Getting After It

After a month of diligent training at some of the top camps in the world, FIGHT! editor Donovan Craig steps through the ropes to make his MMA debut against the tough Ty Beeson at Tuff-N-uff in Las Vegas, Nevada.

I. A Million Dollar Team, One Dimension, Some Timely Advice

“Don’t think about winning the fi ght,” Frank Mir tells me as we sit together in the dressing room. In about an hour, I will make my MMA debut for a promotion called Tuff-N-Uff in front of 2,000 fans at the Orleans Ballroom, in Las Vegas. Mir, former and future UFC heavyweight Champion, and Robert Drysdale, who is the 2007 ADCC champion and one of the best pure submission grapplers in the world, have agreed to help work my corner for the fi ght. It is a huge honor and a major advantage for me. It’s tantamount to having Albert Pujols and Tony Gwynn as little league batting coaches. “Think about looking good and not making any mistakes,” Mir continues. “Concentrate on doing the things that you know you can do well.” It’s great advice, and helps me deal with my anticipatory anxiety. I had begun to panic once I realized the fi nality of what I was about to do. After a month of intense and often torturous training, I now have only three rounds in which to make it all count. If I lose, will it matter how hard I had pushed myself? At this moment, it doesn’t seem like it. Pat Miletich once told me that there was a time to train and a time to “get after it.” Now I know what he was talking about. I run over the fi ght plan I’ve developed over the last month: Stay light on my feet; keep my distance and use angles; throw three-punch combinations when my opponent comes in; fi nish with a left hook; be ready to sprawl; and, most importantly, do not get taken down under any circumstances.

I get up and walk around the spacious room. Ordinarily a conference room, it’s now being used as a communal dressing room for competitors fi ghting out of the red corner. The fi ghters from the blue corner, including my opponent, are in a similar room down the hall. People move in and out, but there are always twenty or so in here at any one time. Tuff-N-Uff spotlights up-andcoming amateur mixed martial artists, so I am surrounded by hungry, young fi ghters hoping for impressive performances tonight that they can parlay into pro careers. I feel out of place. In addition to being at least a decade older than all the other fi ghters, I lack the requisite tattoos and apparently missed the memo on body hair, as the upper bodies of all the other fi ghters are smoothly waxed. They jog in place, shadow fi ght, and drill with their trainers. A television sits on a table against the front wall playing a live feed of the fi ghts from the ballroom. A fi ghter will get called up and disappear from the room with his team and then reappear a few minutes later on the small screen. Once in a while, someone will glance at the television, but nobody’s really paying any attention to it.

I start working the strike mitts with Ken Hahn, the head coach of Striking Unlimited, the gym where Mir trains. He has me throw light pitty-pat punches for thirty seconds straight to get my neurons fi ring. Then we work on a simple but very common sequence for MMA. I parry a left by catching it with the palm of my right hand and throw a quick left jab, and then follow with a straight right hand of my own. I’ve always been able to punch, and the sound of my right hand striking Hahn’s small strike mitts echoes loudly through the room. We get into a rhythm: block, tap, POW; block, tap, POW. Some of the other fi ghters in the room stop to look. My right’s a hard shot, a knockout punch if it lands. Knowing people are watching, I really start to stick the punch, turning my hip into it, and it sounds satisfyingly like a gunshot. Mir nods his head in approval, but in the back of my mind, I know that my display is largely theatrical. Nobody is going to stand in front of me and let me tee off. I’m worried that catching my opponent with a big punch may be my only chance of winning.

After weeks of training with some of the world’s best mixed martial artists, my conditioning is top notch and my punching is sharp. But unless you count learning how to stoically take an ass beating on the ground as an achievement, I don’t feel as if I‘ve made any progress in the grappling department. I can’t get Dale Hart’s warning out of my mind. He told me that, unlike boxing, which is all about what you can do well, MMA usually comes down to what you can’t do well, the holes in your skill set. It’s not the fi ghter who is best at any one particular facet of mixed martial arts that wins, but the most balanced fi ghter. This is bad news for me. I still feel very one-dimensional. If my opponent is cooperative enough to stand and trade, then I like my chances, but if he takes me down, I’m screwed.

With about 20 minutes to go. Drysdale comes over to me while I’m shadowboxing. “So, what’s your plan if it goes to the ground?” he asks. “To get up,” I say tersely. “And how are you going to do that?” he asks. I shrug, then say with false bravado, “I’m going to catch this dude; it’ll be quick.”

Drysdale frowns skeptically, “Come in here and let me show you something,” he says, taking me into an adjacent room. He shows me how to block my opponent if he shoots in. By putting my arms in the right spot, I could set him up for a guillotine choke. It’s such a simple maneuver that I don’t see it how it can really work, but drilling it with Drysdale takes my mind off the fi ght until they let us know that it’s time to take our places for the walkout. The attendants motion for us to take up our positions, so Mir, Drysdale, James Horne (an up-and-coming black belt), coach Hahn, and I all head to our positions right beside the entrance, just out of the crowd’s view . The mood is light as we wait for our cue, with Mir and James cracking jokes. I hear the opening riff of “Seven Nation Army,” by The White Stripes, over the loudspeakers. That’s my music, I tell Mir, who towers behind me. “Let’s go,” he says.

When I enter the ballroom, the TV lights are so bright that I can only see a couple of feet in front of me, but I make it to the proper ringside place, where an offi cial checks my gloves and I take off my shirt. As Hahn is putting grease on my face to help prevent cuts, I notice that Mir has two fi ngers against the left side of my neck.

“Good focus,” he says right before I enter the ring. If he knew how I felt a few moments ago, he might think differently.

II. My Opponent, Perplexed, An Unlikely Outcome

My opponent’s name is listed as Ty Beeson. He achieved some notoriety as the producer of the series called “Bum Fights,” in which he and a friend went around and paid homeless people to have street fi ghts while they taped them. It was a concept so simple and in such brilliantly bad taste that it approached the level of art. The sort of thing John Waters might do if he weren’t gay and liked to fi ght. The series was very controversial and became an underground phenomenon. Beeson even got on Dr. Phil’s show, where he had the dubious distinction of getting kicked off in mid taping. The fact that we both have some level of visibility within the industry has helped Tuff- N-Uff’s promoter market the event, so we’re fi ghting high up on the card. While I’m throwing punches in my corner, I hear the opening chords of “O Fortuna,” by Carl Orff. “His music’s good,” I comment to Mir and Drysdale, who are leaning over the ropes in my corner. Once through the ropes, Beeson starts bouncing around and shaking his arms out. He’s cut and looks strong as hell. Sometimes the really muscular guys are too stiff and slow to get out of the way of punches, and the best way to deal with them is to go after them and get it over with quickly. Maybe I should just blitz him and see what happens. The ref motions us to the center of the ring and says something that I don’t listen to. Then we touch gloves and go back to our corners.

As the fi ght begins, I discover that Beeson is a wild and unorthodox fi ghter. And, to my disappointment, I see that he’s not slow at all. He fi ghts with a quick jerky rhythm that’s hard for me to time. I initially try to stick to my original game plan, which is to keep away from him and get him to chase me, so he’ll be easier to hit, but he doesn’t bite and keeps his distance. My instincts take over and I start to do the very thing I shouldn’t, which is to try to close the distance and walk him down. This makes me a sitting duck for a takedown. He fakes a jab and then ducks under and shoots for my legs. “Oh, great!” I think as I feel myself toppling to the mat. But then something remarkable happens. Without thinking about it, I block him just as Drysdale showed me, and when we topple to the ground, he ends up in a guillotine, exactly as Drysdale predicted. I try to sink the choke in and fi nish him, but I don’t have my legs placed correctly and can’t use my hips to apply the fi nishing pressure. He’s as powerful as he looks, and starts to defend the choke and scramble. Somehow he ends up rolling me over so that I am on top of him and tangled in the ropes. I feel the choke slipping, so I let it go. We scramble and I end up with his back with both hooks in. He has my right arm pinned between his body and the mat and is grabbing my left with both his hands. He traps my right foot and starts to escape. Again we scramble, and he ends up in the turtle position, with me on my knees next to him. I realize that he can’t defend himself from this position and I get a rush of adrenaline. I thud two heavy right hands off his head. When I fi nally connect with a punch, it’s an incredible rush, but the ref soon tells me to stop. He warns me for hitting in the back of the head and stands us up.

We both go to our corners. When the ref resumes the action, Beeson runs across the ring and kicks me right the stomach. I try to catch him with a punch but am too slow; he’s already made it back across the ring. I’ve been so confi dent in my punches, but his wild style is now making them look sloppy and amateurish. I’m missing him by a mile. He tries to decapitate me with a huge arcing head kick that misses, and then shoots in again. This time, as soon as I feel myself going down, I start for the sweep and send him over my head and onto the ground. The crowd lets out a roar. It’s a good move, but I don’t fi nish it properly, and he ends up with a side mount. I escape and scramble up to my knees as the round ends. As I go back to my corner, I’m not tired, but I’m frustrated because so much of the fi ght has been on the ground. He’s taking me completely out of my game.

“You won that round,” Mir tells me when I sit down on the stool in my corner. He and Drysdale are very excited and are shouting that I am dominating Beeson on the ground. Maybe all of those maulings from the pros actually helped, because as strong as Beeson is, he’s nothing like the monsters I’ve grown accustomed to rolling with. And even though I don’t know how it’s happening, every time we scramble, I seem to end up in an advantageous position. “Don’t let go of his neck,” Mir tells me. He says I could have fi nished Beeson earlier. Drysdale tells me that if I put my leg in and adjust the angle on the guillotine the next time I get it, he’ll tap.

The bell for round two sounds. As I shuffl e out to meet him, Beeson attacks with a wild kick and punch and then shoots in again. This time I’m able to sprawl on him and throw some body shots to the top of his ribs. He spins out and launches a spectacular fl ying head kick. I just get my right arm up in time to block it. It is an all-or-nothing move, and would have certainly knocked me out had it landed; but since I blocked it, he goes crashing onto the canvass. In my frustration, I launch a huge looping right hook that is just short, grazing his forehead as he rises. A stupid punch. He shoots in again and I sprawl again. I throw some more right hands to his body, and then jump to guard. This time, I have my legs place correctly, as Drysdale told me, and I can feel that the angle is right on the choke. Beeson again tries to defend the choke by stacking up on top of me, but I have better position now, and he goes to his knees as I sink in the choke, squeezing for all I’m worth.

“DO NOT LET GO OF THAT CHOKE! DO NOT LET GO OF THAT CHOKE…,” I can hear Mir shouting at the top of his lungs, and I hang on. Beeson goes limp, and I think he might have passed out, but then he tenses his body up again and I get ready for him to start fi ghting. But instead of the anticipated scramble, I feel his hand tapping lightly on my left leg. “He’s tapping,” I yell at the ref, who immediately jumps in and waives the fi ght off.

When I see Beeson’s face, he doesn’t seem hurt, but he looks very disappointed. “Good stuff,” he says like a fi ne sportsman.

They bring us to the center of the ring and announce my name as the winner, raising my hands. I get a little metal medallion as a trophy. Mir, Drysdale, Ken, and James all jump through the ropes, and the ringside photographers snap pictures of us from several different angles.

“I can’t believe that I didn’t land a single good punch and still won,” I say to Drysdale. “Did you see what I got him with?” It’s a rhetorical question.

“The guillotine,” he smiles slyly. After we all leave the ring, I’m asked to come over and do color commentary on the main events with Shawn Tompkins. I’m happy to do it, even though I’m so scatterbrained from all the excitement that I don’t make a lot of sense. I just agree with whatever Shawn and the other announcer say. When the event is over, I walk back to my car through the casino. A few people recognize me and congratulate me, saying that it was an exciting fi ght. That’s the coolest part for me. I am relieved that I won the fi ght, but it makes me very happy, almost goofi ly so, to hear that the crowd was entertained.

Nothing hurt during the fi ght, and I can’t remember getting hit cleanly, but Beeson must have landed a few good ones because I have a huge mouse under my left eye and a deep bruise on my right shoulder, where I blocked Beeson’s last Hail Mary fl ying kick. By the time I make my way out to my car, I can barely lift my right arm. Going through the casino on my way out, I see Beeson, who is always the life of the party. He’s got a beer in one hand and a pretty girl in the other. We shake hands and congratulate each other on a good fi ght. I notice that he doesn’t have a mark on him.

III. Aftermath, Party Scene, “Welcome to whatever this is…”

The pressroom for the post-UFC press conference has the atmosphere of a funeral. It’s been exactly one week since my fi ght, and I’ve returned to my day job covering the sport. I feel especially attached to UFC 91 because I had been training with many of the fi ghters while they were preparing for the event.

In the main event, Randy Couture fought valiantly against the much younger and bigger Brock Lesnar, but eventually fell to the larger man, taking a bad beating before the fi ght was stopped. My friend Joe Stevenson was thoroughly dominated by his opponent, Kenny Florian, in the co-main event. I have seen Stevenson up close, and know how strong and skilled he is, so either Florian is a lot more dominant than people think or Stevenson under performed badly. Joe’s going to have to win his next fi ght to remain a marquee name. A bright spot of that night was when my pal, the gritty Aaron Riley, won a slugfest against the favored Jorge Gurgel. The fi ght had been a barn burner, and it won the “fi ght of the night” award. Aaron’s victory earned him $60,000 and it was the breakthrough performance he’d been working towards his whole career.

As I’m milling around in the back of the room, I notice Junie Browning, whom I met while training at Xtreme Couture. “Hey man, I hear you did good in your fi ght,” he says. “Thanks, it was pretty wild,” I say. Then I lean toward him conspiratorially and motion to the rows of press waiting solemnly for the UFC fi ghters to arrive.

“Hey Junie, since the press is already here, what do you say if I go up there and announce my retirement as an undefeated mixed martial artist?” Junie’s eyes widen and he grins devilishly from ear to ear. He likes the idea of me doing something so catastrophically inappropriate. “Do it, do it, do it…,” he eggs me on.

I fake starting toward the front of the room before stopping and saying, “I kind of like my job.” When the press conference concludes, I head over to Studio 54, at the MGM Grand, for Randy Couture’s after party. A crowd has gathered outside the club waiting for him. A news crew has set up a backdrop for a model who is interviewing the famous people as they go in. There’s most of the crew from Xtreme Couture: Shawn Tompkins, Mike Pyle, Tyson Griffi n, and Gina Carano. I see Urijah Faber, along with the usual assortment of good-looking people that this kind of thing attracts. Randy and his wife Kim soon arrive. He’s smiling and chipper, and the atmosphere picks up. Everybody cheers for him, and he seems touched. In addition to fi ghters, fans, and good-looking women, there are a lot of industry people. Dean Albrecht, who has been such a help to me over the last month, hugs my neck and says he’s proud of me. He’s there with one of his newest clients, Demean Maia, a Brazilian terror who pulverized Nate Quarry earlier in the evening. People are buzzing about Maia, some even saying that he might be one of the few threats to the 185-pound champion, Anderson Silva. He’s such a nice guy that, despite just having given the performance of his life, he makes a point of mentioning my little adventure in the ring a week ago.

“I hear you won with Jiu-Jitsu,” Maia says. All of my Brazilian friends think that’s cool. “Yep. Didn’t land a punch, didn’t need to. Like Rickson,” I joke, miming a guillotine.

Maia laughs. Just then, a drunken partygoer staggers into him, spilling his drink on us. The usually mild-mannered Brazilian glares at him in disbelief. The drunken guy wobbles off into the crowded club, never knowing how close he came to death.

I have to fl y home tomorrow, so I cut out early. As the dance music blares, I push my way through the crowd of the beautiful people who are at the top of the food chain in MMA. On the way out, I see a friend, heavyweight fi ghter Big Phil Friedman. After congratulating me on my win, he sums up the scene very well: “Welcome,” he says as he put out his arms, “to whatever this is.” It’s an ironic statement. He knows the iceberg of suffering, self-denial, doubt, and discipline that’s underneath this tip of glitz and glory. Couture and the other top fi ghters have been made rich and famous by mixed martial arts. But wealth and fame are things they have. If you want to know what these men are, go to their gyms and see what they put themselves through. I was lucky enough to get a small glimpse. Now, as I go back to my old life it makes the world seem a little more honest.

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