The anger that distracted me from fear was interrupted momentarily by the referee inspecting me before letting me into the cage. He asked me to take off my shirt, checked my mouth guard, checked my gloves, checked for a cup, asked me some questions. The broken focus made me nervous again.
However, walking up the cold, ridged steel steps and into the cage calmed me. My opponent was near the cage entrance and I walked past him, followed the periphery of the circular caged ring and to my corner.
I stared at him as they announced his name. I stared at him as they announced mine.
The bell rang and…the son of a bitch was a southpaw. In the rush of prepping for a new opponent on minutes’ notice we had somehow not noticed that he was left-handed.
Several of the things we’d just drilled in the back were specifically for hitting a right handed fighter. If his left jab was brought back to his defense slowly, we’d counter with our own right hand. We’d finish our own punch combinations with a left round house kick to his lead left leg.
Now his jab was a right instead of a left, his lead leg his right instead of his left — all on the opposite side of his body than the one I’d been planning to attack. I had wanted to race him to the center of the ring but seeing him come out left-handed gave me pause.
Now I was thinking — never a great thing. After what seemed like half a minute but was actually only a few seconds, I began to address what was in front of me.
He seemed to be standing pretty heavy on his lead right leg so I threw out my own lead leg kick to his right. The kick landed and he didn’t react well to it.
I then wanted to double up on a jab, back him up against the cage and then try to take him down against the cage. Instead, I threw a poor feint with my left, then a jab with my right hand held far too low to actually protect my face.
I didn’t land, but he didn’t counter and did also back up a bit. Before I could press him against the cage, however, he shot in on my hips and legs for a take down.
He didn’t set up his takedown attempt with strikes and shot from too far away to catch me by surprise. I sprawled out — threw my own hips out from underneath me in order to keep them away from him — and he rose up from under me to an over-under clinch position.
With an arm around one another’s torsos we pushed against each other for a few moments. I thought to throw a knee to his open mid-section from this clinch position but before I could, he pulled me down into his half guard.
Those who have fought competitively after starting out in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or other grappling styles might be familiar with transitioning from “grappling mode” to “fighting mode,” on the ground. If you’re used to grappling on the ground with teammates, it takes extra training to get used to seeing and taking advantage of opportunities to strike on the ground instead of just going for submissions.
On top of my opponent, who had pulled half guard, I concentrated on grappling and not striking. That was fine at first — coach Lyndon told me to establish my position and pressure first before opening up with strikes — but at some point you need to give your opponent something else to think about, namely a fist in his face.
I locked up his far side arm with my own, while putting pressure on his head and neck with my left shoulder. At some point I placed my head in the nook of his far side, basing on my own head as he bucked.
He then locked up my neck with his hands, ostensibly to try and catch me in a guillotine choke even though my head was on the opposite side of where he would have wanted to go for it in a textbook fashion.
There were plenty of ways my coaches could have expected me to lose this fight, but getting submitted while on top of my opponent was not one of them. My tucked chin prevented him from getting in deep on my neck. I used my left arm to frame out on his face and neck, pushed myself up and out of his grip.
That choke got me back into fight mode, into Said’s “mean” mode, and away from my slow, simple grappling mode. After the fight friends of mine told me that there was some shock that I didn’t touch gloves with my opponent after he offered up his fist at the start of the fight.
You’ll see fighters at all levels do that. The commentators tell us it’s a sign of respect and sportsmanship.
I’ve never understood it.
I’m not Anderson Silva, I can’t toy with my opponent. I need to bite scratch and claw my way to a win if I want it. That means getting myself into a certain mind set. “Be mean.”
I don’t mean mug opponents, but it’s important for me to look them in the eyes.
I’ve always shaken the hands of my opponents and their coaches after a clean fight, but before and during the fight the only thing we have in common is that we are trying to hurt each other. Once the opening bell rings, time is in and we are bound by the rules to protect ourselves at all times, not shake hands or hug and kiss.
If I was a better fighter I might be able to afford extra shows of friendliness. As it stands, I need to focus on the fact that my opponent would just as soon separate me from consciousness as take a breath. “Be mean.”
The prospect of getting choked out in seconds, from on top, against a guy I could already feel was nowhere near the level of my training partners, embarrassed me.
All I could think of after the choke was hitting him. I sat up and began throwing punches. The space between us created by my punches allowed him to turn in towards me and again shoot for my legs.
I sprawled out once more, into the front head lock position that Lyndon knew I would end up in, and then spun around to his back, just as we had drilled minutes before. At least, that’s what I saw myself doing on the tape afterwards.
The truth is that I don’t remember doing it. It’s possible that you remember least the things you do best. You’re doing them without thinking — the way fighting should be. I remember the lead leg kick. I don’t remember sprawling out and spinning to his back.
I just remember looking down and all of the sudden I had one foot “hook” in around his waist and his far side arm “killed,” or flared out and pinned to the mat. I didn’t hear them but my coaches told me later that they were shouting at me to punch because they were hoping that I’d punch him to soften him up for a choke, and not go for the submission right away for fear of me getting shucked off my opponent’s back.
The thought of going for a choke never crossed my mind. I wanted to flatten out his hips and then I wanted to hit him until he gave up.
“You’re an animal in there. Smile all day long, but be an animal in there,” coach Said would tell my teammate Manuel months later as he prepared for a Muay Thai main event.
Unlike humans, animals do not reflect on their mortality and health when they fight or are confronted with adversity. They simply do what they can. Take out a wolf’s leg and he will hobble and fight with three. Animals protect what is theirs with everything they have until they simply cannot go on.
I kept control with one hand on his arm to stabilize myself and to try and flatten out his hips while I fired short punches at his head with the other. Once I felt his hips go and that he wasn’t going to try and buck anymore, I let go of his arm and began punching with both fists.
My opponent was tough. He didn’t give up by tapping out as I had wanted him to. The ref had to step in and stop it after twenty unanswered punches to the head.
The referee (who I realized after the fog had lifted was UFC veteran ref Rob Madrigal) shoved me aside in order to stop me from punching. He needed to. There was a half second after he stepped in where I didn’t want to stop hitting my opponent.
I’m not an angry person. I’m pretty positive with personal optimism bordering on hubris at times. But I do have anger. Taking out someone who is trying to hurt me seems like a good situation to use it.
Joy vs. Relief
To fight effectively you have to block lots of things out of your mind — in my case, whether or not my knee would give out, the threat of a new opponent, pressure of not letting down those that invest time and love into you — but even if you don’t think of them while fighting, they are always with you. After winning cleanly, decisively, and with my health intact, I felt more relief than joy.
Madrigal raised my arm and I put my head down and pointed at the tattoo on the inside of my left bicep — Rickson Gracie’s symbol. Rickson Gracie and his right hand man Luis Heredia had taught my head coach Dino Costeas, and Dino had taught his students, my other coaches, Ramiro Mota, Lyndon Viteri and Said Hatim.
To me, that symbol means more than the effectiveness of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu done the right way, though it certainly means that. The Rickson symbol represents more than Rickson — it represents the coaches and teammates that had become part of my family and had given me their all, for no particular reason. I was humbled by the moment and wanted to give credit where it was due.
What I realized later was the joy I experienced that night came before and much later. Of course, I enjoyed celebrating with supportive teammates later in the night. The happiness I saw on their faces, and realizing it was tied directly to the fact that I had just succeeded and remained safe, was a touching profundity.
But I also I enjoyed the fight itself, irrespective of winning or losing. I was nervous up until I had a trained man attacking me. Once that happened, I felt at home.
That was important to find out about myself. I wanted to do it more.
UFC and IFL veteran, Rory Markham had been kind enough to come to the fight to support me. He greeted me as I walked back from the cage to the locker room.
We had first met four years before through our mutual friend, author Sam Sheridan — a mentor and inspiration to me. Rory and I caught up a bit backstage and it turned out he was considering offers to move out of state to teach martial arts.
He wanted to go to New York City to scout it as a possible new home and we discussed visiting together. The conversation got me thinking tangibly about something I’d already been thinking of for a few weeks.
Joe Lauzon had encouraged me to come visit him and his gym in Boston. New York and Boston could compliment each other well. I also wanted to go out to the West Coast.
While preparing to interview Wanderlei Silva for stories I was writing on him for UFC.com and Yahoo! Sports a couple weeks before my fight, I noticed that his gym in Las Vegas had a fighter’s house connected to it where rooms could be had for $30 a night. I also wanted to train in Los Angeles and visit friends there. LA and Vegas could compliment one another nicely as well.
Other than quickly flying in and out of events I covered over the years, I had traveled very little. I was compelled by a bit of wanderlust and wanted to take advantage of my non-traditional career and schedule.
The year before I had left an editorial director position with a small bilingual newspaper company in order to work on a book I’d been offered a deal to contribute to. For nearly a year I had been working full time on that project and freelance writing for websites, magazines, and newspapers.
Two weeks before my May fight I’d turned down an offer to go work in government communications. In many ways it was a very appealing offer but ultimately it just didn’t feel right in the moment.
I wanted to give freelance writing more of a shot and, I realized, I wanted to see more as I did it.
What if I could somehow get myself out to either the West or East coast, training at different gyms with vaunted coaches for fun and visiting friends? All I needed in order to do my daily work for CagePotato and other outlets each day was my laptop, my phone, and an internet connection.
I couldn’t afford a vacation but I could possibly scrap together cash for airfare and car rentals and put myself in the places I wanted to be if I did my normal work each day while traveling. I had begun working on The Conversation podcast and to this point had conducted interviews over the phone with guests. If I traveled, however, I could record episodes with the legends I wanted to speak to in person.
I wanted to fight again in the fall so I could surely take a few weeks of traveling around and get back in time for a training camp to prep for that. The idea was a few weeks on either coast with a fight months later.
Instead, a whirlwind of travel, training, writing, and more occurred unexpectedly. It happened suddenly and I could only make sense of the path one piece at a time.
I ended up going to both coasts and another country, criss-crossing maps off and on for months, and fighting twice more that summer, while getting advice from the likes of Wanderlei, Renzo Gracie, Randy Couture and more.
It all started with phone call from Canada and a girl.