ILLEGAL fight clubs have sprung up across the Czech Republic in which men dressed in gladiatorial costumes beat each other up for sport.
The back-street betting rings that have grown up around the brutal contests have attracted the attention of European Union officials, who are taking steps to end the sport.
Weapons are not allowed but anything else is permitted. Eyewitnesses have told Czech newspapers that the fights often end with Czechs and fighters from the neighbouring Slovak Republic horribly beaten, sustaining serious injuries.
They wear gladiator-style helmets and body armour, but are not allowed to use weapons.
Witnesses claim the fighters are kept in metal cages before the bouts so that spectators can view them "like animals" before placing their bets.
Johannes Koehler, a German human-rights worker who witnessed one of the fights, said he was horrified by what he saw.
He said the bout took place in an abandoned brickworks near the Czech border town of Karlovy Vary.
"It was like bear-baiting or dog-fighting, only done with humans," he said. "Most of the men were labouring types, tattooed, probably unemployed and desperate - not what I would call first-class athletes.
"There was a carnival atmosphere before they entered a bare-earth ring that was surrounded with iron bars like the cage they had been kept in prior to the bout.
"They were wearing Roman-type costumes and some had iron gloves on. They had mouth-guards.
"It was a frenzy of kicking, beating, blood spurting, bone-crunching ... it was horrible. The ultimate tragedy is that it wasn’t up to the individuals to say when they had had enough - it was left to their ‘trainers’ to decide. That might come when a man was covered in welts, blood and bruises and was unable to stand."
The fights are believed to be organised by people with connections to Polish and Russian organised crime.
One Czech newspaper said the Roman gladiator costumes were simply cosmetic.
"This is a fight-club scene and the gladiatorial bit is window dressing," said Milos Kubis, a Czech commentator.