Twilight on the edge of the Mojave Desert. A jackrabbit the size of a terrier loped into the middle of the road, where I stood outside my parked car. I made eye contact with the animal and it stared 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 flew overhead and a rooster called somewhere in the background. All around me, dozens of Joshua trees writhed eerily in their fibrous, fire-resistant bark. In the distance a wiry feral dog, maybe a coyote, eyed me opportunistically.
The starkness of the California Desert was a counterpoint to the mist of perplexity back home. My life was going well on the surface but underneath things weren’t clicking. My work at Fight! Magazine, which had begun as an attempt to ferret out the nobility of an obscure and eccentric sport, was I feared, devolving into mere sophistry. I had becoming copywriter not a journalist or artist. I was disheartened by the legion precisely tuned psychological manipulations that were the stock and trade of media and which seemed necessary to keep the culture functioning. The tidal wave of knowledge, disinformation, art, banality, wisdom, absurdity, beauty and vulgarity that was the information culture had behind it, I dimly perceived, some force directing it forward towards an unknowable end, propelling it through the momentum of a billion chattering voices. What was it into which everything was being so rapidly absorbed, an invisible hand bidden by a new global mind?
Social media, the great boon to marketers, journalists and revolutionaries, was turning individuals into brands and what is a brand but an illusion, an agreed upon construct. We had become our Avatars. Everybody was playing everybody else, managing images, wearing masks. It was a thin reality and slipping into nihilism but people couldn’t log off long enough to realize it. Those existential crises you hear about really exist because I was having one and it was a doozy.
I glanced at my phone, wondering if anyone got my text message asking for directions. I thought back to the phone conversation I had a week ago in my office in Atlanta. “Now this is going to be real, these guys are going to be training for fights.” Dean Albrecht was of the top agents in mixed martial arts. He paused, implying that if I were having second thoughts, now would be the time to back out. I don’t say anything so he asked, “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.”
“How’s your Jiu-Jitsu?”
“Okay, I guess. I’m a blue belt.”
“Mmm,” he grunted skeptically. “And you used to box, so your hands are okay. Can you kick?”
“How old are you again?”
“Ahh.” he changed the subject. “Listen, everybody reads the magazine but I doubt they’re going to know who you are.”
“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’s a pregnant silence at the other end of the line. “Yeah, it will be great,” he said, “you can go incognito.” Dean had arranged for me to train for a week with one of the fighters he managed, UFC lightweight star Joe Stevenson, at his gym in Victorville, California.
Alone, lost, and with nothing to do, I started to wonder if I‘d made a mistake. It’s wasn’t the physical hazard of fighting and training that weighed most heavily on my mind but as always, my dread of embarrassment and the shame associated with failure. I knew that I was going to suck compared to these guys. After all, they were world class. But what if I really sucked? What if I couldn’t do it? My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a car engine and soon a black truck sped over the hill in front of me, churning up a cloud of dust. It skidded to a stop beside me and a man built like an anvil glowered from behind the wheel.
“Are you the editor guy?”
“That’s me,” I said. So much for incognito.
I followed the truck up to a ranch house that, as it turned out, was less than a mile away. Eric Schambari, the man in the truck, took me inside. It was Spartan but livable. It had the essentials: a TV and an Xbox. A box on the floor was full of DVDs: action flicks and comedies. Casino Royale and a season of Robot Chicken were favorites. The kitchen pantry was full of tuna, oatmeal, whey protein, and little else. A cabinet in the living room housed 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, was an autographed copy of Randy Couture’s autobiography, Becoming the Natural.
“You’ve got the top bunk in the back,” Eric told me unceremoniously, pointing to the rear of the house.
I was sharing the house with five other fighters. Besides Eric, there was George Burton, a young Marine who served in Iraq. George taught kickboxing and Eric taught grappling at Joe’s Cobra Kai gym. Brandon Shelton was the youngest fighter in the house. A wrestling standout from Oklahoma, his nickname around the gym was “The Hobbit” because he could “put on his magic ring and disappear,” so that his opponents couldn’t find him on the mat. They said the kid was untouchable when he wanted to be.
The most accomplished and experienced fighter in the house (other than Joe Stevenson himself) was Aaron Riley. Aaron was a gritty southpaw with a murderous punch. He claimed a mattress and a strategically chosen section of the house where he could be out of the way and keep to himself. He kept nose in a book and read three during the week I was there.
After stowing my bag back on my bunk, I returned to the living room just as Joe Stevenson walked in the door. I was surprised at how big he was. He fought at 155 but now he had to be 180 and it looked like it was all muscle. Joe made sure I felt at home before he plopped down on the sofa in front of the TV and gave me my schedule for the week. I’d be training twice a day. First would be a three-hour practice between 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. Then he, Aaron, and I (because we had fights coming up) would 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,” he explained.
He looked at me probingly and said, “You know, to really do this, to be good at it, you have to understand why you’re doing it.” He was waiting for me to say something but I didn’t. “A lot of guys do this for years and never really know,” he finished, his voice trailing off thoughtfully.
“Why do you do it?” I asked.
“To begin with it was to see if Jiu-Jitsu really worked,” he said as he leaned 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 won his next fight, he’d have another shot at the title. It was a rare opportunity for someone like me to train with a fighter of his caliber and I was determined to prove myself.
Joe’s new gym was about a 20-minute drive from the house. The facility had been open since February and was a big deal in the little town of Victorville. Joe and the rest of the fighters were local celebrities. The nearby restaurants had protein-rich menus that catered to the many students and fighters who frequent the gym.
The lead trainer, and one of Joe’s partners in the new gym, was Irvin Bounds. A successful amateur boxer when he was younger, his ring name, “Swirvin’ Irvin,” stuck. He was laid-back but on the rare occasion when he lost his temper, everyone was scared to death of him. Irvin sported the typical Samoan portly but powerful physique and could move with the graceful swiftness of a cat when he chose to. Joe told me that he once held the punch mitts for Irvin and had never felt anything like the way “Swirvin’ Irvin” could crack with his right hand. Forget knocking you out, the ex-boxing standout had the sort of punching power that could bring your time on earth to a close if it landed in the right spot.
After watching me move around and shadowbox, hit the heavy bag, and drill with some of the other fighters, Irvin sized me up and determined that my best chance at victory was 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 assured me.
He said 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 told 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 demonstrated sliding smoothly around me.
He showed me a technique that took advantage of my best punch: the left hook. The trick was to keep my opponent off balance by moving to my right. Once at the correct angle, I quickly planted my feet and rolled my left arm from the shoulder like I was dropping something out of my left hand. The key to the punch is punch is throwing it not so much hard but smooth, tight, and sneaky. A good left hook is a pugilistic Pearl Harbor. If done correctly, my opponent would never see it coming, and it would knock him out like flipping a switch.
One of Irvin’s peculiarities as a trainer was that he didn’t follow the round timers closely. While working with him, I did whatever he told me until he said it was time to stop, no questions. Joe explained 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 ran his sparring sessions this way. My first day in the cage, I saw a guy going against Eric Schambari. Schambari had his back with both hooks in and was applying a rear naked choke. His opponent was in a bad spot. The choke wasn’t quite sunk in, but he tapped.
“Fuck that! You can’t tap,” exploded Irvin. “You’ve got thirty seconds to the end of the round. Get out of the round or go to sleep.” When the guy realized that Irvin was serious and that Schambari wasn’t letting up, his eyes widened in terror and he began to fight with desperate energy. Despite Schambari’s best attempt to choke him out, the smaller man squirmed, gasped, bumped, and fought his way to the end of the round.
“People get too used to tapping,” Irvin told me later, “especially if they’re always in with guys who are better than them.”
He was only in his mid-20s but had such a natural authority in the gym that he seemed older. He said he was unusual for MMA in that he shunned 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 said.
“Hey Joe, what do you call Mexican Basketball? Juan on Juan,” Aaron said, looking in the rearview mirror to see Joe, who has Mexican ancestry.
Joe, Aaron, and I were the only ones doing the second session of training; we’d ride together to and from the gym. Aaron drove my gray rental car, since he knew the way better than I did, while Joe sat in the back. They passed the time with jokes, one after the other in rapid-fire succession, like one of those old vaudeville routines.
“Hey Aaron how many rednecks does it take to eat a possum? “
“ I don’t know Joe- how many rednecks does it take to eat a possum?”
“Three. One to eat, and two to watch for cars.”
The jokes were intentionally corny. That was the point.
Occasionally the conversation turned serious. We’d talk about what they’d do after their fight careers. Neither had a very clear idea.
“My wife and I have talked about it,” Joe said uncertainly. “Maybe I’ll go back to school and get a teaching degree.”
Aaron was even less clear. He’d fought more than 30 wars, some against the best in the sport, and he’d been on the cusp of the big time for most of his career but had never really broken out.
“I’ve never stopped going after my goals,” he said with the thoughtful tone of a man taking stock of his life. He mentioned that he had found the arc of his career frustrating at times, especially as the unavoidable injuries piled up.
“I’ve had a broken hand. Yves Edwards broke my palate. My jaw got broken,” he said naming a litany of his more serious injuries. “Good times,” he concluded wryly.
It’s hard not to root for a fighter with Aaron’s tenacity but we both knew that his next fight was a crossroad, and a loss could mean disaster for his career. MMA was more than just a way to make a living for Joe and Aaron. It defined them and added focus to their lives.
Before we headed back to the fighter house at the end of the night we dropped by Joe’s home, where his wife, Maia, cooked us a fighter-friendly post-workout meal. A beautiful woman, and the mother of their two children, Maia was a champion female boxer herself. They’d met and fallen in love while they were bouncers at the same nightclub.
Joe’s favorite room in his house was the sports room, a combination trophy room and shrine to his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers. The walls were covered with memorabilia from his youth and from his fighting career. Close to a championship belt he won in a promotion called King of the Cage was a plaque he’d won in middle school for the most takedowns in a year (16). Nearby is another one from a youth wrestling team he coached that read, “The California Jets Thank You, Coach Joe.”
“Coach Joe,” I thought. “That suits him.”
Back at the gym, Joe had me pinned. He was as dense as a kettle bell and knew how to use his weight. It’s all I could do to get to half guard. I was completely out of my depth rolling with him; he wasn’t trying to submit me and I didn’t really know what to do, so I’d just “lay and pray.” Suddenly, Joe postured up and slammed his elbow against the mat right by my head five times in about a second and a half. The sound thundered across the gym causing people to stop what they were doing.
“Don’t do that, Joe!” Irvin called 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!”
Despite what Irvin said, I’d gotten the point. When you’re caught underneath an opponent 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 said to Joe when the session ended and we got up.
“You were close, man,” he said, holding his thumb and forefinger about an inch from each other.
A lot of what went on at the gym in Victorville was as much about toughening up psychologically as physically. There was an ordeal called “The Pit,” which was similar to the Shark Tank at Greg Jackson’s gym. One fighter went to the center of the cage for sparring and a new, fresh fighter rotates in every minute, so whoever was in the center would always be facing a fresher opponent.
On my towards the end of my training, Irvin felt confident enough to put me in The Pit for three, three-minute rounds. The first guy in was “The Hobbit.” I knew my hands were quicker than his, so as soon as the round began, I got off to a fast start and cuffed him with a quick lead left hook, snapping his head back. It was a showy punch and I heard some of the fighters around the cage mutter in approval. While I was congratulating myself, “The Hobbit” put on his ring and, the next thing I knew, he’d taken me down and had my back.
We had boxing gloves on so he couldn’t really grab hold of me to submit me, but his hips were strong and he completely flattened out, landing short punches to the back and side of my head. I heard the other fighters shouting instructions to me.
“Get to the cage! Get your back against the cage!” Joe yelled.
“Buck, scramble, get up!” Aaron shouted. He’d be trying to kill me in about two minutes.
“Get to all fours and mule kick and turn over,” Schambari said. He’d be taking shots at me soon, too.
The minute was up but since I was in a bad position, the next guy came in and took up where “The Hobbit” left off. Brandon had almost worn me out in the first minute, so the rest of my time in The Pit became a haze of getting owned in various ways. Schambari mashed me against the cage and clubbed me with slow heavy blows. A champion kickboxer, whose nickname around the gym was “The White Anderson Silva,” danced around me, kicking my body and head at will. Aaron cracked me with his potent straight left over and over and kicked me a few times just to keep me honest. Marine George punched me up for his minute. A tough Mexican Muay Thai fighter named Art kicked my legs and took me down. As I came down the stretch, I could hear all the fighters shouting instructions and encouragement. I heard Joe shouting for me not to quit.
Between the fatigue and the beating I was taking, I was a little loopy, and my punches were slow and weak. Near the end of the 3rd round, a kickboxer named Chris had me against the side of the cage in the Muay Thai Clinch, and he landed a knee to my ribs that caused me to inadvertently cry out. I was so weak and fatigued that all I could do was block his knees with my forearms and flail ineffectively. When Irvin finally called time, he told me to run ten laps around the inside perimeter of the cage. This was the hardest part because, by this time, my adrenaline had subsided. In a ritual of respect and camaraderie, the other fighters put out their hands to slap mine each time I circled by them in the cage. They’ve all been in The Pit themselves and they knew firsthand what I’d just been through. I couldn’t lift my arms high enough for a high five, so we slapped hands about belt high. “I’m sorry I didn’t do any better than that,” I apologized to Irvin between gasps when I was done.
“Hey at the end you were on your feet swinging back,” he said. “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 thought I should have done better. I may have survived The Pit, but surviving is not winning and I wanted to win. Most of my time in the cage was spent getting my butt kicked. I got discouraged thinking about it.
Later, over dinner at his house, Joe told me, “‘How can I win?’ is a different question from ‘Can I win?’ Don’t ever ask yourself the second question.” Aaron looked up from his scrambled egg whites and asparagus and nodded his head in agreement.
About an hour later, we got back to the fighter house. We got our gym bags out of the car and Coach Joe slapped me on the back. “You had a good day today,” he said before heading inside.
Early the next morning, we arrive at a high school running track. Joe asked me, “Do you believe in Jesus?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Good, because you’re about to meet him.”
When we got out of the car to go stretch, I told Joe in mock confidence “You know, in high school I was known as ‘The White Flash.’” It’s a corny joke, but Joe looked at me like he thought I was serious. The truth is I sucked at running and always had.
Once we got to the track, Irvin stood about 10 yards from us and said, “Go.” We sprinted to him the White Flash taking last place. That’s all right, I told myself, as Willie D of the “The Geto Boys” first observed in 1990, “real gangsters can’t run fast.” For every sprint, Irvin walked farther down the track and soon we were sprinting almost half a lap. He had to shout and wave his arm for us to know when to start. By the fourth sprint, I wanted to quit but didn’t. By the seventh, I was so exhausted that I thought my legs were going to give out and send me tumbling across the track. By the ninth, I didn’t see Jesus anywhere on the track but I sure was talking to him and, by the final sprint, it didn’t feel like I was doing anything but just going along for the ride, suffering while my body dutifully did what it was supposed to.
After my final sprint, I staggered back to the starting point. My vision was blurry and both of my hands were completely numb, like blocks of wood.
“Walk around,” Irvin shouted from the other end of the track and for only time I didn’t do what he told me to. Instead, I collapsed on the grass. I felt exhausted to the point of death. Irvin had me do 10 sprints. Aaron and Joe did 15. When they were done, they came jogging back to where I was sitting.
“The White Flash, huh,” said Joe.
We headed back to the gym, and Aaron and Joe had a light workout. I couldn’t even do that. If I did anything other than just sit on the floor with my back against a wall and watch them, I started to feel like I had back at the track. Irvin didn’t seem concerned.
“You’ve just hit that wall,” he said. “It happens, and it’s a good thing. It means you’ve really pushed yourself. Tomorrow, rest and let your body rebuild a little and you’ll be better than ever.”
Later that night, at a UFC viewing party at Irvin’s house, Joe took great pleasure in introducing me to everyone as “The White Flash.” He said the next piece of equipment he was going to buy for his gym would be a CPR unit in my honor. Everyone laughed and I realized how close we’d all become.
“When you suffer and bleed with people, it forms a special bond,” Irvin said, giving me a hug before I left. I promised to keep in touch let them know how I was doing.
I’d gotten my GPS working again the next day as I headed out back into the Mojave. I remembered lying in my bed that first evening at the fighter house, having gone through one the most strenuous days I’d ever had, and knowing that the next would be more so 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 had made it through, and felt strengthened by the experience. My physical tools might have been lacking but I was discovering reservoirs of willpower and determination I didn’t know were there. For the first time in my life, I knew without a doubt that I’d given everything I had as I headed through the desert to my next stop in Las Vegas