This is a post I wanted to put out ages ago, but I’ve been preoccupied (read: not efficiently allocating my time). If you’re considering fighting for the first time, I hope this account of my experiences is useful in informing your decision.
Getting an Opponent
On February 28th, 2019, my coach shot me a text saying that he’d found an opponent for me. She and I would be fighting under amateur Muay Thai rules at 125 lbs i.e. featherweight. At the time, I was walking around at approximately 130 lbs, so that was a totally reasonable weight cut. The fight would take place on Cinco de Mayo out in the suburbs under the Fight Card promotion.
I was super excited, a fact I conveyed to my coach using the following gif:
Embracing the Grind
Training was a mix of Muay Thai and swimming. If you’re a fighter and you’re reading this, you’re likely wondering why running wasn’t a part of my regimen. When I accepted the fight, I had a knee injury. I’d had it since roughly the December prior. There was a sharp pain in my right knee that would manifest whenever I tried to accelerate forwards or fully extend the knee. I could still walk somewhat normally, but running was out of the question.
Swimming is an excellent, low-impact option for athletes with lower body injuries. Unfortunately, I kind of…didn’t know how to swim. So, I signed up for triathlete swimming lessons at my local gym. I explained my situation to the swim coach who, herself, was also a martial artist who learned how to swim as an adult.
I should say that I did take swimming lessons as a kid (and, obviously, I was forced to do a bit in P.E. as a teenager), but the water intimidated me. As a result, I avoided pools most of my life.
Well, I couldn’t avoid them any longer. My swim coach brought me up to speed in freestyle pretty quickly. My technique was pretty ugly for a while (ok, it’s still not great), but I was getting in some laps, nonetheless.
I’ve grown to, dare I say it, actually enjoy the sensation of being suspended in water. The fact that I was exclusively swimming in a lap pool at the time certainly contributed to my increased comfort in that regard.
My opponent’s background was in Tae Kwon Do and Yaw-Yan (a hand-to-hand Filipino martial art). My teammates adjusted accordingly during our sparring sessions; throwing lots of kicks and “spinning shit,” in the words of the inimitable Nickolas Robert Diaz.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
I watched so much tape. I generally spend quite a lot of time watching combat sports (muay thai, kickboxing, boxing, mma, wrestling, etc.), but I found myself watching tape in my bed until I fell asleep. I mostly watched Saenchai and Vasyl Lomachenko (my apologies for the rubbish commentary for this fight. I’d recommend that you turn the volume down completely).
Daniel Cormier, one of my favorite fighters, talks a lot about embracing the grind. I felt I knew what he was talking about, but I realized during the training camp that my understanding was shallow.
Yes, there are the obvious elements of the grind - going to the gym and working through exhaustion; eating right; chipping away at flaws in your technique, etc.
That’s not all of it. You can learn to sit mindfully with pain and exhaustion. You can make broccoli so tasty you don’t mind eating it all the time. You can be consistently self-critical.
The grind is the extra gravity of all of your decisions. It’s knowing that your improvements may be inadequate and your weaknesses may be capitalized on by your opponent. It’s knowing every aspect of this game that you understand is something you can use to win and everything of which you are ignorant is to your opponent’s benefit.
The grind is driving down the highway feeling uncharacteristically sensitive because some of the people you depend on for emotional support have failed you and the simultaneously sobering and joyous realization that you can get through this without them.
The grind is the surge of adrenaline in your bloodstream during periods of inactivity when your thoughts drift even for a moment to fighting.
The grind is the acceptance that you could be very seriously injured, but only if you don’t hurt your opponent first.
My first opponent became ill during her fight camp and requested that we fight at 130 lbs, to which I agreed. She later pulled out of the fight for reasons I never learned, and I got a new opponent. We decided to stick with 130 lbs. Her replacement, Amanda, also had a background in Tae Kwon Do, which was pretty much all I knew about her.
It was an easy weight cut. I went for a swim the day before. At weigh-ins, I came in at around 128 lbs. I saw my opponent in the conference hall where all the fighters were gathered to weigh in, fill out paperwork, etc.
She was noticeably larger than I.
Because of my knee injury, I had avoided lifting altogether. The injury was good reason to lay off lower body exercises, but I also neglected strength training of my upper body. I just find it irritating to go to the gym and do shoulder presses, pull ups, bicep curls, and the like and then call it a day. I’d gotten used to doing supersets. Not lifting was a big mistake on my part.
I introduced myself to her. Neither of us had fought before and she commented that she wasn’t sure about the etiquette around talking to your opponent. I figured, we’re both martial artists; this isn’t anything personal so there’s no need to treat each other like we’re engaged in a feud. Like most martial artists, she’s a lovely person.
I’mma be real…I don’t remember much of the fight. I was on autopilot. I got two knockdowns in the first round, both from strikes to the liver. After that, I’m pretty sure I threw a lot of jabs and body kicks. Again, it was fuzzy. I remember hearing one of my teammates, Jamie, screaming “Be first!” at the start of round one and that I kicked into full murder mode when she did and didn’t get out of murder mode until the end of the fight. I also recall hearing someone say something like “20 seconds!” near the end of the 3rd round and thinking I needed to bump the violence up to 11 and to, ahem,
I was, unfortunately, unable to do so.
About 7 minutes after I got into the cage, I got my hand raised in a unanimous decision victory, had my photo taken with my coach, and got checked up by the doctor. I managed to escape the fight with a couple bruises and no serious brain injury. Yay!
Room for Improvement
My criticism of my performance is primarily a criticism of my preparation. I should have spent more time meditating during fight camp. I’m a superior version of myself when I meditate.
I also didn’t do enough preparation cardio-wise. Swimming is great, but I wasn’t yet skilled enough to sustain a good pace over a long period of time. I was essentially doing sprints in the water. High intensity interval training is awesome, but it shouldn’t have been the entirety of my regimen.
The nickname I used at the time was Anansi and I didn’t live up to it. If you’re not familiar with Anansi, he is the West African god of knowledge, trickery, stories, and rebellion.
Anansi wins with style and grace and walks away with not a drop of sweat on his brow.
To engage with Anansi is to have already lost.
Again, I wasn’t that fighter. Next time, I intend to be.
Yeah, I would totally do it again. Are you kidding me? That shit was awesome. I mean look at these pics.
So freakin’ sweet.
I’m lucky to be a part of the Chicago MMA team.
My coach/adopted older brother Brian Gassaway has pushed me from day one to be a more skillful martial artist. If I’m any good, it’s thanks to him.
To my team and training partners- Tomas Bolaños, Mike Bravo, Ricky Bravo, Patrick ‘Garrote’ Gatbunton, Jason Henry, Edirin Ibru, Jermaine Irving, Jamie Lake, Josh Maestre, Leah Munsey, Rob Nelson, Joseph Rivas, Nick Rodriguez, Eduardo Roman, Wayne Stevenson, Ed Terres, Adam Wagner, and Shah Zolfaghari: Thank you guys for kicking my ass on the regular! Iron sharpens iron and you guys are some of the toughest people I know.
Thanks to my family for supporting me despite being skeptical about the wisdom of taking the fight. You’ve always had my back and I appreciate you for it.
I’d also like to thank my opponent Amanda Garcia for stepping up to take the fight and for embodying the spirit of a martial artist. That woman has zero quit in her.
And thank you (and my apologies) to anyone I forgot to mention!