The Ultimate Fight
How mixed martial arts changed my life
By John Bronson
I’d envisioned stepping into the cage so many times that when I finally entered the fenced-in, octagonal ring, it felt like déjà vu.
But nothing that followed went as expected.
For example, I’d thought I would feel the sensation one experiences when the roller coaster reaches the top of its first ascent and you gape at the sight of the tracks falling steeply away below — how you realize at that moment there’s no going back, and how that moment stretches on and on. But it wasn’t like that. As happens in other stressful situations — say, driving through a blizzard — time flowed with a maddening normalcy.
With a wave from the referee, my opponent and I approached each other and touched gloves. I remember only a vague anxiety that I would not perform at my best, and then we were punching each other in the face.
I fought my first mixed martial arts (MMA) bout last April at a Holiday Inn in Massachusetts, the closest state where it’s legal to host MMA fights. As of this writing, MMA events are illegal in Maine (and a shrinking number of other states) because, as with my personal experience, there’s still a big gap between people’s expectations or perceptions of MMA and what the sport is really about.
Brutal. That’s the adjective most often attached to MMA by its critics in government and the media, and in fairness, the fast-growing legions of fans who watch the fights live or on TV are also apt to call it that. But for those involved as competitors or coaches, a very different word applies: spiritual.
The fights themselves are spectacular, a spectacle of intense human-on-human competition in which the goal is to render one’s opponent unconscious or force them into a position of inescapable submission. This may be achieved through almost any combination of kickboxing, wrestling, judo, and other martial arts techniques. As in the long-accepted sports of boxing and hockey, bloodshed is not uncommon. And also like boxing, pro fights often involve a lot of hype and showmanship — outsize personalities, blaring theme music, pre-bout boasts and counter-boasts — that stoke the viewer’s appetite for violence.
But what you see on Fight Night is actually the very brief culmination of a long struggle each athlete endures within themselves over the course of the months and years before the bell. Inside the ring, technique tops strength, and tranquility trumps anger, every time.
Death and serious injury are all-but-unheard-of in sanctioned MMA bouts — at least those held over the past decade, a period during which the sport has become more regulated, more accepted, and exponentially more popular. And the genuine animosity felt and displayed by competing professional football, basketball and baseball players is a rarity in this sport. To the contrary, MMA opponents commonly have an almost fraternal respect for one another, a bond most strongly expressed outside the ring.
Despite the protests of institutions like the Portland Press Herald and the Maine State Police, who’ve labeled MMA “bloody, brutal and potentially deadly,” Maine lawmakers are poised to legalize and begin the process of regulating MMA bouts this year. A bill to sanction the sport in Maine, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Matt Peterson of Rumford, has attracted co-sponsors from across the aisle and around the state. (As The Bollard went to press, the bill, LD 1089, was being reviewed in the Legislature’s Business, Research and Economic Development Committee. A vote by the full Legislature is expected this month, and the bill’s backers are confident it will pass.)
Much of the motivation to legalize MMA in Maine is monetary. MMA is the fastest-growing sport in the world. Its top organization, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), has experienced explosive growth over the past several years. UFC events reportedly gross upwards of $2 million in ticket sales and another $5 million or so in pay-for-view proceeds. (UFC has also branched out into video games, a reality TV show, and even action figures.)
Smaller, regional promotions also consistently draw crowds. Untamed 27, the event in which I fought, sold about 800 tickets (at $35 each for general admission and $100 for ringside seats), according to Mike Littlefield, one of the event’s promoters. Most of those who attended traveled to see the show in Mansfield, Mass., a town with a population of about 22,000, and many spent money at local restaurants and other businesses.
Peterson argues that by banning MMA, Maine is doing a disservice to its fighters, and missing out on a big opportunity. “We grow some of the greatest mixed martial artists in the world and then we force them to leave because we lack the legal and regulatory environment for them to pursue a career in the sport,” he said. “We ship them out of state to compete and pour Maine-made money outside of our borders.”
Peterson said managers of the Cumberland County Civic Center and other venues have expressed interest in hosting MMA events. “I’ve received nothing but positive feedback from owners and operators around the state that would love to see the sport legalized and regulated here in Maine,” he said.
Democratic Rep. Joan Cohen of Portland, a co-sponsor of Peterson’s bill, also recognizes MMA’s financial benefits. “I don’t plan to attend myself,” she said, “but I recognize there’s a lot of interest.”
Cohen added that though the Legislature’s primary responsibility is to ensure the safety of Maine citizens, she has no objection to the sport’s inherent violence. She and her children are avid downhill skiers, and she noted that there are more deaths and injuries in that sport than in sanctioned MMA. “We all take certain risks in the things we choose to do,” she said.
Once people learn about the sport, most come to the same conclusion Cohen has reached. Not only is MMA safer than other sports, including other combat sports, but the level of commitment required to compete forges responsible athletes who are, on the whole, more well-adjusted than professionals in other sports.
“It requires a complete lifestyle commitment to compete and be successful in this sport,” said Peterson. “These aren’t brawlers that climb off a barstool and into the cage to throw down. I’m convinced that these are some of the most dedicated and highly trained athletes in the world.”
For me, fighting has been a spiritual journey that’s transformed me from a squirmy computer jockey into something resembling a real person.
As my University of Southern Maine undergraduate education drew to a close a few years ago, I was plagued by a vague but growing dissatisfaction with the way my life was unfolding.
Those around me slid smoothly from keg parties to button-down office work — some squeezing out offspring at the earliest opportunity — but I was skeptical. I thought there was supposed to be something more. I had assumed that life, or at least some substantial part of it, was going to feel like a righteous ’80s rock-guitar solo. Instead, it felt more like blown-out stereo speakers playing the saddest Coldplay tune ever, on repeat. I would wake up, put in a day at school and work, and go home feeling no closer to the person or the life I’d gone to USM hoping to find. I was a nebbish geek with bad posture, an expanding gut, and a future in some fluorescent-lit cubicle banging out computer code or sales copy or whatever.
So, my checking account swollen with what would be my final student loan, I decided to invest in something that would bring some passion, some color into my life. I almost went for guitar lessons, but decided instead to take martial arts.
I started out with a self-defense class at a karate school. It turned out to be a glorified cardio-kickboxing program, but it was a good workout. After a few months, student enrollment dwindled and the class was discontinued. After researching other schools in the area, I told my instructor I was thinking about joining the Academy of Mixed Martial Arts, a gym and MMA training center on Warren Avenue in Portland.
“That’s what I would do if I were you,” he said. “They train guys to fight there. Like, in a cage.”
I don’t know about all that, I remember thinking. But I had to go somewhere.
I showed up at the Academy the next day and took a basic Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class. Afterward, Jay Jack, Academy’s gregarious co-owner and head instructor, offered to wrestle with me. Within five minutes, Jay, a double black belt in judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with 30 pro fights under those belts, had tied me into myriad pretzel shapes and forced me to tap out five or six times. I’d never felt like more of a spaz.
I signed up for more classes immediately.
In fact, the majority of people who train at the Academy aren’t fighters. Most are casual students of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, an offshoot of judo made famous by Royce Gracie when he won the first UFC tournament in 1993. There’s also a smaller group of Muay Thai kickboxing enthusiasts. Classes are informal. Other than lining up by rank and shaking the instructor’s hand after class, there are no rituals.
Live sparring (we call it “rolling”) is key to training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Belt promotions aren’t based on how many techniques a student knows, but on how well he or she performs against opponents.
Rolling in the gym became my favorite game, and the only workout I needed. It also provided my first positive experience with competition. Friendly rivalries inspired me to take my training more seriously, and I started running and lifting weights to improve my performance. For the same reason, I cut way back on drinking and eating crappy food. I soon lost 30 pounds.
The first few months of training are the most exciting. You learn new ways to use your body every day: how to fall to the mat correctly, how to apply choke holds, how to pin your opponent. It infects your imagination. It gets into your bones.
After a while, I felt confident enough in my abilities to enter a local grappling tournament. This is a big step: competing against strangers is much more intimidating than even the toughest sparring sessions in the confines of your gym, where students are expected to take care of one another. Most people perform less effectively in competition. Ironically, when the pressure is on, it’s more difficult to access your full potential. People lock up mentally, get angry at themselves.
At one of my first tournaments, my first match went badly from the start. My will to fight began to flag. Intrusive thoughts — literally voices in my head — broke in, saying things like, Is this really worth it? I stopped fighting and started stalling, and ultimately lost the match. Afterward, I slunk to the bleachers to lick my wounds. I found the sting of letting myself down to be much worse than the fatigue I’d felt during the match. I left that tournament resolved to figure out how to stay tough during competition.
Meanwhile, everything else in my life went on the back burner. At one point, a frustrated girlfriend asked, “The gym is more important than I am, isn’t it?”
Frankly, yes. It was.
Martial arts offered an escape from the cultural wasteland I’d wandered into at graduation. It led me away from a soulless America whose values are defined by Wall Street and Hollywood — money for its own sake, mindless titillation. My training was the framework I needed to become a stronger, wiser person.
Much of this is simply becoming tougher, both mentally and physically. You learn to shrug off discomfort and you become less fussy, less dependent on transient pleasures and material things. You learn not to be ruled by your desires.
For those who need it, as I did, the Academy can serve as a sort of crisis center — except at this crisis center, you are given a crisis and then find out how well you can handle it. In the chaos of physical struggles, and in the chasms of doubt that followed, I found a path to a quieter, stronger self.
“Real tranquility is not being calm when everything is peaceful and wonderful,” Jay once told me. “It’s being calm when everything is insane and shitty.”
Jay approaches fighting as a tool for spiritual development. It’s a crucible that enables you to expose your character flaws and eliminate them. “When you fight, you pry out into the light all the parts of you that successfully hide in the mundane world,” he said.
That’s how I ended up asking Jay to sign me up for a real MMA bout. After nearly three years of training, I was ready to enter the cage.
Talking about Fight Club
A couple weeks after my decision to fight, I was at a party with some friends. The hostess kept offering different drinks and I kept turning them down. “It’s OK,” I said. “I can’t drink tonight.”
“I’m training to be a cage fighter.”
The hostess laughed at me and moved on. My friends just shook their heads.
Of course, I wasn’t lying. Fight preparation requires you to stay on a strict diet and follow a ramped-up training regimen.
Here’s what it’s like: Each training session starts with Thai pads, which are like boxing mitts but larger, so you can kick them. My coach signals combinations and I lay into the pads as hard as I can. I want to pace myself, but the point of this exercise is to go at 100 percent the whole time.
After 30 seconds of this, my coach barks, “Shot carries with Tony!” I run to the edge of the mat, where my training partner is waiting. He throws a flurry of hard slaps at my face, reminding me to keep my hands up. I lunge and lift Tony up, all 200 pounds of him, and sling him over my shoulder, then take off with him down the full length of the mat. I’m supposed to be running, but my rubbery legs only trudge with a feeble speed-step. This does not escape the notice of my coaches.
“Run, Bronson! Go!” My legs warn me there’s no juice left, but I order them into a trot anyway. With burning legs, aching lungs, a feeling like my skin is on fire, I put Tony down at the end of the mat, then immediately pick him back up and run the other way with him.
The training is miserable. It’s intolerable by design. Just thinking about it at work, my mouth would go dry. When it’s been run correctly, people don’t want to look at each other afterward. (Imagine the atmosphere if your closest coworker suddenly blurted out a profoundly private revelation during a company meeting.) It’s common for people to cry after fight training. The focus on mental toughness is what sets MMA apart. In my opinion, that’s what makes it the purest form of competition to be had.
“You can easily find an Olympian who can lift more and run further than I can,” Jay said. “But if you hooked us up to a machine that measured suffering, I could stay at 100 percent longer than he could. That’s what fighting’s all about. You have to hear those voices that say, Give up. Quit. Go home.”
The real struggle begins weeks before Fight Night. Suddenly, with a jolt of icy electricity, your hands are shaking and your hair is bristling. I have a fight this very month. A person somewhere out there is training to hurt me.
It’s impossible to know when the nerves will strike. Maybe in the grocery store while comparing brands of oatmeal. Or you’re pulling your clothes out of the washing machine, or you’re on the phone with your mom. This psychological boondoggle will break you down if you don’t deal with it.
For this reason and many others, sport fighting is so much more than a fistfight. If you can’t get your head straight, you will defeat yourself. I mean this literally: A guy who fancies himself a badass will fake an injury and back out of his fight. The nerves beat him before his opponent even lays eyes on him.
That’s an extreme case. Usually what happens is your weaknesses surface and your training suffers. Three other people at my school were scheduled to fight the same night I was. One of them, a young woman who’s in better shape than anyone I know, slows down and locks up during sparring despite her fitness, paralyzed by self-doubt. Another one of our guys feeds himself with anger, stops listening to his coaches, and abandons his game plan. Each of us breaks down in his or her own way, and one of the great things about Jay is he understands how to coach all of us.
In my case, the nerves finally struck two weeks before the fight, during sparring. I was clinched against the wall with one of the best guys at our gym, and it suddenly occurred to me how difficult the fight would be with adrenaline coursing through my body, with 1,000 people watching, including members of the Academy I represent. My mouth went dry. Butterflies exploded in my stomach. Oh, there you are, I thought, as my partner broke the clinch and started gamely driving knees into my stomach. Hello, nerves.
That’s how it starts. This is the real motherfucker. Two weeks: me and my nerves in an anything-goes deathmatch.
The anxiety has little to do with fear of physical injury. The term “no-holds-barred,” commonly applied to MMA fights, is misleading. For example, headbutting is not allowed, nor are blows to the groin. In amateur bouts like the one I fought, elbows are forbidden, as are knees to the face. There’s no biting, fishhooking (pulling nasal or mouth tissue) or manipulation of fingers or toes in amateur or pro fights. Referees and fight doctors monitor the action as closely as they do in boxing matches. A fighter in distress need only tap the mat, tap the opponent, or verbally signal the need to tap out, and the fight’s over. The cage itself is padded.
This wasn’t always the case. In the early 1990s, professional MMA bouts had very few restrictions, a situation that prompted Sen. John McCain to famously label the sport “human cockfighting” – a view McCain himself no longer holds, given subsequent regulations promoters have voluntarily adopted.
I arrived with the other fighters from my school just as the stage crew finished building the ring in the hotel’s banquet room. We all climbed in and paced around, bouncing on the mats and leaning against the fence. I ran into my opponent and we wished each other good luck with that stiff over-politeness people tend to adopt in such situations.
Academy’s fighters and coaches then gathered in a small meeting room across the hallway from the banquet room. As showtime approached, we started warming up on a mat that covered half the floor. Before long, the space was hot and thick with body heat and tension. We all got our hands wrapped for battle.
A lot of fighters listen to amped-up music while they’re preparing to enter the ring, but this would have distracted me. Instead, I listened to downtempo stuff — Silversun Pickups, Dredg, Kent — to stay calm. I felt mentally ready, but my muscles felt weak and my stomach felt queasy.
“That’s just your nerves,” one of my coaches, Josh Watson, assured me. He told me he once threw up after a fight and saw the pasta he’d eaten seven hours earlier, completely undigested. “Your stomach just sits there and holds it.” He flashed his unnerving grin at me and told me to keep warming up.
I hopped around and shadowboxed until it was time for me to leave the meeting room. My coaches and I watched the fight before mine, and then it was my turn to walk out to the cage. For my entrance music, I’d chosen “Battle Without Honour or Humanity,” by Tomoyasu Hotei – Lucy Liu’s entrance music in Kill Bill. I like the song because it gets me pumped up, but it lacks the anger of the metal and hip hop most other fighters choose. Soon I was standing under the blinding halogens, facing my opponent in the ring at last.
I remember taking him down in the first round. I could hear him on the mat, breathing hard as he worked to escape my pin. This caused me to think about my own breathing, and my focus shrank until everything but the two of us disappeared. He escaped and stood back up, and then I heard my corner shout, “One minute left!”
Damn, I thought. A man needs time to do his work! Most amateur fights end in a decision, and I badly wanted to finish my fight without leaving it up to the judges.
In the second round, I took him down again, positioned myself until I was sitting on his chest, and punched him 10 or 15 times. I knew I had the fight won.
That’s when the really unexpected thing happened.
Against all my best instincts, I stopped hitting him and raised my arms up in victory for the crowd. Cheers erupted all around me. The punches had caused my opponent to stick his arms out (a big no-no when you’re in his situation) and, seeing an opening, I attacked with my favorite choke hold, forcing him to tap.
My coach came into the ring and I held out my hand, expecting him to congratulate me. But he was frowning. “What’s up with the showboating?” he demanded.
“Oh yeah,” I stammered. “I don’t know what I was thinking,”
“I don’t know what you were thinking either.” He was deadly serious.
I turned and apologized to my opponent’s coaches, cursing myself for tarnishing what was supposed to be a perfect moment. How ironic, too — I had prepared so hard to be a tough competitor that I’d forgotten the spiritual motivations that had originally inspired me to fight. Fighting will always reveal the gaps you’ve allowed into your training.
After the fight, my opponent approached me with a big smile and congratulated me. I apologized for showboating and he laughed it off. “It was your first fight, man. I know how it is,” he said. We talked for at least 15 minutes about our training, what we’d been thinking during the fight, and about our plans for the future. We wished each other well, and meant it sincerely.
Largely unseen amid the spectacle of MMA events, the respect fighters give one another is much more than the formality of touching gloves. As opponents, we provide each other with a gift in the form of a challenge that forces us to improve ourselves. What it comes down to is two consenting adults agreeing to help each other become better people.
“When we fight, we agree to set aside social norms and constraints,” Jay has said. “We help each other find that moment. Nowhere else can you find that.”
John Bronson is a freelance writer in Portland. He maintains a blog about his training at sevenbreaths.wordpress.com.