“A PHYSICAL GAME OF CHESS” This is the cliché of the ages, which every two-bit commentator that stands in front of a camera and pretends to know about fi ghting just spews. Now, while this cliché gets the point across that we aren’t just mindless barbarians clubbing each other into unconsciousness, it says nothing about the control that the professional mixed martial artist must have over his emotions and mental capabilities in order to do his job properly. I’m not sure if I could fight someone completely expressionless and relaxed as if I were sitting in an armchair; nor could I imagine Gary Kasparov checkmating, then throwing his mouthpiece into the MENSA audience and exclaiming, “THAT’S RIGHT BITCH! I TOLD Y’ALL I’M THE BEST EVA!!” So let’s abandon clichés and delve head-first into the mental aspect of the fight game.
In order to excel at the sport of mixed martial arts, or even just get yourself to the level of a weekend warrior so you can really enjoy yourself while wrestling with your buddies, you have to push yourself beyond the point of quitting, even when you just want to curl back up on the couch and watch Daisy of Love with your girl while eating a brick of cookie dough and giggling at the goofballs desperate to become famous. There is a voice within everyone who takes it upon himself to train hard that begs him to quit. For me, the voice has become very miniscule from years of sadistic coaches that couldn’t wait to kill the guy who was “too dumb to get tired.” The voice in my head that tells me to quit is now a passive-aggressive roommate who, instead of asking me directly to please wash my dishes, puts them on my unmade bed. I don’t even hear the voice during training anymore. My body will just give out far before my mind, as evidenced by the multiple ligament surgeries that probably would have been avoided if I had listened to that little bitch of a roommate. Now there is a nature/nurture argument to this equation. Although I was born with the Miller constitution, which is useful for strenuous exercise as well as binge drinking, I really think the hours spent working in the training room have whittled away at the “Quit Voice,” but have unfortunately often replaced it with silly Top 40 pop songs. I am not kidding. Sometimes they aren’t even contemporary. I can remember wrestling recently, and out of nowhere humming “He’s a cold-hearted snake, uh-oh, look in to his eyes, oh no, he’s been telling lies.” Since when has Paula Abdul been a world class trainer? Never, but she sneaks into my thoughts for no other reason than my level of exhaustion. I could kill myself.
“You are not gonna die, Mayhem,” were the words that came out of his mouth. I wasn’t thinking that I was going to die, but I was now reconsidering. It was my fault, of course. I mean, I showed up in Japan to fi ght twenty-two pounds overweight. I knew the consequences, but I didn’t think that my life would be in question when I agreed to get off my couch five weeks after ACL reconstruction surgery.
Inside the Japanese sauna room, surrounded by what looked like naked Toyota executives, I let my mind drift to weird places, as it often does in my normal life, but right now in a much more drastic way. Not once did I feel as if I were going to die, but head trainer, Ryan Parsons, could apparently see something I couldn’t. I thought to myself, “Damn, I must look bad right now.” I thought about the lost city of Atlantis, and how they found it off the eastern coast of India…how Indian customer service reps gave themselves American names like “Bill” or “Mike,” and how I felt that was very condescending… I thought that there was a cheeseburger on a plate in front of me. “Hey man, get up. You look like you gonna fall out,” Mo says to me, just as I lean sideways onto the hot wooden wall of the sauna. He grabs me by the arm through my plastic suit, which burns my skin as if it were going to fuse chemically.
“Just do one hundred steps man, then you can sit down.” I didn’t blink. I just got up the best I could. I realized why I could do this seemingly impossible task with relative ease, and despite the fact I looked as if I were about to die, I felt relatively fi ne. I had extracted myself from myself. I was outside myself, not feeling the pain of what I was then going through. “Disassociation” is what I think they call it. I’m sure prisoners of war, domestic abuse survivors or rape victims do this technique much better, but I’ve mastered it enough to make it to the scale twenty-two pounds lighter.
I’M TWELVE YEARS OLD.
My sister angrily yells up from the den, where I’ve just called her “Mega-brat,” since her name is Megan. I run up the stairs to meet my mom, who is calling me to show me something on the TV. I can smell the Glade Plug-In , and almost feel the texture of the hallway, which is dimly lit by the late-afternoon autumn sun, and I’m happy that I’m out of school… I blink hard twice and realize that I’m twenty years old and in Los Angeles, in an underground fight where I’ve just been slammed on my head by a spectacular judo throw. I was winning pretty handily before this, so I better collect my shit and get back to winning. Now I’m having a sense of déjà vu, that I’ve already fought this exact same fight before, and now we are kicking and kneeing each other’s legs. Another few scrambles, and I’ve got my hands raised. Damn, was that three rounds already? The fi ght that, before the warm-up, felt as if it would be a fi fteen-minute eternity turned out to be a cough and a blink, and I’m back in the locker room getting my hand wraps cut off and hoping that I will get paid.
Your mind does some strange things when you’re stuck in front of a large group of bloodthirsty savages yelling for your blood or for the blood of your opponent. As a younger man, I could not quiet the masses screaming in tongues for me to beat or be beaten, so I’d let this wave of excitement and aggression take me over in a way that can only be described as unbridled fury. It made for exciting fi ghts, I’ll give it that, but I started building a career as the guy who did crazy things in the middle of a fi ght, e.g., a kip-up, fl ying triangle, jump knee, and then getting beat up for a while only to withstand it enough to submit my opponent for a come-from-behind victory. Great for a story, but not so good on the old cranium. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve eliminated a lot of the unnecessary risks in my game. I try to fi ght not only with my heart, but also with my head. As a fi ghter, you have another voice in your mind that you probably developed in childhood that tells you “KILL” when you get hit hard, and which often results in your throwing a dumb punch and getting countered. When you are in the moment, you have to quiet your mind, like a Zen master, fl oating just outside your body as if you were piloting a giant machine from a third-person perspective, unemotional and detached, like playing a very exciting version of Grand Theft Auto.
The point is this isn’t checkers, chess, or even a short, violent form of Monopoly. This is a game of complexity that a simple board game could never match, let alone serve as an analogy for. If boxing is the sweet science, then MMA is astrophysics. To play this game and keep your wits about you is damn near impossible. Not only do you have to be able to take into account so many factors during the fi ght, you also have to control your emotions in an inhuman way, like some cybernetic super-soldier sent back from the future. If you play the game right, you succeed; if you overstep the boundaries, you sometimes end up punting someone’s
head like a football and almost getting disqualifi ed. Pay attention, and castle to the king’s side as soon as possible.