By Elias Cepeda
He was a two hundred and twenty five pound Canadian amateur MMA heavyweight champion. She was a buck and some change, blonde, twenty years old and from California. They would both knock me on my ass. I just didn’t know it yet.
A few days after my win in May I got a friend request from someone named Chad. I didn’t know him but for whatever reason I accepted. He was a young aspiring fighter out of La Ronge, Canada and recommended that I contact the matchmaker for Hard Knocks Fighting, Sarah, which put on pro/am MMA events in Northwestern Canada. Ronda Rousey had made her MMA debut at Hard Knocks and the organization was developing a strong reputation. Chad was going to make his MMA debut in July and had seen tape of my fight on CagePotato.
I didn’t feel ready to fight yet again — my knee hadn’t gotten more injured in my last fight, though it still wasn’t strong — but I thought I’d at least introduce myself to Sarah to put me on their radar. I’d never been out of the U.S. except for Mexico, and getting flown out and put up to fight in another country as a lowly amateur seemed like a prospect not to be missed. How many people other than high level professionals get that type of chance?
Sarah and I spoke, she looked at my May fight tape and said she was definitely interested in including me on a card at some point. Perhaps if they had an event in the fall I could jump on board after training during the summer to improve. Canada would come a lot sooner than I expected, and would become the first stop on my summer travels.
Shortly after speaking with the Hard Knocks Fighting matchmaker I happened to meet a girl at a concert my friend’s band was playing at. Turns out he was a mutual friend of ours. She was passing through Chicago quickly to see his concert and would soon be heading home to California from school.
I’d seen her behind me at the concert. I stared. She smiled.
When she came up to me afterwards outside the venue asking to be walked to the after party, I ditched the people I was with and we walked in the rain towards the party. I got us a little lost but she didn’t seem to mind. When we finally got to the party I sat back and listened to her chat away, charmed. She was nerdy, gorgeous, and could sing.
She had an early morning bus to catch out of Chicago and I left her with a hug and my number. She’d soon be back in Cali. I’d been toying with the idea of going to either the West or East coast that summer to mix up my training and conduct interviews. The West coast had just jumped into the lead in my mind.
I still had no tangible travel plans, though. Then I heard from Sarah and Canada. Hard Knocks Fighting’s heavyweight champion, Devon Smith, was set to fight at light heavyweight in less than two weeks but his opponent pulled out with injured ribs. Smith was a rising star in the organization. He’d won the heavyweight title the month prior by submission and had won other fights by vicious KO.
The July 23rd event was built around him but now, without an opponent, the Hard Knocks main event was in question. They’d fly me up to Canada a couple days before the fight and send me back afterwards. I told them to include a flight for a coach and make my return flight to LA or Vegas instead of Chicago and I’d be in.
I’d get to fight in a televised main event in another country and at least get my first flight out West paid for. I did a little research — for some reason rental cars were twice as expensive in LA as they were in Vegas, and so I decided to get flown from Canada after the fight to Vegas, get a car and drive to LA. I’d be able to stay with my buddy Dave Doyle, visit with my friend Sam Sheridan, train somewhere new and see about a girl. Then I’d drive back to Vegas to train with and interview folks in the fight capital of the world.
Blood Tests & Layovers
Having previously only fought near my home I really couldn’t appreciate how many details top fighters have to take care of in order to travel and fight. I got a taste of it prepping to fight at Hard Knocks on short notice. For the first time, I was required to get blood work done in order to fight. I had also asked for a flight for a coach but now needed to find a coach who could actually get away on days’ notice and who also had a passport.
My head coach Dino already had a trip planned for himself so he couldn’t make it. My coach Lyndon didn’t have a passport. Same for my coach Ramiro and friend Cliff. Coach Said had a passport but couldn’t get away from his day job, especially since my fight was taking place on a weeknight — Thursday — as opposed to a weekend.
Knowing he had a passport and didn’t have a fight immediately coming up, I asked Clay Guida, who for a time years back used to train at our gym. Clay had existing coaching obligations. I then turned to one of my best friends and spiritual advisers, John Maye. John had a full time job at a bank and didn’t own a passport but he didn’t hesitate to say yes to traveling with me to Canada and being in my corner. John told — didn’t ask — his work that he would need Thursday and Friday off and then he went and ordered an expedited passport. Cole Miller ended up offering to travel with and corner me, coming all the way from Florida, if my coaches couldn’t but by that time John had said yes. I hadn’t even thought to ask Cole because I knew he was in the middle of training. I was very grateful for his offer and for John’s no-hesitation gameness.
As for the medicals, Sarah from Hard Knocks told me of a company that had labs where blood work was done all over the states. I saw that they had a lab downtown in a real nice area, made the order and then showed up to have my plasma drawn. I wanted to walk out as soon as I got there. I entered the office building near Michigan Avenue that the lab was housed in, rode the old-fashioned elevator up and was greeted by a sign on the lab’s front door asking patients not to “disturb other building tenants.”
That seemed strange. Evidentally there was a problem with the lab’s patients getting rowdy in the building so the sign was deemed necessary. I shook my head and walked through the door, signed in and sat down. Black soot and dirt stains marked the walls about a foot high. I looked away and saw a second sign. It was a visual one. There was a picture of a revolver, encircled and then crossed out.
Hand guns were not allowed in the lab. I hadn’t assumed they would be. By the time I sat down in the back area to have my blood drawn by the same woman who was answering phones moments ago, I was worried that the blood test might not just reveal a disease, but give me one.