Following the success of the early UFC, martial arts gyms started popping up all over the world. Their goal was to train competitors for the new sport, and to cash in on the wave of students drawn to training in MMA for health and self-defense. The technical innovations they made were tested in the unforgiving crucible of the cage.
Over the next few years, the mechanics of hand-to-hand fighting leaped ahead exponentially, with styles updating and adjusting to each other. First it was the tenants of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, then wrestling, then strikers developing takedown defense, Muay Thai developing as a reaction to grapplers, Greco-Roman dealing with Muay Thai, and on and on.
Unlike the formerly rigid systems, where information was tightly controlled and innovations rare, now-new fighting techniques exploded in a messy, organic, renaissance. It was said the effectiveness of martial arts training progressed more over the 15 years after UFC 1 than in the 1,000 years before that. Through my work, I traveled to many of the prominent gyms where this was happening. It was in these gyms that began to find the real heart of mixed martial arts.
The first gym I visited was Team Quest in Temecula California. When I walked in noticed a row of shirts on the wall behind the welcome desk. All the shirts had the same inscription “Pain is merely weakness leaving the body.”
The sound of a huge man hitting a giant tire with a 20-pound sledgehammer thumped heavily through the air, accompanied by a cacophony of grunts, shouts, and exhalations emitting from a room full of fighters training.
“Where did they find a tire that big?” I wondered.
The gym was full of punching bags, a boxing ring, plyometric steps, and free weights, plus to a more exotic array: the mammoth tire which I later learned weighs 400 pounds, a long climbing rope hanging from the high ceiling, kettle bells and a collection of mysterious-looking blue metal bars. There was also the long-suffering 130-pound practice dummy named Red Man.
Team Quest’s conditioning coach, Dr. Ryan Parson, stood to one side of the gym floor, giving instructions to his fighters in a steady, monotone voice, relentless and commanding.
“Hit the tire,” he told the huge guy. “Climb the rope,” he ordered another fighter who then shimmied straight up to the ceiling. “Pick Red Man up and slam him on his head… and again.” Red Man had a tough life. “Don’t rest, don’t rest,” Dr. Parsons said if anyone started to lag. “Go to the pull-up bar, go, go, go!”
“By calling out the exercises,” he explained later, “it teaches guys to listen, and builds rapport between an athlete and his coach. ”
The team ran through four or five drills that focused on ground technique. They paired up and practiced how to clinch an opponent, how to take him down, how to pass his guard, and how to maintain a dominant position. They did escape drills and, even though Team Quest had a wrestling background, a lot of what they practiced defensively was Jiu-Jitsu.
Dan Henderson, one of the original founders of Team Quest, took the drills a little farther than the rest. He’d escape to a standing position before resuming his position on the ground and beginning again. Henderson was already an MMA legend. He and his friends Randy Couture and Matt Lindland were the first to adapt Greco-Roman Wrestling for mixed martial arts. Half Henderson’s teeth got knocked out years before courtesy of a headbutt during training. When trained he kept his false teeth in a glass, half filled with water, in his office next to his two world title belts.
After the technique drills were done, they started to spar. The fighters worked six five-minute rounds, switching partners at the end of each round. The sparring got more realistic and intense as the rounds progressed.
They started with takedowns and defense at about three-quarter speed in the first round. By the sixth round, they were punching, kicking, and slamming each other around, doing everything they would in a real fight. The ordeal was designed to require the maximum effort by the athletes at the finale and to simulate the late round push that is often the difference between victory and defeat.
Between the fifth and sixth rounds, Henderson missed a step and collapses to the floor with a thud, his legs shook from their exertion. He lied on the floor for a few seconds before he leaps up and was at his final sparring partner’s throat until the timer sounded. Of all the fighters in the room, the only one who never looked tired was Jason “Mayhem” Miller.
Jason Miller had the sort of dangerous charisma you sometimes find in people who are half-crazy. Thoughts raced through his mind faster than his mouth could download them. Within twenty minutes of first meeting him, he’d pitched me a column, authored by him, for the magazine. He spontaneously produced writing samples from behind the welcome desk. Who knows why they were there.
Then he unsuccessfully argued against my impending marriage on the principle that a man tying himself down to one woman is logically unsound. Among the reasons he gave were the propagation of the species, societal welfare, and the general sanity of those involved. Then he told me, in his rapid-fire, meandering, stream-of-consciousness way, how he discovered his calling in life as a result of a backyard scuffle with a friend.
“One day my friend shows me this tape of the Ultimate Fighting Championship,” Miller said. “After I saw it, I was like ‘man I can beat all of those guys up,’ not realizing that there is a lot more to it than being able to take a punch and punch a guy back. Well one day he asks me to spar, and I say, ‘against little you?’ So, we go in the backyard, and he kicks me in the stomach. I take him down and before I know it, he has choked me unconscious with a triangle choke. I didn’t even know what it was. When I woke up, I told him, ‘Man that was awesome! I have to learn that.’”
After finding his calling in his buddies back yard, Miller went on the road. He traveled wherever he needed to in order to get the best training. He’d amassed a solid record with his no frills, dogged fighting style. He was Henderson’s most frequent sparring partner, and the word around the gym was that was he was impossible to submit.
A Silver Medalist in Greco-Roman Wrestling in the 1992 Olympics Dan Henderson smiled a wide, toothless smile and leaned against the wall. I commented on how well-conditioned all the athletes at Team Quest are. He explained that the concentration on conditioning comes from the team’s wrestling background and notes that MMA was less arduous than the competitive wrestling he used to compete in.
“Today I may fight three times a year. When I wrestled it was maybe ten or twelve tournaments a year with five matches a tournament. So, our wrestling background has built mental toughness. I mean, you fight the way you train, and we don’t quit when we train or when we fight.”
This wrestler’s mentality and the conditioning that went with it was one of the big advantages wrestlers like him, Lindland and Couture had when they first started breaking into the sport. He told me that he thinks he could beat Fedor—who had just defeated his old training partner Matt Lindland in less than 2 minutes and who outweighs Henderson by 50 pounds—without a hint of bravado, just one predator sizing up another. At the time Fedor was considered unbeatable and was 50 pounds bigger than Henderson but five years after making the prediction he stopped Fedor in one round.
After Dan left the gym, I saw Parsons. “Hey Doc, can I try some of the exercises I saw you guys do at the beginning of class? “I ask, making a spur of the moment decision.
“Sure,” he said, “come back tomorrow at 11:00.”
“Why did I do that?” I wondered.
“Are you ready?” Dr. Parsons asked me the next day. He’d had me come at 11:00 because we’d have the gym to ourselves, and I wouldn’t hold things up. He’d going to run me through two 5-minute sets, and I’m supposed to keep the intensity up throughout. “I’m as ready as I will be,” I tell him.
“Pick up the hammer and hit that tire,” he said.
“Is there some technique to it?”
“Yes, there is, you pick the hammer up swing it over your head and hit the tire.”
“I see,” and so it began.
“Keep hitting. Breathe. You’re doing well,” he said looking at his stopwatch.
This isn’t as hard as it looks, I thought to myself.
“Start doing push-ups.” Still not so bad.
“Climb the rope, touch the bar at the top, and come back down.” I made it all the way up without incident, but I burned my hands sliding back down too fast.
“Run down there and jump up and down on the box,” he said, referring to the plyometric step. I started wondering how much time was left.
“Go do pull-ups” I was now officially struggling and embarrassed by the fact that I could only do a couple of pull-ups without relying on the nearby wall for help.
“Pick up the medicine ball and slam it down as hard as you can.” Hard but easier than the pull-ups. “Sprint down there and slam Red Man.”
“How?” I gasped, thinking he’d give me some secret leverage trick that would make the task easier.
“It doesn’t matter, just do it. Pick him up and throw him on the ground.” Technique wasn’t the point, physical exertion was.
“Again, slam him until I tell you to stop,” his instructions came in the same constant cadence I remembered from the day before.
“Do wind sprints to that wall and back. Keep going.” This sucked.
“Now jump up on the ring and down.” Parsons expected me to be able to jump from the floor to the apron of the boxing ring, but I had to cheat by using my hands for an extra boost at the last second. Again, the point wasn’t not so much the technique as the physical exertion involved.
“Now take this medicine ball and do squat jumps to the wall and back.”
“Now throw the ball and hit the X on the wall,” He said pointing to a blue X high up on the wall by the pull-up bars and climbing rope.
“Do it and catch it on the way down, and do it until I tell you to stop,” Dr. Parsons said matter-of-factly.
After what seemed to me like eons, he told me that five minutes had elapsed and I could stop. My arms were on fire, I was out of breath, and my head was spinning, but I hadn’t had a heart attack and I didn’t throw up. Thank Heaven for small mercies. That wasn’t so bad, I convinced myself.
“Rest a little and we’ll do the second one,” Parsons said.
Ouch! In my momentary hubris, I’d forgotten that I was supposed to do two circuits.
After a charitably long rest, I embarked on a second 5-minute circuit. Identical but much harder to get through. On my third swing at the tire a wave of sudden exhaustion hit me all at once. I now understood what Dr. Parsons meant when he emphasized the importance of barking out each step of the drill. At a certain point I was so tired, that I simply didn’t have enough energy to deploy to both my conscious mind and my body at the same time. My mental dialogue ceases and Parsons voice was like a a rope, pulling me along as my body did what it was instructed to do.
Even though I felt like quitting 20 seconds into the second set, I didn’t. Instead, I grunted, gasped, and groaned my way through the second circuit. I attribute this to the fact that the fear of shame is a powerful motivator, and I will also mention that, while my shit list is not very long, Red Man is on it.
Later in the day I was feeling good about making it through Parson’s workout so when I saw Henderson, on the edge of the ring watching two fighters spar, I mention that I’d done a circuit.
“Did you climb the rope?” he asks skeptically, still watching the guys in the ring.
“I did,” I say.
“Did you throw Red Man?”
“Did you flip the tire?”
“Uh, no.” You’re supposed to flip that giant thing over!? Hitting it with the hammer had been hard enough. Did Parson not ask me to because he thought it would be too difficult for me? Suddenly my big accomplishment is dwarfed by that effing tire.
Henderson turned to look at me. “Ehhh,” he said with a “so what” shrug and turned back to watching the sparring in the ring.
I was leaving the next day, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the tire. My mood fluctuated between steely determination to try to flip the thing and visceral dread of the embarrassment if I failed. I checked out of my hotel and dropped by the gym on my way out of town.
“I have to see if I can turn that thing over,” I told Parsons when I got there, pointing to the tire.
“You want to try to flip the tire, huh?” he smiled “let’s do it.”
Miller, the team striking coach Shawn Tompkins, and a handful of others stopped what they’re doing to watch me. I slipped off my shoes and slowly approached the tire, sizing it up. I’d never lifted or flipped anything remotely as heavy as the tire so I had no frame reference for how hard it would be.
As I got closer it looked more and more immovable. I knelt down and gripped it underhanded and heaved for all that I’m worth and the tire comes up about six inches.
“Get under it,” Miller said, “change your grip and use your legs. Push it more than lift.” It was a good tip and after some straining and grunting the tire slowly lurches up and over, crashing satisfyingly to the floor.
As the tire hit the ground Miller started jumping around, whooping and hollering like a lunatic. “That’s what I’m talking about! Editor-in-CHIEF, bitches!” he cheered, and I got about 10 seconds of “good jobs” from the rest of the guys watching.
A wave of relief washed over me that my little stunt had worked in my favor. I go straight from the gym to the airport. “Mayhem” Miller and I became friends from that point on.
“What the Mongolians would do is rush in with their cavalry…” Greg Jackson weaved his spell from outside the ring, his eyes wide with excitement, “…then, when the knights would charge out to confront them, the Mongolians would turn around and appear to retreat. Then suddenly they would turn in their saddles, fire their bows over their shoulders, and decimate the knights with their arrows…” The two fighters in the ring, Keith Jardine and Tait Fletcher, hung on Jackson’s every word.
“The point is, even though it looked like they were retreating,” Jackson paused to be sure they get the point, “they were actually drawing you in.”
Jardine, whose ring name was the “The Dean of Mean,” glowered across the ring. Tait glared back at him and bellowed, “I’M ABOUT TO GO MONGOLIAN ON YOU MOTHERFUCKER!” The two fierce-looking men, when they weren’t not fighting each other, were like brothers.
Rashad Evans and Georges St. Pierre, talked by the free weights.
“Man when you got daht finuhl takedown, he was feenished!” St. Pierre said in his Quebecois accent.
They both laughed in the knowing way fighters have when talking to each other about fights. Rashad shook his head.
“I know, he was done. DONE!” He clinched his fists and gritted his teeth in mock frustration. “It’s okay, I’ll get his ass,” Rashad says suddenly turning serious. They were talking about Rashad’s recent fight with Tito Ortiz at UFC 73, which went to a draw.
The atmosphere was easy going and good-natured but the team’s stars had recently been beset by a string of high profile setbacks. At UFC 69, Diego Sanchez, who was no longer on the team, got upset in a snoozer of a fight by Josh Koscheck.
Later that same night in the main event, St. Pierre was knocked out by underdog Matt Serra in the first round, in what is, still to this day, one of the sports biggest upsets. At UFC 71, Jardine got caught by the crude but heavy-handed Houston Alexander and went to sleep just 48 seconds into the first round. Then recently, at UFC 73, Nate Marquardt got manhandled and stopped by UFC Middleweight champion Anderson Silva.
They were all coming off disappointments, but you wouldn’t have known it from the gym’s atmosphere. The losses strengthened the team’s resolve. There wasn’t any professional rivalry or petty jealousy in the room. They were all training, struggling, and suffering together.
In Boxing, a good sparring partner is rugged, tough, has enough cardio to keep the pace up, and is just dangerous enough to keep his partner on his toes but not so dangerous to represent a real threat. In MMA, on the other hand, fighters had to train with people who really pushed them. Fighters who don’t have talented training partners suffer because of it as the sport passes them by.
Everybody was always testing their limits and getting beaten up in training. If nobody in the gym could compete with you, they’d throw you in the “Shark Tank”—or “Crucible”, different gyms had different names—but the point was that they keep throwing fresh bodies at you with no respite.
I saw them through GSP in the Shark Tank later in the day. First, he went against Marquardt. Jackson wanted GSP to practice staying on his feet. GSP’s upcoming opponent, Josh Koscheck was a decorated wrestler. He’d look to negate GSP’s superior standing strikes by bringing the fight to the ground. While GSP never trained in college wrestling, he’d become one of the best wrestlers in MMA because of his uncanny level of athleticism and unflappable work ethic.
When they started, Nathan Marquardt, a chiseled light heavyweight, worked his way in between jabs, throwing punches in duplicate and triplicate while looking for the opportunity to shoot in and tackle GSP to the floor. His only job was to tire GSP out and get him off his feet, but he never could. Between each round, Jackson gave his fighters a 45-second rest, 15 seconds less than they get in a real match.
Next in with GSP was Rashad Evans. Rashad was more aggressive than Marquardt and tried to close the distance faster. Rashad had quick hands and his punches snapped, but they’d come in wide. He held his left hand out in an exaggerated position, shaking it like he was dangling a bell in front of St. Pierre. This seemed like it would be easy to counter but maybe that was the point. Maybe he was trying to draw St. Pierre in. If he is, it doesn’t work.
Keith Jardine was next, and Jardine absolutely dwarfed GSP. St. Pierre was tiring so Jardine used his size and strength to push him around and accelerate the pace. He caught the smaller man in clinches against the cage and roughed him pretty good. Towards the end of the round, he finally got St. Pierre down on the ground. Just as quickly, GSP swept Jardine and ended up on top of him, in his guard.
Finally, GSP got to face a smaller fighter when the valiant Leonard Garcia replaced Jardine. Garcia could tell St. Pierre was tired, so the Mexican fighter attacked the French Canadian like a pit terrier.
Garcia, who was an excellent Jiu-Jitsu fighter, also got GSP off his feet. The he got overaggressive and GSP quickly caught him in an arm lock from the guard. Garcia, angry with himself for getting caught, cursed up a storm. Jackson stood them up and they began again.
By now the whole gym was watching GSP and Garcia go at it. Jardine, Rashad, and Marquardt were on the outside shouting encouragement to both of them as they came down the home stretch.
“Watch your head, Leonard…” Rashad shouted.
“Sprint, Georges, sprint… you’ve got 30 seconds left!” Jardine encouraged.
“If Georges fights like this, Koscheck doesn’t have a chance,” someone behind me said.
“Yeah, he’s going to walk through him,” I agreed.
“DON’T TELL ANYBODY!” Big Mike Van Arsdale bellowed so that everybody in the gym could hear him. “That’s how shit gets in the wind.”
Later I talked to Greg in his cluttered little office, tucked away behind the lockers. Portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln overlooked the trainers cramped desk. Legend has it that both of the former Presidents were fine wrestlers. The tall and wiry Lincoln was said to have been strong as an ox and something of a local champion during his youth in Illinois. Washington, who was a powerful and robust man himself, once bested seven of his soldiers in a row in wrestling when he was 47 years old. These anecdotes were certainly stored away somewhere in Jackson’s encyclopedic memory.
“What I do…” Jackson stopped as if forming in his mind exactly what he wanted to say. “I look for underlying themes in nature. Just like physics governs everything from snow falling to the spinning of the planets, this process large works for this process small.” “I look for that in combat,” he continued, “I look for axioms that govern say, a battle in World War II, that I can use the same principle in a one-on-one fight in the modern age.”
“A skeptic would say that they don’t have anything to do with each other,” I pointed out.
“Well, my favorite example,” he explains, “is what General Sherman said about keeping your enemy on the ‘horns of a dilemma. When General Sherman was marching through the South in the Civil War, he would put his army at equal distances from two towns the South wanted to defend. Now whichever one the Confederacy defended, he would just march in and take the other one without much of a fight, which would then put him in position for two more towns. So, this is an incredible axiom in combat because, for example, in your side mount you always want to set yourself up for two attacks, let’s say an arm bar and a choke. Whichever one your opponent defends, you should always be in a position to rotate into the opposite one.”
We are interrupted by Georges St. Pierre, now showered and in street clothes. He overheard some of the conversation on his way out, passing by the open door of the office. “Dis man is a jeenyus!” he exclaimed for my benefit, pointing his finger emphatically at Jackson “I’m serious, a jeenyus!”
With Greg in his corner, he would go on to run through Koschek at UFC 73 a few weeks later. He’d then dominate the sport, beating everybody he faced for the next ten years until he retired from the cage in 2017
Miletich Fighting Systems
Pat Miletich was scowling, sitting on a blue balance ball in the center of his gym’s wrestling room, elbow resting on his knee, supporting his chin on his fist, like Rodin’s “The Thinker.”
Behind him, sitting on the floor against the wall, was giant Tim Sylvia. Jens Pulver, always a ball of nervous energy, fidgeted next to Sylvia.
There was a virtual who’s who of MMA fighters in the room. Brad Imes, who was a big as Tim, lied sprawled on the floor. Another good heavyweight fighter who was currently on a run in the International Fight League named Ben Rothwell, had captured another balance ball. UFC veteran Spencer Fisher was here, and many more.
In addition to the fighters, an assortment of older gentlemen, including white-haired businessmen, farmers, community leaders, and a man, now retired, who had just sold his business for a fortune, were also in the crowd. They all sat lined up against the walls of the gym.
The group met at the gym every Wednesday at 11:00 am for a Bible study group. In the early days, only four people showed up. Now, sometimes, they get as many as a hundred. The day I attended there were about twenty.
“I think we can all have voids in our lives,” Pat said thoughtfully to the men in the group, who listened intently. “And to fill those voids we can sometimes choose the wrong things, whether it be money, or chasing women, or drugs, or whatever…”
The subject of this meeting was temptation and after a talk that lasts about 30 minutes the young pastor moderating the meeting opened up the group for a discussion, which is free spoken and sincere.
Ben Rothwell and Brad Imes are good friends and lightened the mood if it got too heavy, by sharing a funny story or self-effacing observation.
The atmosphere was relaxed and trusting. Attendees didn’t have to say anything but if they did it had to be from the heart. Everyone here was a straight shooter, or at least they were from 11:00 to 12:00 on Wednesday mornings. The meeting ended with the pastor asking if anyone has requests for prayers; several people make them.
Jens Pulver shows up for sparring later that night but forgets his mouthpiece. He goes to the bathroom and gets a couple of paper towels, which he wadded up and stuffed in his mouth. He gets into his headgear and gloves.
My enthusiasm had gotten the better of me the day before when I had asked Pat if I could take part in his gym’s legendary Wednesday night sparring session. “You want to spar?” he asked incredulously.
“I couldn’t come all the way up here and not do it. I’d never be able to live with myself. I used to box a little,” I said. Wednesday nights at Pat’s are notorious.
“Now I’m excited,” he said.
Everybody spars at the same time, so it was wild. I had to be conscious not only of the guy in front of me but of what was going on around me as well, so I don’t get hit with a wild punch or kick or run over another pair of fighters.
It was a crazy scene, with all sorts of mayhem. Out of my peripheral vision I saw a guy get dropped with a body shot. He groans and writhes on the floor, spitting out his mouthpiece and nobody paid any particular attention. Expect no quarter at Pat’s on Wednesday nights. If you got knocked out, you get knocked out.
In my gloves, mouthpiece, and headgear, I deluded myself into feeling protected. As everyone started pairing off, I waved to Jens to spar with me. Jens always seems like he is surprised at something but this time he looks a little more so than usual. He gives me a look that says, “All right…if you insist.”
I knew, or thought I knew, that since Jens was a southpaw and I’m right-handed, I’m supposed to step to my left and tag him with a straight right but every time I threw my right, he moved either to the right or left so that my punch ended up where he had been, as opposed to where he was. Then he’d hit me three or four times for good measure before I can reset.
After one round, Jens knew that I’m tired. I can see his eyes narrow and the killer in him take over. He started to bounce, and his punches got harder and faster. He really picked it up and became a blur of rights and lefts. I discovered to my chagrin that he had a little man’s speed and a big man’s power.
Luckily for me, we weren’t throwing kicks and we were using the big 16-ounce sparring gloves. With those big gloves, all you really have to do is keep your chin tucked behind your shoulder and keep your right glove planted on the side of your check. This will usually deflect your opponent’s blows up to the top of the head where they’re easier to take. A hard puncher like Jens can still shake you up though. If we had been using 4-ounce gloves like the ones used in MMA matches, I’m sure that I’d have ended up taking a nap on Pat’s blue Swain mats.
I made it to the bell. I’m exhausted but relieved I didn’t go down. Jens and I only went two rounds, but I feel like Sylvester Stallone at the end of the first Rocky (the only good one by the way). I had a strangely giddy feeling that I suspect was the product of adrenaline and getting punched very hard in the head. I can’t really explain why but somehow getting in there and banging with Lil’ Evil even though I got the worst of it was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.
Is your forehead all sore from yesterday?” Pat asked. I have come by early to tell everyone goodbye before leaving Iowa.
“No, not really,” I said truthfully. I won’t start to ache for another day or so. I told Pat that I consider the whole thing an exercise in my spiritual growth because nothing teaches you humility like getting beaten up by a guy you outweigh by 50 pounds. He seemed to like that. Then again, with Pat you can never really tell. We go outside to my car, shake hands and say our goodbyes.
I watch him lumber back into the gym, hands in pockets, out of the rear-view mirror as I pull away. I thought about what Pat said to me before I went to the Wednesday morning meeting. “This is probably going to be the first Bible study group you go to where there’s cussing,” he’d said, peering up at me from beneath his unreadable frown.
“Well, if it was a tea party none of the guys would come,” I replied.
Pat had suddenly lit up, his frown disappearing into a sunny ear-to-ear grin. “Yeah, Jesus didn’t come to preach to the righteous, he came to preach to the shitheads like me that need it.”
How striking, I remember thinking, that such a coarse statement could contain such a profound and beautiful sentiment.
American Top Team
“Hey man, how do you do? I’m Liborio,” he says as he leaps from behind the counter and puts his arm around my shoulder. “Let me show you around.”
Ricardo Liborio: fighter, teacher, coach, father figure, entrepreneur, cheerleader, visionary, salesman, you name it – leads me on a whistle stop tour of the 20,000-square foot American Top Team training facility in Coconut Creek, Florida.
Ever cheerful, Liborio is a bundle of constant motion. And why shouldn’t he be? He made it big. Five years ago, Liborio, who previously made waves as one of the founders of Brazilian Top Team, decided that it was time to seek his fortune in the United States.
He met top hotel executive and MMA aficionado Dan Lambert through a mutual friend and a partnership was born. Lambert would provide the financial backing and business know-how, and Liborio would provide the fighting knowledge and sweat equity.
The product of this auspicious pairing was American Top Team. The nucleus of the new team was formed by a cadre of Brazilian fighters who followed Liborio north to the Promised Land. Over the last 4 years, ATT (as it is commonly known) has taken the mixed martial arts world by storm.
Today, in addition to the main gym in Coconut Creek, there are seventeen smaller franchises and even more gyms that subscribe to the training system Liborio devised. ATT is all about inclusion. If other gyms are sometimes intimidating, at ATT you’re welcome as long as you work hard, help the team, and buy into the mindset Liborio preaches.
The atmosphere was warm and laid back. Fighters were polite to each other and deferential to the coaches. Everyone, whether he was a star or just starting out, showed respect and bowed when entering and exiting the mat. In a place of prominence on the wall, in the middle of a line of framed championship belts won by the team, is a sign that reads:
Principles of a Black Belt
›› Indomitable Spirit
The greatest compliment you can pay a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter is to say that he is technical. To be technical is to depend more on your mastery of the techniques of Jiu-Jitsu than on your bodily advantages. To be technical, as FIGHT! photographer and BJJ black belt Paul Thatcher told me, was to value the cerebral over the physical.
Liborio was very technical. As a competitor, precision was his hallmark. When Liborio won the prestigious Mundial’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu World Championships back in 1996, he was also awarded the medal for most technical fighter.
When he instructed his fighters, he was meticulous and deliberate. He made them perform the same maneuvers over and over until they got them just right. Sometimes he’d correct very small inaccuracies in his fighter’s techniques. Stopping them to move someone’s hand just a few inches. A few inches are all it takes.
Later in the day I watch the team roll, or grapple and spar at full or close to full speed. Up-and-comer Micah Miller was rolling with another fighter who was much bigger than he is. The fighter was a lot stronger than Micah and has caught him in a guillotine choke, a sort of front face lock.
I could tell the guy is inexperienced because he didn’t quite have it sunk in correctly. Micah’s chin was tucked toward his shoulder protecting his neck. Micah’s opponent made the mistake of trying to force the move through and after about a minute of squeezing he was exhausted. Micah popped his head out, swept the guy, and mounted him. Had it been a real match, the end would have been near for the man on the bottom.
“You can sometimes muscle a guy, if you’re very strong. But what happens when you come up against someone who is stronger than you are?” Liborio explained to me.
“Technique must come first.” MMA was constantly changing and evolving so in order to stay ahead of the curve Liborio did research by watching hundreds and hundreds of fights on video, just like I’d seen Greg Jackson do. “I am always watching them. Stopping them, rewinding them, slowing them down. I am looking for what moves work and which ones don’t. I’m interested in the physiology of the moves.”
Danelio Injo, a Brazilian grappler who had recently joined the team, likens Jiu-Jitsu to chess and says that you defeat your opponent by a series of incremental advantageous adjustments. “You must take it piece by piece, move by move.” He said as he moved imaginary chess pieces in the air.
I saw this in action watching Micah’s older brother Cole Miller roll. At 6’1” and fighting in the 155-pound weight division, Cole has the sort of long wiry physique made for BJJ. Because of his build, he was rarely the strongest man in the ring but even from his back, he was always threatening his opponent somewhere. I watched him grapevine his long, snaky legs around his opponent’s knees, threatening to sweep him or transition to a leg lock.
When his opponent moved to counter, Cole went for a Kimura arm lock that then became a guillotine, which he sunk in causing his opponent to tap out. The sort of hyperactive Jiu-Jitsu game that Cole was practicing, had been used to great effect by such other stars as like Nick and Nathan Diaz and Diego Sanchez. It had replaced the passive “lay and pray” closed guard defense that Royce Gracie made famous back in the 90s.
Liborio believed that the old way is a thing of the past. Other forms of grappling had adjusted to Jiu Jitsu and developed ways of inflicting so much damage from inside the guard that it was too dangerous to just sit in it. “Also,” explained Liborio, “the rules have changed. Even if a guy isn’t passing the guard or doing any damage, if nothing is happening, they’ll stand them up.” These rule changes were the ones that Rickson told me handicapped Gracie Jiu Jitsu when I’d met him in Rio.
Later, I watch a fighter whose been around for years named Yves Edwards spar with Jorge Masvidal, and the younger man is really giving it to him. Masvidal caught him with a good punch to the body, right under the short ribs on the right side. Yves grinned and nodded his head.
It wasn’t an arrogant, “you can’t hurt me” smile, or one designed to goad his opponent. I don’t even think he was smiling at Masvidal. It was a smile of recognition.
The punch Yves got hit with, when landed correctly, convulses the liver and is about the most painful thing any fighter can face. A shot to the head can get you wobbly, and one to the chin will put you out, but it would be inaccurate to say they hurt. The sensation is more one of shock and fuzziness.
By contrast, a liver shot will make you want to die. It feels like a hole has opened up in your side and all of your guts have spilled out onto the floor. This the punch that made Oscar De La Hoya quit in front of the whole world against Bernard Hopkins. The natural human reaction to such pain is to turn and run, or to cry out, crumple the floor or otherwise collapse.
Fighters are constantly confronting these feelings and attempting to subordinate the instinctual things their bodies are telling them through a conscious decision. Over the course of a career a fighter will come up against these impulses, these natural human reactions, countless times.
He must, if he is to be any kind of fighter at all, meet them each time and stuff them back down. Every time this happens, the pain doesn’t get less but the fighter’s ability to muffle the animal part of himself that seeks only self-preservation gets stronger. This is why a good fighter will seek misery in the gym. That way they’ll be old friends when they inevitably meet in the cage.
“Are you going to train with us today?” asked Liborio when I entered the gym the next day. I hesitated. I’m not afraid of getting hurt—I know that the guys will roll light with me.
What I was worried about was fatigue. There’s no shame in getting thrown around by an Olympic caliber wrestler or being tied in knots by a BJJ black belt, but to gas out, to start dragging due to exhaustion; shows a lack of will, a kind of unmanliness.
“Come on, man! We are doing standup with takedowns today. It will be fun!” Liborio’s cheerful energy sucked me in. It is impossible to say no to him.
We did roll light and it was fun. It was also eye opening on a couple of counts. I learned that defending yourself against punches is much harder when you have to account for the possibility of your opponent shooting in and taking you down.
You always have to be ready to sprawl. This is where you jump up and out of the way because your opponent is diving for your legs. The trick, as far as I could tell, is to make sure your legs are way out in back of you and that you use your hips to push your opponent into the mat. It is a difficult move and not one that I find natural, but it is a vital one to master if you want to stay on your feet in an MMA contest.
When the murderous punching Chuck Liddell ate up all the wrestler in the UFC he called his style Sprawl ad Brawl. Unlike Liddell, or the fighters, I was training with that day I had yet to master the sprawl, so I was thrown around like a rag doll for the better part of an hour.
Also interesting was the difference between fighters with wrestling backgrounds versus BJJ guys. Lew Polley, a promising young light heavyweight, who was also a decorated college wrestler, had me up in the air in no time then slammed me down. He passes my guard like it was nothing. Rolling with him felt like I was up against an irresistible force and physically outmatched.
With the BJJ stylists like Roan Carneiro and Jorge Masvidal, instead of being picked up and propelled through the air, they just tangled me up and make me trip over myself. Once on the ground I didn’t feel like they were even using any strength. I always seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It seemed like if I could just move my leg a little bit or get a tiny bit more space, then maybe I can do something. Of course, I never could.
Every workout at ATT ended with the same ritual. No matter how tired they were, the fighters on the team ended each practice by sprinting around the gym’s 4,000-square foot Tatami mats for 5 minutes while Liborio stood in the center urging his men on.
“Come on, look like winners!” he shouted as they began running. “Put your arms in the air.” Everyone started pumping both hands above their heads. “Pick up the pace. Relax your shoulders. Faster, come on!” Cole and Micah ran side by side. “Relax, now is your moment. Put your hands in the air. You are the winner. See yourself.”
The pace quickened. Giant Antonio Silva, who weighed over 300 pounds, trucked his massive body forward as the smaller fighters zipped around him like tiny sports cars passing a semi on the highway. Liborio was clapping his hands, the fighters in the gym seem to get energy from this exercise, and they run even faster. “You are the champion!” Everyone gritted their teeth and really kicked it in. “The world is watching! You are the winner! Feel the energy!” Liborio proclaimed.
The fighters shook off whatever vestiges of fatigue they had and accelerated into the final minute, really sprinting now. Nobody wanted to be the one who looked tired.
” Victory is yours! Feel what it is like to be victorious!” By now, there was a tangible electricity in room as Liborio’s voice crescendoed. The man had the gift of exhortation. I was just a writer but by now even I was thinking about my title shot.
“Put your hands up! You are the winner…” Liborio called from the center of a circle of 24 sprinting fighters like the axis of a giant wheel. “The crowd is chanting your name!”
Team Alpha Male
As has always been the rule with boxing, in MMA the smaller you were the better you need to be to get noticed. Urijah Faber was the reason why there is a Featherweight division in the United States. Along with stars like Miguel Torres, he built the World Extreme Cagefighting’s brand to be second only to that of its parent company, the mighty UFC.
Blending speed, power, technique, and energy, when I visited his gym Urijah boasted a record of 22-2, with 18 wins by stoppage. Eleven of those came in the very first round including his last fight in which he choked out Jens Pulver in 94 seconds after breaking his rib with a body shot. This is the same Jens Pulver that boxed rings around me at Pat Miletich’s. Urijah overwhelmed the MMA legend with unrestrained energy, strength, speed, and pure physicality at WEC 38.
I watched Urijah slowly drill takedowns with a class of twelve other fighters from Team Alpha Male. They were doing “structured drilling,” where they practiced their maneuvers at 25 percent resistance. The purpose of this type of drilling was to allow the body to recognize the position it’s in and respond with the correct counter or technique without the athlete having to think about it.
Urijah ran the class and also took part in it. It was an impressive display. He’d run through several positions with his training partner, Dustin “The Persian Prince” Akbari, before breaking out to go over to another pair of fighters and instruct them on something he’d seen out of the corner of his eye.
Although Urijah was famous for his great physical gifts and for steamrolling his opponents, it was clear from watching him in class that his brawn was backed up by a capacious knowledge of wrestling. The class drilled multiple techniques, then transitioned smoothly into an equally broad array of counters.
Urijah flowed into a slick sweep off an attempt at a single leg by Akbari. Once they got back up, he went on the offensive, moving in behind three quick punches that he pulled just inches from The Persian Prince’s face, then changing levels by dipping perfectly at the knees. He then faked a shot but instead went for an ankle pick. Akbari drops and before he could compose himself on the ground, Urijah throws a sweeping right. This would have been a devastating, fight-ending sequence had Urijah performed it at full speed.
The level of grappling expertise in the room was formidable. If one of wasn’t fighters isn’t up to par, Urijah had no compunction about switching him to one of the school’s more basic grappling classes. If one of his fighters trained with someone too far above him in technical skill, it did neither of them much good. “It makes you tougher, but it doesn’t make you better,” Urijah told me later.
The Muay Thai classes were run by a man they call Master Thong. One of Master Thong’s students was the dreaded K-1 fighter Buakaw Por Pramuk, the man said to have the most ferocious kicks in the world. When I took the Muay Thai class, Master Thong navigated around the mats carrying a thin yellow Wiffle bat, which he used to pop people on the back of the leg or on top of the head to get their attention. The class had a little light sparring at the end but was mainly concerned with basic Muay Thai combinations and conditioning.
After the class, Urijah explained to me that his gym’s focus on technique and repetition, “We all come from wrestling, so our bodies are used to drilling. Whether it’s drilling a takedown or a punch or kick, you just do it over and over until you get it.”
Teaching the team, the basics of boxing was the job of Juan Lazcano. Lazcano used to be a top professional boxer and once took Ricky Hatton 12 hard rounds in a title fight. When we first meet, I told him with a wink that Iwas always a little prejudiced in favor of fighters with good hands because of my background in boxing. He laughed good-naturedly and said, “I’m teaching these guys the basics of boxing, but the basics as they pertain to MMA.”
I take his class later in the day. In the first drill, we all get in a big circle and Lazcano calls out instructions from a spiral notebook he has in his hands.
“Circle to the left,” he began, and the whole class starts moving laterally to the left. Lazcano called out different combinations. Each round lasts 3 minutes and the complexity of the drills steadily increased. Initially, we were throwing easy three-punch combinations but by the sixth and last round we’re changing directions, jabbing, dipping, feinting, moving in and out, etc.
As usual, Urijah outworked everybody in the room. Even when he’s drilling, there’s a speed and explosiveness to his movements that the others didn’t have. He’d been blessed with a higher gear than everybody else.
Next we each got a punching bag and work on specific punches or simple combinations. There are no Floyd Mayweather-esque nine-punch combinations with this crowd. Everything is simple and to the point.
The reason is that, in MMA, you can’t just plant yourself in front of someone and “let your hands go” because your opponent always has the option of dropping down and taking out your legs. Simple two- and three-punch combinations work best.
They practiced a deceptively simple maneuver throwing a stiff left jab while dipping at the knees. This takes advantage of a wrestler’s ability to change levels and to mislead his opponent by always threatening a shot at his opponent’s legs. In MMA, most of the feints are up-and-down, as opposed to side-to-side like in boxing and I am reminded of some of the techniques I saw Urijah drilling the day before.
“If I was going to design my ideal lifestyle,” Urijah told me later, “it would be doing exactly what I do now: work out, hang out with my friends, and watch fights. I always said that if I could find a way to workout for a living, that’s what I’d do.” He talked about what he calls “the fighting lifestyle” and what it takes to be successful. “If you’re going to be a fighter, you have to make it your life,” he said. “Training becomes your life. No drinking, watching your diet, living in the gym.”
The appeal of this lifestyle drew a group of talented lighter weight fighters into Urijah’s orbit and he has known many of them for a long time, some since before he had a career in MMA.
He rattled off the back-stories of some of his teammates. “I’ve been training with Akbari since he was 15 and 135 pounds. Today he’s 21 and 185. “I recruited Chad Mendez when I was a coach at UC Davis,” he continued. “Matt Sanchez and I actually competed against each other in college wrestling. He beat me in my last match.” Urijah pointed over his shoulder to Danny Castillo. “I’ve known Castillo since the ninth grade.” adding that Castillo gave up a desk job to pursue his dream of being a fighter.
“Uscola and I used to fight on the Indian reservations back in the day,” he said, talking about Kyacey Uscola. Urijah had the habit, common to many ex-college wrestlers, of referring to everyone, even close friends, exclusively by their last names. “And Benavidez,” he said, referring to Joseph Benavidez, “walked into the gym one day after his flight was delayed and the rest is history.”
Urijah was another of the real pioneers in mixed martial arts, that I was lucky enough to meet. In fact, he was the only fighter that I put on the cover of Fight! twice because I always considered him one of the best examples of what was right with the sport.
American Kickboxing Academy
Anyone who has spent a lot of time in fight gyms will recognize their familiar smell: a combination of stale sweat, wet leather, and something vaguely reminiscent of urine (the imported leather, which finds its way into a lot of training gear, is treated with cow urine overseas. Although it’s not a pleasant smell, it lends credibility. If a gym has been open for a while and doesn’t have the smell, it is hard to take it seriously. It is the smell of strain and physical effort.
When I arrived at American Kickboxing Academy I noticed twenty or so professional fighters gathered in the back on the Jiu-Jitsu mats, underneath a giant American flag hanging on the wall. AKA’s head coach Javier Mendez had something on his mind.
“If you don’t have concern for the other people in this room, there is no place for you on this team.” His eyes moved around the space, making eye contact with each member of his American Kickboxing Academy. Many of the fighters were new to the game, struggling to make it, holding onto day jobs as well as training. Others were on their way to being millionaires from their involvement with MMA. He emphasized the next part to make sure he gets the point across, “Whoever you are.”
He’d called the meeting has been called because newer fighters had been scheduled to get checked out for staph but didn’t show up for his doctor’s appointment even though Javier had offered to pay for it. That put the whole team at risk. Some of them have big money fights coming up, so Mendez wanted to get the message out loud and clear. He wouldn’t tolerate anyone endangering the well-being and livelihood of their teammates
Phil Baroni stood up and announced brazenly, “If you’re not in the UFC or haven’t fought in PRIDE, I don’t want to hear from you.” He was promptly heckled by other members of the team and sat down as anyone who wants to add his two cents did so for the next twenty minutes.
Paul Buentello moved around the ring in a giant circle, avoiding the clumsy but dangerous attacks of one of the newer guys, a huge wrestler. Buentello’s wasn’t bouncing like boxers do when they’re showing off – that’s a waste of energy. He was sliding around the ring, old school.
He was trying to maintain as much space as possible between himself and his opponent. Like an angry bull, Buentello’s hulking opponent snorted and huffed with each missed punch and shot attempt.
“Remember…” Mendez warned Buentello from outside the ring, “You don’t want to get close to a good wrestler.” In MMA, where there was always the simultaneous danger of an opponent attacking your legs and landing kicks, a non-grappler like Buentello had to keep his distance. Until he strikes, that is. Buentello’s opponent got too close and Buentello bounces a loose right hand off his forehead.
“Yeah! That’s what I’m looking for,” encouraged Mendez.
Every so often Buentello threw a stiff low kick to keep his opponent honest. World champion kickboxer Maurice Smith once told me that the purpose of a low kick is so that when the other guy says, ” Ouch,” you can punch him in the nose. He was kidding but the point was that low kicks are used to set up other moves. Buentello was using his to divide his opponent’s attention.
Increasingly befuddled, the big fighter lunged with wide, amateurish hooks that Buentello parried with his arms before moving out again. The thudding “thwack” of the punches told me that if one was to land on Buentello’s chin, it could be lights out. They went hard at AKA for every second of every round.
Frustrated, Buentello’s opponent started chasing him. This was exactly what Beuntello wanted, because now the guy was easier to hit. His opponent threw his own leg kick but Buentello caught it midair, then deposited the guy on the seat of his pants with another sneaky right. The wrestler got up, embarrassed, and pissed off.
Enraged, he started to fight dumb. When a fighter’s adrenaline is pumping and he’s in the heat of battle, he can focus so hard on trying to get at the guy standing across from him that he stops defending. He started to disregard Buentello who regularly peppers him with rights and lefts, bounced loosely off his forehead.
Suddenly, he trapped Buentello in the corner. Seeing his chance he dipped his hips and lowered his level, either to shoot in or load up on a hook. Buentello was a step ahead and threw a tight uppercut that nearly decapitated the man. He drunkenly pirouettes 180 degrees, takes two steps away from Buentello, and then slumped to one knee. After a few seconds, he popped up, shaking it off. Buentello went easy on him for what was left of the round.
When then bell sounded, the vanquished man slung his headgear and gloves across the gym. He’d shown his inexperience by fighting clumsily out of anger. Worst of all, he’d given up for an, if only for an instant.
When a fighter is stunned, he’ll revert to his instincts. This guy’s instinct was to turn his back on his opponent. Not good. If something like that has to happen, better it is while sparring than in a real match but today the guy let himself down.
After he got out of the ring, Buentello sat down beside me and explained how he kept his opponent at the range he wanted and why it’s an essential part of his fighting strategy. “It’s all footwork,” he said. “It’s not your hands. Keeping the right range is all footwork.“
Buentello is a good example of how strikers have adopted strategies to deal with takedowns, something they used to be helpless against in the early days of MMA. “Say you’ve got a decent wrestler; you always want to circle to his back. You can’t be in a classic boxing or kickboxing stance because you have to be ready to sprawl. If your distance isn’t right or if you have your leg too far forward, here comes the shot.”
Phil Baroni walked past us. He and Josh Koscheck, would soon work together in the ring. From his gym bag, Baroni produced a can of Lysol and proceeds to fumigate both his equipment and everything within a five-foot radius. Baroni was one of the sport’s true characters, half pit-bull and half peacock.
He strutted around, proudly showcasing his perfectly coiffed hair and bodybuilder physique. He was amiable enough but also gave you the impression that he would be happy to bite your nose off if you catch him in the wrong mood.
Earlier, I’d seen Baroni and another teammate conducting an impromptu pose down in front of one of the mirrors, flexing their muscles and angling admiringly like they were having their own private Mr. Olympia contest. It must have been a regular occurrence because nobody else seemed to notice. Josh “The Punk” Thompson, the resident wit of AKA, had shouted, “Hey look, everybody! It’s a gay-off!”
Baroni wasn’t bothered. He seems to have a good sense of humor and he can get away with such antics because the man is famously gutsy and courageous. “Baroni has one of the largest hearts of any fighter I know,” said Koscheck, who didn’t go out of his way to compliment anyone.
Baroni’s showed his heart when he lost a violent match with Frank Shamrock in StrikeForce. Shamrock had Baroni helpless, having applied and sunk in a rear naked choke. Baroni was done and he knew it but rather than give his nemesis the satisfaction of a submission by tapping out, Baroni gamely punched Shamrock in the face with his one free hand until he went unconscious from the choke.
Buentello and I watched Koscheck and Baroni spar. Right before the bell, Baroni suddenly yawped to no one in particular, to psyche himself up.
“Baroni’s ready man, that’s a crazy little Italian” Buentello says gleefully.
Koscheck was a superior wrestler and could easily take Phil down but he’d wanted to work on his standup. Koscheck wasn’t as technically sound a striker as Buentello or Baroni but his reflexes and speed allowed him to stay just a fraction of a second ahead of Baroni at all times. Koscheck handled Baroni easily for three rounds, with lateral movements and quick leg kicks.
After three rounds of chasing Koscheck, Baroni looks to be gassing. In the fourth, Koscheck brought one of his legs up. Whack, he landed a kick to Baroni’s body that sounded like someone hitting a pine tree with a Louisville slugger.
The blow stops Baroni in his tracks. He does a little stutter step that lets Koscheck know he’s hurt. Rather than laying off, Koscheck set up to let go with his hands. With the instinctive ferocity of a wounded animal, Baroni became a buzz saw of hooks, which landed on a surprised Koscheck.
Baroni’s punches exploded off Koscheck’s arms and midsection as he backpedaled across the ring, shocked by the sudden intensity of the onslaught. They came in quick, hard succession. Koscheck was covering up just to stay alive as the last round ends. Koscheck made Baroni look silly for three and a half rounds, but in the end, Koscheck was the one the bell saved.
“When I first came here a couple of years ago, I had to take it easy on Koscheck,” Baroni told me, still struggling to catch his breath as he unlaces his gloves. ”Now he gives me more than I can handle. He has evolved with the game.”
Baroni agreed with Buentello about the difference between striking in boxing and MMA. “You have to be much more aware of takedowns, so you can’t throw extended combinations like you would with another striker.” This is coming from a guy who once knocked out Dave Menne with a sixteen-punch combination.
Later in the day, Koscheck explained to me why they always go so hard at AKA. “Training hard is 90% of it,” he said. Blessed with copious natural athleticism, Koscheck had also developed a collegiate wrestler’s work ethic. Of all the fighters training at AKA, it is Koscheck who spent the most time in the gym.
Josh Thompson told me that in addition to the better-known fighters at AKA, the less-experienced guys are also essential to the success of the team. “A lot of the newer guys come in and really help the older guys get better. In turn, we try to help the younger guys.”
He continued, “They give us bodies to work with and know how to push us without taunting us. When we are tired, they don’t try to be ’practice heroes’ and really put it on us, risking injuring one of us. I‘m very proud of the new guys, because they check their egos at the door. When their time comes, it will be us helping them.”
Koscheck remembered his time at the bottom of the barrel at AKA. “When I first came in, I would just rely on wrestling. I was really rough, so my first two years here I used to get beat down every day but it made me a better fighter.”
Frenchman Jerome Turcan, a world-class kickboxer, taught a class called High Energy Kickboxing to private students who were attracted to AKA because of its success in training professional mixed martial artists. For a solid hour, his heavily accented voice rang out, “Vohn and ah two and ah sree and vouhr,” as he put the class through its paces.
This wasn’t some polished antiseptic gym with dance music blaring and housewives doing Tae Bo; these people were suffering. The group of twenty contained all types. There was an accomplished opera singer, a portly Swedish businessman with a resting heartrate of 40 bpm, and seventy-year-old retiree Rich, known as the 51/50 Vampire after the police code for a crazy and violent offender.
As Ricj goes through Jerome’s class, I am amazed at the pace he is able to maintain. Watching him huff and puff through the brutal gauntlet, I started to worry he might have a heart attack. Slow down, old dude!
I talked to him about why he pushes himself so hard, and he surprised me by saying, “Oh, I come in to fight!” A lot of people take the class to get in shape, but I do it to fight,” he assured me proudly.
AKA hosted “smokers,” where students put their training into practice in supervised matches against one and other or people from other gyms. Rich let me know that he relished being able to prove himself. “The class is like a quiz,” he said, lighting up and getting very excited. “Light sparring is like the midterms, and smokers are like the finals. It’s fine if you just come in to get in shape but if you don’t get in the ring, how do you know you can pass the test?”
The gym has cleared out late in the day when I see Javier’s first MMA fighter, Brian Johnston slowly and deliberately putting his training bag against the wall. “When we started, he really didn’t belong in there. But back in those days, nobody really belonged in there except the Gracies,” Mendez chuckled, referring to the early days of the first UFCs.
Back in those days Johnston was game and tough and had an Adonis-like, camera-friendly physique. After an MMA career, which saw him go 5-5, Johnston moved to his real calling, training others. But about six years ago, life threw Johnston a curve. While training Japanese fighter Kazuya Fujita for his match with Mirko Filipovic, Johnston suffered a brain aneurysm .
“The doctors didn’t think he was going to be able to do anything. They thought he would end up a cripple,” Javier told me. That’s hard to believe as I watched Johnston gear up and start working with a tall blond lady he’s training in kickboxing. Johnston had managed to get back into pretty good shape. His form even hinted that he was once a professional athlete.
“It is miraculous that he’s doing what he is…” Javier marveled at his old friend. The last thing I saw before leaving AKA is Johnston warming up and getting loose. He starts to get a little bounce in his legs as he worked with his student.
It reminded me of a film clip I once saw of Muhammad Ali. It was at some charity event at a small boxing gym. Ali was ravaged by Parkinson’s, shuffling around pitiably and barely able to speak, but when Ali started shadow boxing for the benefit of the film crews he suddenly looked a little better. Some inkling of the old Ali remerged as he popped combinations in the air to the delight of everyone present. It was heartwarming, because it showed that beneath the difficult surface stuff, at the core of the man, there was still a fighter
A storm front back in Atlanta had delayed my flight, so my gate was overbooked and crowded. A woman’s emotionless voice delivered more bad news as the flight was delayed again and again. As if I needed a reminder of my reliance on unseen technological forces, my laptop’s wireless was on the fritz, so I was reduced to observing my environment.
It was a chaotic scene, as everyone was as inconvenienced as I am. A large group of tourists looking very young and very rich were milling around and making a huge racket in Mandarin. Scores of weary business travelers, worried about missing their connecting flights, frantically crowded the service desk. There was an aristocratic-looking gentleman sitting ramrod straight and trying hard to conceal his disgust with the situation. Next to him an old woman with a face like an ancient walnut and a red dot in the center of her forehead stared straight ahead and muttered to herself.
Sitting close to me was a soldier who I overheard was shipping out to Iraq. She was a pretty Korean- American girl, and her army fatigues were crisp, clean, and new looking. She was flirting with a guy she met at the gate, allowing herself the last bit of girlish silliness before heading off to war.
The crowd continues to swell and starts to spill out into the aisle and over into the other gates. On the television mounted on the wall a sour-faced anchorman went through a litany of catastrophes both real and potential: global warming, political dysfunction, skyrocketing gas prices, a housing crash, people murdering each other all over the world with great glee and ingenuity, and a storm in Myanmar that up killed more people than the Hiroshima bomb.
The reaction by the people at the gate watching this depressing monologue was a grim head shake and shoulder shrug, as the normal capacity for outrage and existential horror had been diluted to bewilderment here in the wee hours of the twenty-first century. We were all being acted upon by a mystifying combination of forces we didn’t fully comprehend: political, demographic, sociological, technological, biological, ecological, economic etc. that were pushing and pulling us, herding us around and just like when we boarded the plane later; we were all hoping that the machine doesn’t break in mid-flight. It was a disquieting thought, to be a single individual in the middle of such an ocean of faceless commotion.
Then I thought back to what I witnessed at AKA: Baroni sucking it up and fighting his heart out, Koscheck so blessed with talent but still living in the gym, the new guys sacrificing their bodies for the team and working toward their shot, the gritty old man who still pushes himself and loves to scrap, and Bryan Johnston willing himself to get better and returning to what he loves to do.
These were tiny affairs in the grand scheme of things and, if I was a cynic, I might even say that they’re inconsequential. But I’m not. To me, these individual victories began to seem momentous. They showed the basic human tendency towards dignity and self-betterment. Here in the impersonal tumult at gate 32, that was something I could get my mind around.
Next: Chapter Five- Show Business