“You must make friends with suffering!” Greg Jackson shouts to a group of about 15 professional fighters and one aging, but aspiring, participatory journalist as we all struggle up a diabolically steep and absurdly huge sand dune on the outskirts of Albuquerque, NM.
I’d arrived the day before for a two week crash course at Jackson’s famed MMA camp. The trip caps a six week course begun in Atlanta in preparation for my first professional MMA fight. When I got there, Jackson told me about the brutal conditioning to come and why he was throwing me in the deep water right off the bat.
“I want you to get to that terrible place in your mind,” he said, (referring to the dark mental space familiar to all fighters and athletes who train endurance events), “and get used to being there, because that’s where you’re going to live for the next two weeks.”
On only my second day at the gym, Greg had “ambushed” his team by springing on everyone that we were running the dunes that day. The object is to run up the huge sandy hills five times, then for the final time, you put another fighter on your back and carry him up. Before we begin, Greg had cautioned that we’d all be struggling to walk up it by the second time up. Then he added ominously that we’d “end up crawling, scratching, getting up any way you can. That’s the point. Having the will to make it through.” The fighters who had been at the dunes before nod in grim agreement. “Only two rules– stay positive and keep moving forward,” says Jackson as he trots up to his Zen-like perch atop the hill.
At first, I want to be in the upper half of the guys finishing, in a group which includes many fighters who are competing in the upper echelons of the sport in the UFC such as Brian Stann, Aaron Riley, Melvin Guillard, and Kyle Noke. But by the time I’m halfway up the hill with a fighter named Ike on my back, I’m not thinking about where I am in the pack. I’m not even thinking about finishing. It’s all I can do to think one tortuous movement at a time. When I look up, the top of the dune seems further each time, so I stop looking and stare down at my hands and the sand beneath me, willing myself literally a foot at a time up the hill.
“Nothing in your fight will be as hard as this…” Jackson pipes.
I periodically topple over and my hands desperately grip and search for traction in the sand to keep from sliding back down the steep embankment. Nothing I have ever done has ever been this taxing on my body or on mind for that matter. It is an ordeal so arduous that it borders on the spiritual.
“You are finding yourself and you are finding that you are strong.” Jackson encourages everyone. Finally I lurch my hand to the top, signifying the completion of my sixth journey up the hill. Ike jumps off as I collapse and roll over on my back. I hear Brian Stann who is nearby “You don’t have to do this shit. You’ve got a day job,” he growls loudly so that everybody can hear him. In between wheezing gasps, I smile and recognize this as the gruff Marine’s way of congratulating me.
GREG AND COACH WINK
Since I only have two weeks, Greg has me on a regime that is heavy on conditioning. He knows he doesn’t have the time to make me a master technician in the cage, but he can at least get me in good shape.
“Tabatas, Tabatas, Tabatas,” the ever-cheerful Jackson chirps, referring to the Tabata protocol, developed by Japanese Olympic Coach Izumi Tabata, in which you do all exercise at maximum effort with short spurts of recovery time. Tabatas are brutal but also brutally effective and Greg knows they are the way of getting the maximum result out of my short time with him.
The altitude of Albuquerque also heightens the effect of the training I do. Watching me roll on my first day of training, Greg sees my consternation at how fast I’m gassing.
“Are you panicking yet?” he asks, his ever-present yellow legal note pad in hand. “Good!” he says. “I want you to panic—get through it,” he continues, “Welcome to Albuquerque.”
One day we go to his cluttered office and watch tape of my opponent, a battleship of a fighter named Ronnie “Bam” Rogers.
“He’s a wrestler,” MMA’s master strategist says as he watches “Bam” roll over who he’s fighting. “He’s strong and kind of wild so he’s going to come charging out and if he doesn’t finish you, he’ll start to panic,” he said. “He dips his head so look out for the guillotine.”
The game plan is simple and direct and takes advantage of my modest skill set. I can crack a little so Greg plans for me to keep the fight on the feet. If I get taken down, we work on ways to get back up. Drilling techniques with Jackson is like getting a chess lesson from Kasparov or being taught to paint by Picasso. The ground game is very often confusing to me but Greg’s a natural teacher and has the talent of conveying whatever is in his head to you in a way that seems simple, sensible and easily understandable.
I also work a lot with Greg’s partner in the gym, a man named Mike Winkeljohn. “Coach Wink” as he is affectionately known, is a master at working the strike mitts and he and I work my combinations on the pads and also on keeping my opponent out at the end of my punches and using movement and angles to negate takedown attempts. We go “at speed” to mimic the pace of a fight and Greg and Coach Wink are always reminding me to keep me hands up. By the time I leave Albuquerque, my cardio gets sick and I feel confident. Even though my opponent is known to be tough and has got more experience, I fully expect to blow right through him.
THE WRONG SIDE
You’re only going to have to touch him once, I tell myself as I stare across the ring at Bam Rogers and I half believe it. Once the bell rings, as advertised, he comes right at me, crossing the ring quickly and throwing a leg kick. It doesn’t hurt at all. “That’s it?” I think. He throws another light one.
I start thinking about what I’m going to do next. I’ll look for the leg kick and counter. Instead of kicking, he throws a punch I leap at the opportunity to exchange with him.
I throw a loose left hook that catches him right on the chin and bounces his head back. I had figured I would catch him with a big shot early, but instead of collapsing in a heap, which is what I expect him to do, he instantly fires back with a left of his own over my right hand, which is low. I am shocked by the speed and sharpness of his punch and I feel myself going down.
“Are you kidding me?” flashes through my mind as my legs crumple under me. I am furious with myself for getting caught flush.
I bounce right back up and he’s on top of me. It was a flash knockdown, but it puts me in a fog and I start to do everything wrong. I’m lethargic in the clinch; I get swept and taken down; and worst of all, once he gets to half guard, instead of being active and using the techniques I’d trained to get up, I try to vainly gather my wits while keeping my back flat against the mat—a fatal mistake in this situation. Rogers is patient. He doesn’t go crazy trying to finish me, but instead methodically improves his position and rains downs blows from the top position.
His blows don’t hurt, and I’m never in danger of losing consciousness but he’s deliberate and keeps throwing punches and elbows, which keep me in a daze and unable to think clearly. My eye is swollen shut almost immediately. Rogers is completely manhandling me on the ground but at least my cinder block of a head is back to good form. I hear the crowd ooohh and aaahh as blows thud off my head. It sounds like someone hitting a block of wood with a hammer. Chtunk, Chtunk, Chtunk.
He lands another elbow and I feel the entire side of my face fill up with fluid—like someone turned on a faucet inside my head—and for the first time, I sense the real physical danger at my situation, feeling I’ve been seriously injured.
“He broke my orbital,” I think and then I get a spurt of frenzied energy and somehow get to my feet again. I see him dip his head just like Greg said he would and I go for the guillotine but I don’t finish the choke properly and Rogers easily escapes by stepping his hips on the other side and sweeps me and comes crashing down on top of me again.
I can hear him breathing heavily and panting with each blow. I’m thinking, “this dude is going to get tired if he keeps wailing on me like this.”
It’s a slim hope, but at this point—being pinned underneath him and unable to escape—it’s the best I can come up with. As the round is close to ending, the ref pulls him up, stopping the fight. I feel like I can continue but I’m not surprised the ref called it, even though there was only a little time left in the round, I’d been thoroughly beaten and dominated for the whole fight and my eyes and face are in a grisly state. As I watch my opponent celebrate across the ring, sinking feelings of embarrassment and shame wrench my stomach.
THE PROPER PERSPECTIVE
“Well,” Roy Jones begins as he searches for something nice to say after my disastrous performance, “You’re not the prettiest bird in the yard, but you’re damned sure game.” Roy’s a lifelong fighting rooster enthusiast.
“You caught him with the left hook though,” he says encouragingly, as I wobble through the emptied arena on the way out the parking lot holding a huge bag of ice against my eye.
In the days after the fight, I begin to appreciate the level of physical damage I’ve taken, the entire left side of my face is swollen into a grotesque mask and will be numb for a month. When I walk, I step gingerly as I ache from head to toe and am sure I am concussed. My left leg starts to kill me too, so I guess even Rogers’ kicks we’re harder than I thought.
Worse than the physical damage is my overwhelming frustration and anger with myself at not doing any better. I keep playing the fight over in my mind, thinking, “what should I have done?” I had been in phenomenal shape, Jackson had concocted a great game plan and Bam had done exactly what we thought he’d do, but I hadn’t executed under duress. It reminds me of the old military adage, “no plan survives combat,”or as Mike Tyson succinctly once put it, “everybody has a plan until they get hit.” The whole experience impresses upon me the extreme difficulty of mixed martial arts and what an incredible accomplishment it is to succeed at it—even to win just a single fight. My mind boggles at the athletes who can do it at the really high levels.
In the weeks after the fight, I got lots of well wishes from the many friends I’ve made around the MMA industry over the last few years, with each giving their own take on my fight.
From the people who were at the fight, I got lots of “Man you sure are tough,” which, while well-intentioned, really means , “Wow, I’ve never seen anybody take such an ass beating!” They didn’t know that Rogers could have whipped me five times as badly and it still wouldn’t have compared with what I pushed through on Motorcycle Hill.
“At least you got in there, that’s more than a lot of people,” UFC matchmaker Joe Silva says. Urijah Faber urges me to keep at it. “Shake it off,” he says, “get back in the gym.”
Forrest Griffin calls me afterward. “There’s a lot more to this than just being tough and in good shape,” I say. He agrees and comments that I should definitively fight again because, as he delicately points out, “you couldn’t really do any worse than you’ve already done.”
Miguel Torres tells me that even though it’s heartbreaking to lose, it’s a part of MMA and if I double down, determined to improve my skills and learn from the mistakes I’d made in the fight, I’d come back a much better fighter. The whole experience, he notes, would ultimately make me a stronger man. I take encouragement from this and his comments come closest to what has always attracted me to the sport in the first place.