Six months ago I stepped into an MMA gym (Stars and Strikes) wanting to challenge myself and step out of my comfort zone. With no prior experience in any martial art, I was intimidated at first but everyone at my gym was very helpful (especially my coach) in teaching me and giving me great advice. My first week was tough (very tough) in the fact that I thought that I was in great shape until I started doing the workouts, sparring, and grappling. It’s an extreme, grueling process that will push you mentally and physically. Even learning the moves and techniques was an exhausting practice, but very rewarding once class was over. Upon leaving the gym, I felt a sense of accomplishment and purpose. After a month of solid training, I was hooked and looked forward to learning anything that I could. Aside from training at the gym, I was making new friends and forming a bond with the other guys/girls at the gym. Going to my MMA gym is like going to a family members house; everyone takes care of one another, and we treat each other with the utmost respect. While I was having a great time training at my MMA gym, I had to deal with criticism as to why I was training and at first I was puzzled by the criticism, but then I came to realize that there’s not a lot of people who train in MMA in today’s society. Most of the criticism about MMA comes from simply not being educated on the sport, and once I explained the sport to people—they came to realize that it’s a sport that requires commitment, dedication, and the willingness to improve each day.
With each passing day that I was going to the gym, I realized something: my teammates are really good (scary good) at competing and ultimately, winning many titles and awards that go up on our gym wall. I first got a sense of the MMA world back in January, and watched my teammates compete in an amateur MMA league titled PCFL (Prison City Fight League) in Jackson, MI (hence the prison city reference). Watching them compete was an incredible experience, and I could not believe that the guys I was watching—was the same group of guys that I train with on a daily basis. Each show that came up, I was sure to be there and root my teammates on. Then after about the four-month mark of training at the gym, I had a thought: I want to compete.
Aside from MMA, my gym also competes in amateur kickboxing shows. I felt that it would be a great way for me to start out, and to see if I could compete in such a pressurized environment. Now I just had to talk to my coach and teammates about it.
“Absolutely! I think kickboxing would be a good start for you,” said my coach after telling him that I wanted to compete in the upcoming amateur kickboxing show. That part was out-of-the-way, but the hard part would be getting a match up. Almost a month had passed by since I put my name in to compete, and I was losing hope that I would not be able to get a match up. Coming into the gym one evening—my coach had great news: he had found a match up for me. I didn’t know much about my opponent (other than the fact that he had been knocked out in 12 seconds in an MMA match). My immediate feeling was a sense of relief, but that quickly went away when my coach smiled and said, “you’re getting shark tanked soon.” For those who don’t know: a shark tank consists of you sparring against a number of “fresh guys” for 8 minutes long, and no rest at all. A shark tank is supposed to get you to your breaking point (mentally and physically), and to see what you’re made out of.
It was a Thursday night, and as I entered the gym—I felt anxious, nervous, and scared. The time had come for me to get shark tanked. Exhausted, broken, and tired were the exact diagnosis of how I was feeling during the shark tank. Getting hit repeatedly, trying to breathe, and movement seemed like an endless carousel that I was on. Once time was called out, I was drained and had nothing left to give. Going through the shark tank was one of the hardest things that I have ever endured in my life. I learned a lot about myself during the process, and I’ll never forget that night. As if the shark tank was not hard enough, I had a harder task to go through: weight cutting.
Weight cutting is an integral process in combat sports. The point of weight cutting is to get down in weight, and on fight night be at your everyday weight. For example: my everyday weight is around 164-165 lbs. My fight was scheduled for 150 lbs., so in theory—I would be 14 pounds heavier on fight night, which would (hopefully) give me a strength advantage and overall performance advantage. It would be my first weight cut, and it was hard; extremely hard. I stuck to a strict diet/regimen and not going over 50 grams of carbohydrates in a day was tough. The process was grueling and as weigh-in day approached, I was desperately trying to hold on. On weigh-in day, I had no food and water for the whole day (weigh-ins were scheduled for 7 p.m.), and throughout the day, I could actually feel my heart beating slowly. Stepping on the scale, I was praying that I was exactly 150 lbs. and when the final numbers came out: I weighed 148 lbs. and I was relieved, and could not wait to start hydrating and eating (normally) once again. But before I could do those two things, I had to face-off with my opponent. Finally, after training hard for this fight—I got a good look at my opponent. He was quiet, and didn’t say anything to me but just nodded when I told him good luck on our fight. After weigh-ins my coach and teammates headed out to Starbucks and let me tell you: drinking coffee and feeling go down my throat was exhilarating. I know you’re probably laughing at that statement, but try to deprive yourself of your favorite foods/drinks, and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Fight day had finally arrived, and it was definitely an interesting and exciting buildup for me. My mind was racing with all kinds of scenarios and situations that I was imagining for my upcoming fight. Arriving at the venue, my nerves started to sink in for me. Checking in and after clearing medical checkup, all that was left to do was to wait for my fight. Being in the back room was nerve-wracking, and just knowing that my turn was coming—was a crippling feeling to me. It all felt surreal to me that I was about to fight. Putting on my fight trunks, having my teammates support me, and my coach trying to calm me down was an experience that I will hold on to forever.
The time had come. It was time for me to fight, and it was all becoming a fast reality for me. With Metallica blaring through the venue, I walked out with my team. Stopping at the front of the cage, my team had a gathering and everyone was giving me encouragement for my upcoming battle. Then they left to their seats, and leaving me alone to face the toughest challenge of my entire life. Stepping up to the cage and hearing it close, I felt a sense of calmness that came over me. That sense quickly faded when I stared across the cage to my opponent (he looked like he was on a mission to destroy anything in his path). The referee slapped his hands, and it was go time. Touching gloves with my opponent, I was getting ready to throw a combination, when out of nowhere (seemingly) I got blasted with one of the hardest shots that I have ever felt in my life. Then another one came, and each one more crushing than the previous one. Falling down on the mat, I was about to experience my first standing eight count. The ref holding my gloves, and counting to eight will be etched in my memory for years to come. I was OK, but a little woozy. The ref slapped his hands for a second time, and we were off once again. Hitting my opponent with a kick, he came at me with the ferocity of a 19 year-old Mike Tyson, and again, his crushing blows were too much for me to handle. I was seeing gloves coming my way, the ref, the crowd, and the cage all at once. It’s a helpless feeling, and scary at the same time. As expected, I went down again. This time the ref signaled to the nurse to come check me out. The nurse gave me a series of tests and after examining me, she told the ref that she will not let me continue to fight. And just like that, the fight was over. Leaving the cage was the most embarrassing moment in my life. I had just been destroyed in front of strangers, friends, family, and teammates.
Going in the back room, I knew something was wrong when one of my teammates grabbed an ice pack, and put it on my right eye. Looking like Rocky, the embarrassment set in even more. My coach and teammates offered words of encouragement and praise, but I felt otherwise. Getting dressed and getting my stuff together, my brother appeared and told me how proud he was of me, and told me about one of our favorite scenes from the movie Batman Begins “why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up,” said Thomas Wayne to his son, Bruce. When my brother said that to me, it clicked in my head: you have to fail before you succeed.
I have absolutely no regrets about my first kickboxing match, and I learned a lot of valuable lessons that night. Take it from me: get out of your comfort zone, and see what happens. You might fail like me, but even doing something that you set your mind to will be extremely gratifying. Don’t waste any more time, and really commit to the goals that you’ve set for yourself. You just might surprise yourself on how far you can actually go.