It takes a slightly twisted individual to engage in Mixed Martial Arts competition. It’s one thing to study a martial art in hopes that it would protect your life one day; that in some dark alley, you might be lucky enough to have practiced the perfect kick to maim your would-be assailant. Im sure that many of us have fantasized about karate chopping a gun out of some bandit’s inexplicably feeble grip, and sending him home empty handed, dejected by his lack of skills. It’s another thing entirely to willingly engage in face-to-fist combat with a trained fighter… in front of your friends in the audience and the screaming girlfriend of your opponent. What a situation. I’m no psychologist, but it would seem to me that there must be some type of slightly twisted and deep rooted issue in most fighter’s minds that leads them to strive for dominance in this competitive form. While no fancy scientific study exists to support this point, one thing is beyond argument: fighting competitively is a fucked up, crazy lifestyle, that undoubtedly changes the lives and psyche’s of those who undertake it. Get in a cage and you will never be the same.
I guess it all started growing up in New Jersey. I’m sure it’s not too different than other states, but if you watch MTV’s ‘Jersey Shore’, you’ve seen the tendency for our residents to fist-fight in our beautiful piece of the union. I hate to cite that reality show as a representation of real New Jersey, but it’s a tough state, and I don’t think many would argue the claim.
My dad used to tell me the coolest stories about he and his friends getting into fights. In hindsight, what a terrible idea this was on his part. His stories, regardless of how awesome they were, glorified the shit out of violence, and in many cases, involved breaking the law. In my favorite story, my Dad’s friend “Lurch” was waiting to square off in a street-fight when suddenly the thug he opposed was handed a bat. He swung the bat and Lurch clamped his monstrous arm down hard, catching the club tightly in his armpit … a cold stare on his face. He turns to my father and politely says, “Hey, can ya hold my beer” before beating the guy into a bloody pulp. That story is worthy of a movie scene, but why? Even in the presence of a bat, Lurch wasn’t rattled enough to put down his beer. Even after being struck, he presents extreme emotional control in a situation that most would find jarringly intense. Furthermore, he has the mental presence to make a smart-ass comment before beating the shit out of someone. All of these details give us the feeling of absolute confidence, and who doesn’t love a little comedy? When we put ourselves in Lurch’s shoes, we’d all like to think that we’d act so boldly.
My Dad, in his defense, didn’t just tell me stories. He taught me a thing or two about fighting, like a good father should! His choice technique was incredibly simple. He believed that on the street, you win fights with a jab. A jab is simply a quick, straight punch from your front hand. While your rear hand holds more power, the front hand is closer, and can strike with utmost sneakyness. “As soon as he gets anywhere near you, ***BOOM***!!!” My father would yell, rapidly punching the air in front of him, spit frequently flying from his mouth. He’d explain, “After a while he’ll realize that he can’t get anywhere near you and he won’t want to be hit…. you’ll end all of your fights with a jab, Trav. ***BOOM***!!!” He’d punch the air as I would nod my head in reverence, ready to go hit the mean streets of NJ and blast my non-existent enemies in the face.
We had a heavy bag in my basement and I jabbed the shit out of it. I punched that stupid bag at times until my knuckles bled; I could never locate both of my boxing gloves at the same time so I always just chose no gloves instead… definitely not smart or cool, so don’t do it. Over time, I realized that I could really punch hard, though I only had a small portfolio of fighting tools.
While I was capable, I didn’t have a single enemy. Everyone wanted to be my friend because I was the biggest kid in my grade and I was fucking awesome at kickball. I coasted through most of elementary school without a single conflict. But in fifth grade I became exposed to a group of kids that threw my life for a loop.
Shawn Sullivan was a chubby kid who was considered to be the ringleader of the Wu Tang… a batch of fifth grade white kids that formed a gang and creatively named it after a rap group. They were not strong, and they were not tough, but unlike almost everyone else, they were willing to fight. They looked for stupid reasons to pick on people in hopes that a little feud would start. One day, a member of the Mini-Wu was picking on one of my friends and I told him to back off. Lo and behold, I was scheduled to fight the verbal bully after school. Little did I know, I would be fighting the entire ‘gang’, and one on one fights didn’t exist when you mess with the “Wu”. The fight was ridiculous. It consisted of two or three kids at a time attempting to punch me, but I never hit them back. I would push and trip them with my feet or pick them up and slam them to the ground, but I never threw a punch, no matter how many I took. They were fighting, and I was wrestling. After we were all tired, the fight fizzled and we walked home to our separate lives. The Mini-Wu proclaimed themselves the winners, and I wondered why I didn’t smash their faces in. I dejectedly walked home, mentally replaying all of the different things I could have done at different points in the fight. I would go home and shower, throwing imaginary punches at an imaginary gang instead of scrubbing myself clean. When I got out, I would feel sad, and angry.
This shit went on for the next couple of years. The Mini-Wu would pick on someone, I would stand up for them, and we would all fight after school. They knew that none of my friends would assist me, and that I wouldn’t truly hurt them without hitting them. I must have fought these idiots a dozen times, the final fight being one in which they had managed to turn one of my own friends against me. I was now required to fight one of my best friends with my nemesis in his corner. This time I still didn’t throw punches, but I threw plenty of knees. After leaving my former friend in a heap on his driveway, I decided that it was time to go to a different school.
Life proceeded normally from this point on, except that my brain was always thinking about fighting. The embarrassment of not being considered the ‘winner’ of a fight seemed to have social impacts that were well beyond simple male competition. If you won a fight, you were considered ‘tough’, and if you were tough then you were ‘cool’. I wasn’t able to shake this notion for a long time. I wanted more than anything to be beyond the childish bullshit of shit-talking adolescents. I wanted to be like James fucking Dean, but I didn’t have a leather jacket, and I despised the concept of smoking cigarettes.
By the age of 16, I was a 245 lb powerlifter and football player. I was incredibly strong, and no one had really tried to fuck with me for a long time. I was considered the ‘toughest’ kid in my school as a sophomore in high school and I didn’t even really have to prove it to anyone. I ended up getting a job as a bouncer at both a bar and a strip club. I enjoyed being in a position of authority, and it was hilarious to be part of the drunken nonsense that occurs at bars. The cougars loved me. Anyhow, once every few months, I would be required to eject someone from the bar. Now, this would never be a real fight, because as a bouncer, striking is not encouraged. To punch or kick is an easy way to end up on the wrong side of a lawsuit. If anything, it would consist of a bear-hug and a lot of dragging until the drunk fool was pushed through the front doors of the establishment.
I lived a dual life in high school… one with my normal group of peers, and one in the bars that I was expected to keep secure. In school I had fundamental respect, being a teen in a man’s body. At the bar, I was dealing with grown adults. I remember one instance when a pack of professional football players sat down in my bar to enjoy a beer. If they wanted to cause trouble, there would be little that I could do about it. Other large and unfriendly looking men would frequently find themselves in my place of work, and I wondered how I would fare should they cause trouble. In school, I ran the show. At work, I was back to a point where I was questioning my abilities. Was I really as tough as I thought that I was? Even though I was strong, could I deal with an athletic drunken adult, unafraid of my physical stature? I had no idea… I could still jab the shit out of a heavy bag, but I wasn’t even allowed to use my best attack, AND I was fully aware that I had never brought myself to use it in the past. A solution eventually found me.
An acquaintance of mine from the gym knew that I was a bouncer and knew that I was incredibly powerful. After asking him for a spot one day, he randomly asked me if I had considered fighting. He had been training at a place I had heard of called Pitt’s Pen, and he assured me that it would be right up my alley. I didn’t think about my past, or my psychological issues pertaining to fighting. I thought to myself, “This will make me tougher,” and I decided to seek the place out.
The place had a terrible reputation, and for a number of reasons, rightfully so. “Pitt’s Pen” consisted of 7 competitive fighters, and a few tough kids who were still too young to get in the ring. It was small and dirty. Broken mirrors surrounded mismatched mats, and the weights in the back room were brown with rust. It was owned by a man named Mark Shop, who did not give a fuck about selling memberships to the general public. He was a very successful contractor, and made a lot of money building houses in Florida. He owned and operated Pitt’s Pen simply because he loved MMA, and he wanted a place for himself and his fighters to be able to train. Growing up, horror stories circulated about this place. People were said to have shown up only to have the crap beaten out of them, without a single fighting lesson taught. Mark would supposedly throw them a Gatorade and tell them to ‘get the fuck out’. It sounded like my kind of place.
When I walked through the doors there was a small handful of people training, and one older guy sitting in the back watching. I barely noticed him. One was a jacked spanish dude, covered in incredibly elaborate tatooes. His face seemed as if it had been flattened by impacts, though his features weren’t outwardly ugly. He moved with grace, but seemed to possess explosive power in his strikes. His sparring partner was a normal looking dude, early 20’s, who was much smaller than the ‘spaniard’ but seemed to be winning the match. He didn’t look particularly athletic but moved with speed and skill, darting into his attacks suddenly and escaping before the powerful tatooed arms could get a hold of him. The smaller fighter looked perfectly normal, with the exception of two very ugly cauliflower ears. They didn’t even look up at me until a bell rang from somewhere in the room and their round was over.
They introduced themselves and seemed pretty welcoming. Jose Rodriguez was the ‘spaniard’ and Chris Liguori was the smaller, scrappy fighter. They asked little about myself, mostly about my bodyweight and how much I bench pressed, seemingly out of sheer curiosity. They didn’t ask me a thing about fighting… in hindsight, they could probably tell that I was just another unskilled meat-head, walking through the doors of the fabled Pitt’s Pen, thinking that I was gonna beat some ass. They informed me that I had shown up on their sparring day, and that they were getting ready for upcoming fights. If I wanted to jump in and spar, I would get a great workout while learning a thing or two. I explained that I had never sparred before, but that I was no pussy and would happily jump in and give it my best shot. The butterflies in my stomach were intense enough to cause cramps. We all gloved up and got ready to go.
This sparring session was probably the single worst beating I’ve ever taken in my life. What makes it worse is that I outweighed Chris by 80 lbs and Jose by 60. I couldn’t hit either of them. They were too fast, their punches were too accurate, and I still felt weird trying to hit someone. I had no concept of my own power, and I was hesitant to unleash it on someone else’s face. I would be struck twice before throwing a lumbering blow in return, which would be deftly dodged. Each time I was struck, I would grumble and growl and stomp forward. I would try to get closer to the fighters I could not catch, and certainly could not hit. Each blow I took made my face angrier. The sting of every punch was a lesson in true ability, a great deviation from the fighting fantasies I concocted in my head. By the end of it my jaw hurt, and I finally realized how much I had to learn.
As it turned out, the guys were incredibly nice. They made several really good points and gave me a ton of fighting tips the whole time. I can see how others felt as if they had been beaten down, but I felt as if I had been educated. As I gathered myself and rubbed my sore jaw, the guy on the chair finally came to life and introduced himself to me. His name was Mark Shop, the owner of Pitts Pen. He was going bald and he was a little fat, but without question I could tell that he was tough as nails. I came to find that he fought in the first legal MMA match in New Jersey history. As we began to talk, it was very clear that he loved the sport, and probably wished that he had a different body to use as a weapon, or a time machine to take him back 20 years. He gave me random tips in a thick Jersey accent and told me that in 6 months, I could beat the shit out of every pro fighter in the circuit, if I trained with them every day. I assured him that I would be back and went to leave. Before I walked out the door he called me over and paused before speaking, to emphasize the importance of what he was about to say. “Hey, you got heart… and you can’t buy a heart from the boxing store, come back tomorrow for Jiu Jitsu class.”
From this point on, my life switched directions. I trained every day, the guys at Pitt’s Pen became my very good friends. Weightlifting was put on the back-burner, it didn’t mean anything anymore. I became part of a group with a much more righteous purpose than lifting heavy shit. When I went away for college, I found a new spot to train but always came back to the Pen every summer. I developed as a fighter, and began to build a confidence that I never had before. My body hardened, I was more relaxed socially. I had actually begun to wrap my head around the phenomenon that I had obsessed over for so many years. I dated a hot blonde girl who loved fighters. I felt fantastic, and I actually had a passion other than lifting, drinking, and getting laid.
A couple years later, as a junior in college, I quit football and was happily kicking ass at life when I got a phone call. It was Mark from Pitt’s Pen and he was about to throw a huge and painful wrench into my life. Pitt’s Pen was not well liked in the Martial Arts scene. We were not traditional, we didn’t give out belts, and we had a reputation for being a bunch of hard nosed assholes. We had a number of ‘enemy’ schools, and my ex-girlfriend had dated a fighter from one of these unfriendly schools in the past. Apparently, after we broke up, they got back together and he did not like that I had ever been in the picture. Mark had called to inform me that her new boyfriend wanted to fight me. In fact, he had already called a promoter and had a contract sent over to Pitt’s Pen. He had already won his first four pro fights, and he wanted me to be his fifth.
This was insane. My stomach churned and I could feel my heart beating. I felt the same as when I would stand in front of 5 bullies and get ready for the onslaught. I was challenged to a fight, for money, and fighting my ex-girlfriend’s new fucking boyfriend. Nausia crept over me. I told Mark that I was no pussy, and certainly would not back down from such a challenge. I hung up the phone at 11:30 p.m. and I was at a gym in Philadelphia hitting a heavy bag by 11:45. My mind raced. I was offended. I was angry. Who the fuck did this kid think he was? Rage fueled my workout, and boiled my blood. I thought about my new enemy lying in bed with a girl I had once loved, speaking confidently of my demise. I thought about the pride that I had for my school, and that someone was challenging our validity. The sobering reality of my path ahead brought me back to Earth, and I left after I couldn’t throw another punch. The settled life that I once knew already seemed like ancient history, I barely slept that night.
I immersed myself in martial arts. I skipped Finance 101 and fled campus to attend Jiu Jitsu classes downtown. I trained three times a day, peeling my aching body out of bed in the morning and often feeling too much pain to get to sleep. My skills developed rapidly, and rightfully so. Even when I was not training, I would study Jiu Jitsu moves and watch film of great boxers to absorb and emulate their styles. As quickly as my technique improved my body wore down. I sprained my fingers and damaged the connective tissue between most of my knuckles. I had turf toe in both big toes; my groin was in constant agony from attempting to make too much progress in my head kicks. One of my ears began to sting and swell. Every day when I woke up, I would insert a large syringe into the skin covering my ear and pull out about 10cc’s of blood. Repeating this process before going to bed seemed to alleviate the ping pong ball sized bulge in my upper ear, but it did nothing for the pain. Any time contact was made to my ear, I cringed and violently ground my teeth. My condition overall was harrowing; but my skills became brutal.
The sport became an obsession. There was no such thing as rest. My inner monologue was obsessive. “Is my opponent taking a day off today? Probably not. If he is working out, I’m working out twice. Besides, my head movement felt sluggish yesterday, and my god-damn kicks are still not high enough yet. Performing three 5-minute rounds still makes my lungs beg for air. I need to do five of them today so that three won’t feel so bad anymore. Ugh, I’m hungry but over my target weight… and where the fuck is my jumprope?”
If I had ever known mental peace, it was certainly gone now. My path was that of war, and my mind was not able to find space between thoughts. I had a girlfriend at the time, and I slept at her house every night. She could see that I was slightly troubled, but could offer little consolation. At times, we might be watching a movie and my mind would finally drift. The cinematic entertainment would temporarily draw me away from my prison of mental combat. Suddenly my mind would snap back into place as an imaginary flash of hand-to-hand combat pervaded my thoughts. My body would stiffen slightly, and she would squeeze me a bit tighter. Just having her there made me feel better. I knew that she didn’t give a fuck if won or lost, and that she just wanted my love in the end. I found some peace in that. My training continued relentlessly, and so did her support.
As time before the fight dwindled, my state of anxiety heightened. Days pass slowly. The week before the fight was relatively chaotic. The overwhelming feeling of, “I’m ready, let’s get this shit over with…” is difficult to shake. From a training standpoint, In these final days, a fighter is supposed to recover. Those who are mature enough to get some rest will enter the ring feeling lighter than they have ever felt in their lives. All of the damage done to the body heals, and every movement practiced in the duration of a training camp becomes as crisp as it can possibly be. This is of course the ideal circumstance, but not all fighters are able to relinquish their training obsession long enough to allow their bodies to reassemble. Many fighters go for long runs the night before their events, thinking that they would be building their cardio one last little bit before fight time. This is of course nonsense, and the failure to allow one’s body to recover completely compromises cardiovascular capabilities in the ring. Fighters that ‘overtrain’ aren’t hard to spot; they look great, ripped to shreds, but three minutes into the fight, they start to drag. Their mouths open, looking to swallow air. Their fatigued bodies simply don’t have the fuel required in reserve. Their psychological addiction to readiness costs them the ability to persevere in the ring.
My coaches convinced me to rest but I had to blow off some energy the day before my fight. I went for a late-night run, and felt pretty good about it. I returned home without being too fatigued. A tremendous calm came over my body, there was nothing left to do. All of the sweat to be paid in preparation for a fight had dried. There was no more work, no more obsessing, only action. I realized as I walked back into my home, that within 24 hours, a bell would ring and someone was going to get fucked up.
Fight day is nauseating, time remains at a standstill. It becomes easy to over-think basic shit. What the fuck am I supposed to eat? I definitely don’t want to cramp up, and I also don’t want to be hungry. What time is it? What time are we supposed to be there? For some reason, the time at which fighters report is a pile of hours before the fight itself, and there is a tremendous amount of down time between processes. First you pee in a cup. Then you wait an hour. Then a doctor puts a light in your eyes. Then you wait an hour. Someone wraps your hands and a half hour later someone initials your ‘accepted’ hand-wraps. Then everyone sits around for an hour until the first scheduled fight begins an hour late. As I sat in misery, waiting, the only salvaging thought within my mind was that before the night ended, win or lose, there was going to be a huge after party at my house. To think about social interaction felt foreign, but it helped me to keep a grip on reality. Shortly, life would resume.
The crowd outside was audible, a DJ loudly played music to get everyone fired up. All of the fighters and their coaches were left to their own devices up in one large warm-up area, the music from outside resonating through the walls. When there was only one fight left before mine, it was time to get moving. Warming up was slightly bizarre. My opponent wasn’t even sequestered into a different room. We were left watching each other punch and kick pads while pretending not to pay attention at all. I remember not being impressed by the strength of his strikes and actually cracking a smile when I caught him looking at me. I felt confident, the process was hell, but I never believed for a second that I would lose this fight. Our turn was next, and the time had come. We were called to walk to the ring.
At this point, memories begin to turn into a fuzz. The situation becomes too intense to decipher in hindsight. The music that I selected for my approach to the ring echoed throughout the complex and filled me with emotion. It was as if I was hearing the music the way that it was intended to be heard, and for the first time. I felt potent energy, rage, and readiness. One thought that echoed in my mind consistently told me, “This is the best moment of your life. Don’t ever forget it.” I climbed into the ring, followed shortly after by my opponent. The announcer said his piece and suddenly there was no one standing between us. The rage left me, my body felt almost limp, loose. I could see my enemy clearly. We now were destined to do battle. In the end, one of us would celebrate. The other would be crushed. The moment had arrived. A bell rang; we left our corners and began to circle in anticipation of each others movments.
I almost couldn’t believe that was right there in front of me and he wasn’t moving nearly as quickly as my other training partners. He didn’t even look to be in good shape. He opted to wear a rash-guard instead of being shirtless. This was either to give him additional grip for grappling or to cover up the body-fat that he didn’t want his fans to see, I guess we’ll never know. His head hovered directly in view. I decided at once to crush it with my fist and threw a combination with all of my might. He deftly moved in, my blows glancing, and suddenly our fight had become a wrestling match. We grappled our way onto the walls of the cage and I pinned him against the chain link. I felt strong, I could control his weight easily. I confidently smashed his body into the barrier. I paused for a moment to assess my best means of attack.
Suddenly, my feet were no longer underneath me. He used his leg to sweep them as if my control had only been an illusion. My mistake was novice, I had become overzealous. My aggression cost me fight position right off the bat. Within one minute of the fight, I was on the ground, mounted, and receiving punches from my opponent above me.
I held on, trying to pull him close in an attempt to make it difficult for him to hit me. He braced his weight on my throat to create punching distance, and accurately rained blows on my face and head. I struggled to defend myself for a couple of minutes in real time that felt like an eternity. I would dodge a punch, then eat a punch, and then grab him for a moment before he’d push on my throat to break free. This was not a good situation, and if I didn’t change it, the ref might stop the fight, regardless of whether or not I had been hurt.
I could feel the punches as they hit my face. However, there was no pain. There was no stunned feeling, or washiness of thought. I simply acknowledged being struck and looked for a way out. I bucked, attempting to throw the assailant off balance, and managed to get some leverage underneath one of his legs. With all of my might, I exploded through the mat, and my opponent toppled. Now I was on top and dropping fists with murderous intent. I wanted him to feel how much damage I was capable of inflicting and I wanted to see the fear in his face. I wanted him to feel that the very fibers of his body were in jeopardy and understand that my knuckles would rend him apart. Suddenly the bell rang. A five minute round had elapsed and we were instructed to walk to our corners.
I didn’t hear a fucking thing that my coaches said to me. My own internal coach was rambling. “Do not let him get a hold of you. He can’t hurt you on his feet. He really can’t hurt you at all. Stand right in front of him, and break him to pieces. You lost the round but he can’t possibly hurt you. If he can’t hurt you, then he can’t win.” I felt virtually invincible, but I had felt many of his punches and remained unfazed. The confidence this gave me was unlike anything I had ever experienced in my life.
I stood, unfazed by losing the round. My mind was focused on unleashing brutality. Any feeling of malcontent was gone, there were no nerves, and no nausia. My opponents actions felt almost inconsequential. I was practically relaxed, and eager to show this bastard what I was capable of doing. The bell rang again, and I pressed forward without hesitation. I was ready to fight for as long as it took to break this man.
Again we clashed in the center of the ring but this time he shot towards my legs in an attempt to take me to the ground. I sprawled, my reflexes taking over. After defending against this takedown, I remained standing and threw punches at his face. Each time one landed, I could see how badly it disturbed him. He did not like being hit, and at the time I didn’t give a fuck what he threw at me.
He lunged at me to initiate another grappling match but I had made the decision not to let him dictate the fight. The moment he grabbed me, I drove him into the cage and began to knee him viciously to the body. When his focus was directed at defending against my knees, I would rip powerful hooks to his midsection. While hitting his head had been somewhat difficult, I found that his body was not as elusive. I didn’t want him to breathe, I wanted him to feel nothing but damage and fear, that mental freak-out that one would experience when his wind was knocked out of him. Imagine trying to fight when you cant even take a breath! I threw the most powerful blows that I could muster, at times lifting him slightly from the canvas. My fists crushed into his body, and I could hear him wheeze. He scrambled to run away and gain some distance. I followed him across the ring, walking through his weakened punches. Mentally, he had been beaten. He had nothing left in his arsenal and he had thrown his best attacks before my body-blows had drained his force. I could see in his face that he was there to be finished.
I threw on more punch, a hard uppercut to his chin and followed it with a knee to his body. I dove into it, as if looking to break down a door. He had already been struggling for air and the knee was too much. He fell to the ground in the fetal position and I pounced. My right fist fell repeatedly onto his head, as he tried to cover it with his arms. He had given up, and the referee rushed in. The fight was over… the crowd went absolutely balistic.
I didn’t raise my hands in victory. I didn’t give a fuck at the time. Relief washed over me. I was too tired to celebrate, and the feeling was too pure for any action other than to stand and experience it. I just wanted to catch my breath. I wanted to get out of this fucking ring. I wanted to go eat the food that my mom was cooking for me and drink the first beer that I would have had in months. Cameras flashed, some super-hot girl stood in the center of the ring with me and smiled for the photographers. She worked for some MMA sponsor, but all they got was a portfolio of me with a dumb-ass look on my face. I did not smile, I offered no clever pick-up line or even a witty remark as Lurch had done in my fathers legends. As I walked back to the dressing room, I remember thinking to myself, “I will never do this again, as long as I live. What the fuck was I thinking?” This was quite a bit different from ten minutes earlier, when I was thinking of it as, “The best moment of my life.” Best? Definitely not. Most powerful? Certainly top three.
My ear was the size of a golfball, and it bled down my shoulders and back. Some pudgy doctor in the ring pinched at it without warning. I turned and snarled at him, my jaw clenched like a pit-bull. I could now feel its pain. To this day, it is drastically deformed, a reminder of this benchmark in my life. My facial symmetry has been sacrificed for a mission that I undertook, God only knows why. Most people don’t notice it initially, but after a while, I’m inevitably asked why my ear is different from everyone else’s.
My friends and I have never partied harder than we did that night. The after party was at my parents house, and Momma Roesler was in full hostess mode. My buddies told the story of the fight over and over, as if it had happened years ago and they were in my corner to towel me off between rounds. They were all living vicariously through me, and I had made them proud. The question: “When are you fighting again” was omnipresent, and I found it difficult to escape from having to explain my upcoming martial arts agenda. This pressure was undoubtedly one of the factors that led me to get back into the ring again.
I fought two additional professional matches, and after each, I wondered why the fuck I decided to do it again. Something drew me to the violence, and the desire to conquer any fear relating to the moments I experienced. The ability to be calm before a storm of fists eluded me, but I wanted it badly. I had learned that my obsessive nature made the moments leading to a fight miserable. I wanted to surpass this as well. On the contrary, I learned that in the ring, I had the ability to be a juggernaut. I could take the heart of a professional fighter right out of his chest, and could potentially devour every strike that he used to harm me. For some reason, this wasn’t enough. I wanted to conquer the mental battle. I wanted to be perpetually relaxed, and in control. I can’t honestly say that this is something that I ever accomplished.
My second fight was won in the intermission between rounds. But again, it didn’t start the way I would have desired. This guy was swinging for the fences, and he hit me with some punches that really rattled my brain. I was definitely effected, my equilibrium suffered for a moment after receiving the impact, but I held on. I did not fall, and managed to grip him up before he could do too much damage. I forced him into the ropes and after waiting patiently, I broke his ribs with several right hooks. I had never thrown punches this hard at any target, live or inanimate. The crowd “oooohed” and winced with every punch I threw. After taking him to the ground and continuing the melee, the bell rang. It took him a while to stand up and drag himself to his corner. For the second time, I stood in my corner feeling unstoppable, despite having taken the brunt of a vicious attack. My plan was to relentlessly attack, but he refused to answer the bell. When the referee signaled my victory, I did not celebrate. Instead I raised both of my hands and gave two thumbs down. I was disappointed by the lack of climax, but again relieved that the effort was over.
By the end of this fight I had developed a reputation for mercilessly attacking the bodies of my unfortunate fellows in combat, and for having the ability to take some serious abuse. Several MMA websites wrote blurbs about me, one of them referring to me as “The master of devastating body blows.” My second victim had fallen prey to these blows, and quit on the stool instead of facing me. I derived some satisfaction from this, but having him give up wasn’t the same, I wanted to drop him. I wanted the satisfaction of seeing him fall as a result of my will, especially after he had hit me so hard in the first round. I wanted payback, and I guess I got it. This fight showed me that I had a lot to learn. I hung up my gloves for two years, and devoted myself to the craft until my return.
My final fight was against a different type of opponent than I had faced. He was a powerful, african-american wrestler. In his previous fights, he had taken his rivals to the ground and pounded them mercilessly. As a Jiu Jitsu fighter, I felt prepared for his strategy. I was very comfortable from my back, and considered myself to be dangerous in this position. My stand-up fighting had improved tremendously as well. I did not take the shots to my head in my second fight lightly. I wanted to demonstrate the same power in conjuction with elusiveness. I understood that I could take a punch, but in reality, that shit is best avoided.
On paper, I felt that I had him beat. I could outclass him in every strategy that he chose to undertake. If he wanted to stand, I would punch and kick his head in. Having watched his films, his stand up skills looked shaky. I did not feel threatened. If he took me down, I would fight to choke him out or threaten the breaking of a joint to force him into submission. His only weapon was a fast and powerful double-leg takedown, and my wrestling was awful.
After the bell rang, I went to work. I jabbed his face hard, and led rigid combinations with my right hand. After taking some punches, he kept his distance. I pursued, sensing fear. He rapidly ducked under a punch and shot in at my legs. I let me right hand go, in an uppercut backed with murderous intent. I narrowly missed, and found myself on my back.
My Jiu Jitsu instincts took over. I tied up his arms and made it difficult for him to strike me. He couldn’t land a clean shot, and I boxed his ears with my palms. In defending his head, he set himself up for a submission, and I attacked. His strength was formidable, and I was unable to finish my triangle choke. I transitioned from submission to submission, each time his defense withholding. After a brief lull in the action the ref asked us to return to our feet. The fight proceeded in similar fashion. I would land several blows to his face before he would take me to the ground. On the ground, my offense would fall slightly short of finishing the fight. I had him on the run constantly, but each takedown was scoring points in the eyes of the judges.
In the final round, as I had done before, my intention became to throw the most disgusting blows that I could manage. I wanted to end the fight before he had a chance to take me down again. While circling, I fired my right hand. It landed like a cannon ball on his jaw, and his mouthpiece sailed across the cage. He staggered. He was dizzy, and I was hungry for blood. I moved in to maim this motherfucker and was suddenly grabbed by the referee! “Time!” He called. “Go get your mouthpiece!” The ref stopped my pending barrage, I was held back in the most crucial moment of the fight. My adversary stumbled towards his mouthpiece, his legs deprived of their explosive power, slowly reclaiming and inserting the item. I heard, “Fight” and rushed in looking to capitalize. He ducked under my attacks and took me to the ground yet again. My eagerness cost me, but I wasn’t going to let him go.
I moved for the finish, throwing every submission move I knew, and caught him in a kamura, which would dislocate his shoulder upon finishing. He grabbed my shorts to protect his arm, an illegal defense, and held on for dear life. I pulled with every ounce of strength I had, my eyes bloodshot, my ears ringing. I saw his fingers attached to my clothing and wanted to tear them off. I was sure that I could break his grip, and I would not relinquish the quest. My cornermen went insane, “He’s holding the fucking shorts!” The ref did not budge. I pulled and twisted, every fiber in my body contracting in its maximum potential, and after a full minute I failed to remove his hand.
Exhausted, I looked at the referee and yelled, “My fucking shorts!” Suddenly awakened, he sprang to do his job. “John let go of the shorts,” he yelled, and . By this point, I was empty. My mind told my body to torque the arm, but not enough physical power existed within me. I abandoned the move, and flowed into a triangle choke, forcing his own arm to cut off the blood supply to his brain. I pulled on his head to tighten the maneuver it and squeezed my legs with the last fibers of effort in my body. He did not seem to be choking, and I let go of the hold. As soon as I did, he gasped in monstrous breaths of air. I had him. I had him choked and I fucking let him go. The bell rang, and the fight was over.
We got up, and stumbled to our corners. It was all over, and I didn’t even know what to think. Each moment of near victory flashed through my mind. I hated myself for not taking advantage of these opportunities, and for being stupid enough to let him use the same take-down repeatedly. If I had just stuffed one of his attempts, I could have picked him apart from my feet. My corner congratulated me on an excellent fight, and moments later we were called to the center of the ring. It was all in the hands of the judges.
“Judge number one scores the fight two rounds to one, Doyle!” Oh no… My heart sank. After all this work… “Judge number two scores the fight three rounds to none, ROESLER!” Thank god. The third one has to see it as well.. “Judge number three scores the bout, two rounds to one….. and STILL the light-heavyweight champ, JOHN DOYLE!” I lowered my eyes to the mat, my sweat still glistening on its surface.
I lost. I stood in the middle of the ring a loser, and I thought for sure that I had won. What the fuck was I supposed to do now? How could I face my friends. My perfect record was gone, and 2-1 is way different than 3-0. What was the point of it all? Why the fuck did I bother? I was too easy to take down, and it cost me. If I had just defended one single takedown… if I had just finished the choke. Mentally, I ran in circles. Despite all of the commotion and the boos from the crowd, all I could think of was “Fuck it… at least this shit is over with.”
My opponent was awarded a split decision victory. After all of the pain, and all of the work, I lost; and my paycheck suffered as a result. After the showing up for all of the medical tests and paying for them out of pocket, I would barely walk with a profit. My foe’s victory was based on someone’s critique, and even the crowd did not agree. I was jaded, badly. I blamed myself as intensely as I blamed the ref and judges. But I learned. Not only had I been exposed to a weakness in my art, I was exposed to a weakness in my mind. I was afraid to lose. I was afraid to let down my friends. I was afraid of being imperfect, or rather not being invincible. Losing doesn’t suck because you get hurt. Losing sucks because it forces you to view yourself as a mortal, with flaws and vulnerabilities just like all of the ‘weaklings’ from whom you try to distance yourself. This loss taught me more about myself than pounding 100 MMA fighters ever could have, and I was ready to retire from the sport that had both given and taken so much.
My career as a fighter was bittersweet. For whatever reason, I needed it while it lasted. I needed to overcome the mental barriers that I had created in my youth. I had to show that not only was I unafraid to fight, but that I would stand up and do it in front of a roaring crowd, and against an opponent that I was willing to destroy or destroy me in return. I have learned a craft that has shaped my life, both career wise and psychologically. I don’t need to prove that I’m tough anymore, certainly not at the expense of my mind and body. I’m a better fighter now that I ever was, and I don’t even feel the slightest compulsion to prove it. At times, I miss the intensity. I miss the insane pressure that drives me towards no-holds barred training, rapid improvement, and an insane display of will. The heightened sense of reality when within the ring is life-changing, but having felt this sense, it will always be within me.
When I see a couple perform an amazing dance, I wish that I could somehow showcase my skill set. I’d love to show off the talent that I’ve cultivated in a lifetime of effort and sweat. As an adult, I keep this bottled up; but I smile frequently… believing that I might be the toughest person in the world that you’ve never heard of. My psychological issues have dissipated, now I’m seemingly normal… just like everyone else. I’m left with my memories, my skills, a fucked up ear, and the knowledge that if a fight breaks out, I might just be calm enough to crack a good joke.