Tacos & Role Models
Once the part of the morning with a sun hit, I woke up, made some calls to make plans for the day and drove over to Dave’s place. Dave knew me well enough to know that I wanted to eat lots and eat well. Dave had just the taco truck for me.
I come from Chicago, a great food town for both low- and high-brow tastes, but we are only now tepidly and rather embarrassingly making our way past backwards-thinking regulations and into food truck territory. My diet is normally a lazy pescatarian’s one but a few years ago, while interviewing chefs for a project I made the decision to try whatever they put in front of me.
As a result, on occasions I think are special enough, I try some of the redder and swine-ier of meats in pursuit of adventure. The prices at Dave’s taco truck were up my alley, the portions nice and the ingredients fresh. A chicken gordita and carne asada taco later, I was a fan.
I was also a fan of Dave himself. While we ate our food on his pool deck, where he also does lots of his writing each day, it was easy to admire him and his life on that sunny California morning.
But I was close enough to Dave to know that his career was far from just sunny taco breakfasts. Accomplishing what he had could not have been easy and, like with all people, his career was filled with its share of challenges and frustrations. Time and again, Dave took risks and made moves that lesser men would have been too nervous to make.
Sure, he became “successful” in the boring, professional sense that most people mean when they say the word. Much more impressive than that, however, was how Dave always seemed to put the quality of his work ahead of everything else.
Dave is always willing to give back to others as well. He’s never held back helpful advice when I’ve asked for it and I’m grateful for it.
Getting to spend time and talk with Doyle and another friend that I’d see a couple days later in Santa Monica, best-selling author Sam Sheridan, was one of the best parts of my summer, and certainly the most useful and inspirational.
I respect Dave and Sam’s ideas and philosophies on topics ranging from fight sports to life and careers in general. And their support of me is heart-warming. I met Sam for Indian food in Santa Monica the next day after getting lost in epic fashion traveling from a beach near Torrance.
Sam has lived the lives of at least ten fascinating men. He’s a Harvard-trained painter. He’s sailed around the world as a merchant marine, jumped out of aircraft into wildfires as a “Hot Shot,” lived and fought in Thailand, acted in a number one movie and, oh yeah, Sam writes books about it all for a living.
In his first book, the essential A Fighter’s Heart, Sam writes about what he calls “the responsibility to fight.” He quotes an anonymous poem in the opening pages of the book about bullfighting. I hate the sport but it serves beautifully as an analogy.
Bullfight critics, ranked in rows,
Crowd the enormous plaza full.
But only one there is who knows,
And he’s the man who fights the bull.
Sam went on to write, “I want to be the man who knows…the man in the ring knows, and not just about that particular bullfight and whether or not he did a good job. He knows.”
With regards to fighting, I certainly got that sentiment. But the virtue of walking towards the unknown, the scary and dangerous, in pursuit of knowledge extends beyond fighting for sport.
To me, the fact that a well-educated, east coast dude like Sam actually fought isn’t the truly impressive thing about him — it’s how he has the guts to be true to himself overall. He wanted to fight, so he did it. He wanted to write for a living, so he did it, ultimately without regard to societal standards or expectations.
For me, there is no “dream job” out there. That is to say, there is no staff job in the world, no matter how well it paid that would fulfill my dreams. The closest thing to a professional “dream” I have is to spend all my time writing books and features. I’ve been fortunate enough to do that. I’m far from wealthy, but I enjoy my lifestyle. The only thing I’d change is to make slightly more doing what I do so that I can take care of family a bit, save some for a rainy day and travel a bit more.
A few years ago Sam was talking to me about the process of pitching a project idea. I was excited and nervous for him as he described the work and the people he was set to meet with. Sam himself seemed totally undaunted.
“You just have to go in there knowing that you’re the shit and that you know your stuff,” he told me.
This is the type of brazenness I aspire to every day. Sam offered his assistance with some book and magazine feature ideas I had, which meant the world to me, we sopped up the remaining sauce off our plates with pieces of Nan and we parted ways.
I don’t know how much money Sam has but I know that he is doing what he loves, surrounded by people who love him. That’s it. He’s won. We should all be so brave to take the chances it takes to get to such a place.
Back To The Gym
It had now been a few days since I’d fought in Canada. Though I’d gotten my ass kicked, I wasn’t hurt or injured so it was time to get some more training in. Southern California is one of the most fight talent-rich regions in the world, with boxing, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and MMA gyms abounding.
Former WEC champion Gabe Ruediger recommended that I check out the Dynamix gym, run by Rickson Gracie black belt Henry Akins and retired former UFC heavyweight Antoni Hardonk. This was perfect because Akins belonged to the same BJJ lineage that I did. In fact, my coach Dino Costeas had always spoken highly of Akins from their time training with Rickson in California together.
On my last night in LA I drove down to Dynamix on Santa Monica Boulevard to take a couple classes. The first was taught by Hardonk, the second by Akins.
I’d always admired Hardonk as a fighter while watching him in the UFC. He had fantastic muay Thai for MMA, with crushing leg kicks, but he also clearly respected and had a clue about BJJ. He may have started in grappling too late to became a heavyweight Demian Maia, but you could always tell from the way he moved on the ground, the things he went for, that he was far more comfortable with Jiu Jitsu than the average knockout artist.
When I found out that he was training with Rickson guys like Henry, it made perfect sense. Now the pair had a gym together and I thought it was a good bet to have great instruction. Just as importantly, I couldn’t come all the way to LA without paying my respects to an underground legend from the same lineage like Akins.
When I walked into Dynamix there was the expected and entirely appropriate combination of sizing me up and ignoring me. A two-hundred pound guy you don’t know walks in your gym, you pay enough attention to him to protect your space, but not enough to give him the idea that he’s something special.
Hardonk had started his class and I introduced myself and asked to join. He was polite and said, of course.
I loved his class. I’ve been spoiled my entire training life to have teachers who genuinely care about me and my development. Most people working at gyms simply don’t. I found Hardonk to be attentive and meticulous with his instruction.
His class was focused on the clinch for MMA, looking for opportunities for knees, elbows and take downs. It was the type of cutting-edge fundamentals that Dino taught back home and I learned a lot.
Akins’ no-gi BJJ class was up next for me. I told him where I was from and who I represented and he welcomed me into class simply with a handshake and a nod. Once the class began, however, Henry was active, intense and detailed. As I was used to back home, he did everything he asked us to do — every push up, every stretch, everything. At Dynamix the instructors command respect as much for their abilities as fighters as for their own humility.
Hardonk stayed around after his own class to take Akins’. The UFC’s Stefan Struve joined as well.
As I hoped for, Henry ended his class with “rolling,” BJJ sparring where participants go all out for submissions but without strikes. I don’t remember any complete techniques that Akins taught that night but I remember the many small technical adjustments he would stop me to point out that made all the difference.
A common misunderstanding about fighting is that it is meant to be aesthetically pleasing and that the guys and girls who do flashy maneuvers are the advanced ones. In reality, all fighting, from BJJ to boxing, is a game of inches, where the truly advanced players are the ones who make you barely miss or know exactly how to position their bodies on top of yours for maximum pressure.
Akins is a master technician and has the base of a deeply rooted oak. That comes from his teacher, Rickson Gracie, who, as a great athlete, was capable of all sorts of high flying tricks but chose instead to show the power of fundamentals like base and pressure during his competitive career.
We began sparring on the feet, quite telling because many BJJ schools ignore the stand-up component to grappling which makes them quite unprepared to fight wrestlers, and I got several good rolls in with his excellent students. As is usually the case for me, the best thing I can say for myself and my sparring with Akins’ guys was that I broke a sweat.
I would be leaving in one day for Las Vegas, for a trip that would be centered on hard training, so I was glad to get myself warmed up in LA. I bought a Dynamix t-shirt, showered, thanked Antoni and Henry, and drove west for another late night.
I hoped to begin my drive to Las Vegas in the early afternoon but leaving Venice Beach and my tour guide the next afternoon proved more challenging than I had expected. By the time I jumped onto the highway towards Vegas with leftover pizza as my passenger it was early evening.
I had a sit down interview with Randy Couture scheduled for the following afternoon, and sparring the next evening at Wanderlei Silva’s gym. Before that, however, Death Valley would have another shot at me, with the help of sleep deprivation.