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Writers Who Became Fighters


(Cream of the Toronto MMA media, clockwise from left: Carlin Bardsley, Karim Zidan, James Lynch, Adam Martin, other Adam Martin, Shawn W. Smith, Randi Lötschberg Lotsberg and Brian J. D’Souza)

By Brian J. D’Souza

We all have that loudmouth friend, co-worker, or family member who dispenses unsolicited opinions that are almost entirely divorced from reality. If we can say anything about mixed martial arts, it’s that the sport attracts the finest armchair expertise from around the globe.

From time to time, the journalists who cover the sport can misinterpret a situation due to lack of experience, as happened between MMAFighting.com’s Ariel Helwani and then-UFC bantamweight champion Dominic Cruz in May 2012:

Ariel Helwani: “Dominic, it’s good to see you. We’re 24 hours removed from the Ultimate Fighter’s final episode. First things first, though—I see you running around here, I see you going up and down the stairs, or even on a platform—are you really injured?”

Dominic Cruz: (laughs) “With one leg, or two, it wouldn’t really make a difference to handle you, Ariel.”

Athletes in combat sports are particularly sensitive to what people say about their fights. In response to scathing criticism from commentators during his fight with Alfonso Sanchez, boxer Micky Ward said “You get in there and try it.”

Yet there are MMA journalists, writers, and authors who threw themselves into the fire by having boxing, kickboxing or MMA bouts. Just last month, I watched MMAOddsbreaker.com’s Adam Martin slog through three grueling rounds in a muay thai smoker.

It got me thinking about the age-old debate about writing from personal experience—does competing in combat sports make you a better writer, or does it just give individuals a bigger superiority complex?

FOR THE RECORD

Gregg Doyel, CBSSports.com’s national columnist: “I’m 4-0 in boxing with three KO’s, all as an amateur, all in smokers at a place called Spears Gym in Mount Healthy, Ohio.”

Adam Martin, lead writer for MMAOddsbreaker.com and host of the Parting Shot Podcast: “My muay thai record is 0-0-1, with a draw in an exhibition match.”

Matthew Polly, author of Tapped Out: “1-0. I had one amateur MMA fight with Tuff Nuff in Vegas. I was 2-1 in San Shou (Chinese kickboxing). I fought in an international tournament and placed second, losing to China’s national champion at 70 kg.”

Donovan Craig, former Editor-in-Chief of Fight! Magazine: “I had one amateur fight which I won. I won my amateur fight easily with a 2nd round submission. The amateur fight was so easy that I decided I’d try a pro fight. The pro fight was a lot harder than the amateur fight and I lost via a TKO when the ref stopped it because of a pretty horrendous eye injury I sustained courtesy my opponents elbow.”

Elias Cepeda, reporter for Yahoo!: “I’ve fought five MMA bouts so far, won three, lost two. I’m 0-1 in boxing.”

THE DREAM TEAM

Iron sharpens iron. A fighter’s arsenal is honed by the coaches and teammates that they work with. MMA journalists and writers are lucky because they often have access to the premiere coaches and fighters in the sport.

Gregg Doyel: “The best guy I’ve seriously trained with is Sam Benton who was a sparring partner for Jorge Gurgel and Marcus Davis. Benton broke my nose once.

The only other guy I’ve really banged with is a pro boxer named Greg Beerman. MMA guys, hands only, I’ve sparred a little bitty bit with Dustin Hazelett, Mojo Horne, Chad Hinton and Chris Lytle. Just one-and-done sparring though, and nothing heavy.”

Matthew Polly: “I trained with Renzo Gracie, Phil Nurse at the Wat, and Xtreme Couture.”

Donovan Craig: “I first trained with Joe Stevenson, Aaron Riley and Irvin Bounds, then after that at Xtreme Couture with Forrest Griffin, Mike Pyle, Wanderlei Silva, Gray Maynard, Johny Hendricks and a bunch of other people. This is back when everybody and their brother was going into Xtreme Couture to train.

For my pro fight, I trained with Ricardo Murgel in Atlanta Georgia and Greg Jackson in Albuquerque. I also sparred with Roy Jones in boxing so I could tell the grandkids that did it.”

A TWO-WAY FIRING RANGE

What differentiates combat spots from traditional martial arts is the intensity of practice. Damage in sparring must be minimized, but it’s also necessary to have experiences in the gym that are tougher than anything that can occur in the ring or cage.

Some spar all-out, while others want a more technical experience. The bumps and bruises add up, making training a very uncomfortable experience.

Gregg Doyel: “Sparring with Benton was tougher than any of the fights I had. So, yeah. Definitely. And also, sparring is three minutes, sometimes five, and the smokers had two-minute rounds.”

Matthew Polly: “Nothing prepares you completely for a fight, but live sparring is definitely the best way to approximate it. I hated doing it, but glad my coaches forced me under threat of physical punishment.”

Adam Martin: “When I spar with teammates, typically we don’t go 100% because we don’t want to hurt each other. In my fight, it was 100% and it was a bit more intense than I imagined and I had to adjust to it on the fly. In the future I will probably do some harder sparring but I just know how dangerous it can be and hearing the horror stories about pros getting knocked out and getting injured in sparring makes me always weary about going too intense with teammates.”

Donovan Craig: “I was always rolling with guys that were fifty times better than me, I got in the habit of staying in bad positions. My strategy was always to stay on my feet and if I get taken down to not get submitted and try to do better when I got back up to my feet, usually through a restart or a new round. What I didn’t realize was how much damage a good fighter can do with the ground and pound. The reason I didn’t understand this was because there’s no way to train it or simulate it. To understand it, it has to happen to you in a fight.”

Elias Cepeda: “The drilling of techniques is what creates muscle-memory to execute them but live sparring helps increase the level of stress in you as you try to do them against a resisting opponent who is also trying to do his or her own maneuvers on you. That repeated practice in live sparring helps you deal with stress and adrenaline better so that, by the time of the fight – when the stress will really be on- hopefully a lot of that muscle memory of techniques is still there. There were times where I thought I was pretty good in a position, but then found myself in that position during a fight and I hesitated for a second and lost it. That just showed that I hadn’t practiced that position enough in sparring.”

A MILE IN THEIR SHOES

Empathy is defined as “The feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.”

Everyone wants to share in the thrill of victory—when their team, athlete or fighter takes the win. But there are two sides to the coin in MMA. Sometimes the winner is just as banged up as the loser.

Did training and competing help writers and journalists understand how professional fighters feel?

Gregg Doyel: “I pushed (and still push) myself as hard as I can, and it’s brutal, and what I’m doing is NOTHING compared to how hard they work. It’s a joke. And still, I work out harder than almost any non-fighter I know. But nothing compared to real pros.”

Matthew Polly: “I can never fully understand what they have to endure, because my livelihood doesn’t depend on my fight record: it depends on book sales. And I only fought once. It is very different went you have to do it over and over again. That said, I can really empathize with training hurt, laying everything down on the line, and the anxiety of stepping into the cage.”

Adam Martin: “Getting hit in the head has definitely helped me appreciate what pro fighters go through. It’s amazing that some of them can take the punishment that they do — this sport is truly no joke!”

Donovan Craig: “I developed many lasting friendships with the fighters plus I learned that the tough part of the life of a fighter is the in the gym. The training and physical conditioning is the hard part. The fighting is fun. Although a word to the wise; pay attention in Jiu Jitsu class.”

NECESSARY ROUGHNESS?

In the tradition of participatory journalist George Plimpton, Matthew Polly trained in MMA to write Tapped Out.

Says Polly, “The whole purpose of the book was to show that an over-the-hill, overweight, middle aged man can do it, if he just works hard enough and has great coaches.”

Donovan Craig used his experiences to pen long form pieces for Fight! Magazine (read about his amateur fight, training with Greg Jackson and American Kickboxing Academy). The insight and depth of Craig’s pieces is magnified by the training and competition he took part in.

Authors of fiction have always carried on a love affair with boxing. Ernest Hemingway often told interviewers that he was “a good semi-professional boxer.” Accounts of sparring sessions between novelist Morley Callaghan and Hemingway where Hemingway was bloodied, battered and laid out suggest differently, however. Author James Jones was a golden gloves contender who often made boxers the protagonists of his novels. Canadian writer Craig Davidson had an amateur boxing match against poet Michael Knox to promote his book Fighter.

As for other types of journalists, training can help with breaking down styles, understanding what’s happening during a fight and in post-fight analysis. Does this mean that all MMA media members should train or compete in the sport?

Gregg Doyel: “Nah I don’t think so. Some of the best football writers, baseball, etc., never played those games either. Doesn’t matter. Watch it long enough, really IMMERSE yourself in it, and you can handle it just fine. On the other hand, the best MMA analyst by far is Joe Rogan because he is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu – when he talks, he says stuff nobody else does because he sees stuff, and knows stuff, nobody else does.”

Matthew Polly: “Many great sports writers never played the sport they covered. But it certainly helps to understand the techniques and the difficulty of what the fighters are doing. Most writers prefer BJJ, because they don’t like getting punches in the face. Fair enough. But it is very hard to empathize with fighters who, say, run in a fight, if you’ve never had your bell rung.”

Donovan Craig: “I don’t think it is necessary. The important thing is that you understand your subject, (in this case MMA) well enough to be able to draw your own conclusions about it and make observations that are novel and interesting.”

Elias Cepeda: “I can’t be the arbiter of what is necessary for others to do, but I don’t know of a good reason why a writer who covers the fights wouldn’t at least train some component of MMA, other than physical disability (and it had better be a doozy, since I’ve watched people fight MMA without arms or legs).”

THIS IS THE END

“I mainly did this to cross it off my bucket list,” said Adam Martin, as we enjoyed beers after his fight at Boston Pizza.

Like it or not, Martin had experienced all the emotions, pain and suffering that MMA fighters go through on a regular basis. The drudgery of training, pre-fight anxiety, being tested to his limit in the match and having his brain scrambled post-fight.

Every man and woman has met someone a little older who has regrets about how they lived their life. Sometimes it comes out as a meandering Grandpa Simpson story, other times that unfulfilled promise surfaces as bitterness. Choosing to fight is about taking your chances when you get them: there’s a sense of fatalism about a situation where you commit yourself to an outcome.

“I don’t think a lot of people could have did that, what I did,” reflected Martin of his fight on his podcast.

While choosing to compete is a personal journey, one thing can be said definitively—the handful of writers and journalists who chose to fight earned something in the eyes of their peers.

They earned respect.

***

Brian J. D’Souza is the author of the critically acclaimed book Pound for Pound: The Modern Gladiators of Mixed Martial Arts. You can check out an excerpt right here.

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