CNN Photos

More than just a fight

Andrea Roversi didn’t know much about mixed martial arts when he attended an event for the first time.

The Italian photographer didn’t expect anything other than two guys beating each other up in a cage.

But he found much more than that.

Roversi said he was immediately drawn into the theatrical nature of the sport, realizing “there was a very interesting world to explore.”

So instead of covering just one event for a friend’s MMA website, as he’d planned, Roversi attended more than 20 events in Italy over two years. His in-depth photo project will soon become a book.

Roversi shows the intense action inside the cage, but that’s only a small part of the scene he captures. Outside the cage, fighters enter with elaborate, smoke-filled introductions. Judges sit and watch the fights carefully.

Behind the scenes, “cage girls” — MMA’s equivalent of ring girls — wait together in short skirts. A stretcher sits alone, a reminder of what could always happen.

“Event after event, I decided not to take a lot of pictures about the fight but concentrate on before and after the fight,” Roversi said.

He also spent time with some fighters away from the cage, to get to know them and learn more about their lifestyle. He’s had coffee with them and watched them train and pray and prepare for their fights.

He said the fight is just the final step of an arduous process for these dedicated athletes.

“I met a guy, he comes from Morocco, and he lives in a gym,” Roversi said. “He has a small room inside the gym, and he lives there, and he wakes up and starts to train, and he has a little break, and then he starts again. All day, all night.”

Despite their tough appearance — rippling muscles, intense scowls and multiple tattoos — the fighters Roversi met were quite different outside the cage, he said.

“Sometimes, quite often, people look at the external, they look at this sport, and say: ‘Oh, they are crazy. Why, they are just violent people.’ But it's not like this,” Roversi said. “I know a lot of these guys, and I could say the opposite of this.”

This can often be seen after the fight, when two opponents embrace to show sportsmanship and mutual respect.

“They fight in the cage, but at the end, they are friends. They hug at the end of their match,” Roversi said. “And this is real. It's not like ‘we have to act because we finished the match.’ It's real. I feel this.”

Roversi said MMA isn’t as popular in Italy as it is in the United States, but it’s growing. And he’s living proof.

“I was not a fan before. Now, I am,” he said. “I found much more than a fight, and I like to be there.”

- Kyle Almond, CNN