What is it like to fight? I get asked some variation of this question fairly regularly, usually by people that might have plans to step in the cage themselves or sometimes when I have an upcoming fight. While every fight is different for me and every fighter has different experiences, there are some common threads in what I and other fighters feel in the months, weeks, days, hours and minutes leading up to the fight. I'll do my best to try and explain the mental, physical and psychological rollercoaster that I go through every time I fight. Some people might think that writing this down for others to see is allowing others to see my weaknesses, but I don't see it that way. I'm sure every fighter goes through some version of what I'm writing down.
For me the experience begins when I get an offer for a fight. Usually the offer arrives via my coach Jim, who usually approaches me walking into the gym for a training session. There is usually little time to debate on taking a fight or not. After a few minutes on google doing some preliminary research about the potential opponent a decision is reached. While the fight is still a long ways off at this point, the moment when I accept a fight is emotionally intense. It's the moment when things get "real" in a hurry. Even though you've been training with the intent of fighting, putting a name and face to a person that you know is training to beat you up and putting a date to when it'll happen always triggers an adrenaline dump in my system.
The months and weeks of training leading up to a fight is when the ups and downs of fighting really show. You have good days and you have bad days. A lot goes into preparing for a fight. You need to prepare your body for any conditions it might encounter... a long, drawn out war that will tax your cardiovascular system and muscular endurance or a fast paced fight where you will have to rely on explosiveness, speed and power. Running, intervals, powerlifting and periodized physical training are all part of the prgoram. You have to make sure that your technical skills and timing are sharp. You drill and work out the details in your kickboxing, wrestling and jiu jitsu and work on smooth transitions and combinations of all three. You prep your strategy and game plan. You watch tape of your opponent and work out situations that you can exploit in the fight and how to get to them. You anticipating and train for bad situations and "worst case" scenarios. You prepare "Plan B" in case the original game plan goes out the window the first time you get cracked in the melon.
You have days when you feel like you could knock anybody out on the feet and you have days when rookie grapplers are taking you down and submitting you. This is all normal; It's the nature of physical performance that you can't always be at your best. Even knowing this, the ups and downs of training coupled with he physical abuse that your body takes can make even the friendliest fighter cranky and moody. It becomes hard to keep an even keel through practice. If you push yourself to failure you sometimes feel like you're body isn't ready. If you don't push yourself to failure you feel like you're not working hard enough.
The physical ups and downs are one thing, but I find the mental rollercoaster can be just as bad. In the extended time leading up to a fight I flip flop from thoughts of being invincible to thoughts of being hopelessly overmatched. Going from "This guy is a chump, there is no way he can beat be, I'm a better athlete, I'm in better shape, my skills are better in every area, I have a better game plan, I have the better training partners and coaches." To thoughts like "I'm not ready, I'm not in good enough shape, I can't fight with this ---------- injury, I haven't sparred enough, his jiu jitsu/wrestling/kickboxing is too good, I'm in over my head." and back again is par for the course. These thoughts will flip flop several times before a fight, sometimes in the matter of a day or even hours. A good training session can leave me feeling invincible and a tough session will often have me leaving the gym with shaken confidence. Luckily I've experienced these emotions many times and have come to accept and expect them.
The last week of preparation before fight night is time to taper down the training intensity, let your body heal, fine tune some small technical and strategic details and make sure your weight is on point. This always feels like the longest week; you're used to training and sparring hard and just want to fight. During this week I always feel like I could fight at the drop of a hat. Let's do it, lets' get it over with. You feel like a wild animal that 's been caged and muzzled. Because your training volume is lower, there's more time for crazy thoughts to burrow into your head. You realize the absurdity of what you are about to do and question why you would ever think that it was a good idea. Around this time my internal monologue always sounds something like this: "I'm going to step into a steel cage with a guy who's only goal is to do physical harm to me. Why on earth would I do this? I'm a smart guy, I have a good job, I don't have to do this. I'm never doing this again. This is stupid, this is going to be my last fight." This happens all the time, but again, it's a lot easier to deal with when you know that it's going to happen.
The night of weigh ins is always a fun night for me. All the hard work has been done at this point, the journey is almost over. All there is left to do is step on the scale, flex for the camera and relax until fight time. This is usually the first time that you see your opponent in person, which is always something that makes my heart jump into my throat a little bit. I find the post weigh-in face-off hard to take, but probably not for the reasons you'd think. I'm not generally a mean person and standing in front of someone trying to look mean or tough cracks me up. I can barely keep a smile or laugh in. I usually try to go say hi to my opponent before the weigh ins to make that moment a little less strange. Some opponents are friendly, some aren't. I always have to laugh at some of the fighters who try to "walk tough" at the weigh ins. There's always a few who are posturing and trying to intimidate their opponents. I feel like saying "Guess what guys? Everyone here is a fighter, everyone knows your tough, you can drop the act, we're all going to have a drink together when it's all over."
Some fighters find fight day to be extremely stressful, but not me. In my mind the outcome of the fight has already been determined by the way you've trained for the fight; all there is left to do is go out, implement the game plan and giv'er hell. I don't like to think too much about the fight on fight day; I've already done weeks of visualization and mental preparation, nothing I do at this point is going to change much. Having lots of downtime is when your mind starts to wander and all kinds of thoughts creep into your head. To avoid this, it's good to have things to do and a good group of people to hang out with. On fight day I like to sleep in late, get up and have a big breakfast with all of the team members that are at the event. This is usually followed by a team walk to loosen up the legs a little bit. I'm lucky to have a great group of fighters, trainers ans support guys that travel with us most of the time and make this part of the adventure a lot easier and more fun. Throughout the day I'll probably watch a movie, read the newspaper, wander around the venue and chat with other fighters, spectators or coaches... anything to keep occupied.
I can't speak for every fighter, but for me the emotions really start to get going when the fighters are called to the referee's meeting on fight night. It's hard to keep an even keel when everywhere you go fighters are warming up, hitting pads, grappling and getting themselves psyched up in their own way. Realizing that I'm so close to fight time really gets the juices flowing. I can feel the knot in my stomach start to grow. I tell myself that this is normal, dumping adrenaline and other chemicals into the system is the bodies way of preparing for a dangerous situation. Imagine experiencing every intense emotion you can think of; excitement, hate, fear, anticipation, relief, sadness etc... Now imagine experiencing every one of those emotions on a constant loop with the intensity dial cranked up to 11 out of 10. Sometimes the things I feel don't even make sense. That's what fight night feels like to me.
I try to stay as loose and calm for as long as possible. I listen to some comedy or mellow music that I've loaded onto my Ipod and I find someone to play cards with for a while. I start warming up with some light shadow boxing/wrestling three fights before mine. I gradually pick up the pace until I'm in 5th gear with one fight to go before I step into the tunnel. As I'm in the tunnel I tune down the intensity a half notch and focus on some mental cues and visualization that I've been rehearsing for the last few weeks. When my name gets announced the adrenaline gates open and I step out towards the cage. It sounds cliched, but when I climb into to the cage I feel like my senses are heightened. I feel ultra aware of the physical stimuli that affects me directly. The lights are extra bright. I can feel every grain of the canvas under my feet. I can smell the vinyl of the mats and coated fencing. Then my opponent climbs into the cage and the world closes in on itself, leaving only the cage. My vision actually seems to narrow and I can only see my opponent. I can't hear the crowd anymore, my coaches voices being the only thing getting into my head.
When the bell rings I always have a brief instant of thinking "Holy *%$#, this guy is going to try and punch me!" That passes quickly and all of the training tunes me into the things I need to be aware of. Circle away from his power side, watch his lead leg. square off the cage, move your feet, stay engaged...
When the fight is over the rest of the world opens back up with a rush. I realize how big the venue is, or how loud the crows is, or that I recognize the guys in the front row seats. The relief that I feel when a fight is over is hard to describe. There is nothing like standing up and pumping your fists to the crowd in celebration after pouring every ounce of skill and effort you have onto the cage floor. It's the moment that you realize that all of the mental and physical punishment you put yourself through was worth it and all of the self doubt and questioning of yourself was for nothing. You remember that the fight itself was important because of what you went through to get there.
Some fighters say they aren't scared. I think those guys are lying, stupid or maybe complacent. If I don't get an emotional rush from fighting, fear included, I don't want to do it. The intensity of feelings I get from fighting is something a lot of people won't ever get. I get scared to fight all the time, but I'm not scared of being scared. I don't let it cripple me. I like it. I think that part of the beauty of fighting is that by intentionally putting yourself in harms way you are doing something that goes against some of your deepest instincts. You are stepping far outside the normal range of the human comfort zone and challenging yourself to do something you weren't sure if you could do, and to me that's what it's all about. That and I like to win.
**I posted the video of my first amateur MMA fight in the top right corner of the page. After writing this post it was interesting to watch this fight and think of how far I've come in the physical, mental and technical preparation of fighting. It's also interesting to watch me as I get into the cage and compete... I look fairly calm and collected but I really can't remember being more scared. Having seen dozens of amateur fights in the last few years I think I can honestly say that this fight was better than 99% of them, but I'd still love to run into this guy as a pro.
Interesting note: This fight was at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Detroit in front of about 6000 fans. That's still the biggest crowd I've fought in front of, even 6000 people in a facility that holds 25000 feels a bit empty.
Things Koreans have figured out: Glasses and Optometry.
I might have a hit put out on me by the eyewear industry bigwigs in North America after posting this. If you are buying glasses in North America you are getting ripped off. Today I bought a pair of cool glasses from the local glasses store (they're everywhere here). They cost $10. That's $10 as in TEN. That price included the lenses. I gave them the glasses I was wearing and they matched the prescription and had my new ones finished in 10 minutes. With my purchase I got a coupon for $5 off my next pair. And a complementary gift choice of some socks or a towel. Oh yeah, and 10% of my purchase price gets added to my membership towards another pair of glasses. Did I mention this wasn't a sale? Go back and read that all again and try not to get mad about paying $250 for a pair of glasses and waiting 3 days fro them.
Things Koreans don't have figured out: ATM's
In Korea you can stay out all night. The bars and restaurants don't close as long as there's people in them, and there always is. Make sure to bring a stash of money though... the ATM's here don't work after midnight. This makes it tough to catch a cab home when you've turned your pockets into bunny-ears looking for loose change.