later, he defeated Sergei Churilov on his home turf to earn the title of welterweight champion in Cage Warriors Fighting Championship (CWFC), Europe’s biggest MMA organisation.
“MMA looked exciting and scary, especially the old highlight reels from when there weren’t many rules and people were getting smashed to pieces. Karate also got boring. It was too hierarchical, and there was way too much bowing,” says Dalby, explaining why he chose to take up MMA as a 20-year-old.
Eyes on America
The soft-spoken Dane has won 12 professional matches and now has his eyes set on the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the world’s leading MMA league. UFC is based in the US, where the sport originated in the early 1990s as a no-holds-barred competition to answer the question of which fighting style was superior. Over the next decade it became increasingly regulated, and a number of moves were banned, including blows to the groin, head butting, and eye gouging. Despite regulations to improve safety, four MMA fighters have died in sanctioned matches since 2007. Nevertheless, according to the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation, MMA fighters are less likely to suffer serious injuries than sportsmen in a range of contact sports, including hockey, boxing, and American football.
“The UFC is the Champions League of the MMA world, and while it’s my long-term goal to get there, I don’t want to go at any cost. If I were to sign with them now, I would actually end up losing money on matches because of all the tests and brain scans I would have to pay for. So for now, I’m looking to take more fights with Cage Warrior because they are great to fight for and are taking good care of me. Hopefully I’ll improve my hype and get offered a better contract,” Dalby says.
Discipline is key
Despite his disdain for bowing, the five years he spent doing karate taught him the discipline he needs to succeed in this punishing sport. In the two months leading up to a fight, he trains more than 20 hours a week, swearing off junk food and alcohol. He argues that without this discipline, you are unlikely to succeed.
“Cage fighters have to be easygoing and pretty nerdy, because you can’t succeed as a knucklehead. You need to train without ego and deal with being beat up during sparring matches. So most fighters tend to be like me, talkative and down to earth.”
Dalby turns 30 later this summer, but argues that age isn’t the most important factor in determining how long an MMA career lasts. Rather, it is the number of years of fighting and the accumulation of injuries that ultimately determines when a fighter has to leave the sport. But he’s not in it for life, and is prepared to throw in the towel if the beatings start to take its toll.
“At first I was worried about getting hurt, but I feel like I have my head screwed on properly. I take it as it comes. I’m aware of what I’m doing, and if I think I’m getting too old or knocked out too often, I’ll just try something else.”
Dalby is currently helping a sparring partner train for an upcoming bout as he waits to find out when his next match is. But while this frees up time for his photography, he finds preparing for a fight far easier than developing his creative skills.
“I love photography, but it’s difficult. It’s such a loose process. But when I’m training ahead of a match, it’s easy to have discipline and keep my eye on the prize. I have a date and an opponent. I know exactly what I have to do.”