A“What’s up man? What happened bro?” I ask the young amateur fighter, who is obviously bubbling with anger about something so intensely that he can barely string a sentence together.
“Man, he, man, he kneed me in the face, man. I’m training to get better and I go hard too, and this guy, man…” He trails off, and I go off into my head, because I have seen this scene a million times, in a million different forms, in what feels like a billion gyms.
The story is always the same. Sparring gets heated, one guy dinks the other guy. The dinked fighter takes offense and turns it up. Suddenly, you are fighting in the gym to everyone’s enjoyment. For the sick bastards like myself, it’s quite an enjoyable experience. I’ve long said that getting punched in the head is the original drug. The combination of chemicals that get released into your nervous system after some good, ole fashioned bluntforce trauma is something to behold. The free samples that I give away and receive in the gym are just the “taste” that drug dealers would dole out to get you hooked. It’s painful at first, but then it becomes a comfortable, soothing feeling that is damn near impossible to quit. Fighting is my chewing tobacco. It’s a damn ugly habit that shocks the women I date, but I give them up before I give up finding something to spit into.
That’s not to say that these gym wars go without incident. You are there to sharpen each other’s skills and get each other better—that’s what teammates do. There is a certain brotherhood that you can only get from knuckle-to-face contact, and no one can take that away from you once you’ve done it. Here I am, looking at this young buck, no older than 21, his awkward, angry stance and twitching eyebrow suggesting that he’s new to the experience and his adrenaline glands have yet to be calloused from years of constantly pumping the addictive drug into his central nervous system. I remember it.
I was about 20 years old and had just begun training with the world-famous Team Punishment, the toughest team on the planet, at least in my barely-out-of-the-teenage-years assessment of the world. My main training partner was a light heavyweight prospect named Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, a youth who was just making his way into the Pride Fighting Championship, the premiere league in MMA, since the whole Ultimate Fighting thing hadn’t caught on in America quite yet. I was fighting at 185 pounds, and at that time, I walking around at about 190 pounds, a small middleweight who was growing into his frame.
We spent nearly every day together, driving around in the van that doubled as my sleeping quarters when I couldn’t find a girlfriend. We’d go to a morning session, and then we’d have a final session at the Huntington Beach Ultimate Training Center, our base of operations, and where I went to shower and brush my teeth everyday. The amount of time that we spent together was unfathomable. Between picking him up at his rented room in Vietnam-town, sitting for hours in traffic, and standing across from each other in 16-ounce gloves, we never left each other’s side. It’s a great job, but I dare you to spend that much time with anyone on earth. It wears on you, especially with someone like ‘Page, who had been riding me all week with assorted jokes, and I had had about enough.
We arrived at the gym, and I was in luck—it was BJJ day, the one area I clearly excelled over my brother-in-arms. I would have my turn to exert some aggression on the man that was helping me win all my fights. After a long stint in the bathroom, Rampage emerged in his old wrestling singlet, a sure sign that it was laundry day (you get to know these things when you spend so much time with someone). Tito Ortiz began running practice, taking us through drills and working some techniques. Then we paired up to grapple. Less than 30 seconds into the round, I twisted around from the bottom and tried to get on the back of Rampage, who squatted down on top of me, jamming his ass crack directly onto my nose.
Quinton let out a huge, rumbling laugh. “He just stuck his face directly in my ass,” he said, and then he let out a sound that would accurately be spelled “Bwahaha,” as Tito and the rest of the on lookers laughed at me like some naked-at-high-school nightmare come true.
I quietly grumbled and focused my anger back into the training. Rampage got back into my guard, and before long, I trapped him in a head-and-arm choke from my guard. I had it locked in deep, with perfect technique, my arms in the familiar “Lion Killer” position that so many chokes are finished with. I had him dead to rights. I squeezed my arms tighter, hearing the familiar gurgling that comes right before a tap, and knew I was moments away from getting what I needed this day.
Suddenly, the adrenaline burst that he needed came, and he summoned a bit of super strength, muscling free from what I thought was an unbreakable lock. He postured up in my guard, laughed, and said, “Haha, ASS FACE!”
I slapped the shit out of him.
I jumped back to my feet angrily. But I immediately realized that I was in the wrong, and I was being a childish kid that needed to act like a professional. “Look, I’m sorry man…” I extended my right hand in a “put her there” manner and looked for his hand to meet mine.
Instead, he slapped the shit out of me.
It was deserved, but now my adrenaline spiked, and I immediately hit him with an ungloved right hand. He hit me with a stiff jab. Then we began circling, while the entire class stopped training to watch us face off in the gym. Instinctually, we both began moving our heads side to side, jabbing and looking for an opening, chin’s tucked. The first exchange was a wild slugfest, and Tito—who was making a hefty sum off our purses—began screaming, “Don’t break your hands! Don’t break your hands!”
I came up short on the first exchange, and he opened a small cut above my eyebrow. I double jabbed, and obviously outmatched on my feet, tried to take the fight to the ground, shooting a double leg. Another mistake in a day that wasn’t going my way. He locked around my body and did his not-yet-famous power bomb on me. Unaffected, I immediately up kicked him directly in his nose, and finally the crowd either got brave enough or was entertained enough to break up the brawl.
We were separated, cooled off, and then finished practice with other training partners—after I taped up my eyebrow. Once practice was over, I apologized and admitted I was being an asshole.
“Do you want me to take you to the laundromat?” I said. “How you know it’s laundry day?” he asked. “You’re wearing your singlet, and that means you don’t have any underwear,” I said. “You could tell that with your face?” he asked.
We had a good laugh, and I drove him to his house. I’m not sure of any other career where I could have this kind of strange kinship. I’m glad I found it, because I have a feeling that I would be in a lot more legal trouble had I gone to computer school like my dad wanted.
Back to the Reign Training Center.
“Listen kid, if a guy hits you with a good shot or you’re having a bad day, it’s your responsibility to tell him. We’re teammates. There’s a brotherhood in kicking each other’s ass. Some days, me and Mark get in here and fucking fight each other. Some days that’s what we need to do. Other days, we are just in here to fine tune some things, and on those days we tell each other.”
Mark nods in agreement as the bruised-up little fireplug is taking this in, at rapid fire pace.
“We’re here to sharpen each other. If this guy is being a dick, let him know. Go ahead and fight him. No one is going to get mad at you for fighting in here—it’s a fighting gym.”