MIND THE GAP
Darren ‘The Dentist’ Springer-Stewart is London’s most thrilling MMA prospect
Photography by Neil Bedford
Dancehall reggae isn’t an obvious choice of fanfare for a simulated fight to the death. But if UFC middleweight Tom Lawler can enter the arena soundtracked by Madonna’s Like A Prayer to rapturous applause, MMA fans must appreciate it when competitors lighten the mood.
“Everyone nods along,” says Darren Springer-Stewart of his reggae walk-in tracks like Konshens’ Do Sum’n. “It’s my culture,” he explains – his father’s Jamaican and his mother originally from St Vincent.
Before he switched to reggae, the undefeated Cage Warriors contender walked out to Stormzy’s Know Me From, a catchy but unforgiving blast of London grime. 25 years-old, born ’n’ bred in Poplar, Springer-Stewart loves grime – the soundtrack of his teenage years. Earlier this year at Cage Warriors 75 he shared a backstage space with the top European promotion’s other meteoric star, Paddy ‘The Baddy’ Pimblett of white-hot Liverpool gym Next-Gen.
The two warmed up to grime tracks blaring from Pimblett’s bluetooth speaker. Stewart says, “It was the best fight I’ve ever had, because of how I felt beforehand dancing around that changing room.”
That’s because like many other physically confident gentlemen, Stewart has varied interests. He’s a former student of contemporary dance and ballet, arguably a boon for the martial artist, and hobbyist salsa dancing champion.
The fleet-footed prospect is also a technically brilliant, nightmarishly intense, fighter. In July 2015 he demonstrated this to eyebrow-raising effect against British veteran Carl Kinslow. It was a faultless display climaxing in a fluid, frightening, flying knee knockout. His remorseless first round finish of Pelu Adetola at Cage Warriors 74 made The Daily Mail. And in April Stewart took 37 seconds to dissipate six-foot-six James Hurrell in the bout preceded by his and Pimblett’s mini-grime rave.
“How’s life in London?” asked proto grime rappers London Posse in the early 90s. Two decades on, many capital-dwellers might answer “Fun, fulfilling, but a hell of a grind.” And Darren Stewart would be no exception.
The MMA Clinic product shares a sunny disposition on social media: salsa dancing competition footage, Jamaican humour and photos from his large, seemingly highly socially active, family. But a London life as colourful as that doesn’t come for free.
Stewart, who is engaged (to Katherine) with a young son (Marlon), lives in Barking. He works full-time as a custody office for the Crown Court in London Bridge. His charges face serious allegations.
“I deal with prisoners,” he explains, “all types of crimes. Couple of murders here and there, but mostly those go to the Old Bailey. So it’s mainly drugs, fraud, rape, paedophiles, domestics. Take ‘em to court, put ‘em on the van, take ‘em off the van, fight them, feed them, sit in on their court cases, talk to them… a bit of rehab.”
The role demands patience, brawn, and bottomless reserves of humanity.
“What we call ‘control and restrain’ is the last option we ever want to take with them,” he says. “Sometimes I’m with them for eight weeks, or longer. They’re human beings. I try to have a relationship with all of them.”
Like most London jobs, it fails to keep pace with London prices. A Londoner’s wages evaporate on essentials and the odd treat. A family man, Stewart must consider his responsibilities alongside the lure of an athletic career. It’s a refreshingly realistic alternative to chasing the dream of MMA superstardom, especially from an athlete with skills to equal London-forged fighters like Michael Page, Brad Pickett and Karlos Vemola. To him MMA represents a sanctuary, a release, rather than a gilded future.
“I show people on social media how happy I am. But sometimes I feel like giving up. My wife and son keep me going. I want to train full time, but I can’t do that right now. I need a full time job. Even if I make it to the UFC I’d need to do work part time. I have to make sacrifices to put food on the table, for my son and my wife’s future. This sport is all I have.”
As a teenager growing up in Poplar, east London – site of the new London Shootfighters gym – Stewart had, “Ups and downs. Fights here and there. Laughter here and there. Happy times here and there.” He is sanguine, though – “I’m not going to be one of those fighters who begs for sympathy, ‘I had a hard background, blah blah, slept on a floor…’ Most fighters never talk about the good times. I came from a good background. I had a roof over my head. Could get what I wanted, within reason. I did my stuff on the side, that my parents don’t know about. But I got my school work done, which is what’s important. Some kids will just be bad and forget about their education. To tell the truth, I did both.” He becomes thoughtful at the plight of young Londoners, who he visits in local schools to persuade them into constructive activity. “We can’t take them off the street. It’s just words. But things out there are getting worse. What I say to them is do something, it doesn’t have to be MMA or making a career out of it, but learn karate, learn Brazilian jiu-jitsu… I deal with assault cases that might be different if the victim knew how to do a triangle,” he says referring to a recent incident where Brazilian MMA fighter Monique Bastos held a mugger in her groin until he bawled sweet tears.
Stewart l himself began martial arts at 13. “That year, loads of youths were dying. So my mum said I could go. Too much stuff was happening, she said, and if I couldn’t defend against a gun or a knife… well, at least I’d know something.” He thrived, competing in the UK and abroad, but “I wanted to try something different. Something ‘real life’. My mate, Regan Lawrence, was at The MMA Clinic, doing boxing. He told me to come down and try MMA. I thought, ‘I’m not doing that crap, cage fighting. I’ve seen the blood on TV. No way’.”
MMA training is not a quick fix, and even future stars start slowly. “My induction was April first, six years ago,” Stewart says, “I got beat up for a while in the beginners’ class.” His confidence grew, and after a sparring display he was asked to join the pro fighters’ group: “I went home and told absolutely everyone.”
At first, opponents weren’t easy to find: “The excuses, man… ‘Darren, have you heard the bad news? He fell down the stairs. He couldn’t make it to the weigh-ins but he’ll be here for the fight tomorrow.’ I got disheartened.” Stewart needn’t have been. While his first two amateur bouts ended in decision victories, three first round technical knockouts (TKOs) followed. The Cage Warriors main card beckoned, and his first three fights under professional MMA rules went the same way, each ending via brutal TKO in under three minutes. During a short hiatus as Cage Warriors changed ownership, he returned to Kent’s Killa Cam promotion for two considered decision wins, and the aforementioned stand-out performance against UK mainstay Carl Kinslow, before co-headlining Cage Warriors’ return with the snapshot win against Hurrel. Before his latest bout, at Cage Warriors 77 this past July, opponent Boubacar ‘Blackout’ Baldé tried to bait Stewart via the pernicious power of social media.
“People who trash talk…” he shakes his head, “I don’t like arrogance – ‘Darren’s not ready for this, I’m going to do this to him…’ People say I should do it, for the money,” as bellicose fighters attract eyeballs. “Maybe. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. But for now I don’t do trash talking.” He finished Balde´with strikes in the third round.
What Stewart does do to let off the considerable head of steam that MMA brews, is salsa dancing. “I got into it because one of my mates said they were better than me at dancing,” he explains, “I said, ‘No you’re not.’ I did dancing at school – contemporary dance, ballet, street dance, all that stuff, for GCSE. So I went, with my mate, and he was good. But I told you, when I do something I do it to get better at it. And now he’s stopped salsa completely but I do almost all the salsa styles. And other cultural dances as well. So now, when I go to a club, I can just fit in – boom.” Stewart’s fiancée Katherine hails from Ecuador, “and there’s a certain type of salsa from where my mrs comes from that I made sure I could do for when I go there. I told you – I don’t just try things out. I’m committed from the start. Witheverything I do.”
Congratulations to Darren for signing with the Ultimate Fighting Championship since this interview was conducted. He faces Francimar Barroso at UFC Fight Night 100 in Sao Paolo, Brazil on November 19th. Follow him on Facebook: Darren Springer-Stewart Twitter: @darren_MMA and Instagram: @Darren_MMA