When jet-setting around the globe and hobnobbing with celebrities is just part of your everyday existence, it becomes harder and harder to have those moments that surprise you and make you scream with delight.
Yet that’s exactly what happens when renowned artist Damien Hirst sits down with his partner, actor Sophie Cannell to watch UFC fights. Whether watching remotely from some exotic locale, or sitting Octagonside at the biggest events, the couple always finds time to indulge in their avid MMA passion.
For Hirst, his UFC baptism goes back almost to the beginnings of the promotion itself, when, “You could wear your own shoes, there were no rules; it was only a cage fight. And then I really came into it when Frank and Lorenzo (Fertitta) bought it. I met them, and they told me they owned it. That’s really when I kicked in and I found myself going to fights.”
That was a long time ago, but for Sophie, the love was borne even earlier in her life.
“I always watched fight nights. I was a hardcore WWE fan before I watched UFC,” she says, as if replaying the best highlights in her mind’s eye. But then a pivotal experience happened that shifted her forever to MMA. “When I was 10, my brother put me in a rear naked choke, blacked me out at age 10.”
Eventually, the couple would find themselves together, but curiously, the subject of UFC never came up in the early stages of their relationship.
“We had been going out for a year or something when I realized Sophie was into UFC,” says Hirst.
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“I found a UFC hoodie in his wardrobe when it was cold one winter, with his name on the back, and I freaked out,” interrupts Cannell.
Like any couple who suddenly discovers a mutual passion, the thrill of that moment led almost instantly to regular attendance at UFC events whenever possible, and a fandom that approaches the most hardcore.
“It’s so addictive,” explains Hirst. “UFC is the real deal. You don’t get it in any other sport. You get fighters in their prime pitted against each other. Anthony Keidis told us this too, ‘This is the prime of the sport, we are lucky to be alive today to live through this.’ It’s unbelievable.”
He also appreciates the evolution of the sport from its early incarnation to the current era.
“It’s really exciting to watch where the advantages come from and how everybody has to develop in all the mediums. The beauty of it that Lorenzo helped bring in was the rules, because there were no rules, and there’s the tap out, and the gloves and all that’s what made it super exciting.”
“I got direct inspiration,” says Damien, “when I made a couple of octagon shaped paintings and sculptures for frank and Lorenzo and some UFC spin paintings. And just the idea of being involved in the sport as it’s kind of forming, and changing, and growing…I mean, I just love the whole thing, the spectacle, the people, the training, the unexpected.”
“The changes in the women…just becoming more and more powerful,” he continues. “That has changed a lot. (Cris) Cyborg was unbelievable when we saw her for the first time. Ronda(Rousey), see her coming but then see her get beaten. I used to say I don’t want the guys to hit me but now I definitely don’t want the girls to hit me!”
Cannell has gone further, or more acutely, deeper.
“I got really obsessed when I started training. That’s when I realized it’s like nothing else. There are so many different areas. It’s not just like boxing… with UFC and MMA it’s everything, it’s jiu-jitsu, sparring, boxing. We’ve spent a lot of time in Thailand, I trained at AKA Thailand, an amazing location. I choked out Roger Gracie,” she beams.
Her experience with legends of the sport didn’t end there.
“I trained with Forrest Griffin. It was amazing. He’s such a dream. I love him so much, it was good and bad because, to me, seeing him and training with him is like… that’s me being starstruck, beyond anyone else. So, I was trying really hard to impress him and I made myself sick. He was like ‘Another round, another round, keep boxing.’”
“She went into shock, got the shakes really bad, they had to give her sugar and all that,” recalls Hirst.
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“Before we started the session with Forrest, I said, ‘Just so you know, I haven’t really trained in about six months; I’m kinda out of shape’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, yeah I’ll take it easy.’ Not a chance!”
No chance indeed. When has Forrest Griffin taken something easy?
Finally, Sophie remembers a particular fight that instantly made her into an MMA meme, simply because of her honest reaction.
“The sport meme was quite funny. It was Derrick Lewis when he knocked out Volkov with 11 seconds to go to the end of the fight. We watched the whole thing and he got his face smashed up and he’s really swollen, and that’s why UFC is so amazing cause it can turn around at any time. I get really protective with my favorite fighters.”
She does, as Damien recalls.
“Remember when you told me, ‘Save him! Please! Jump in the octagon baby! Do something’”?’