(Photos courtesy of Chi-town MMAniacs)
If you missed part 1 of “The Travel Chronicles,” click here to catch up.
By Elias Cepeda
I remember asking longtime heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko a question about his pre-fight routine once on a conference call. I’d heard rumors from people that had been around him backstage before fights that he didn’t warm up, but instead went from playing cards with his team to standing up and walking out to the ring to fight, cold.
If he didn’t warm up intensely before fighting this would have been further evidence of Fedor’s otherworldly talent. Getting one’s muscles, joints, ligaments, and tendons (to say nothing of one’s mind) warmed up before fighting by doing drills with your coaches that simulate fighting is considered the essential final preparation to competing.
It may seem strange to the uninitiated, but fighters ideally want to walk into the cage or ring already sweating so that they don’t start slowly or get injured from suddenly exerting themselves during the fight. When I posed the question to Fedor he chuckled before humbly demurring, as he often does.
No, it wasn’t quite like that, he said. He had to warm up like everyone else. Still, he didn’t offer specifics, and the people I knew still swore they didn’t see him do so much as a jumping jack before walking out and demolishing an opponent in total calm.
My coaches Said Hatim and Lyndon Viteri were taking no chances that I’d be capable of doing anything like Fedor, so they set to warm me up vigorously before my fight. I had just accepted a last-minute change of opponents about a half-hour before I was set to walk out to the United Combat League cage late last May.
I grappled with my cousin and teammate Gerardo, practicing moving from a front head lock to taking his back because Lyndon was sure that he would shoot in on me for a takedown. Said held Thai pads for me so that I could work my own jab-cross combo as well as countering his lead left jab.
I began to sweat and feel tired. But fatigue during warm-ups, even during the beginning of fights themselves, is a deception.
You’re accustomed to training for hours on end but your nervousness and adrenaline make you feel worn out after just a few minutes. Then you start to worry if you should stop warming up because you don’t want to waste your energy backstage.
That is something that some fighters do as well. Luckily my coaches knew that I was no where near the point of actually being tired — my mind was just racing and making my body feel as though it needed rest when it actually needed to be pushed.
You may have heard of the concept of a “second wind.” The idea that after you are tired you and your body can rebound and then have energy to continue to run, push, fight, whatever it is that you do.
Lyndon and Said wanted my second wind to start right at the bell so they made me drill more, sweat more, get more out of breath, before stopping me.
The fighter wrangler came to the locker room and said our fight was up. Our warm-up area was in a lofted portion of the huge Chicago South Suburban bar we were in, Bourbon Street, so we had to walk down a flight of stairs to enter the arena portion of the building where the crowd and cage were.
To our left was the event’s sound guy. I was told to bring a song that I wanted to have blaring as we walked out to the cage. I’d accidentally left it at home.
Lyndon always had music with him and that music is always reggaeton . Coach gave the sound guy his iPod and chose a club hit for me to come out crunking to, I suppose.
Lyndon was in front of me, coach Said to my immediate left. I had about a dozen teammates behind me. I could see my friend Cliff and his wife Vero about ten feet away giving me thumbs up. The crowd was right in front of us and then would surround us as we walked a straight line through them to the cage.
I didn’t look for anyone and fixed my gaze on the back of Lyndon’s head. Our opponent was already in the cage. The music began and Lyndon told me to wait for him to begin walking.
Some fighters will tell you that waiting is the hardest part of fighting. They spar, kick ass and get their asses kicked every day, so that is nothing new or particularly scary. But waiting weeks, days, minutes, and moments before the fight can be agonizing and emotional because you are not yet at the point where you can control things — the fight.
I’d resolved to go out and fight but my mood and feelings were far from static and resolute. From the time of that decision to the opening bell my emotions would soar, dip, and rise again several times.
Coach Said called to me in his distinctive Moroccan accent. “Elias!” he shouted to me over the music.
“Elias!” he said again. He wanted me to look at him. I did.
Months back I worked the corners of teammates at an amateur kickboxing event my gym put on in Downtown Chicago at the ritzy Union Club and ended up being a scolded by Said afterwards for, essentially, being too mean.
Said was in a tough position as a matchmaker for that event because just about all of the guys from other gyms that he’d matched up with his own students pulled out on short notice so he ended up matching up people from our gym against one another. He tried to tell people that it would be glorified sparring.
I had three close friends fighting on the card and I did my best to convey the opposite to them – this was no sparring session, it was a fight. There were bright lights, referees, and judges, in some cases ones that actually officiated over UFC bouts.
I didn’t want any of my friends being the sucker that went in friendly against a guy who took the engagement deathly serious. I didn’t trash talk opponents or even celebrate that outwardly when my guys ended up winning, but I’m told that I had a death stare going the whole night.
Several guys ended up getting concussed that night, as often happens in kickboxing fights, and Said was torn up having students of his hurt other students of his. He told me I had taken the event too seriously when he wanted it to be a friendly one.
I apologized for contributing to his discomfort, because I meant no disrespect to him as my coach. At the same time, my only concern that night was my friends not getting hurt. One of them was replacing me on short notice because I’d injured my knee, against a much bigger opponent who ended up kneeing him in the groin twice during the fight, so I felt justified and vindicated in advocating for seriousness even though I understood where coach Said was coming from.
Said truly cares about his students and nothing is worse to him than seeing them get hurt. That’s why he was upset after the event and frustrated with me.
Tonight, however, I was the one fighting. Said wasn’t managing an event this time, he was coaching me. His shouting at me was the last thing he could do before I was on my own inside the cage and as he repeated the same phrase to me several times, his eyebrows raised and a worried fire in his eyes, I saw that the only thing he wanted was for me to come out safe. My opponent was not a human being — he was just an instrument that could potentially cause me harm.
There was no grey area now. Someone was getting hurt and it could not be me.
“Be mean, Elias. Be mean.”
I looked down the line at my opponent in the cage and saw someone who would hurt my coaches by hurting me. Who would hurt my friends and family by causing me harm.
Lyndon gave me my cue and we walked down to the cage, angry.