Jason! Jey-son! We have to train.” A thick Brazilian accent wakes me up, and I find myself in a groggy state on a mat at the HB Ultimate Training Center in Huntington Beach, California. It’s sometime in 2001. I look up at the clock, and I look around me at the faces of local businessmen outfitted in their expensive gis, eager to get onto my makeshift bed to learn armbars. “Damn Fabiano, it’s nine a.m. You guys train now?” Collecting my blanket and pillow, I can hear him say, “Monday, Wednesday, and Friday man,” as I shuffle sleepily out to my van to try to eke out a couple more hours of sleep before 11 a.m. training.
I did that song and dance for about a year, living between the gym and my van, homeless, often ridiculed by Rampage, who called me “Van Man,” and by coach Colin Oyama, who told me to get a job. Most people would look at this as a negative, but to me, those were some of the happiest days of my life. And who were they to talk? Both of them lived in the gym almost as much as me. The only difference was where they slept at night. By now, I’ve spent more than 10 years at various gyms, in various states of habitation, from living in a broom closet with Marc Laimon to the current twice-a-day training for competition.
Gyms have an unusual family feel to them, with everyone working together to help each other as well as himself, a symbiotic relationship rarely found in any other kind of workplace. I’ve been lucky enough to spend more than 10 years of my life at gyms, meeting a combination of personalities and challenges that might be too real for reality television. Throughout my decade-plus at gyms, I’ve run into all types. By now, I’ve mostly weeded out the annoying, the disloyal, and the unbearable; but this doesn’t stop the constant stream of characters from wandering through.
At the more public clubs, there’s the fitness diva, usually a 30-something professional woman who devotes her spare time to workouts that rival the fighters’, but who wears less clothing than us, a constant distraction to every male in the area, especially when she grunts with every strike. Then there’s the weekday warrior, who enters the gym in his office gear, but emerges decked out in Tapout gear and rashgaurds like some Navy SEAL from the future. With a mouthpiece hanging from one ear, he’s ready to practice the twister series he just learned from Eddie Bravo’s DVD. You also have the run-of-the-mill workout people; and floating around the gym are the young bucks, who spend their days doing menial tasks (washing the floors, teaching classes) and the evenings pursuing their love of the sport. The pros, on the the other hand, have paid their dues, and now spend their time palling about.
“Hey man, you see South Park last night. Butters is funny, naw-what-I-sayin,” says “King Mo” Lawal, standing in the middle of The Boxing Club in Carlsbad, California. I reply in my best Butters nerdy voice, “Yes, I do know what you are saying, you can stop asking now.” Both of us burst into earthshaking laughter. This is a conversation that could be held over any water cooler at any corporate office or fast-food restaurant in America, except that instead of flipping burgers, we’re wrapping our hands, preparing for our day-jobs, which are vastly different from those of just about anyone else in the world. “Are you kidding me? The Hangover is one of the best movies of all time! Great writing, great performances, and Mike TYSON! What more do you want?” I scream across the gym from my spot by my bag, near the boxing ring. In pops the bald head of head trainer and manager Ryan Parsons, and both of us suddenly start paying attention to putting our gear on quickly, like kids getting caught blowing off chores. “Gloves up. Hurry, we’re on a schedule,” our drive-thru manager barks at us. “…And for the record, The Hangover is a bunch of overacting. I just didn’t get it.” This sends me into an “AWWWW!!!!??” and Mo into a “SEE! I TOLD YO ASS!” and my dachshund, Gator, into a barking fit outside the door, where he is tied up. “Shaddup Gator!” I bark back, temporarily quieting him, before he starts struggling against his harness.
To become a success, every fighter and trainer must make his home in a gym. Hence the term, “training camp.” The only things missing are the tents and fireroasted wieners, except for Gator, the hotdog dog, at five-months-old already the unofficial camp mascot. “Gator, be quiet,” Ryan says, now coaching the dog as one of the young’uns walks by with a mop. “Look at that, coach!” he says, pointing to the TV, at the news chopper view of a silver helium balloon with the graphic “Boy in Experimental Balloon” emblazoned across the screen. “There’s a kid in there. WOW!” Mo says from behind his 16-oz. gloves. “Man, that’s crazy!” I say, stretching out my back, not seeing the irony of the fact that I’m about to punch one of my closest friends in the face as hard as I can.
Sparring begins, and a fevered exchange ensues. This time it’s not about the strength of plot development in a summer box office smash. No, this is fists-to-face, unwavering violence exploding out of 16-oz. gloves with a tenacity that attracts the attention of the entire gym. Now, in our community center, our hall of worship, the epicenter of our daily activities, a melodrama plays out. Mo snaps a lightening-quick jab at my face, snapping my head back. After getting reset, I feint a jab of my own and then lead in with a body right and a left hook over the top, landing solid on the side of his head. He angles out, and as he’s moving I can see a smile on his face, a sure sign that I landed a good shot. But while I’m admiring my handiwork, he returns with a devastating blow to my midsection, one I’m not ready for but which I now have to power through, hiding any pain with a smile on my face. We’ve now amassed a large group—fitness divas, young bucks, and front desk staff—all watching as we work in our home office, our campsite, our base camp on the steep mountain that is MMA. An unforgiving peak that we are constantly ascending, clambering up, using the handholds of hard training and the ropes of great coaches to traverse the rocky slope.
It’s the final round of sparring, and near the end I can see in my peripheral vision a movement that is unfamiliar to me: strange giggles and giddy screams, along with everyone’s head turning in the same direction. I’m more focused on the large hands moving in front of me and on using head movements to avoid being socked once again. However, as I circle, I look past Mo and realize what is going on.
“Get the damn dog!” I spit out through my mouthpiece. I can now see my pup running amok on the main workout floor, first nipping at a fitness diva’s hair as she attempts to do situps, then sprinting down rows of students who jump out of the way. A young instructor is now hot on his trail, diving after his freshly chewed leash. “Keep going,” I say, determined not to let this distract me from the task at hand. After sparring, I hit mitts with Danny Perez, who instructs me about some mistakes I made while sparring and doing drill combinations. Meanwhile, I can see that Gator has made it back and is once again tied to his place outside, barking at the windows. After the workout, I sit in the ring for a moment, then shuffle my way outside and sit on the grass with Gator. As he affectionately jumps on my face and licks the sweat off my cheek, I go into a moment of reflection, not just about today’s training session, but about the past decade of gym life, the ups and downs, the trials and tribulations, the cast of characters, including the crazies, that have graced
me with their presence. And as the southern California sun shines down on me, my reveries are broken by a distinctly Dallas accent: “Ay man, get out da grass! The kid wasn’t even in the balloon, he musta fell out!”
“I wouldn’t trade this life for any other,” I think as I head back into the gym, Gator hot on my heels.