Three weeks before my fight I hurt my back in practice and couldn’t move without excruciating pain. I lay in bed the whole next day and went to a chiropractor. He showed me a plastic model of a spine and bent it into an S shape. “This is your back,” he told me. I stayed in bed for several days without moving much and I went to the chiropractor every night. It was just starting to get better after a little less than a week. I was eager to get back on the mat to prepare for my upcoming fight.
Ben left for practice one night and I was home alone with his daughter Ghaela and his wife’s cousin Mariana. I ate an avocado for dinner (cutting weight is fun) and put the plastic bag in the trash can which was about to overflow. I reached in to push the trash down with my hand.
“Ow,” I said lightly. I had gotten pricked by something sharp as I pushed. I pulled my hand up to have a look. My finger was covered in blood and there was a deep gash on the second joint of my left index finger. I stared for a moment before realizing the severity. There was a broken glass in the bin that had sliced my finger open.
“Arrrrrrrgghhhhh!” I screamed from the kitchen and started to hyperventilate. Mariana rushed in to see what was wrong and I held up my bloody hand. I ran to the sink to wash it off and she rushed over to help. She knocked another glass off the counter and it crashed down and broke. I was breathing heavily and rapidly between clenched teeth. When I pulled it from the water, it gushed again. Mariana ran to the pharmacy to buy some gauze.
I applied pressure with a napkin until she returned. When the bleeding slowed, I looked inside the wound. My white sinewy tendon was visible to the naked eye. She returned with the gauze and we wrapped it up.
I debated all night if I should get stitches. The next day I went to the gym to see my teammates and ask what they thought. My teammate Enrike took a look. He doesn’t speak a word of English (except a bastardized “Come on, baby” which comes out as “Camao beibi”).
“Come with me and you will get stitches,” he said in Spanish. “I know a guy by my house that will do it for very cheap.” He was, shall we say, from a less privileged area of town.
“Really? How much?”
“Cincuenta soles, no más.”
“What? No way.”
“No, gracias,” I told him.
There was no way I was going to get stitches from a guy who charged just a few dollars. No thank you.
“Is it a doctor?” I asked.
“Es mi carnicero.”
“What is carnicero?”
“El que vende carne.” Someone that sells meat. He was going to take me to his butcher to get stitches. I was a long way from home.
I never went to the doctor and I didn’t practice for the second week in a row. I couldn’t do anything but run. I couldn’t punch at all. I couldn’t grapple because I couldn’t grab anything. I shadow boxed a bit, but that became too depressing. I couldn’t even close my hand into a fist because my finger had swelled up with the trauma.
A week passed and the wound was still gaping. It was in a tough spot because it was right on the joint. In hindsight, I should have just gotten stiches, I thought. I got an idea and walked down to the stationary store near my apartment and purchased a bottle of Super Glue. Back at my apartment, I pressed the two flaps of skin together and applied the glue to the open wound. By some miracle, I managed to close the wound without gluing my fingers together.
There was only one week until my fight and I basically hadn’t trained in two weeks. I was running every day, but just slow long distance work to help lose the weight. I still couldn’t close my fist though, so I passed the third week without training as well. My coach Ivan started to get concerned. He told me that I didn’t have to fight if I didn’t want to. I could still back out. He was worried that I wasn’t training. He had a lot on the line with this fight.
I was fighting against a guy named Zury Valenzuela who used to be coached by Ivan. He was actually one of the first Peruvian fighters I met when I initially visited Peru on vacation. He still trained with us occasionally, but he was now coached by Ivan’s brother, Hector.
Hector was also one of our coaches until recently. He came in twice a week to teach us submissions. And Zury was one of his star pupils. Zury was the former 125 pound champion of Inka FC but had lost the belt a few months before.
So Ivan had a lot at stake for this fight. I was, in a way, a pawn in a battle of sibling rivalry. And he was worried because I wasn’t training.
“This is a serious fight, you know,” he told me.
“I’ll be fine,” I kept saying.
He clearly didn’t know about Flu-Like Symptoms. This is a philosophy advocated by my friend Kyle. He says it half-in-jest, but I have become a full-fledged True Believer. The story is this: in Game Five of the 1997 NBA Finals Michael Jordan wasn’t feeling well before the game. It was widely known that he was suffering from “flu-like symptoms”. The trainers told him he shouldn’t play but he did anyway. He started off sluggish and slow but as he picked up momentum, he rallied to lead the Bulls to a victory over the Jazz with a legendary performance that stunned everyone. After the game, he collapsed.
When I was working on Wall Street, I went to wrestle at the Northeast Regionals with Kyle one weekend for fun. We were both in bad shape and we didn’t take it too seriously. The night before the tournament we went to Texas Roadhouse and got steaks and beer. We didn’t warm up for any matches and just sat in the corner joking the whole time. In short, we did everything wrong. And still, we both won our brackets. That moment changed the way I would think about competition forever.
Taken in the most literal sense, FLS is a philosophy that when something is wrong, you will perform at a higher level. When I think back to some of my best matches ever, I was sick as a dog. My sophomore year, two days before the EIWA conference tournament, I called my coach to tell him I couldn’t wrestle. I was the sickest I’ve ever been in my life, before or since. I didn’t get out of bed for two weeks and my tonsils were like golf balls. He took me to the doctor and eventually talked me into competing. I was on a heavy dose of antibiotics and Prednisone right up until the day of the competition. It was the only time in my four years that I won EIWAs.
I have since become an FLS extremist. Before my first fight, I had a massive stomach bug for a week (I stubbornly drink the tap water here) and I lost so much weight that I didn’t even have to cut weight for the fight. Before my second fight, I felt 100% fine and I started to get worried. Thankfully a week before the fight I got a fever of over 100 degrees and I felt better about my prospects. As I write this, I realize how ridiculous it sounds, but that’s actually how I think.
I get it, I am a little bit crazy. But let’s talk about how this is actually applicable to real life. Some people depend on a pre-match routine to lead them through the preparation process. A lot of coaches advise this as well. “Develop a routine,” they say, “And stick to it.” I think a lot of people use this routine as a crutch. They have their lucky socks that they have to wear. They eat a Power Bar at a certain exact time. They have to warm up perfectly. This is how I was, in a way, before Kyle taught me about FLS.
The problem though, is that before a competition, everything bad that can happen, will happen. You will lose your lucky t-shirt. The van to take you to the venue will get stuck in traffic. You will get sick. You will cut your bloody finger open. These things happen in life.
How do you react? If you were depending on your routine, then you will flail about helplessly. You will be like a trail of ants with a fallen twig in their path. Then, you worry about these things and that just complicates matters. Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” I think for the most part, that is true. It is often not the event itself that causes us harm but our reaction to it. If you think it is going to hurt you, it will.
I take that a step further and try to inoculate myself against harmful dependencies. The more you’re exposed to these chance mishaps, the less they begin to matter. I welcome bad things to happen. The day of a fight, when something doesn’t go my way and I begin to get annoyed, I take a deep breath and smile. This is what I want. I don’t need that anyway. I am going to win no matter what.
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu argues that soldiers fight harder when their escape route is closed off – when they are fighting with their backs against a body of water, for instance. It becomes a matter of fight or die. He calls this Death Ground. Robert Greene in The 33 Strategies of War takes this to another level, saying that you should “put yourself on Death Ground”. Cut off your own escape route, eschew the safety net, throw yourself into the deep end – you will be forced to fight your way out.
When you get hurt or inconvenienced before a fight, it is similar. It shatters some of the comforting things you hold dear. You can no longer rely on your routine. You can no longer rely on your health. Like a blind person who develops a superior sense of hearing, the rest of your being will have to step up and compensate. But you have to make the choice. You can wallow in self-pity and pain or you can rise to the occasion.
Put yourself on Flu Ground.