Open Mouth Insert Foot

Three X-rays and an MRI later, my training had officially ended – for the time being, anyway. The worst part of that equation: it had hardly even started.

FUCK!

My plan was to amass a small arsenal of fighting techniques by training with numerous instructors, each schooled in a different style. Obviously, it would prove next to impossible to become a bona fide expert in any one style, let alone a few of them, in such a short period of time, but by exposing myself to a wide variety of pugilistic theories and mano y mano combat philosophies, my thinking was that I could at least become proficient enough to defend myself inside the cage or ring and, in all possibility, mount a legitimate offensive against an opponent if and when the opportunity presented itself. Bottom line, I didn’t want to look like a complete freakin’ schmuck when I eventually fought.

Currently quartered in Southern Arizona, where I’m involved in a few large-scale literary projects, I had been working diligently on my general fitness. Hiking Pinnacle Peak two to three times a week in the early-morning hours before it became Hades hot, hitting the weights a minimum of three days a week, swimming laps any chance I could get. After a month and a half, my strength and cardio had reached a subprime- but-more-than-acceptable level. When I was reasonably certain that I wouldn’t keel over during my first week of MMA training, I started asking around in the hopes of hooking up with a reputable martial arts instructor or quality training center. My queries led me to the Scottsdale Martial Arts Center (www.scottsdalemartialartscenter.com), a state-of-the-art 6,000 square foot facility in North Scottsdale, one of the more affluent Phoenix area communities. With a number of padded-floor training rooms and a host of different instructors offering classes in a wide array of styles, this seemed like the perfect place to initiate my immersion into the world of martial arts. SMAC’s operational manager, Tyler Warren, a lean, lithe, bad-ass with a black sash in Chinese Wu-Shu, gave me the grand tour and invited me to get my ass kicked on a regular basis – uh, scratch that – train at his dojo. Turns out they had just launched a new Mixed Martial Arts curriculum, which included tutelage in every aspect of “extreme fighting” – striking, grappling, wrestling, you name it – anything and everything an MMA fan or a prospective amateur/professional fighter could ask for. And so, after being properly initiated – Tyler called me a plethora of expletives, kicked me in the nuts, and told me I was less than nothing, then lifted me off the ground and hugged me – I was officially a SMAC member. (For the record, not all new SMAC students need to go through that same initiation. My experience was reserved strictly for defense attorneys and members of the media!)

A few days later, at my first class, I met my new instructor, Vince Perez- Mazzola. VPM is a Jeet Kune Do/Jun Fan Gung Fu/Filipino Kali practitioner who was among a short list of instructors to be certified by the worldrenowned Dan Inosanto, protégé of the “little dragon” himself, Bruce Lee. Beyond just being a martial arts guru, VPM is a dark arts Yoda of sorts, who has taught Close Quarters Battle techniques (aka CQB) to innumerable elite military operatives, including Navy SEALs, Green Berets, Army Rangers, and other members of the Black Ops community. He’s also worked with foreign commandos, international antiterrorism units, law enforcement personnel, and quite a few professional athletes, some of which are rising stars in various MMA organizations. If VPM couldn’t make me fight capable, or at the very least give me a rudimentary fighting base, nobody could.

First up, I needed to learn how to properly strike. Being your typical “I’ve seen a few action movies” kind of guy, I thought I had the whole punch-elbow-kneekick thing pretty well nailed down. I mean, c’mon, what was there to know? You identified your target, you wound up, and you decked him, right? Not even close! My technique, if you could call it that, looked like something a drunken Viking would use in a bar fight, or so I was told. My mechanics, VPM said, left much to be desired. Mechanics? I was there to learn how to fight, not repair a fucking automobile! But proper mechanics – for anything and everything related to fighting – were the key.

“When you get tired,” VPM explained, “and everyone gets tired sooner or later, even the freakiest of physical specimens and your body switches over to autopilot mode, clean, effective, well-rehearsed movements will be the key to finishing the fight and not getting finished.”

So I got my brain around that concept and threw myself into the training. In all sincerity, learning the proper mechanics wasn’t all that hard; it was un-learning all my previously acquired bad habits that proved to be a real bitch. I’m told this is the most difficult aspect of MMA training for many fighters, pros, and amateurs alike. So many people have the misguided conception that just because they customarily kicked ass in street fights, or because they always cleaned house in last-call bar brawls, they would be able to simply step inside the cage and wipe the mat with their opponent. Trust me when I tell you, nothing could be farther from the truth. The leap from unregulated “anything goes” brawls to semi-sanctioned “Toughman” contests to fully-sanctioned and properly refereed MMA bouts is like comparing a car you bought at Larry’s Lemons used car lot to a multi-million-dollar Formula One race car. Sure, there are similarities, but they are few and far between.

After just one lesson, I learned that proper striking technique isn’t simply about the proper mechanics of the strike. Hell no, there’s so much more to it than that. Stance, balance, head positioning, target and angle of the blow, delivery of the blow, defensive posture before, during and after the blow – you could easily pen an encyclopediasized volume of all that is needed to be done just to throw a single punch correctly, let alone a combination. And yet, when a skilled fighter throws down, his movements are so quick, so fluid, so clean, the end result truly is an art form. As I learned all the little nuances of each and every movement related to the delivery of a blow, I developed an even greater sense of appreciation for MMA and its participants than I already had. Man, there’s a shitload to learn.

Next up came groundwork. Having never wrestled in high school – unless you count the time a few slutty cheerleaders jumped me after a pep rally – I had no idea what to expect. To be perfectly honest, the thought of rolling around on the floor with a sweaty, muscular dude didn’t appeal to me all that much. What if the guy got aroused? Yeesh! Or worse, what if I sported wood? Both scenarios are too horrific to devote any additional ink to. But right off the bat, it was extremely obvious just how technical, not to mention tiring, ground fighting could be. Choke holds, joint-locks, throws, escapes, reversals – you need to be a rocket scientist with an Einsteinian IQ to fully comprehend all that is possible when the fight goes to the mat. And if you have to think about a move, even for a micro-second, before implementing it, chances are it’s already too late – you’re either knocked out or choked out and the referee is checking to see if you’re injured.

And speaking of injury, midway through only my third rolling session, while jockeying for position with a seasoned fighter with thirty pounds on me, I felt a strange sensation in my right knee, accompanied by a faint but audible BO-ING! Unfortunately, my adrenaline was flowing and, even though I felt a little discomfort, I continued with the activity, not wanting to pussy out. A few minutes later, when I began sparring with another opponent, I knew something was wrong. I tried to throw a kick and my right leg sort of flapped about like a hooked mackerel on the deck of a fishing boat. Shrugging it off, chalking the lame kick up to being out of position and/or slightly off balance, I planted my foot, pivoting to throw a hard punch, but when I delivered, it seemed like I had the momentum of an anorexic Girl Scout. That’s when the nausea hit me, followed by a more intense wave of pain. Suddenly, standing wasn’t just difficult, it was nearly impossible. So I sat my ass down, took stock of my body. No swelling in the knee. That was good. But it hurt to the touch, mostly on the interior. That wasn’t so good. Something was obviously wrong, more than just a simple tweak. Hence, I called it quits for the night, took off my gear, and limped out to my car.

That night, my knee hurt like a motherfucker. Sleeping proved tough. I couldn’t find a comfortable position. The following morning, X-rays at the hospital proved inconclusive, but the orthopedist on staff knew something was up and gave me a script for an MRI. A few days later, my wound was revealed: a partial tear of the meniscus and a sprained MCL. Surgery wasn’t a viable option. Time and physical therapy was the only remedy.

My injury confirmed yet another sad but brutal truth about this physically taxing sport.

Just because I had gotten my body in shape to begin training didn’t mean I had gotten it into anything close to resembling fighting shape. Big difference. Huge, actually. Once again, mad props to the people who train for professional (and amateur) bouts on a daily basis. When you consider everything that takes place in the cage or the ring – and I’m just talking about training now, not the actual fight – it’s truly amazing how many people manage to stay injury free, or at least fit enough to go through with the fight. And given the nature of the sport, and the sheer intensity that goes into it, the fact that more fi ghters aren’t reduced to hobbling invalids within a matter of seconds gives testament to exactly how physically (and mentally) prepared these athletes truly are.

So I’m laid up for a while, a bit gimpy but still undeterred. My body isn’t what it used to be twenty years ago, when I could recover from a hard workout, or even a minor injury in relative haste. I guess my pace will just have to be a bit slower than I had originally hoped. Then again, maybe I should just stick to gun fighting. I can do that without breaking a sweat, and possibly without spilling my cappuccino. But I know, I know; there’s no honor in that. It takes guts to allow yourself to be locked inside a cage, across from an opponent, and settle things up close and personal. That whole “two people enter, one person leaves” scenario. Old school. Empty hand, naked foot. Strength and skill and endurance. Balls don’t hurt, either. Well, they might, but that’s what protective cups are for! No, you know what I mean. MMA’s the real deal, not a game. And it needs to be treated as such. And I really can’t wait to start training again!

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