Even before I became a professional MMA fighter, I had been in many fights in my life. When I tell people this, they think that I am trying to brag and sound tough, but I am actually ashamed of it.
In college, my friends and I would roam through campus waiting for someone to bump into us or to insult us in some trivial way. As wrestlers, we had a sort of inferiority complex. While the other athletes strutted around campus and got all the girls, we were shut in for most of the year and had to constantly lose weight. Even though I love wrestling, it can be a miserable and thankless pursuit.
Deep down, we knew we were tougher than those other jocks and we had a profound psychological need to prove it. I have scars under both of my eyes from fights I’ve been in. I’ve come home with my shirt covered in blood. Every few months one of my friends would break their hand on someone’s face.
That all changed when I was arrested. I was actually innocent, but nobody seemed to care: I was at the scene of the brawl and therefore I was guilty in their eyes. I spent two nights in jail and thousands of dollars on legal fees to get cleared. It was a nightmare, but it taught me a valuable lesson. I realized that this just wasn’t an acceptable way for adults to act. Now, even if one of my friends gets in a scuffle at the bar, I make sure to tell him, “I don’t have your back.” It’s just not worth it.
But I sometimes wonder if fighting can ever be justified. Despite all of those deliberate provocations, my knowledge of wrestling and martial arts has actually benefitted me in difficult situations where would I otherwise have been helpless.
One time I was walking back from a street festival on St. Patty’s Day in Florida with my friend Alex. Just ahead of us, a scrawny guy with a backwards cap and his petite blonde girlfriend were having an argument. Suddenly, he threw his beer bottle to the ground. “There are people around!” she screamed. He turned and looked at us, “Just them.” There was no one else around. They continued walking, but when their argument reached a crescendo, he wound up and punched her in the face.
Alex and I looked at each other for a split second before running towards him. He faced us, but I dropped down and plowed through him with a double leg takedown, planting him on the brick walkway. I grabbed both of his bony wrists and pinned them behind his back as I sat on his chest.
His girlfriend became hysterical. “Get off him! Stop it! Please!”
“He just hit you,” I said.
“Yeah, but he’s just drunk! He really loves me! Get off of him!”
She grabbed my shoulder and began trying to pull me off him. There was no one else around and I didn’t know what to do so I let him go and they walked off together. I really should have called the police, but I was young.
Another time I was out in New Orleans with two friends. I was feeling sick so I left the bar at two in the morning to head home. I was walking down a dark street by myself when I heard footsteps behind me. I spun around and noticed a man with dreadlocks had crept up silently behind me – close enough to tap me on the shoulder. I smiled and he smiled back. I saw a motion to my left, and when I turned to look, I noticed there was another another man across the street. Suddenly the second man started running towards me. As I turned to face him, the guy behind me punched me in the back of the head and knocked me to the ground. The other guy jumped on me and started punching me in the ribs. I pulled one of them towards me and threw him to the side. I jumped to my feet, and when they rose to meet me, I pushed both of them to the ground. I ran as fast as I could and ducked behind a dumpster. I tried to control my breathing so they couldn’t hear me as they passed. I had a large bump on the back of my head. When my friends came to meet me, they ran into two guys on the same street who had just been held up at gunpoint.
This past Thursday night, I went out to a club in Madrid until three in the morning. At the end of the night, I was walking with two girls trying to find a restaurant that was open at that hour. We went to three different places but they were all closed. Finally, I asked a man on the street corner for directions.
“This way, come with me.”
He led us down the street and dropped us in front of a kebab joint. “You look like you do martial arts,” he said. He grabbed an underhook and stepped his leg inside mine. He shifted his weight and started walking his hips closer, like he was going to do a judo throw. Anyone that has been around wrestlers knows that we often say hello to each other with light grappling, so this was not that unusual for me. But something didn’t feel right and I broke free. I touched my back pocket and noticed that my wallet was missing.
“You took my wallet,” I shouted.
“No, no, no,” he held his hands up to show that there was nothing in them. But his palms were facing away from me, barely concealing the wallet in the palm of his left hand. He started backing away, but I stepped towards him and threw my right fist into his jaw. He stumbled backwards and the wallet fell to the ground. I picked it up and started peppering him with jabs as he backpedaled down the street.
Afterwards, people asked me how I was able to react so quickly. If I’m being honest with myself, I know the answer. I’ve spent my whole life practicing a set of skills which are typically useless outside of the context of a gym. So when I walk down a dark street at night, I am waiting – hoping, even – for someone to test me and give me a chance to shine.