Mixed martial arts inspires the unbelievable. Being locked in a cage with another martial arts master forces a level of concentration, willpower and mental dexterity that is incomparable. The improbable is routine in the cage—especially if Bellator star Michael "Venom" Page (9-0) is digging through his bag of tricks.
In a sport where the extraordinary happens with startling regularity, Page is able to draw oohs and ahs from even the most curmudgeonly observers. The Page Show is part dance routine, part fight, with more than a little bit of professional wrestling razzle dazzle holding the entire production together.
The son of kickboxing champion Curtis Page (and brother of four other martial arts standouts) the 29-year-old Londoner has been competing for most of his life in one form or another. His fight against Jeremie Holloway on Spike TV Friday will be his sixth for Bellator on national television.
Despite this pedigree, he remains an unproven commodity in the cage. Bleacher Report's Senior Combat Sportswriter Jonathan Snowden caught up with the elusive Page to talk about kung fu, pro wrestling and how the two combine to create one heck of a show.
Bleacher Report: I understand that your parents are Shaolin masters. Like Shaolin masters from Sunday afternoon movies?
Michael Page: They definitely felt like that to me when I was young, 100 percent. If I got into trouble or made a mistake, they're giving me training drills. They're not sending me to my room. So it was very different.
It kept me in line. I was very respectful. And it became very easy to be sociable as well. I wasn’t a shy person at all just from traveling around from an early age.
I think my first international competition, I was eight. I went away to Germany for a competition. Every weekend we were driving somewhere to some competition, and it helps with your character and character building and meeting so many different people, so many different cultures. It really opened your eyes. And yeah, it's helped me massively.
B/R: So paint the picture for me of these kinds of tournaments. Are these like in recreation centers or like in the ballroom of like a big hotel in town? Where were these things going down and how did it work?
MP: Yeah, a lot of the places there were just sports halls. And you'd go there and there would be like six to 12 mats, depending on how big the events were. A lot of them would be like six mats and you're there all day.
The juniors would fight, all the children would fight earlier on, and then you'd work your way up to adults. It literally is one long day, I'd wake up at like 6 a.m. to get ready to drive down however many hours. Competition usually starts at 10 a.m., 11, you're not leaving until about 9 p.m., 10 that night. So it was really, really long days.
But I enjoyed everything. Every weekend, or every other weekend, I was just watching combat. And you just soak in so much when you're around that arena.
B/R: Were you already employing some of the style that we see from you now? If so, was that controversial in the traditional martial arts world? Were you a controversial fighter as a kid, or did that come later?
MP: The actual point fighting we did, it kind of came from like sports karate and then a lot of these are just different styles. A lot of our kung fu styles, like the wushu style, they were very flamboyant.
Although they are a traditional art, in combat they used to throw a lot of fancy kicks and stuff, a lot of the kicks that people would say are not effective. So I was actually in an arena that applauded that behavior, if you know what I mean. It was normal to be flamboyant, to put on a show. And all I've done is just converted what I was already doing for many years into the cage.
B/R: Here I was picturing this room full of grizzled senseis furious at this cocky kid Michael Page and your dad frowning at you.
MP: It's funny, but I actually saw a video of my dad competing. Obviously this is years and years ago, but his mannerisms and the way he was carrying on, again, the same kind of like entertaining I do.
Pumping up the crowd, putting his hands up, like dancing around, all the same kind of things that I'm doing now. You know I used to sit down, watch my dad when I was like three, four, and five, you know watching him compete around the country. So it was normal. It was very normal for me.
B/R: What does your dad, an old-school kung fu man, make of mixed martial arts?
MP: He's still worried about me, even now. It's something that he had no knowledge in, in that sense. He's more of just a stand-up and the points.
When I told him I wanted to do it, straightaway he was s--tting himself. He enjoys watching me after I go out and put on a show, and he's always tuned in. But he's still worried. I think just the parent in him, you know watching your child do something as tough as our sport is always gonna be difficult.
B/R: What I've seen of that freestyle kickboxing style, it's like a one-shot, one-kill kind of thing where like as soon as somebody lands, it's over. Is it sort of like taekwondo?
MP: Yeah, it's very similar to taekwondo, very similar to taekwondo. You don’t have the body pad, but you score points and it's all about the referee's discretion. Which can be very controversial, but it's all part of the game.
It's a very similar sport. We actually had a lot of taekwondo guys partake in our events, a lot of karate guys as well. It's kind of like a mixed martial arts arena as well, just for the point scoring systems.
B/R: I wish I wasn’t so ignorant about it. From what I've seen there's no leg kicks either?
MP: There's no leg kicks and obviously no elbows, no knees. Kicks are fine so as long as it's above the waist. The only thing we could do below was sweep the foot.
So yeah, it's different. It's different, but it really encourages speed, it encourages timing, distance, which is everything you see me do in the cage.
B/R: I really can see that when I watch you fight. By the way, I haven't said it, but I love watching you fight. You break every rule of conventional mixed martial arts and thai boxing and even western boxing.
Like the way you keep your hands down. The lack of a jab. The way you dance. Even when you close distance, you just kind of explode in. And now I see that comes from this background. It's all about explosiveness and landing that one shot. And that’s where you come from, huh?
MP: Yeah, 100 percent that’s what it's about. And I remember certain things that my instructor always said. And obviously the instructor being my dad would say different things and certain things would stick out to you.
And he always used to say "if you are fighting someone and that person had a knife and you had a knife, you can't go in there and just play a 50-50 games." You know you have to be in and out and land your shot without getting touched. You have to take it as seriously as that.
This is one of those things that’s always stuck in my head and it's one of those things I try to always add to my game. You know, you get in and out without being touched.
B/R: You do a lot of things that could be broadly described as taunting. When you're doing that dancing in the ring, is that taunting, or is there a tactical purpose to it, where you're attempting to distract or anger your opponent? Or is it like a little bit of both?
MP: It does about three things at once. It's important because you create frustration in your opponent. People, they don’t want that to happen to them.
I've actually spoken to fighters that I've fought afterward, and they were like, yeah, "you know what, before I fought you I was like, there's no way you'd be able to do that." And obviously I did in the end.
It is very frustrating, and it makes people make mistakes. They have to rush in, or they sit back and almost watch the show, just like everybody else.
It also calms me down. A lot of the times if I feel like I'm under a little bit of pressure; sometimes I start dancing and dance and music, those are two things that just keep me relaxed. If I could, I'd fight with headphones in, but obviously I can't, so I'm gonna have to use the body movement I can use to relax me.
And lastly, it changes the dynamics of where I can throw techniques from because my hands are moving in a weird direction and my feet are moving in weird directions. It's very hard for you to get my timing, which makes it easier for me to land on you, like I say, while you're in that frustrated mode. You know a lot of times you're standing still and just observing, I can land shots and move around.
A lot of fighters, we drill and drill and drill and drill with the same techniques over and over again, and they usually come from a very similar place. But because I'm dancing and moving my hands, they're not coming from the same places that you have spent years drilling, and it makes it even easier for me to land shots. So it kind of does a lot in one.
B/R: And they're frustrated because like they're coming from either a muay thai background or a wrestling background and what they both want is for you to be right in front of them, right? And when you're not, they don’t have any idea what to do.
Do you sense that confusion in them when you get into the cage and you start moving around and they're just like, "what the heck am I supposed to do now?" I sense that in them.
MP: No, that’s exactly it. They're used to having a particular type of fighter in front of them, and it's not what I present to them. So it is a very frustrating thing to fight against.
It's very difficult to even get training partners to simulate what I do because a lot of the times it's very spontaneous and it's hard to read.
B/R: Since you come from the point fighting, the one-shot, one-kill world, how hard was it for you to adapt to MMA? Where you land that one shot, but that’s not the end. You’ve got five minutes of continuous action.
That had to have been a huge change in the way you conceptualize the fight. How long did it take you to adjust to that?
MP: To be fair, I've always been very fit. I had thought that would take out of me the most, the five-minute rounds and stuff, but weirdly enough the rounds didn’t take out of me the most. Neither did the ground game.
What took it out of me the most to begin was the wrestling because, obviously, standing up I was used to. But falling over and getting back up and falling over and getting back up and trying to take someone down and getting back up, that took it out of me a lot more.
But the more I did it, it just became normal as well. When you mix all of it together, you're working your muscles in so many different ways that it can be tiring. But again, the more and more I did it, the more and more I got used to it. My trainers putting me through hell every week, with regard to the fitness, fitness regimens and strength and conditioning, it helped. And it just feels normal now.
B/R: I was also just thinking about your old world of points fighting. When you land a punch there, that’s it. You kind of back away, right?
In MMA you have to have this finishing instinct. Did you already have some of that in you, or did you have to learn it, like the idea of like staying on top of someone once you’ve landed heavy on them?
MP: It's still quite instinctive not to, because even with my knockdowns, I don’t believe with any one of my knockdowns you’ve seen me climb onto someone and continue. It's still quite instinctive to stop.
You know, once I feel like I've hit that final blow, it feels like the end the fight as well. It's not built in me to start ground and pounding or following them down to the floor.
I hit the shot, you know I make my space so I don’t get hit, and I move around and set it up again. And I just keep doing that until I land those kinds of shots and people are falling over. So I just keep doing the same thing.
B/R: This is just a guess on my part, but I'm gonna guess that you're a professional wrestling fan?
MP: Oh, yeah, 100 percent. One hundred percent.
B/R: I just see that after the fight the way you do stuff like look at your glove and brush it off or make those elaborate hand signals. To me that feels like the '90s wrestling that I grew up with. Is that where you take it from?
MP: Yeah, a lot of the stuff. I'm a natural showman anyway, but yeah like those are the kinds of things that have inspired me. I'm not a master at trash talk. I'm more kind of being a character. You know what I mean.
And like you say, back in the day, the wrestlers were characters, man, and they had their own little things that they did. And this is where all my different movements come from when I'm standing in front of the fans.
I've kind of thought about what character I want to be. You know what I mean? And yeah, it's definitely from watching people like The Rock. The way they interact with the crowd and how the crowd can almost feel like they're connected with that person, just by doing certain moves or saying certain lines.
B/R: Are you the good guy or the bad guy? Because I hear a lot of cheers, but I hear some boos too.
MP: I'm definitely both, because as much as entertainment-wise I'm the good guy, a lot of people find it disrespectful as well. So to them I'm the bad guy. Just being me puts me in both categories. It also makes me an interesting person to watch and to follow.
B/R: I don’t mean this disrespectfully, but when I watch you I don’t necessarily see a fighter. I see an action star, like Don "The Dragon" Wilson or Billy Blanks or Phillip Rhee from the Best of the Best movies.
I could completely see Michael Page as the star of that kind of movie. Has that ever occurred to you? Do those kinds of movies even exist anymore?
MP: No, no, I understand. That’s exactly what I want. I want to be that face. I want to be a star. Every time I go out there, I aim to put on a show for that very reason, to be the memorable person on that show, regardless.
This is why, when people ask me "do you prefer to be a main event and this and that," I couldn’t care less. I put on my own main event every time, so it doesn’t matter. You can put me on the first fight of the night, and I'm still looking to put on a show.
And yeah, those are kind of the people that I used to watch religiously when I was younger, all those kind of characters. It's something that I want to aspire to, just having that kind of status in MMA.
B/R: My last question for you, and we've kind of already talked about it a little bit, but I'm interested in the return of the traditional martial artist. Earlier this year I talked to Stephen Thompson, who comes from a traditional martial arts family much like yours. Other fighters, like Conor McGregor, have a traditional martial arts kind of movement.
Are you guys, this group of great fighters, changing the way that we're gonna think about mixed martial arts striking going forward? Is the sport moving away from the thai boxing style? Are you changing this game? In 10 years, are a lot of people gonna look like Michael Page?
MP: Yeah, I feel even quicker than that. I think people, especially in martial arts, progress and change very quickly. They catch on very, very fast.
I've already seen a lot more people being a lot more flamboyant, a lot more relaxed, have a lot more movement in the cage. And like you say, the names that you brought up, like the McGregors, the Thompsons, they're all doing the same thing in a slightly different way.
I'm happy that people are starting to see the effects of what I do and the style of where I come from and start to appreciate it a bit more.
All things kind of go around in circles. I think back in the day before the MMA really became what MMA is, kung fu was the main thing, you know kung fu and karate. Then the Thais came over and they started dominating and then everyone wanted to do that. And I think it just goes around in circles.
A lot of people are gonna adapt the traditional martial arts style and then just forget about how effective thai boxing can be. And then that’s gonna come back around again. Maybe in a different form or with a different name. But right now, what we're doing is what's popular. Because it's definitely working.
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.