‘I just want people to see me as a good fighter, not a disabled one’
Despite having cerebral palsy, mixed martial arts fighter Jack West aims to turn professional at the end of the year. By which point he says, his doubters will have been forced to accept him.
At the BST MMA Gym in the heart of Northampton town centre is where you’ll find ‘The T-Rex’ five nights a week, practising his skills and gaining respect with each passing fight.
As we sit bare footed on wrestling mats, the thud of blows being landed on a chained heavy bag resonates through a space whose sweat-soaked atmosphere captures years of primal aggression being channelled into physical prowess.
The man responsible for the noise is Jack’s main coach, former World Cage Warriors and British Tae Kwon Do champion Danny Batten, snapping a series of unrelenting low kicks into 180lbs of leather and sand.
West tells me: “My coaches and training partners are the best about. Technically, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone better in the country.”
As well as being his coach, Batten also plays the role of sparring partner from time to time.
Attesting to his ferocious abilities, West speaks of the pain he often endures after training.
“With my condition, I have restricted use of my right side with little range of motion. It’ll usually cause me pain after training, but I’ve never known any different.
“Submission wise, because I don’t have full extension of my right arm, anything on that side I’ll tap to immediately, unlike my left arm where I could possibly twist and wriggle out. I’m not going to risk it.”
‘People don’t want to fight me, and I get it. It’s a lose-lose situation for them’
Despite being born with a hemiplegia of the right side, West has managed to make a name for himself in the amateur ranks of MMA.
With a record of three wins and one loss so far, it’s hard to deny his talent, although some try to.
“People don’t want to fight me, and I get it. It’s a lose-lose situation for them. Losing means they got beat by the guy with cerebral palsy. Win, and it’s only a guy with cerebral palsy. There’s little to gain from their side.”
His solution to this problem? “If I keep working, at some point I’m going to be of the skill level where they’re forced to accept me.
“When I turn pro, I’m going to be there through ability not sympathy, and they’re going to have to fight me.”
Currently, there is no MMA organisation that has disabled-specific platforms for fighters. As a result, West has always trained and fought with abled-bodied competitors and says he’d not have it any other way.
“I don’t want to be known as a disabled fighter. I want people to say ‘he’s a good fighter’ regardless. I want people to see me as a good fighter in spite of my disability.”
Overcoming the odds
Ahead of meeting West, I was slightly nervous and unsure as to how I’d approach the topic of his disability. Rightly or wrongly, I adopted a position of sympathy.
My perception shifted dramatically when after a toilet break, I returned with two packets of dry roasted peanuts for us.
After passing West his and then woefully attempting to open mine, I felt a sudden rush of anxiety and thought ‘I should’ve opened the bloody nuts myself.’ I looked up to find him making light work of the wrapping, utilising his teeth and self-proclaimed ‘piston’ of a left hand.
“I call it the money-maker,” he tells me in jest.
“I know that sounds silly, but my condition is something other fighters don’t have. When we step inside the octagon together, I’m beating you even with cerebral palsy. I have an obstacle to climb that you don’t.
“I’m as good a fighter as anybody that I’ve stepped in there against. I have obvious disadvantages, but I make up for them in other ways. Fighting is what I’m best at.”
Researching cerebral palsy threw up a list of problems associated with the condition including poor co-ordination, stiff and weak muscles, bad posture, problems with balance – all things you’d assume mitigate against a successful career in combat sports.
West is, however, made of sterner stuff. “Everything you’ve said there is true, but I’m overcoming it.
“I’m just as capable as everyone else. When I first started in MMA, that was exactly what it was – showing I’m just as physically capable as you lot.
“I’m actually good at sport. I can’t kick a ball to save my life, but I’m a good goalkeeper!”
Having joined a boxing class with friends at the age of 13, West continued even after his mates lost interest. He then transitioned in MMA and found his “calling”.
“I loved thinking I was the man,” he tells me. “Playing sport (at school) people would say ‘sit down’ or whatever but I knew my potential. I knew I was strong.”
‘I’m not scared, and my mum sees that. She sees that I love it’
Now, if you were to ask most parents which sport they’d least like their child to show an interest in, MMA would probably be right up there. Add in a serious birth defect, and West admits his mother was initially extremely anxious about her son’s passion for fighting.
“When I began training at 13, obviously like most mums she was worried. Like most people, she was unaware that there is an art to mixed martial arts.
“Soon enough, she stopped worrying and just watched. Now she’s a fan of the sport.
“It’s like, if she saw I was scared, then she would be, too. But I’m not scared, and she sees that. She sees that I love it.”
Although Jack’s situation is rare, he’s not the first disabled mixed martial artist to fight inside the cage.
Nick Newell, formerly of America’s XFX fight organisation, tasted success when he defeated Eric Reynolds to become champion of the world in their 155lb division, despite being born with a congenital amputation ending below the elbow on his left arm.
Newell is a hero to West, who takes much inspiration from his example.
“He’s someone I look up to massively. We’ve actually exchanged emails on various occasions and he’s wished me luck for upcoming fights and stuff.
“When I was younger, it was a dream of mine to fight him. I’d still love to. We’re basically the same weight.”
In 2015, Newell retired from MMA despite winning a unanimous decision in his final fight. West explained how following the American’s career opened his eyes to his own limitations.
“There’s a ceiling. It’s important to not be deluded about this. He knows, like I know, that there’s a limit to what we can do with our disabilities, and I think he’d reached his.”
Two fights prior to his retirement, Newell lost a bout to Justin Gaethje, a top fighter who currently poses a challenge to UFC superstar Conor McGregor’s lightweight crown. West remembers it vividly.
“It was tough to watch. He obviously took a proper beating, but it goes to show that there really is a gap, and that’s cool.
“I’m not ever going to get lost in the emotion of it and think ‘I’m going to be the next UFC lightweight champion’ or anything. I know what I’ve got.”
Newell held an impressive 9-1 professional record, with nearly all of his victories coming via submission. I, like most, interpreted this as Newell recognising his disadvantage on the feet (having one arm significantly shorter than the other). West’s victories, however, have come via KOs and TKOs.
“Stand-up fighting is what I’m best at. I hit hard, I know that. Everything I’m doing is setting you up to land my big left hand.
“I don’t want to use the ground and for people say I’m just using it because I can’t stand. I’m a good striker and they learn that quickly.”
A habitual reader and appreciator of philosophy, West’s outlook and demeanour took me back, admittedly. Articulacy accompanied by a defiant aura, I had no qualms in telling him I felt he’d go far.
“That whole philosophy that Conor McGregor holds of ‘believe in your surroundings’ is one that I share and agree with wholeheartedly. This is a gift.
“You have to love yourself, and every part of you.”
I end our interview by asking where he sees himself in the near future.
“I’m looking to turn professional at the end of the year,” he replies.
“Then from there, I can hand on my heart say I’m going to be world champion. I believe that, absolutely.
“When I retire, maybe I’d like to start something to help others in my situation. I’ve been approached before about teaching a disabled class. That’s something I’d love to do in the future.
“Right now, I’m fighting.”