As a fan, no one remembers that us fi ghters have a hell of a lot more to worry about than the angry beast standing across the ring/cage/drugstore parking lot from us. The fl ashing lights, being spritzed down, and being touched up with glistening makeup to do a fake shadowboxing workout for a room full of voyeuristic camera guys that smell like cigarette smoke are but a few of the many challenges set before someone who has chosen to forgo a normal life of safety and step into the spotlight to take on another well-oiled machine in hand-to-hand combat. Whew. Breathe. This month, let’s explore those challenges. This article isn’t so much about fi ghting as it is about living one of the strangest lifestyles one can choose: the life of an MMA fi ghter.
I said it’s strange, but that might be a misstatement. To me, it isn’t strange; I’ve been living it for ten years now. I fought my fi rst fi ght in lieu of taking a girl to the prom. Instead of doing the Macarena with a bunch of other awkward teens in cummerbunds, I was dancing with a thirty-year-old man in a Jiu-Jitsu Gi. At least I had a free hotel room. My girlfriend was one of those art chicks you knew was never going to the prom anyway. The point of this heartwarming, coming-of-age tale is, fi ghting isn’t something you do, it’s something you live. If you really want to be good at it, you have to hand over your whole life.
It’s widely known in the MMA world that in the early 00s, I lived in my van outside of Team Punishment’s Ultimate Training Center in Huntington Beach. I know it sounds terrible, but honestly, I can hardly remember a happier time in my life. I was doing what I loved, and that was all I had to worry about. I made the decision to be a fi ghter, and although I wasn’t aware of the sacrifi ces I would have to make, I quickly learned, and quickly accepted them, because I had a goal in mind and no rich uncle to sponsor me. Besides, who wants to worry about paying bills, buying groceries, or whether or not the front door is locked? Sometimes Tiki would let me sleep on the mats, and if I could sleep until nine, there would be people to train with. I’m not the only one. I heard Mac Danzig pulled off the same thing, couch-surfi ng from place to place, training gym to gym, taking every fi ght he could, winning a large majority of them, and now, thanks to reality TV, is one of the most recognizable faces in mixed martial arts.
You’d think that once you had some status, notoriety and wealth, things would get easier. Wrong. Sure you win a bunch of fi ghts, get to the point where people go, “Hey you’re that MMA fi ghter!” That’s when the real struggle begins. Eyeballs are plastered to you like a Takashi Murakami painting, (Google him). Everyone is expecting the world of you, so you’d better deliver like FedEx: on time and with signature verifi cation.
Not that you didn’t want this, or ask for this, it’s just part of the job. The people outside your core group of training partners, coaches, and friends just don’t understand what you have to do to be successful in the sport. Either that, or they don’t care. They put their needs and desires high above yours, wanting to take you out partying, showing you to their friends like a top-quality show pony, asking you to shadowbox, or pulling the old, “Don’t beat me up!” joke over a VIP table while you fake a laugh. I’ve seen fi ghters explode with the super stardom that is MMA, fall in with the wrong crowd, and forget what got them to the point behind the VIP ropes in the fi rst place. Those guys are surrounded by a crew of moochers and star-humpers, and that’s just the dudes.
Girls are even worse. It’s rare to fi nd a female that understands that your entire life is consumed with one single event. The trendiest line being used to get girls is, “I’m a fi ghter.” Surprisingly, it works, even for dudes who train once a week. But you’ll be hard-pressed to fi nd a chick that will deal with your packed schedule and your lack of energy after a hard day of training. Then try and fi nd one that’s cool with all that while you’re still living in a van.
Maybe, I’ll try to explain to her that it’s like when she heard the Sex in the City movie was coming out, and that was all she could think about – all I can think about is the next fi ght. My whole life outside fi ghting is on hold. I don’t feel like going shopping, I don’t feel like talking on the phone, I hardly feel like playing video games. It’s going to be a stretch for me to go to the Olive Garden and pretend to care what you say for 45 minutes. As a fi ghter, if you train hard all week, you pretty much are couch-bound and sleeping as much as possible. It’s an easier life when you have a wife or girlfriend to support you constantly, but the stresses of being an athlete, coupled with being in the public eye can bring nearly every relationship to its knees. Relationships are hard enough without the added drama that being a Z-level celebrity brings, as I know fi rsthand.
If training lasted only from the time you walked into the gym until the time you walked out, you could arguably live a somewhat normal life. Sure, you’d walk around with black eyes from time to time and show up on TV, but at least you’d have all the normal things that normal people have. Normal friends from work, a routine that didn’t involve icing something, and days where at least one of your meals isn’t from a shaker cup. It’s at that point in my awesome life, in the heat of training, that I start to envy “normal” people – even their level of stress.
When it’s “go time,” that period just before a fi ght, your day becomes train, sleep, train, sleep, train. Eating is in there somewhere, but depending on how far over your fi ghting weight you are, meals are few and far between. I look at some dude in the convenience store and I wonder, “What is it like to be him?” As he puts extra chili on his hotdog and tops off his Slurpee, I am a bit envious. He looks content. That hot dog is the chili-covered pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
As a fi ghter, you live a bipolar lifestyle of downtime and go time. Total stress and misery, then total rest and relaxation. During go time, you hand your life over to your coaches, with them telling you what to do – you wake up when they want you to wake up, kick when they want you to kick, and eat what they want you to eat. You do this because you trust them to help you win the next battle. Even though it is your ass on the line, you know they care about your ass nearly as much as their own.
Not that you don’t get sick of it, or that there aren’t moments of miscommunication. Just recently, before a particularly hard workout, my lead coach told me not to eat breakfast, that he had something prepared for me. Thinking, “Wow that was nice,” I forewent my normal breakfast of carb-rich steel cut oatmeal. I’ve grown to love it, both for the taste and the energy it provides. When we met up to caravan to the training facility, I was confronted with my breakfast: a small Ziploc bag with a chopped green pepper in it. A single green pepper. I must have been so hungry and in such shock that I didn’t express my dismay with my normal vigor, but I’m sure that nothing was lost in translation when I threw the pepper out my sunroof while on the freeway, so that it bounced off his vehicle’s windshield.
Of course he did it with the best intentions. How was he supposed to know that I wouldn’t want a green pepper for breakfast? I have to get my weight down for the fi ght, and that breakfast substitute would defi nitely help matters, regardless of how disgusting I found it.
After the fi ght is a different story. Food takes on a whole new meaning. Wi
th the restrictions on your diet temporarily lifted, it’s like being a kid in a candy store. I’ve been known to tackle burgers, pizza, and cakes with both hands, like a man that has been marooned on a desert island for months – minus the beard and body odor.
Downtime after a fi ght is fl oating down a river in heaven after crashing through the rocky rapids of hell. It’s the moment right after a sneeze when everything feels perfect, and it stretches out for a week. I remember visiting Rampage on the set of some movie he was acting in. Between takes, we posted up next to the craft services table, refuge for the weary actor. As I stood there, telling a particularly animated story as I am prone to do, I noticed him opening a box of Chips Ahoy cookies. At the end of my story, he let out his trademark belly laugh. As he stood up, I realized the cookie box was EMPTY. Not a crumb. “Goddamn man! You just ate a whole box of cookies!” I exclaimed. “I ain’t got no fi ght comin’ up,” he replied. Touché, champ. Live it up my friend, because the time for suffering will come once again.
But in those moments, the gym is far, far away and you have a social life. You might even actually laugh at the, “Don’t beat me up!” joke you’ve heard a hundred times before.
Get together a few fi ghters that either just fought or don’t have a fi ght coming up, and the only security force that can calm the party down would have to be wearing BDUs, body armor, and a calm demeanor. Face slapping is sometimes the game of choice, but every once in a while someone decides to start a game that nobody wins: ball checking. The point of the game is simple; just punch your friends in the balls.
Try it sometime. It is the dumbest game on earth, but somehow I was dragged into it by Dan Henderson while I was innocently sending a text message. “OOOF! I didn’t even know we were playing!” Doubled over in pain, I watched Dan skip away, giggling like a twelveyear- old. The rest of the night was spent with my back to the wall, eyes darting side to side, trying to enjoy the club atmosphere and my victory, while simultaneously attempting to exact my revenge on Dan’s testicles.
My theory is that fi ghters have too much energy to expend if there isn’t a fi ght to train for, so they get into silly shenanigans like those. But I have a degree in nothing, so I’m probably wrong. One thing I’m sure of is that there is a brotherhood among the men you go to battle with, and rarely will you meet a fi ghter that is truly disrespectful of another man that has the testicular fortitude to face off with you for everyone to see. Not to say that we aren’t trying to break each another’s faces when it’s time to go, but when the fi ght is over, it’s over, and we can play like kids in the backyard. Overgrown kids that get paid to fi ght. What a strange life.
Think about this: you have now read an entire article by someone who answers to the name Mayhem, goes to a top-secret training facility to prepare for a mission for which he dresses in a costume partially made of spandex, dons special equipment, and then makes a grand entrance with theme music. Not to mention that I have other “Super Friends” all with unique music, costumes, and abilities.
All this training must be taking a toll on my brain. Let me relax a bit after my next fi ght. Club? Sure, let’s paint the town red! Pasta? Don’t mind if I do! Want to see the dessert menu? Defi nitely. Actually, just wheel that cart over here, I’ll pick what I want.
Just as I’m getting tired of this gluttonous life of leisure, hedonism, and debauchery, the red phone in the basement rings, causing me to drop my comically oversized turkey leg. I answer, get my next assignment, strap on my superhero outfi t, and get back to business. A strange life indeed.