I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor. Henry David Thoreau
Anyone who has spent a lot of time in fight gyms will recognize their familiar smell: 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.
I am reminded of it when I enter the 5,600 square foot gym of powerhouse fight team American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California. The place looks well used, and the people inside are serious and hardworking. It is immediately obvious that place is hardcore. The gym is divided into four parts, with a boxing ring in front next to a space for cardio classes and punching bags and Jiu-Jitsu mats in back. Often, there are three classes going on at the same time at AKA. It can get crowded, so the gym closes to the public from one to four, so that the pros can work out privately.
When I arrive, I notice twenty or so professional fighters gathered in the back on the Jiu-Jitsu mats, underneath a giant American flag hanging on the wall. Head coach Javier Mendez has called a team meeting to discuss something very important. He is a little pissed off, and speaks in a stern and authoritative voice.
“If you don’t have concern for the other people in this room, there is no place for you on this team.” His eyes move around the space, making eye contact with each member of his American Kickboxing Academy. Many of the guys in the room are new to the game, struggling to make it, holding onto day jobs as well as training. Others are on their way to being millionaires from their involvement with MMA. He punches the next part to make sure he gets the point across “Whoever you are.” There is no favoritism in this room.
The meeting has been called because one of the newer guys was supposed 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. This puts the whole team at risk. Many of them have big money fights coming up, so Mendez wants to get the message out loud and clear. He will not tolerate anyone endangering the wellbeing and livelihood of their teammates. A few of the stars are not present because they are between fights: John Fitch, Mike Swick, and Cain Velasquez. But other than that, the room is packed.
Phil Baroni stands up and announces brazenly, “If you’re not in the UFC or haven’t fought in PRIDE, I don’t want to hear from you.” He is promptly heckled and jeered by other members of the team, and sits down as anyone who wants to add his two cents does so for the next twenty minutes. There is a tough and unmistakable sense of fraternity at AKA.
Evolving with the Game
Paul Buentello moves around the ring in a giant circle, avoiding the clumsy but dangerous attacks of one of the newer guys, a huge wrestler. Buentello’s not bouncing like boxers do when they’re showing off – that’s a waste of energy. He’s sliding, old school. He is trying to maintain as much space as possible between him and his opponent. Like an angry bull, the huge guy across the ring snorts and huffs with each missed punch and shot attempt.
“Remember…” Mendez warns Buentello from outside the ring, “You don’t want to get close to a good wrestler.” In MMA, where there is always both the danger of an opponent attacking your legs and of kicks, a non-grappler like Buentello must keep his distance. Until he strikes, that is. The guy gets too close, and Buentello bounces a loose right hand off his forehead.
“Yeah! That’s what I’m looking for,” exhorts Mendez. The ring is small, which is a disadvantage to Buentello. Every so often, he throws 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, ” Ow,” you can punch him in the nose. He was kidding, but the point is, they are used to set other things up. Buentello is dividing his opponent’s attention.
Increasingly befuddled, the huge guy lunges with huge amateurish hooks, which Buentello parries with his arms before moving out again. The thudding “thwack” of the punches tells me that if one was to land on Buentello’s chin, it could be lights out. They go hard at AKA for every second of every round. The huge guy is beginning to get frustrated and chases Buentello. This is exactly what Paul wants, because now the guy is easier to hit. The guy throws his own huge leg kick, but he telegraphs and Buentello catches it in midair, depositing the guy on the seat of his pants with another sneaky right. The wrestler gets up, embarrassed, and really pissed off.
He starts to fight dumb.
When a fighter’s adrenaline is pumping, and he is 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. The behemoth starts to disregard Buentello’s punches and kicks, trying ferociously to pen Buentello in. Living up to his nickname “The Headhunter,” Buentello is regularly peppering his opponent with rights and lefts. He isn’t putting any power into his punches, but since Buentello is a big guy himself at 6”2” and 245 pounds, I know his punches are damaging.
Suddenly, the wrestler catches Buentello in the corner. He sees his chance and dips, either to shoot in or load up on a hook. Again Paul is a step ahead and throws a tight uppercut that nearly decapitates the guy. He drunkenly pirouettes 180 degrees, takes two steps away from Paul, and then slumps to one knee. After a few seconds, he pops up, shaking the cobwebs out. Buentello goes easy on him for what’s left of the round. When then bell sounds, the vanquished fighter furiously slings his headgear and gloves across the gym. He is justifiably frustrated. He showed his inexperience by fighting clumsily out of anger. Worst of all, he gave up for an instant.
When a fighter is stunned, he will 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 be while sparring than in a real match, but today the guy’s instincts let him down. MMA is a rough business and he knows that he’ll have to do better next time.
After he gets out of the ring, Buentello sits down beside me and explains how he kept his opponent at the range he wanted, and why it is an essential part of his fighting strategy. “It’s all footwork,” he says. “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 walks past us. He and Koscheck will soon work together in the ring. From his gym bag, Baroni produces a can of Lysol and proceeds to fumigate both his equipment and everything within a five-foot radius. Baroni is one of the sport’s true characters, half pit-bull and half peacock. He struts around, proudly showcasing his perfectly coiffed hair and bodybuilder’s physique. He is amiable enough, but also gives you the impression that he would be happy to bite your nose off if you catch him in the wrong mood.
Earlier, I had 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 about himself, and he can get away with such antics because everybody knows he is one tough SOB. More than that, the man is famously gutsy and courageous. “Baroni has one of the largest hearts of any fighter I know,” says Koscheck, who doesn’t go out of his way to compliment anyone.
Baroni’s giant heart might have been most evident in a recent loss. At the end of their war in Strikeforce, Frank 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. To paraphrase Hemingway, it was a case of Baroni being destroyed but not defeated. Phil’s brave performance in defeat may have won him more fans than Shamrock’s graceless victory.
Buentello and I begin watching Koscheck and Baroni spar. Right before the bell, Baroni suddenly yawps to no one in particular, to psyche himself up. Buentello says gleefully, “Baroni’s ready man, that’s a crazy little Italian!”
Even though Koscheck is a superior wrestler and could easily take Phil down, he wants to work on his standup. He uses a similar strategy to Buentello, maintaining his distance from the dangerous Baroni. Koscheck is not as technically as sound a striker as Buentello or Baroni, but his reflexes and speed allow him to stay just a fraction of a second ahead of Baroni at all times. Koscheck handles 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 brings one of his legs up. Whack, he lands a kick to Baroni’s body that sounds 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 sets up to let go with his hands. With the instinctive ferocity of a wounded animal, Baroni digs down and becomes a buzz saw of Tyson-esque hooks, which land on a surprised Koscheck. They explode off Koscheck’s arms and midsection as he backpedals across the ring, shocked by the sudden intensity of Baroni’s onslaught.
They come in quick, hard succession. Koscheck is covering up just to stay alive as the last round ends. Koscheck made Baroni look silly for three and a half rounds, but at the end Koscheck was the one bell saved. It’s remarkable how hard they go at AKA. The sparring sessions are better than a lot of fights I have seen.
When I speak to him afterwards, Baroni compliments his training partner. “When I first came here a couple of years ago, I had to take it easy on Koscheck,” he tells 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 agrees 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.” I think to myself that this is coming from a guy who once knocked out Dave Menne with a sixteen-punch combination.
Later in the day, Koscheck explains to me why they always go so hard at AKA. “Training hard is 90% of it,” he says. Blessed with copious natural athleticism, Koscheck has also developed a collegiate wrestler’s work ethic. Of all the fighters training at AKA, it is Koscheck who spends the most time in the gym.
Josh Thompson tells me that in addition to the more well-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 continues, “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, a highly decorated wrestler before starting MMA, remembers 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.”
It’s apparent that the experienced fighters have real pride in and affection for the newer guys and the sacrifices they make. “It’s kind of like having a little brother that you beat up every day. Sooner or later, he gets tougher and tougher, “Koscheck says.
He rightly notes the great mental toughness it takes to endure the punishment at AKA, often for years without the accolades, fame, and financial rewards that come from fighting in the bigger shows. “We have guys that will keep coming in for a couple of years getting the crap beat out of him, and we’re like, ‘Man, this kid, sucks.’ But then he goes out and fights in some of the smaller shows and just destroys everybody. He’s actually really good; it’s just harder to shine here because everybody is world class.”
Koscheck is notorious in the gym for beating the hell of everybody, especially new guys, but he’s the first to let you know how proud he is of the ones that can hack it. Even for those at the bottom of the pecking order at AKA, just being able to hang in is an achievement.
Fury and the 51/50 Vampire
The work ethic, discipline, and sacrifice of the pros powerfully inspire the private students at AKA as well. Frenchman Jerome Turcan, a world-class kickboxer, teaches a class called High Energy Kickboxing. It is aptly named, because Turcan puts his students through a ruthless and nonstop battery of calisthenics and aerobic exercises. For a solid hour, his heavily accented voice rings out, “Vohn and ah two and ah sree and vouhr, “as he put the class through its paces.
This isn’t some polished antiseptic gym with dance music blaring and housewives doing Tae Bo; these people are suffering. The group of twenty contains all types. There is an accomplished opera singer, a portly Swedish businessman with a resting heartbeat of 40 bpm, and seventy-year-old retiree Rich, who is known as the 51/50 Vampire after the police code for a crazy and violent offender.
As this old man goes through Jerome’s class, I am amazed at the pace he is able to maintain. The class is no joke (I took it later and barely made it through). When I think of how much harder it is for me at thirty-six to push my body than it was even six or seven years ago, I marvel at what it must be like for someone who is closer to a hundred than he is to thirty. Watching him huff and puff through the brutal gauntlet, I start to worry he might have a heart attack. Slow down, old dude!
I talk to him about why he pushes himself so hard, and he surprises 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 assures me proudly.
AKA hosts smokers, where students can put their training into practice in supervised matches against one and other or people from other gyms. He lets me know that he relishes getting to prove himself. “The class is like a quiz,” he says, lighting up and getting very excited. “Light sparring is like the midterms, and smokers are like the finals. It’s fi ne 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?”
It’s certain that coming to the gym every day is a huge part of Rich’s life. “I’m the oldest guy ever to get in the ring here,” he tells me proudly. He has competed in every smoker the gym has had for the last several years. Remarkable.
Later in the day, when the gym had pretty much cleared out, I meet Javier’s first MMA fighter, Brian Johnston. “When we started, he really didn’t belong in there. But back in those days, nobody really belonged in there except the Gracies,” Mendez chuckles, referring to the early days of the first UFCs.
However, 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 real curve. While training Japanese fighter Kazuya Fujita for his match with Mirko Filipovic, Johnston suffered a brain aneurism. It was never discovered whether injuries sustained in his ring career caused the stroke, but the effects were devastating.
“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 watch Johnston gear up and start working with a tall blond lady he is training in kickboxing. It’s amazing to see that Johnston is not only not a cripple but has managed to get back into pretty good shape. His form even hints at his former career as a professional athlete.
“It is miraculous that he is doing what he is…” Javier marvels about his old friend. The last thing I see before leaving AKA is Johnston warming up and getting loose. He starts to get a little bounce in his legs as he works with his student.
It reminds me of a clip I once saw of Muhammad Ali. It was at some charity event at a small boxing gym. Though he was ravaged by Parkinson’s, shuffling around pitiably and barely able to speak, 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.
When I get to the airport on my way home I find that a storm front back in Atlanta has delayed my flight, so my gate is overbooked and crowded, and it has put me in a surly mood. A woman’s emotionless voice delivers further bad news as the flight is delayed again and again. As if I need a reminder of my reliance on unseen technological forces, my laptop’s wireless is on the fritz, so I am reduced to actually observing my environment.
It is a chaotic scene, as everyone is as inconvenienced as I am. There are all types of people here. A large group of tourists looking very young and very rich are milling around and making a huge racket in Mandarin.
Scores of weary business travelers are worried about missing their connecting flights and frantically crowd the service desk. There is an aristocratic-looking gentleman sitting ramrod straight and trying very hard to conceal his disgust with the situation, next to him old woman with a face like an ancient walnut and a red dot n the center of her forehead stares straight ahead an mutters to herself. Sitting close to me is a soldier who I overhear is shipping out to Iraq. She’s a pretty Korean- American girl, and her army fatigues are crisp, clean, and new looking. She’s flirting with a guy she met at the gate. Maybe she’s allowing herself a last bit of girlish silliness before heading into to a war zone. The crowd continues to swell and starts to spill out into the aisle and over into the other gates.
The television mounted on the wall doesn’t help the tense mood. On it, a sour-faced anchorman goes 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 may end up killing more people than the Hiroshima bomb!
The universal reaction by the people watching this depressing monologue is a grim head shake and shoulder shrug as the normal capacity for outrage and existential horror is diluted to bewilderment here in the wee hours of the twenty-first century. It occurs to me as I watch the crowd and the news that we are all being acted upon by a mystifying combination of forces: political, demographic, sociological, technological, biological, ecological, economic etc. that are pushing and pulling us, herding us around, with no one really understanding them and just like when we board the plane later; we’re all hoping that the machine doesn’t break in mid-flight. It is a disquieting thought, to be a single individual in the middle of such an ocean of faceless commotion.
Then I think 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. Maybe these are tiny things in the big picture, and if I was a cynic, I might even say that they’re inconsequential. But I’m not. So to me, these individual victories are momentous. They show, in essence, the basic human tendency towards dignity and self betterment. Here in the impersonal tumult at gate 32, that’s something I can get my mind around. And thinking about it, I feel good.