“What? Today? Tell him I don’t want to,” I said firmly. I pointed to my ankle, it was black and blue and a bit swollen. There were other reasons too. It was Saturday morning and I hadn’t slept much the night before. The fight was in 4 hours and I wasn’t ready.
I had just returned from a three mile run with Ben. He was fighting in Mexico City the following week and I was helping him lose some weight. Back at the training center, we ran into Ivan. I knew there were a bunch of amateur fights scheduled later that day, but I wasn’t supposed to be competing. Now, at the last minute, I was told otherwise.
“Dude, I would think about it. It will be really beneficial,” said Ben.
“I want to fight, it’s just…well, my ankle. I can’t.”
My ankle really did hurt. I was dead tired. And I had a blister the size of a half dollar on the bottom of my right foot, and it was raw and bleeding. It wasn’t even just the physical discomfort, I wasn’t mentally prepared to compete either.
On the cab home I started thinking about what made me uncomfortable. If I waited until everything was perfect, and I was 100% healthy, I would never step into the ring. I knew this from collegiate wrestling, when you’re never fully healthy but you just learn to live with it. It’s part of the job description.
My friend Kyle used to take this a step further and argue that hardships gave you an advantage. He would refer to it as Flu Game. Sports fans will remember Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals. Michael Jordan was plagued by “flu like symptoms” the night before and almost didn’t play, but went on play an amazing game and lead his team to victory. Kyle would joke, “I feel like shit, so no one can beat me.” It was true, some of my best matches were when I was sick as a dog.
I tried saying, “¿Por qué no?” I thought about facing my fear, but this was different. At least it felt that way. Or was I just being a pussy?
Flu Game, I thought, No one can beat me. I turned to Ben in the cab, “I need to buy a mouthguard.”
“And a cup,” he replied.
“We need to hurry.”
In the meantime, Ben explained the amateur rules to me. The fight was in an Octagon, but we would wear boxing headgear and shin pads. We would use MMA training gloves, slightly more padded than regular UFC gloves, but less than boxing gloves and the fingers are free. Instead of the normal 3 x 5 min rounds this would be 3 x 3 min rounds. Anything goes on your feet, but once the fight goes to the ground you can’t hit the head or face. And no knees or elbows.
When I got there, I had to take a picture with my opponent, fists raised. He was tall and solidly-built. There was a very unofficial weigh in beforehand – I weighed 68.7 kilos. I didn’t even know my opponent’s name, and I still don’t.
I was nervous, but not about the fight. I was nervous about the ceremony and the etiquette that surrounded it. I had wrestled hundreds of times, but this was different. I wasn’t accustomed to a mouth guard. It felt like I was choking so I cut it shorter with a knife. I hadn’t worn a cup since I was a catcher in Little League. I kept adjusting it awkwardly. When was I supposed to go up there anyway?
I was the fourth fight on deck. I was confident, but I still just wanted to get it out of the way. I would try to use my wrestling primarily. I might have to eat a few punches, but I was ready for that. I would have to be careful with submissions once I took him down. Without being able to strike to the head, being on top is less advantageous. I would just have to pound on the ribs and hope a submission opened up.
Eventually, they called me up to the cage and started strapping up the pads. The headgear had a finicky chin strap that kept coming undone. Forget about it, Flu Game.
[Note: I am about to attempt to narrate the fight as best as I remember. I obviously wasn’t taking notes. Film should be online at some point, any errors unintentional.]
When the bell rang, we touched gloves. Everything became crystal clear. My vision narrowed. We threw a few jabs, feeling each other out for a few seconds. When he lunged in for a heavy jab, I lowered my level. I shot forward and snatched his left leg, driving my shoulder into his gut. Takedown.
He pulled me into his guard and locked his legs around my waist. I didn’t know if his jiu jitsu was any good, but I decided to respect it. I buried my head right under his chin and freed my arms. I wailed on his ribs from either side. Back and forth, back and forth. Hard low shots in the soft floating ribs. I wasn’t going to end the fight here, but I wanted to make him feel it.
At one point, I think there was a scramble when I was trying to pass his guard. I got a little far over his back and tried to lock up a guillotine choke but wound up on bottom. It was difficult to lock my hands around his neck with the headgear in the way. When his glove slipped off they restarted us in the same position. I quickly escaped to my feet and took him down again. I pounded his ribs until the period ended.
In my corner Ben said, “Go for a hard right, and if he gets out of the way, take him down.”
The second round started. I did exactly as Ben had told me, pivoted my back foot and committed to a hard right to the jaw. Just as anticipated, he leaned back to avoid it and I dove in for a single leg takedown. I pounded on the ribs and the gut, but wasn’t able to pass his guard again. A few times he grabbed my headgear and it fell off. I looked at the ref, and used hand motions to signal my frustration. I finished the round on top and went back to my corner.
I was surprised that my conditioning felt fine. I didn’t think my lungs would hold up through the third period. I was bouncing in my corner and even threw some jabs into the air. I wanted my opponent to see that I was ready.
“When you’re in his guard, start to let him up a bit. If he gets up maybe something will open up and at worst you’ll take him down again easily,” said Ben. “Push yourself out there, you got him tired.”
When the third and final period started, we danced around on our feet. We traded jabs and I think I got him pretty good on one. I knew I could take him down but I wanted to stay up and see what I could do. I saw the look in his eyes change and I knew he was about to mount an offensive, and he moved forward with a blitzkrieg of flying lefts and rights. I might have caught one or two, it was tough to tell as I ducked and darted into his legs. I cut the corner quickly and got a takedown. I pummeled his ribs for a bit more.
I was getting frustrated – even bored – with being stuck in his guard. “Let him loose!” Ben yelled. I remember the feeling in wrestling when you cut someone loose and take him down again – it demoralized a tired opponent at the end of the match. I let him loose and hovered over him, ready to pounce.
I was bent over in a wrestling stance ready to strike. As soon as he got to his feet I lunged in. Just then, he cocked his fist back and caught me in the mouth with a hard uppercut. I finished the shot and took him down.
When the punch landed, I knew it was hard. I knew it was supposed to hurt, but I was surprised it didn’t. It was as if I was watching someone else get punched. My conscious mind told me it hurt, but I just didn’t feel it. I was breathing hard at this point and the mouthguard wasn’t making it any easier. During one deep exhale, I sprayed blood on my opponents abdomen. When I noticed it, I swelled with pride. I had been punched hard and finished the shot. I bet my mother is proud!
When it ended, I didn’t need to wait for the judge’s decision. I won. I could feel my swollen upper lip pressing against my teeth and I tasted the blood. When the cage doors opened, one of my teammates came in with a towel and tried to wipe the blood off my face.
“No, no, no! I want to look tough in the pictures!”