Story Of A Fight

The weeks leading up to Oct. 17 and my MMA debut were a mix of stress, stress and more stress. My training had gone as well as I could've hoped (despite frequent exhaustion and occasional injury), and I was concluding my "fight camp" with a clarity of my limited strengths (basic grappling and jiujitsu, a few rudimentary submissions) and glaring weaknesses (pretty much everything to do with striking). My sparring sessions in the last few weeks of training had shown some signs of improvement (I was mostly able to control my instinct to flinch and turn away from incoming punches), but my striking offense frequently bordered on laughable. I'm reasonably strong given my background and physique, but my crappy balance and general lack of coordination makes for some hilariously ineffective combos and striking flurries. In other words, I knew going in that if I was going to win this fight, it was a lot more likely to happen during a grappling exchange on the mats, vs. a striking exchange on the feet.

My game-plan, such as it was, mostly consisted of "throw some jabs, move around a lot, try to tire him out in the first round, and then dive for a takedown in the second round," but even while I was focusing on this plan I knew it was pretty shaky at best. All I knew about my opponent Mike was that he'd had some taekwondo lessons as a kid, and that his weight-cut has been stalled for personal reasons (hence the change from fighting at 185lbs to our 195-pound "catchweight"). Those two facts indicated that he might feel comfortable throwing kicks (a central technique of TKD) and that his conditioning might be suspect. I repeatedly drilled a technique called "catching a kick" - basically waiting for your opponent to throw a kick and then responding by quickly grabbing their leg and using it to throw them off-balance. At best it's a risky move, since you have to "eat" a kick and absorb the blow, but for someone like me with effectively zero wrestling ability, it was a reasonable way to imagine getting the fight off our feet and onto the mats.

A few days before my wife, son and I were going to board a plane for Las Vegas, I received a distressing message from my opponent: his training and weight cut had gone very poorly, his weight was MUCH higher than expected, and he wasn't even sure if he was going to show up to the weigh-ins. Needless to say, I was both livid (I've been taking this seriously and training my ass off since late April!) and terrified (all this training for nothing!). I did my best to keep a civil tone in my replies, and I encouraged him to continue doing his best to get to the weight we agreed upon (195). 

So we left for Vegas filled with uncertainty that the fight would even happen, but determined to make the best of the situation. My wife's Vegas-based friends and  family had all bought tickets to the fight, as had several friends who also flew in for the event, so I felt a weird sense of responsibility to make sure that they didn't waste their money paying for a fight that might not happen. I knew this wasn't really logical - it wasn't me who was putting the fight into question - but nevertheless, I really didn't want everyone to be disappointed by a cancelled-at-the-last-minute fight.

There was some confusion about our hotel room at The Orleans (where all the fighters were being housed and where the event itself would happen), but a series of phone calls with various managers ultimately got it resolved. As we were making our way to our room a few hours before the weigh-ins, my wife spotted a woman and man chatting, and she noticed that the woman's name tag bore the same unusual name as the manager who'd helped me resolve the room issue over the phone, so we walked over to say hi and thank her in person. The guy she was chatting with turned out to be affiliated with Tuff-N-Uff (the fight organizers), and he gave me a funny look. "Are you supposed to fight Mike?" I confirmed, and mentioned that I wasn't even sure if Mike was going to show up. "He's definitely here, but he's WAY over weight. I've been helping him cut weight for the past few hours and he's down some from when he got here, but man, it's gonna be close. If there is more than 10 pounds separating two fighters they absolutely won't let you proceed, so if you want to fight this guy, you need to put on as much weight in the next couple hours as you possibly can!" This is how I ended up in the highly-unusual position of worrying about being UNDERweight prior to weigh-ins, and so I was pacing nervously while chugging several large bottles of water until just minutes before stepping on the scales.

Once we arrived at the weigh-ins on Thursday, I got my first look at my opponent Mike. He was a heavy-set Asian guy with several tattoos and a generally friendly demeanor, and he was there with his girlfriend (who was very friendly and polite). We shook hands, went through the pre-fight medical exam, and then did the weigh ins. I weighed in at ~198lbs (and felt like I was going to BURST from having and gulped down so much water to raise my weight), and Mike weighed in at ~207lbs. The officials asked me if I wanted to proceed with the fight in the "Light Heavyweight" class (205lbs) given that Mike was technically two pounds over the limit, and I immediately agreed. We shook hands, rounded up our stuff and left the arena once the rule review was completed.

Since none of my coaches or training partners were able to fly out for the fight, I was exceedingly fortunate to have two great guys as my cornermen: Aaron, my brother-in-law, and Beau, a mutual friend with some jiujitsu / MMA training in his background. We spent the evening of Thursday (weigh-in day) and most of Friday (fight day) talking about strategy, technique, and skills that I might be able to leverage during the fight, and as we got closer to the event starting, my nerves started thrumming full-blast. So many crazy thoughts flying through my brain: what am I doing here? Why am I doing this to myself? What the hell was I thinking, signing up to fight in a cage with a complete stranger who could easily have been lying all along about his skill-level? 

Finally, we arrived in the Orleans Grand Ballroom, and were instructed to go to a back room where we could warm up and prepare. The warm up room was just a large conference room behind the ballroom, and there was one room for people in the blue corner (like Mike) and one for people in the red corner (like me). Mike and I were originally scheduled to be the 5th fight on the undercard, but the officials opted to have us go first (likely out of concern that Mike might need to drop out for medical reasons last-minute, which would cause a shuffling of the remaining fights). Being the 5th fight of the night would've had its advantages - the audience would've been larger, for one, but I immediately realized how much happier I would be going up first - much less time to panic. We spent roughly an hour in the back room warming up, stretching, doing some takedown drills, etc. - anything we could think of that might be helpful once the cage door was locked. Given the large number of total fights on the event, the room was actually fairly crowded with other fighters and their corner-people. The ref for my fight came over to introduce himself, review the rules with me, and ask if I had any final questions. His parting words were very specific: "it is your job to win the fight, and my job to stop it. Do NOT stop fighting until I tell you to stop, but once I tell you to stop, STOP." 

A very efficient guy called Doc (look up "mmacagedoc" on Instagram) applied my hand-wraps with expert precision, another official signed off on them, I put my gloves on, the red tape was applied to my gloves (both to signify which corner I was fighting out of, and to show that my gloves were sealed and hadn't been tampered with), and I was told to wait on standby. A few minutes later I was told to go to the end of the long hallway leading to the ballroom, where a video production crew was waiting. "Okay Huxley, we're going to be shooting video - throw some air-punches, and when we give the signal, follow the camera man to the cage. GO GO PUNCH PUNCH PUNCH OKAY FOLLOW HIM NOW GO!"

This is the point where my appearance in the video embedded above starts, so I won't describe in too much of what you can see for yourself. When they told me to follow the camera man, I stepped out into the ballroom and was immediately blinded - the large room itself was very dark, and the cameraman had a VERY bright light pointed right into my face the whole way. I could hear my walk-out music playing and the cheers of the crowd (especially my wife, her family and our assorted friends), but I couldn't really see anything due to that bright camera-light. As I started my walk out I was nearly paralyzed by fear… but as I took my first few steps and I heard my music, the fear melted away and I realized, "this is it, this is what you've been dreaming of for years and training for for months… just enjoy it!" I started clapping to the beat, made my way cage-side, passed the final doctor's check (which is entirely for show - the same routine was already performed with much more detailed attention several times in the back before I walked out), and climbed the steps to the cage. I bowed at the entryway of the cage (just as we do when entering the training area at my gym), stepped inside, and tried to control my breathing.

The ref asked Mike and I to confirm that we were ready, and just like that, I was in a fight. As you can see in the video, all my planning and visualization of how I wanted to dictate the pace, throw jabs, move quickly, etc.  - all that flew out the window once the bell rang. Mike started by throwing a pair of kicks, both of which I tried (ineffectively) to catch, but his kicking speed and strength were MUCH better than I'd anticipated. The first kick stung, the second kick HURT, and the third caught me off-balance and landed so strongly that I toppled over - hardly an auspicious start to a fight. By this point I was already on "auto-pilot," and wasn't really making a lot of deliberate, conscious decisions. I'd drilled a thousand times how to defend myself while on my back with my coaches (especially Alberto, a very strong, very skilled, very large police officer), and all those drills paid off - without having to really think about it, I was able to "tie him up" (read: hold Mike so closely and so tightly that he couldn't land many strong punches) which gave me some time to mentally reset a bit. As you will see in the video, some of Mikes ground-n-pound punches were landing on the back of my head (technically illegal) and I had a hard time blocking those. I knew that the ref was watching very closely, I knew without any question that Mike was absolutely dominating the fight, and then the ref was separating us, mere moments after the fight started. I was nearly overcome with grief and dejection - I couldn't believe the ref had stopped the fight and that I'd lost! If you look closely at the video just as the first round ends, you can see me patting Mike on the shoulder and congratulating him on winning the fight - I really thought I'd just lost, and didn't know what else to do other than offer my appreciation to my opponent. 

It wasn't until my cornermen Aaron and Beau plopped me down on a stool and started giving me advice that I realized that the ref hadn't stopped the fight because I'd lost, we were just between rounds. I couldn't BELIEVE that a full two-minute round had gone by in what seemed like 20-30 seconds. My sense of time was completely, utterly skewed from the excitement, fear and adrenaline dump.

The second round started, and I could tell that Mike was slower and more obviously tired than in the first, while I was still feeling fresh and ready for action. All that training had definitely improved my cardio and conditioning, which I was increasingly grateful for. Mike and I clinched up, I was able to throw him to the mat and land in "mount" (straddling his chest), and everything plays out as you see it in the video. Watching the video now is tough - I'm intensely aware of how tentative and slow I was in the first round, and how incredibly sloppy I was in the second round. Even when I managed to get the mounted position on Mike after my hip-throw sent us crashing to the mat, he was able to walk his feet up the side of the cage and plop me over on my back again - a great move on his part, and a stupid, rookie mistake on mine. 

When I clambered up and got onto Mike's back and started trying to get my arm across his neck (trying to secure the choke that would end the fight), I did *exactly* what my head coach and jiujitsu instructor Diogo warned me against: I was in such a hurry to get the choke, I completely forgot about even the most basic elements of the form required to actually do so. Fortunately, my cornermen saw the costly mistake I was about to make and started screaming "GET YOUR HOOKS IN!!" - jiujitsu code for "wrap your legs around his body so he can't roll away from you." I got my hooks in, pulled him over, and he tapped. Out of habit from the many training sessions, I immediately let go of the choke before the ref told us to stop fighting - the right thing to do when you're training with your friends in the gym, and the absolutely WRONG thing do to in a cage fight. This was exactly what the ref had warned me to not do when we spoke backstage prior to the fight. Fortunately for me, our referee was observant and saw the tap-out - otherwise, I could easily have given away my best chance of winning. 

That moment when I realized that I'd won the fight was easily the most intense non-birth-of-my-child-related moment I've ever experienced. I've heard MMA fighters talk for years about the extreme emotions that come with winning (or losing) a fight, and I feel like I sort of got to experience both ends of the spectrum in my ~3.5 minutes of MMA cage-time. As Mike and I embraced and shared a moment of camaraderie, we both congratulated each-other on a fun, fair and (hopefully) entertaining and injury-free fight. In that moment I was just so incredibly grateful to him for agreeing to do this and for showing up despite a very rough weight cut and various difficulties training. 

They announced my win, presented me with my medal, and I screamed myself hoarse with jubilation. I was shaking all over, and continued to tremble for ~24 hours afterward - adrenaline is a hell of a drug. My cornermen and I exited the cage, I absorbed a massive outpouring of congratulations from my wife, extended family and friends, and settled in to watch the next fights on the card. My hands never stopped shaking. After a bit of cool-down time, my cornerman / brother-in-law Aaron suggested that we return to the back room to clean up and get our stuff, and when we got back there, he presented me with a custom-made shirt reading "UNDEFEATED 1-0" on the back. I was already feeling pretty overwhelmed with emotion, but this gesture put it over the top.

My goal with this whole project was always pretty simple (and pretty crazy): experience what a real MMA fight is like from training all the way through a fight in a real cage with an evenly-matched opponent. The reality of the situation was more complex. Just a few months before this whole MMA quest started, my father died in late November 2013, just a few days short of his 64th birthday. His health had been poor (and his weight unsustainably high) for decades, so his death was both easy to see coming and a complete, horrifying shock. Through the rest of winter and into spring of 2014 I was an unstable, emotionally-explosive mess. I mostly stopped working out, I started putting back on weight that I'd fought for years to lose, I was erratic and quick to anger both at home and at work, and was just generally a shitty person to be around. I would feel "fine" for days at a stretch, only to dissolve into a puddle of grief and anger at unpredictable moments, which made me feel like an alien in my own skin and a lousy husband and father. The only thing I was able to focus on was loss. It was in this difficult emotional state that I became obsessed with the idea of training for and participating in an MMA fight. I knew it was an insane idea, but I desperately needed something positive, something physical, something outside myself that I could focus on, and from my first nervous and awkward session at jiujitsu class, I knew in my bones I'd made the right decision. 

As I'm writing this, tomorrow will mark one full year since my fathers death. I still grieve for him, and I still miss him, and I wish desperately he could have shared in my progress and victory with me. Even with all that, though, I can say that my instinct to sign up for something crazy, to commit myself to something way, way beyond my expected limits, was right. I am 100% certain that I'd feel the same way even if I'd lost the fight - I'd be disappointed with losing the fight, but still happy that I had found something like this experience to see me through one of the most heartbreaking and difficult times of my life. I have no intention or desire to fight ever again, but I've fallen in love with the training (especially the jiujitsu aspect) and the people I've trained with (both coaches and fellow students) have been uniformly the most helpful, supportive and dedicated group I've ever been privileged to know. I am immensely glad that I took this project on, and I strongly advise my fellow couch-bound MMA fans to jump into the training (if not a real fight) - you don't know this sport until you experience it, and you'll never know your own limits until you push past them and keep going.


The Final Countdown

Days till fight: 35   |   Current weight: 198lbs   |   Goal weight: 195lbs

 

Been too long since my last update. My life has settled into a steady routine: Weekdays, I'm up at 4:30AM to get to work by 6AM, back home around 4:30PM, up at the gym to train by 6:30, train for 1-2 hours, rush home, collapse into bed, repeat. On Saturday morning I've been incorporating both open-mat time (to work on my jiu jitsu) and striking / sparring work with a teammate who is also prepping for his own upcoming MMA fight.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my striking (punches, kicks, knees, etc.) is hopelessly amateur-level. My hands are slow, I have little power in my punches, my kicks are decent but leave me out of position and off-balance, and my motion is herky-jerky and not often of any actual benefit to me. While I've gained some confidence in my submission defense while rolling around on the ground, my striking defense (read: ability to dodge or block incoming punches and kicks) is terrible, and I spend half my time wondering how the hell my sparring partner is so fast, and the other half desperately fighting the instinct to just cover my face and turn away from every incoming punch. I feel very literally like I'm trying to re-program 10,000,000 years of evolution and instinct, all of which is screaming into my brainstem, "RUN AWAY FROM BAD MAN WITH FISTS!!"

Despite all of the above info, I remain really excited about this experience. My communications with my opponent Mike have been sporadic (a few brief messages exchanged over the past few months), but he remains committed to making the revised weight we've agreed to (195lbs, instead of our original 185lbs. goal), and has shared (in vague terms) his own difficulties with training and dieting.

I booked our plane tickets to Vegas today, and with only 35 days left, I'm especially focused on ramping up my conditioning. Watching amateur MMA videos on Youtube tends to reveal a few patterns, but one stands out very quickly: if the fight doesn't end because one fighter wilts under pressure in the first 30-60 seconds, the fight is very often won by the combatant with the better endurance, and not necessarily the better skill-set. In other words, you might be a striking or grappling genius, but if you're gasping for air and flopping around after two minutes of punishing activity, you're probably gonna have a bad time.

Finally, for your entertainment, here is some quick footage of me working a heavy bag at the gym a week or two ago. This was shot after a 2-hour grappling session so I was already pretty much dead tired, but I figured I could at least work some simple combos and kicks. It's a lot easier to do this stuff when your target isn't dancing in and out of range while peppering you with jabs.

 

I keep repeating to myself, "you're not making a career out of this... you're doing this for the experience... win or lose, just put on an entertaining fight..." but here's the thing:

want to win. 

Every time I picture myself in the cage, door locked, gloves on, heart pounding, crowd yelling, my adrenaline spikes and my body gets twitchy. Since taking on this crazy challenge, I've had injuries (numerous small annoying ones, and one huge one that could easily have ended the whole project), scheduling difficulties, ebbs and flows of confidence, and never enough sleep. I don't know how to tell the difference between pushing myself past my limits vs. over-training and risking further injuries. All these concerns and doubts are floating around in my head, and I just can't bear the thought of going through all this build-up (not to mention dragging my wife, son, friends and training partners along for months!) just to see someone else's hand get raised. It just can't end like that. Whether by punch, kick, knee, submission or sheer stubbornness, I have to find a way to win this fight.

Weighty Problems

Days till fight: 86   |   Current weight: 199.2lbs   |   Goal weight: 195lbs

When this fight was first arranged on Reddit, my opponent Mike and I agreed to fight at 185lbs, known as "middleweight" in western MMA. Along with the simple fact that Mike and I were coming into this experience with basically zero training (hopefully an equal match), we matched up pretty well physically too - about the same height, and with a similar amount of bodyfat (30-40 pounds) to lose to make our agreed-upon weight. 

Pretty much from the moment we made our "gentleman's agreement" via Reddit private messages, I threw myself into both training and dieting. From the date we agreed to fight to today, I've lost almost exactly 20lbs, and I'm confident that if I just keep eating and training like I have been I'll have no trouble making 185lbs by mid-October. Some rough math indicates I might be 5-10lbs underweight if I'm not careful, which is not a problem I've ever faced before!

A few days ago, I got a message from my opponent Mike, which turned into a longer conversation. He essentially explained that some personal / relationship issues had pulled his focus from training, and he's been "stress eating cheeseburgers" and has regained all the weight he had already lost, plus some, putting him back over 230lbs with only 90ish days until our fight. He was writing to ask if I'd be willing to adjust our agreement and fight at 205lbs ("Light Heavyweight") instead of 185lbs.

Needless to say, this was immensely frustrating. I've been so focused, so dedicated and so committed to training and making our agreed-upon weight, and to learn that my opponent has been distracted and eating junk food was tremendously upsetting. 

I wrestled with his offer, turning it around and around in my mind. On one hand, his weight issues are a clear sign that he hasn't been focused or training intensely, which is a good thing for me. On the other hand, I'm already 5+ pounds under the weight he was proposing we now fight at, and there's no way I won't lose at least a little more weight before October even if I stop dieting entirely - I'm just pushing my body too hard. 

Mixed martial arts history is littered with skilled fighters who opted (for various reasons - money, pride, fame, bragging rights, etc.) to fight above their natural weight class, and it rarely goes very well for the smaller guy. While there are occasional exceptions due to inhuman skill levels (see: Anderson Silva vs. anyone at light-heavyweight), flukes (see: Kimbo Slice being KO'd in seconds by Seth Petruzelli, a much smaller/lighter guy) or sheer bone-headed tenacity (see: BJ Penn, a natural lightweight, fighting Lyoto Machida, a natural light-heavyweight, to a razor-close judges decision), the most common outcome of these fights is the smaller fighter being thrown around, smothered, or smashed by the larger fighter. In other words, there are weight-classes for good reason, and the odds rarely favor the smaller / lighter fighter. 

All this was rattling around in my head. I sought the advice of my coaches, and they were pretty blunt: "amateur" or otherwise, I've been training like a pro and I will be at (or under) the agreed weight on the agreed date, and if Mike can't do the same, screw him - call off the fight and find an alternate opponent who won't screw around.

Ultimately, I opted to offer Mike a compromise: I'll agree to fight at a "catch-weight" (meaning, in-between established weight classes) of 195lbs, with the explicit agreement that if Mike doesn't think he's going to be able to weigh in at 195, he has to give me as much notice as possible so I can at least try to arrange an alternate opponent in time. So, the fight is still on, my training continues, and October 17 is still looming ahead. 

Cornerwoman

Days till fight: 86   |   Current weight: 199.2lbs   |   Goal weight: 185lbs

I've been tremendously fortunate that my wife has not only supported this completely crazy dream of being a one-time cage fighter, but has actively involved herself in my training in a variety of ways. She knows that I still have ~15lbs to lose before I hit my goal weight of 185lbs, so she's been preparing me an entire weeks worth of appropriate meals every weekend, which has played a huge part in the weight I've already lost. She also encourages me every day to push myself, set goals (and exceed them), keep notes, update this blog, and more. She has even thrown herself into the same MMA-oriented training classes that I am attending - first with jiu-jitsu and basic self defense, and now muay thai kickboxing. 

As you'd expect, it's been amazing to get to bond with my wife in a new way as I train for this fight, and I'm more grateful for her support than I can ever express here. Suffice to say, whatever happens come fight-night, I'm so happy to have her in my corner.

R&R

Days till fight: 107   |   Current weight: 201.1lbs   |   Goal weight: 185lbs

There has been a conspicuous lack of new posts here lately, for a simple reason: I got injured, and had to halt nearly all my training for nearly a month.

Given that there's a chance my opponent has found this blog, I don't want to give too much detail about my training or my injuries - no sense in telling him just where to attack or what my skill-set (limited as it is) will be. Secrecy aside, I can talk in general terms about what happened and where things stand now.

At an "open mats" session at the beginning of June, I was rolling around with one of my fellow students, and they "took my back," meaning that they scrambled around behind me and wrapped their arms and legs around me. Taking someones back is a direct path toward submitting them, as you can attack their neck or limbs from a number of positions, with very little direct risk to yourself. In other words, it's great to be on someones back, and not so great to have someone on your back. Thinking quickly, I raised my posture so I was up on my knees in a sort of half-crouch, and threw myself forward as though I was starting a somersault, in the hope of throwing my opponent over my shoulder and regaining an offensive position. As I completed this move (which mostly worked!) I felt a nasty pain and immediately tapped out to catch my breath. After a few minutes of rest I felt okay again and dove back in.

Here's a nice animated GIF I found on Google showing what "back control" looks like, and how it can be used to set up a submission (an armbar in this case):


The next morning I met up at the gym with one of the coaches and another student who is also prepping for an upcoming MMA fight, so we could get some more combat-specific training done. Through the whole 90-minute sparring session, the pain that had started the day before grew worse, but I continued to "push through" and completed the workout. I knew that I would be attending a week-long management class after work and wouldn't be able to do any striking or grappling for 6 days, so I was happy to have some time to recover. By the time the next Sunday rolled around my soreness was minimal and I was really excited to resume training and sparring.

Pretty much immediately after starting the Sunday morning training session with my coach and classmate, I knew that I'd made a mistake - the pain went from "dull and annoying" to "holyshitholyshitholyshit." I hobbled through the session, but I was obviously suffering and basically unable to perform well at all.

For the rest of that Sunday, I was in terrible agony. Simple movements were excruciating, I couldn't stand, sit or lay down without making it worse, and I was terrified that I'd screwed myself out of competing in October by being stubborn and not recognizing an injury before making it way, way worse.

Over the next few days the pain didn't go away, I couldn't sleep, and I was miserable. I went to get checked out by a doctor and they confirmed that I'd badly pulled a muscle and torn some cartilage, and that I'd have to immediately halt all training for at least 2-3 weeks, and more likely 4-6 weeks. I took his guidance seriously (not like I had much choice) and spent the next two weeks icing, stretching and trying not to OD on Advil.

Happily, the injury has pretty much worked itself out. Other than some extra soreness in that area after a strenuous workout, it doesn't hurt much more than the rest of my poor, beat-up body. More importantly, I am still fully expecting to fight in October, and I've resumed my training (though I've eased back in to avoid re-injuring myself).

This whole experience has been an emotional roller-coaster, and I've learned a lot (I hope). As my coach phrased it, "You're a dad, you're a regular guy with a regular job, and you've never been a full-time athlete. Your body isn't accustomed to any of this, and you've gone from 0% to 100% effort in basically a month. You've taken on this borderline-insane goal, and you've got to pace yourself and find the lines between 'sore but okay' and 'I'm hurting myself.'"

So, my training continues, but with a new-found respect for my own physical limits. I'm terrified of showing up for my fight in October with crappy conditioning and no skills to attack my opponent or defend myself, which is driving me to push push PUSH past my limits... but I can't push so hard that I break myself.

Tapout

Days till fight: 143   |   Current weight: 202.3lbs   |   Goal weight: 185lbs

Most Saturday mornings, my jiu-jitsu team has an "open mat" session - no lessons, no format, and anyone can drop in and practice with anyone else who feels like pairing up. As with the "free rolling" sessions at the end of classes, these are broken into 5-minute "rounds," and many students opt to spend 5 minutes grappling followed by 5 minutes of recovery and observation.

This past Saturday was my first time participating in an open mat session. I arrived a bit early so I could stretch and warm up a little, while watching the more formal class that preceded the open session wind down and wrap up. Since many of the students from that class opted to stick around for the open session, I wasn't actually quite sure when the class formally ended and the open session began. I stood around and just watched for a few minutes, until I saw some other guys arrive, bow at the entryway to the cage, and step in. I followed them in, and spent the next ~90 minutes rolling with several other students. As with my previous sessions, I never posed any serious threat to any of the other guys, but they were uniformly gracious and helpful, pointing out my beginner-level mistakes even as they were taking advantage of them. 

After the session ended, my classmate and frequent training partner Jay was willing to put in an extra 5 minute session with me, while another student recorded video on my phone. I'll embed the unedited video below. Note that by this point I was utterly exhausted (and Jay wasn't - his conditioning is outstanding), and he handled me with less trouble than I handle my four-year-old son when we play-wrestle. Note that I'm wearing the blue shirt (and purple face) in the video.

Even someone ignorant of jiu-jitsu can watch the above video and point out my mistakes: I repeatedly pushed Jay away (thus creating space he could use to tie me up), failed to scoot out of bad positions, and (the worst sin of all) turned my back to my opponent, effectively handing him my neck on a platter, ripe for the choking. Some of this was due to exhaustion, but mostly it was just inexperience. I'm in the no-mans-land between knowing on a conceptual level what to do or not do ("don't give up your back!"), vs. millions of years of instinct ("HIDE YOUR VITAL ORGANS!"). In any case, I look forward to the day when I can watch this video and not experience a full-body cringe. That glorious, glorious day...

Focus

Days till fight: 155   |   Current weight: 203.3lbs   |   Goal weight: 185lbs

Something that must be said, despite the appearance of obviousness: training for a fight is hard.

In the two weeks since my last blog post, I've attended 7 jiu-jitsu classes, two CrossFit classes, run, jumped rope, and carefully monitored my diet. My body is now in a constant state of near-exhaustion, and I'm feeling aches and twinges in my joints that I've previously only experienced in idle daydreams of old age. Nevertheless, my determination to succeed remains strong, and I am ever fortunate to have the support of my wife - without her, this whole crazy scheme would be impossible.

My Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes have been, without question, the focus of my training thus far. There are so many ways in which practicing jiu-jitsu has challenged my preconceived notions, instincts and physical limits. The first element that had to be overcome (and one which I continue to struggle with) is to simply be at ease while in physical contact with my classmates. I've always been a person for whom physical contact with others mostly left me vaguely uneasy, not counting family or a handful of very close friends. I am not often a "hugger," and I generally avoid standing on crowded trains, as being pressed against strangers in an enclosed space makes my skin crawl. I feel perfectly at ease hugging my friends and family, or wrestling with my son, but at the same time, I loathe the feeling of my dentist leaning waaaay into my "personal space."

All that has to be set aside when practicing jiu-jitsu. Rather than shirking away from uncomfortable proximity to others, I have to expect it, embrace it, lean into it, and be at peace with it. This is not easy, but in the moments in which it all starts to work, I find myself achieving a level of focus and hyper-awareness that I haven't experienced in my life thus far. My wife has long tried to get me to embrace meditation in various forms (chanting mantras, yoga, etc.), but I could never shake the overwhelming sense of boredom long enough to experience the inner peace that she and other meditation-enthusiasts so often rave about. I was startled last night to hear myself describing a small moment of success in my latest jiu-jitsu class in very similar terms to those used by people who practice transcendental meditation: intense focus, hyper-awareness, a fleeting sense of certainty that I understood the placement and role for each of my limbs even as I was being twisted into an inverted pretzel and simultaneously dropped on my head and choked nearly unconscious. It's also entirely possible that oxygen deprivation is playing a major role in these moments of apparent clarity.

Our jiu-jitsu classes are typically split into three roughly-equal portions: a lengthy warm-up and stretching session, a technique lesson with low-speed, low-impact practice, and finally 15-20 minutes of "free rolling," in which students are paired off (generally newbies like me are paired with more experienced students) and use all their skills and strength to attack and defend positions and submission-holds in 5-minute rounds. The warm-ups are grueling and the lessons are fascinating, but I find myself most eagerly anticipating the end of class when we square off and attempt to apply the skills we're learning in real (though always friendly and respectful) competition. To date, I have not submitted a single 'opponent,' and I honestly consider it a victory to simply avoid being choked or having a limb torqued in a weird direction for more than a minute or so.

One of my classmates in particular has been exceedingly generous with his time, energy and coaching. He has been learning jiu-jitsu for a little over four years, and he has embraced the art with style and grace. He is slightly shorter than me and considerably leaner than I am currently - I probably outweigh him by 40 or more pounds right now. What he lacks in bulk, he more than makes up for with flexibility and skill - the classic combination that lead the slender and nerdy-looking Royce Gracie to dominate bigger and meaner-looking foes in the earliest UFC events. This classmate, whom I'll call Jay, displays a rare combination of humility and confidence when we train together, and I owe large portions of what progress I have made to his patient teaching. 

Jay and I have been frequently paired up for both the lesson portions of our classes (where we practice positions, transitions and submissions on each-other until they start to feel comfortable and routine) as well as the free-rolling sessions at the end of class. Jay expertly combines his skills with an astounding degree of physical flexibility - he is able to comfortably endure (or even put himself into) positions that would likely have me rushing to the ER. Grappling with Jay is unnervingly akin to grappling with a shockingly-strong octopus - every time you think you've got an arm or leg under control, half a dozen more wind their way around your neck. As noted above, and bearing in mind that I'm still a rank amateur at jiu-jitsu, I really do consider it a victory to keep from being submitted for a minute or more. Even in the rare instances when I find myself in a superior or advantageous position (either through lucky panicked thrashing or positional generosity on the part of my opponent), I rarely know what to do with the advantage, and (unsurprisingly) I generally find myself in trouble pretty much instantly. Still, though, I'm satisfied that at this early stage in my training, I'm aware enough of the benefits / disadvantages of many positions (largely though years of watching MMA matches as a fan), and when I replay my free-rolling sessions after class, I am often able to pinpoint where my mistakes were, which opportunities I missed, and what I should try next time.

The fight I'm training for is still months away, and I'm fully aware that it could still fall apart. My opponent or I could be injured in training and need to drop out, or the event could be cancelled, or any number of other things could crop up to prevent the fight from taking place. However, now that I've started training in jiu-jitsu, I cannot imagine ever, ever wanting to stop. This really is the most addicting sport I've ever encountered.

Some Startling Realizations

Having just gotten home from my second day of learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu, I'm starting to really grasp the shocking enormity of what I've taken on with this crazy quest.

After the (unbelievably strenuous!) warmup, we began working on "side control." If you aren't familiar with BJJ, imagine someone laying flat on their back, with their opponent laying chest-to-chest on them, but at a 90-degree angle, as shown in this pic I found on Google:

Transient

From the bottom position, I immediately found that it took tremendous effort to keep my partner/opponent from effectively doing whatever he wanted - jumping his leg over to "mount" me (leaving me vulnerable to any number of painful outcomes), swinging his legs over my face into a "north-south" position (from which he could do all sorts of unpleasant things to my limbs), or worst of all, from just smushing my face with his chest and shoulders, making it utterly miserable to even lay there struggling for breath. Fortunately my training partners were all gracious and eager to point out my beginners mistakes, and I'm starting to get a sense of where my most glaring weaknesses are.

My BJJ coach Diogo had to stop me several times during the practice to instruct me to slow down, breathe, pace myself, and not burn out in a wild struggle for survival. "It's not a sprint, Huxley - you not Usain Bolt, you can't go all out for 1 minute, 2 minute, 3 minute without breathing! Slow down, pay attention to what the other guy is doing, and make your move." He was right - I was flailing around, struggling for position (or just to breathe), but only being effective at creating even more openings for lost positions and lost limbs. There is something utterly primal about having someone with their arms wrapped around your neck, holding you down. Ten million years of mammalian instinct is screaming in your brainstem RUN TWIST ESCAPE ROLL FIGHT GO GO GO, and even when you aren't in immediate danger of being choked or having a limb painfully manipulated, the desire to FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT is nearly overpowering.

I've never felt both so proud of my progress at something physical and yet so utterly humbled at the same time. During the "free rolling" period toward the end of class, I paired up with a couple of different partners, both of whom I currently outweigh by 50-60lbs. Despite my weight "advantage," they were able to throw me, bend me, contort my body, extend my arms, twist my legs and basically use every movement I attempted against me, leaving me in a gasping puddle of sweat on the mat, with barely enough strength left to meekly "tap out" and pause their boa-like constrictions.

I haven't been this happy in a long time.

Training Begins

Last night after an intense CrossFit session, I rushed across the (large!) Bladium gym complex to attend my first no-gi Brazilian jiu-jitsu ("BJJ") class. The coach, Diogo, was super helpful and very surprised / excited that I was crazy enough to sign up for a real MMA fight before I even began training. He pledged his support in building up my basic grappling skills, and also in putting together a game-plan for the fight itself.

My first experience grappling was intense, difficult, strenuous, but utterly exhilarating. One of my BJJ classmates, Jay, was kind enough to work with me on the basic technique all the students were learning, both offensively and defensively, all while coaching me on my form and positioning.

Granted, this was only my first class... but I can't shake the feeling that I'm going to be well trained and equipped for victory on Oct. 17th.

Starting Points

After years of enjoying Mixed Martial Arts as a fan, I've become obsessed with a crazy idea: what if I were to train and compete in an real MMA fight?

A user on the Reddit MMA group recently proposed hosting a night of amateur MMA fights for group members, and after some deep thought, consultation with my wife, and no shortage of intense nerves, I signed up. I agreed to fight an opponent with similar skills (read: none) at 185 pounds, aka "middleweight" in MMA. I currently weigh 209 pounds after dropping nearly 60 pounds since my worst weight a few years ago. I have 5 months, 21 days to lose 24 pounds of fat and learn how to strike, grapple, submit, avoid being submitted, increase my cardiovascular endurance and not talk myself out of this insane idea.

Other than watching a lot of UFC and WEC events on TV and taking a few "cardio kickboxing" classes at my gym, I've never done anything even remotely related to combat sports. No grade-school "McDojo" karate school. No high school wrestling. No boxing. No jiu-jitsu. No clue.

My opponent Mike is a 24 year old guy with (if he's being honest) similar weight to be lost and similar (lack of) skills. Given that we won't lay eyes on each-other until we're staring across a locked cage in Las Vegas, there's a large element of trust here. I have to trust that he's giving me and the organizers an honest summary of his skills and physical condition, and he has to trust the same of me.

Now that we've got a (virtual) handshake agreement to meet in the cage on Oct. 17th, my next steps are to figure out a training regimen - I need to increase my explosiveness, reduce my bodyweight (but not lose muscle!) and start to learn some MMA fundamentals, all while working full time, being a good husband and father, and not losing my mind with nervous worries about what I've committed myself to.

And so it begins.