“Don’t think about winning the fight,” Frank Mir told me as we sat together in the dressing room. In about an hour I would make my MMA debut for a promotion called Tuff-N-Uff in front of 2,000 fans at the Orleans Ballroom in Las Vegas. Mir, former and future UFC heavyweight Champion, and Robert Drysdale, who was the 2007 ADCC champion and one of the best pure submission grapplers in the world, agreed to help work my corner for the fight. It was a major advantage for me, tantamount to having Albert Pujols and Tony Gwynn as little league batting coaches.
“Think about looking good and not making any mistakes,” Mir continued. “Concentrate on doing the things that you know you can do well.”
It’s great advice that quelled my anticipatory anxiety. I had begun to panic once I realized the enormity of what I was about to do. After a month of intense training, I had only three rounds to make it all count. If I lost, would it matter how hard I had pushed myself? At this moment, it didn’t seem like it. Pat Miletich once told me that there was a time to train and a time to “get after it.” Now I knew what he was talking about. I ran over the fight plan I’d developed over the last month: stay light on my feet; keep my distance and use angles; throw three-punch combinations when my opponent came in; finish with a left hook; be ready to sprawl and, most importantly, do not get taken down under any circumstances.
I got up and walked around the spacious room. Ordinarily a conference room, it was now being used as a communal dressing room for competitors fighting out of the red corner. The fighters from the blue corner, including my opponent, were in a similar room down the hall.
Tuff-N-Uff spotlighted up-and-coming amateur mixed martial artists looking to break into the professional ranks. I felt out of place. In addition to being at least a decade older than all the other fighters, I lacked the requisite tattoos and apparently missed the memo on body hair, since upper bodies of all the other fighters were smoothly waxed. They jogged in place, shadow fought, and drilled with their trainers. A television sat on a table against the front wall playing a live feed of the fights from the ballroom. A fighter would get called up and disappear from the room with his team and then reappear a few minutes later on the small screen. Once in a while, someone would glance at the television but nobody really paid any attention to it.
I started working the strike mitts with Ken Hahn, the head coach of Striking Unlimited, the gym where Mir trained. He had me throw light pity-pat punches for thirty seconds straight to get my neurons firing. Then we worked on a simple but very common sequence for MMA. I parried a left by catching it with the palm of my right hand then threw a quick left jab and followed with a straight right. The sound of my right hand striking Hahn’s small strike mitts echoed loudly through the room. We got into a rhythm: block, tap, POW; block, tap, POW. Some of the other fighters in the room stopped to look. My right’s a hard shot, a knockout punch if it lands. Knowing people are watching, I really started to stick the punch, turning my hip into it, and it sounded satisfyingly like a gunshot. Mir nodded his head in approval but in the back of my mind I know the display is largely theatrical since nobody is going to stand in front of me and let me tee off. I was worried that catching my opponent with a big punch was my only chance of winning.
After training with some of the world’s best-mixed martial artists, my conditioning was top notch and my punching was sharp. But unless you count learning how to stoically take a beating on the ground as an achievement, I didn’t feel as if I‘d made any progress in the grappling department. I kept thinking about Dale Hart’s warning. He told me that, unlike boxing, which is all about what you can do well, MMA usually comes down to what you can’t do well. The fighter who wins isn’t the one that is best at any one particular facet of mixed martial arts but the one who is a jack-of-all-trades. This was bad news for me. I still felt very one-dimensional. If my opponent was cooperative enough to stand and trade, then I liked my chances, but if he took me down, I was screwed.
With about 20 minutes to go Drysdale came over to me while I was shadowboxing. “So, what’s your plan if it goes to the ground?” he asked.
“To get up,” I said tersely.
“And how are you going to do that?” I shrugged, then said with false bravado, “I’m going to catch this dude; it’ll be quick.”
Drysdale frowned, “come in here and let me show you something,” he said, taking me into an adjacent room. He showed me how to block my opponent if he shot in. By putting my arms in the right spot, I could set him up for a guillotine choke. It’s such a simple maneuver that I didn’t see it how it could really work but drilling it with Drysdale took my mind off the fight until they let us know that it was time to take our places for the walkout.
The attendants motioned for us to take up our positions, so Mir, Drysdale, an up-and-coming black belt named James Horne, coach Hahn, and I all headed to our positions right beside the entrance, just out of the crowd’s view. The mood was light as we waited for our cue, with Mir and James cracking jokes. I heard the opening riff of “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes over the loudspeakers. That’s my music, I told Mir, who towered behind me like a mountain.
“Let’s go,” he said.
When we got in the ballroom, the TV lights were so bright that I could only see a couple of feet in front of me but I eventually made it to the ringside station where an official checks my gloves and I took off my shirt. As Hahn applied grease to my face to help prevent cuts, Mir put two fingers against the left side of my neck.
“Good focus,” he said right before I entered the ring.
My opponent’s name was Ty Beeson. He’d achieved some notoriety as the producer of a series called Bum Fights, in which he and a friend went around and paid homeless people to have street fights while they taped them. It was a concept so simple and in such brilliantly poor taste that it attracted both mainstream criticism and underground success. Beeson once appeared on Dr. Phil, where he had the dubious distinction of getting kicked off mid taping. The fact that we both had some level of visibility within the industry helped Tuff- N-Uff’s promoter market the event, so we were fighting high up on the card. While I was throwing punches in my corner, I heard the ominous opening chords of “O Fortuna” by Carl Orff.
“His music’s good,” I commented to Mir and Drysdale, who were leaning over the ropes in my corner. Once through the ropes, Beeson started bouncing around and shaking his arms out. He was cut and looked strong. Sometimes the really muscular guys are too stiff and slow to get out of the way of punches, and the best way to deal with them is to go after them and get it over with quickly. Maybe I should just blitz him and see what happens, I thought. The ref motioned us to the center of the ring and said something I don’t hear. We touched gloves and went back to our corners.
As the fight began, I discovered that Beeson was a wild and unorthodox fighter. And, to my disappointment, he wasn’t slow. He fought with a quick jerky rhythm that threw off my own timing. I tried to stick to my original game plan, which was to keep away from him and get him to chase me, so he’d be easier to hit, but he didn’t bite and kept his distance. My instincts took over and I started to do the very thing I shouldn’t, which was to start walking him down. This made me a sitting duck for a takedown. He faked a jab and then ducked under and shot for my legs. “Oh, great,” I thought as I felt myself toppling to the mat.
Without thinking about it, I blocked him just like Drysdale showed me, and when we toppled to the ground, he ended up in a guillotine. I tried to sink the choke in and finish him, but I didn’t have my legs placed correctly and couldn’t use my hips to apply the finishing pressure. He was powerful and started to defend the choke and scramble. He ended up rolling me over so that I was on top of him with my legs tangled uselessly. I felt the choke slipping, so I let it go. We scrambled and I ended up with his back with both hooks in. He had my right arm pinned between his body and the mat and was grabbing my left with both his hands. He trapped my right foot and started to escape. Again we scrambled, and he ended up in the turtle position, with me on my knees next to him. I realized that he was vulnerable from this position and I got a rush of adrenaline. I thudded two heavy right hands off his head. When I finally connected with a punch it was a good rush but before I could tee off with more the ref shouted loudly for me to stop. He warned me for hitting in the back of the head and stood us up.
We both went to our corners. When the ref resumed the action, Beeson ran across the ring and kicked me right in the stomach. I tried to catch him with a punch but I was too slow; he’d already made it back across the ring. I’d been so confident in my punches but his wild style was now making them look sloppy and amateurish. I was missing him by a mile. He tried to decapitate me with a huge arching head kick that missed, and then shot in again. This time, as soon as I felt myself going down, I started for the sweep and sent him over my head and onto the ground. The crowd let out a roar. It was a good move, but I didn’t finish it properly, and he ended up with a side mount. I escaped and scrambled up to my knees as the round ended. As I got back to my corner, I wasn’t tired, but I was frustrated because so much of the fight has been on the ground. He was taking me completely out of my game.
“You won that round,” Mir told me when I sat down on the stool in my corner. He and Drysdale were very excited and were shouting at me that I was dominating Beeson on the ground. Maybe all of those mauling’s from the pros actually helped, because as strong as Beeson was, he was nothing like the monsters I’d gotten used to rolling with. Even though I didn’t know how it was happening, every time we scrambled, I seemed to end up in an advantageous position. “Don’t let go of his neck,” Mir told me. “ You could have won fight but you let it go,” he said referring to the choke. Drysdale told me that if I put my leg in and adjust the angle on the guillotine the next time I got it, he’d tap.
The bell for round two sounded. As I shuffled out to meet him, Beeson attacked with a wild kick and punch and then shot in again. This time I timed him better and sprawled. I threw some body shots to the top of his ribs. He spun out and launched a spectacular flying head kick. I got my right arm up in time to block it. It was an all-or-nothing move, and would have certainly knocked me out had it landed; but since I blocked it, he went crashing onto the canvas. In my frustration, I launched a huge looping right hook that was just short, grazing his forehead as he rose. A stupid punch. He shot in again and I sprawled again. I threw some more right hands to his body, got back to the guillotine and jumped to guard. This time, I had my legs placed correctly, like Drysdale instructed, and I could feel that the angle was better on the choke. Beeson tried to defend by stacking up on top of me but I had better position now and he sank to his knees as I slowly tightened the choke, squeezing as hard as I could.
“DO NOT LET GO OF THAT CHOKE! DO NOT LET GO OF THAT CHOKE,” I heard Mir shouting at the top of his lungs and I hung on. Beeson went limp and I thought he might have lost consciousness but then he tensed his body up again and I got ready for him to start fighting. But instead of the anticipated scramble, I felt his hand tapping lightly on my left leg. “He’s tapping,” I yelled at the ref, who immediately jumped in and waived the fight off. When I release the choke and saw Beeson’s face he looked very dejected.
“ Good stuff“ he said.
The ref brought us to the center of the ring and announced my name as the winner, raising my hands. I got a little metal medallion as a trophy. Mir, Drysdale, Ken, and James all jumped through the ropes, and the ringside photographers snapped pictures of us from several different angles.
“I can’t believe that I didn’t land a single good punch and still won,” I said to Drysdale. “Did you see what I got him with?”
“The guillotine,” he smiled slyly.
After we all left the ring, I was asked to come over and do color commentary on the main events with Shawn Tompkins. I was happy to do it, even though I was so scatterbrained from all the excitement that I didn’t make a lot of sense. I just agreed with whatever Shawn and the other announcers said. When the event is over, I walked back to my car through the casino. A few people recognized me and congratulated me, saying that it had been an exciting fight. That was the best part. I was relieved that I’d won the fight but it made me almost goofily happy to hear that the crowd had been entertained.
Nothing hurt during the fight and I can’t remember getting hit cleanly, but Beeson must have landed a few good ones because I had a huge mouse under my left eye and a deep bruise on my right shoulder, where I blocked Beeson’s last flying kick. By the time I made my way out to my car, I had trouble lifting my right arm. Going through the casino on my way out, I saw Beeson. He had a beer in one hand and a woman in the other. We shook hands and congratulated each other on a good fight. I noticed that he didn’t have a mark on him.