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.