“ Every talent must unfold itself in fighting.” Friederich Nietzsche.
Vigorous Creatures – Lost – An important Call
Twilight on the edge of the Mojave Desert. A jackrabbit the size of a terrier lopes into the middle of the road, where I’m standing outside my parked car. I make eye contact with the animal and it stares back brazenly before darting off. I hadn’t realized it was possible for a rabbit to look mean, but that one sure did. Huge crows fly overhead and a rooster calls robustly somewhere in the background. All around me, dozens of Joshua trees writhe eerily in their fibrous, fire-resistant bark. In the distance a wiry feral dog, maybe a coyote, eyes me opportunistically. I glance at my phone, wondering if anyone got my text message asking for directions.
I think back to a phone conversation I had exactly a week ago in my office in Atlanta. “Now this is going to be real, these guys are going to be training for UFC 91,” said Dean Albrecht, one of the most powerful agents in mixed martial arts. He paused, implying that if I were having second thoughts, now would be the time to back out. I didn’t say anything so he went on, “How’s your insurance?”
“Good, I think”
“Do you have all of your teeth?”
“If you want it to stay that way, you’ll need a real mouthpiece, not one from the drugstore. I’ll handle that.” The uber-efficient super agent would handle everything for me over the next month.
“How’s your Jiu-Jitsu?” he asked.
“Okay, I guess. I’m a blue belt.”
“Mmm,” Dean grunted skeptically. “And you used to box, so your hands are okay. Can you kick?”
“How old are you again?”
“Ahh.” Dean changed the subject. “Listen, everybody reads the magazine, but I doubt they are going to know who you are.” (Referring to my job as editor)
“That’s better,” I said. “Don’t tell them. I don’t want to be treated any differently. Treat me like anybody else going out there.” There is a pregnant silence at the other end of the line. “Yeah, it will be great,” he then said. “You can go incognito.” Dean was enthusiastic about the idea of my training with top-level pros for a month before fighting in Las Vegas, in spite of his doubts about my ability to complete the assignment. Granting me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he had arranged for me to train for a week with one of his biggest clients, UFC lightweight star Joe Stevenson, at his gym in Victorville, California.
Alone, lost, and with nothing to do, I start to wonder if I have made a mistake. It’s not the physical hazard of fighting and training that weighs most heavily on my mind but as always, my dread of embarrassment and the shame associated with failure. I know that I am going to suck compared to these guys. After all, they’re world class. But what if I really suck? What if I can’t do it? My thoughts are interrupted by the sound of a car engine, and soon a black truck speeds over the hill in front of me, churning up a cloud of dust. It skids to a stop beside me, and a guy who’s built like an anvil glowers out at me from behind the wheel.
“Are you the editor guy?” he growls.
“That’s me,” I say. So much for incognito.
The Fighter House – Roommates – a Good Question
I follow the truck up to a ranch house that, as it turns out, is less than a mile away. Eric Schambari, the anvil-like man, takes me inside. I find that it is Spartan but livable. It has the essentials: a TV and an Xbox. A box on the floor is full of DVDs: action flicks and comedies. Casino Royale and a season of Robot Chicken are favorites. The kitchen pantry is full of tuna, oatmeal, whey protein, and little else. A cabinet in the living room houses a library that’s admirably eclectic: The Art of War, Memoirs of a Geisha, and works of philosophy running the gamut from the outright evangelical to the famous religious skeptic Bertrand Russell. On the center of the shelf, displayed in a place of honor, is an autographed copy of Randy Couture’s autobiography, Becoming the Natural. “You’ve got the top bunk in the back,” Eric tells me unceremoniously, pointing to the rear of the house.
I am sharing the house with five other fighters. Besides Eric, there is George Burton, a young Marine who served in Iraq. George teaches the kickboxing class at Joe’s Cobra Kai Gym, where Eric is a grappling instructor. Brandon Shelton is the youngest fighter in the house. A wrestling standout from Oklahoma, his nickname around the gym is “The Hobbit” because he can “put on his magic ring and disappear,” so that his opponents can’t find him on the mat. They say the kid is untouchable when he wants to be.
The most accomplished and experienced fighter in the house (other than Joe Stevenson himself) is Aaron Riley. He is a gritty southpaw with a murderous punch. He has claimed a mattress and a strategically chosen section of the house where he can be out of the way and keep to himself. His nose is always in a book. He reads three during the week I’m there.
After stowing my bag back on my bunk, I return to the living room to hang out just as Joe Stevenson walks in the door. I get up and shake his hand, and am surprised at how big he is. He fights at 155 but he has got to be 180, and it’s all muscle. Joe makes sure I feel at home before he plops down on the sofa in front of the TV and starts to give me my schedule for the week. I’ll be training twice a day. First will be a three-hour practice between 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. Then he, Aaron, and I (because we are training for fights) will have a second session from 7:00 p.m. until whenever we got done. “This gets your body used to performing around the time you’ll fight,” says Joe. He looks at me probingly and says, “You know, to really do this, to be good at it, you have to understand why you’re doing it.” He seems to be waiting for me to say something, but I’m not sure how to respond. “A lot of guys do this for years and never really know,” he finishes, his voice trailing off thoughtfully.
“Why do you do it?” I ask, surprising him.
“To begin with it, was to see if Jiu-Jitsu really worked,” he says as he leans forward. “Then the money got good. Now it’s to see if I can be the best in the world. I want to become champion.” If Joe wins his next fight against Kenny Florian, he’ll have another shot at the title. It’s a rare opportunity for someone like me to train with a fighter of his caliber. I am determined to prove myself.
Swirvin Irvin – Banking on the Money Punch -“You Can’t Tap”
Joe’s new state-of-the-art gym is about a 20-minute drive from the house. The facility has been opened since February and has met with huge success in the little town of Victorville. Joe and the rest of the fighters are local celebrities. The nearby restaurants even have protein-rich menus that cater to the many students and fighters who frequent the gym.
The lead trainer, and one of Joe’s partners in the new gym, is Irvin Bounds. An extremely successful amateur boxer when he was younger, his ring name, “Swirvin’ Irvin,” has stuck. He’s a laid-back guy, but on the rare occasion when he loses his temper, everyone is scared to death of him. Irvin sports the typical Samoan portly but powerful physique, but he can move with the graceful swiftness of a cat when he chooses. Joe tells me that he once held the punch mitts for Irvin, and has never felt anything like the way “Swirvin’ Irvin” can crack with his right hand. Forget knocking you out, this ex-boxing standout has the sort of punching power that can bring your time on Earth to a close if it lands in the right spot.
After watching me move around and shadowbox, hit the heavy bag, and drill with some of the other fighters, Irvin sizes me up and determines that my best chance at victory is to strike my opponent from the standing position and try to knock him out. “We’re going to take what you have from boxing and make it work in MMA,” he assures me. Irvin also concludes that I should be concerned about two things: getting taken down and my vulnerability to kicks (a person can kick you well before you are in range to punch him.) “Keep circling away from the son of a bitch’s strong side and he can’t line you up for a shot or plant to kick,” he tells me. “Your job is to move away at angles, keeping him at the range you want him. The person that sets his feet first wins.” Irvin demonstrates as he explains, sliding effortlessly around me. He shows me a technique that takes advantage of my best punch: the left hook. The trick is to keep my opponent off balance by moving to my right. Once at the correct angle, I quickly plant my feet and roll my left arm from the shoulder as if I were dropping something out of my left hand. The punch should not be thrown hard as much as smooth, tight, and sneaky. A good left hook is a pugilistic Pearl Harbor. If done correctly, my opponent will never see it coming, and it will knock him out like flipping a switch.
One of Irvin’s peculiarities as a trainer is that he doesn’t follow the round timers closely. While working with him, I do whatever Irvin tells me until he says it’s time to stop, no questions. Joe explains it to me this way, “When you’re practicing a technique or a combination, it isn’t enough to do it until you get it right. You have to do it until you can’t get it wrong.” Irvin also runs his sparring sessions this way. My first day in the cage, I see a guy going against the anvil like man, Eric Schambari. Schambari has his back with both hooks in, and Eric is applying a rear naked choke. The poor guy is in a bad spot. The choke isn’t quite sunk in, but he taps.
“Fuck that! You can’t tap,” explodes Irvin. “You’ve got thirty seconds to the end of the round. Get out of the round or go to sleep.” When the guy realizes that Irvin is serious and that Schambari isn’t letting up, his eyes widen in real terror, and he begins to fight with desperate animal energy. Despite Schambari’s best attempt to choke him out, the smaller man squirms, gasps, bumps, and fights his way to the end of the round.
“People get too used to tapping,” Irvin tells me later, “especially if they’re always in with guys that are better than them.”
Even though Irvin is only in his mid- twenties, he’s so knowledgeable and has such a natural authority in the gym that he can easily be mistaken for a much older man. He is a bit bashful, and he’s unusual for MMA in that he shuns attention. “I’m not doing this for some of the reasons a lot of these other jokers are doing it for, to bang chicks or see my ugly mug on TV. This is just what I do,” he says with tautological certainty. Interacting with Irvin in the gym and watching him with his other fighters, I can see that he has been lucky enough, while still young, to have found his calling.
The Drive Home – Maia – Coach Joe
Since Joe, Aaron, and I are the only ones doing the second session of training, we ride to and from the gym a lot. So, I get to know both men very well during the thirty minutes we spend in the car together each day. Aaron drives my little grey rental car, as he knows the way better than I do, while Joe sits in the back. They are good friends and pass the time with jokes, one after the other like a list. It reminds me of one of those old vaudeville routines. “Hey Joe, what do you call Mexican Basketball? Juan on Juan,” Aaron says, looking in the rearview mirror to see Joe, who has Mexican ancestry.
“Hey Aaron,” Joe follows without missing beat, “How many rednecks does it take to eat a possum. Three. One to eat, and two to watch for cars.”
The jokes are intentionally politically incorrect and most are unprintable. They are funny because they are just so bad. I guess that’s the point.
Occasionally the conversation turns serious. We talk about what they will do after their fight careers. Neither has a very clear idea.
“My wife and I have talked about it,” Joe says uncertainly. “Maybe I’ll go back to school and get a teaching degree.”
Aaron is even less clear. He has fought more than 30 wars, some against the best in the sport, and he’s been on the cusp of the big time for most of his career, but he has never really broken out. “I’ve never stopped going after my goals,” he says with the thoughtful tone of a man taking stock of his life. He mentions that he has found the arc of his career frustrating at times, especially as the unavoidable injuries have piled up. “I’ve had a broken hand. Yves Edwards broke my palate. My jaw’s got broken,” he says naming a litany of his more serious injuries. “Good times,” he says wryly.
It’s hard not to root for a fighter with Aaron’s tenacity, but we both know that his next fight at UFC 91 against George Gurgel, a world class Jiu-Jitsu specialist, is a crossroad, and a loss could mean disaster for his career. MMA is more than just a way to make a living for these men. It adds focus to their lives and gives them definition. It’s difficult for me or for them to imagine their lives without it.
Before we head back to the fighter house at the end of the night we drop by Joe’s main home, where his wife, Maia, is nice enough to have cooked us a fighter-friendly post-workout meal. A beautiful woman, and the mother of two children with Joe, Maia is a champion female boxer herself. In fact, they met and fell in love while they were bouncers at the same nightclub. Both their lives revolve around fighting, and she is a valuable support to her husband.
Joe’s favorite room in his house is the sports room, a combination trophy room and shrine to his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers. The walls are covered with memorabilia from his youth, and from his very successful fighting career. Close to his KOTC championship belt is a plaque he won as a kid in middle school for the most takedowns in a year (16). Nearby is another one from a youth wrestling team he coached that reads, “The California Jets Thank You, Coach Joe.”
“ ’Coach Joe’,” I think. “That suits him.”
Groundwork – Fighting for my life -“ Nobody wins in the Pit”
Back at the gym, Joe has me pinned. He is as dense as a kettle bell and knows how to use his weight. It’s all I can do to get to half guard. I am completely out of my depth rolling with him; he isn’t trying to submit me and I don’t really know what to do, so I just “lay and pray”. Suddenly, Joe postures up and slams his elbow against the mat right by my head five times in about a second and a half. The sound can be heard thundering across the gym and people stop what they’re doing to see if anybody’s dead.
“Don’t do that, Joe!” Irvin calls angrily from his perch atop a pile of mats to the side of the cage. “Hit him! You’re not doing him any good if you take it easy on him. Nobody is going to take it easy on him when he fights!”
Luckily for me, the round ends. Despite what Irvin said, I get the point very clearly. If you’re caught underneath you can’t just lie there on your back. You’ve always got to be trying something, get up, sweep the guy, submit him; something, or you’ll open yourself up to a world of hurt.
“I could feel how close I was to breaking you,” I say to Joe when the session ends and he allows me to get up.
“You were close, man,” he deadpans, holding his thumb and forefinger about an inch from each other.
A lot of what goes on at the gym in Victorville is as much about toughening up psychologically as physically. There’s an ordeal called “The Pit,” which is typical of this type of training. One fighter goes to the center of the cage for sparring and a new, fresh fighter rotates in every minute, so whoever is in the center will always be facing a fresher opponent. On my last day, Irvin feels confident enough to put me in The Pit for three, three-minute rounds. The first guy in is “The Hobbit.” I know I’m quicker than Brandon with my hands, so as soon as the round begins, I get off to a fast start and cuff him with a quick lead left hook, snapping his head back. It’s a showy punch and I hear some of the guys around the cage mutter in approval. While I’m congratulating myself, “The Hobbit” puts on his ring and, the next thing I know, he’s taken me down, has my back, and proceeds to beat the hell out of me.
We have boxing gloves on so Brandon can’t really, grab hold of me to submit me, but his hips are crazy strong. He has me completely flattened out and is raining down bombs on the back and side of my head. I hear the other fighters shouting instructions to me. I’m grateful because I would otherwise have no idea what to do.
“Get to the cage! Get your back against the cage!” I hear Joe yell.
“Buck, scramble, get up! “ Aaron shouts. He’ll be trying to kill me in about two minutes.
“Get to all fours and mule kick and turn over,” Schambari says. He’ll be taking shots at me soon, too.
The minute is up, but since I am in a bad position, the next guy comes in and takes up where “The Hobbit” left off. Brandon has almost worn me out in the first minute, so the rest of my time in the Pit becomes a haze of getting owned in various ways by various fighters. Schambari mashes me against the cage worse than “The Hobbit” and clubs me with slow heavy blows. A champion kickboxer, whose nickname around the gym is “The White Anderson Silva,” dances around me, and with his lead leg kicks my body and head at will. Aaron cracks me with that damned straight left of his over and over, and kicks me a few times to keep me honest. Marine George punches me up for his minute. A tough Mexican fighter named Art kicks the hell out of my legs and takes me down, mauling me. As I come down the stretch, I can hear all the fighters shouting instructions and encouragement. I hear Joe shouting at the top of his lungs for me not to quit.
Between the fatigue and the beating I’m taking, I’m a little loopy, and my punches are slow and weak. At the end of the 3rd round, a kickboxer named Chris has me against the side of the cage in the Muay Thai Clinch, and he lands a knee to my ribs that causes me to inadvertently cry out. I am so weak and fatigued that all I can do is block his knees with my forearms and flail ineffectively. When Irvin finally calls time, he tells me to run ten laps around the inside perimeter of the cage. This is the hardest part because, by this time, my adrenaline has subsided. In a ritual of respect and camaraderie, the other fighters put out their hands to slap mine each time I circle by them in the cage. They’ve all been in The Pit themselves and they know firsthand what I just went through. I am so tired; I can’t lift my arms high enough for a high five, so we slap hands about belt high. “I’m sorry I didn’t do any better than that,” I apologize to Irvin between gasps.
“Hey at the end you were on your feet swinging back,” he says. “It isn’t the purpose of The Pit to win. Nobody wins in The Pit. The purpose of The Pit is to not break.”
I still think I should have done better. I may have survived The Pit, but surviving is not winning and I want to win. Almost 100% of my time in the cage was spent getting my butt kicked. I get discouraged thinking about it.
Later, over dinner at his house, Joe makes an offhand but profound comment, “’How can I win?’ is a different question from ‘Can I win?’ Don’t ever ask yourself the second question.” Aaron looks up from his scrambled egg whites and asparagus and nods his head in agreement. About an hour later, we get back to the fighter house. As we get our gym bags out of the car, Coach Joe slaps me on the back. “You had a good day today,” he says before heading inside.
Joe Meets THE WHITE FLASH – Hitting the Wall – Clarity in The Desert
Early the next morning, we arrive at a high school running track. Joe asks me, “Do you believe in Jesus?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Good, because you’re about to meet him.”
When we get out of the car to go stretch, I tell Joe in mock confidence “You know, in high school I was known as ‘The White Flash.’”
It’s a corny joke, but Joe looks at me like he thinks I’m serious. The truth is I suck at running and always have.
Once we get to the track, Irvin stands about 10 yards from us and says, “Go.” We sprint to him. The White Flash takes last place. That’s all right, I tell myself, as Willie D of the “The Geto Boys” first observed in 1990, “real gangsters can’t run fast.” For every sprint, Irvin walks farther down the track, and soon we’re sprinting almost a half lap. He has to shout and wave his arm for us to know when to start. By the fourth run, I want to quit but don’t. By the seventh, I am surprised I haven’t thrown up. I am so gassed that I think my legs are going to give out and send me tumbling across the track. By the ninth, I don’t see Jesus anywhere on the track but I am sure talking to him and, by the final sprint, it doesn’t feel as if I’m doing anything but just going along for the ride, suffering while my body dutifully does what it is supposed to. When I’m done, I stagger back to the starting point. My vision is blurry and both of my hands are completely numb, like blocks of wood.
“Walk around,” Irvin shouts from the other end of the track, and for the first and only time I don’t do what he says. Instead, I collapse on the grass. I feel exhausted to the point of death. Irvin has me do 10 sprints. Aaron and Joe do 15. When they are done, they come jogging back to where I’m sitting.
“The White Flash, huh,” Joe comments.
We head back to the gym, and Aaron and Joe have a light workout. I can’t even do that. If I do anything other than just sit on the floor and watch them hit the mitts, I start to feel weird, as I did back at the track. Irvin doesn’t seem concerned.
“You’ve just hit that wall,” he says. “It happens, and it’s a good thing. It means you’ve really pushed yourself. Tomorrow, you rest and let your body rebuild a little, and you’ll be better than ever.” I am convinced that I will never feel right again, but he turns out to be correct, as always.
Later, at a UFC viewing party at Irvin’s house, Joe takes great pleasure in introducing me to everyone as “The White Flash.” He even jokes that the next piece of equipment he’s going to buy for his gym will be a CPR unit in my honor. Everyone laughs, and I realize how close we all have become in just a week.
“When you suffer and bleed with people, it forms a special bond,” Irvin says, giving me a hug before I leave. I promise to keep in touch with everyone and let them know how I’m doing.
My GPS is working again the next day as I head into the Mojave. I remember lying in my bed that first evening, having gone through one the most physically and psychologically strenuous days I’d ever had, and knowing that the next would be worse and the one after that harder still. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get through the week without my body or my will or both breaking. But I did make it through, and feel strengthened by the experience. My physical tools may be lacking, but I am discovering reservoirs of willpower and determination I did not know were there. For the first time in my life, I know without a doubt that I gave everything I had. Remembering my first conversation with Coach Joe, I realize that’s the reason I’m doing this.
To Be Continued…