The Most Sobering Moments, Lessons, & Realities of My MMA Career

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One of my biggest annoyances is when someone calls mixed martial arts “UFC fighting”. I loathe going to a sports bar to watch a UFC event and hearing wannabees who have never been on a mat but are drunk on a bar stool screaming what the fighters on TV should or should not be doing. Here are some of my favorite lines: “I wouldn’t tap to that!” “Oh man! He’s hurt bad!” “He was going out from that one arm choke!” “I’d kick his ass!” “He’s not that big!” “He shouldn’t have let go!” “I’m a fighter but I’m 0-0 in MMA, I’ve only fought on the streets.”

The reality is that your max bench press and beach body doesn’t mean a damn thing in the cage. It has absolutely nothing to do with applying a submission, chambering a kick, or shooting for a double leg takedown. Bouncing alone I choked unconscious behemoths who were both sober and twice my size because they had no understanding of actual techniques in fighting. Moreover, in my experience athletic training that focuses on power (speed + strength) is the most relevant to fighting. Remember you’re working out not to lift more weight but to become a better fighter so exercise like a professional athlete not like a weight lifter.

Most people will never understand the feeling of being in an actual no holds barred cagefight. I have lost count of the number of times friends and strangers have suggested trying this move or mentioning how many street fights they’ve had. The adrenaline dump, the nerves, the weight cut – it’s easy to critique when you haven’t been in there and experienced it firsthand.

You’ll always be able to tell when people know what cauliflower ears are by how they stare at your ears, with an awkward glare and head turn like a confused puppy or with a small nod and smile because they know what it took to have them. Genetics play a big part however as there are black belts with picture perfect ears and white belts whose ears look like sun-dried tomatoes. Not being able to wear Apple headphones is the silly reality most grapplers and fighters accept eventually. Oddly enough, I can only fit my Apple headphones in my right ear but can only fit a Q-tip in my left ear.

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Your biggest adversary will always be yourself. “You didn’t let your hands go” was a critique I heard several times throughout my career and I just seldom could flip that mental switch. I always resorted to clinching, shooting for a takedown, and grappling because that’s where I had success and that’s where I felt comfortable. I was always worried about getting caught with that punch or kick I didn’t see coming. Five of my six wins were by submission and two of my four losses were by knockout or technical knockout. The reality that I wish I could have engraved in my membrane is that we all bleed.

No matter how hard you work or how good you get there is always going to be someone just as good if not better trying to outwork you. There’s someone across the street running that extra mile, in the next town sparring one more round, across the country not eating that cheat meal and overseas training three times a day.

Cutting weight will be some of the worst moments of my life. When I was a twenty-year-old amateur fighter the general amount of time I spent in a sauna the morning of weigh-ins was three hours with a one minute break every half hour. I had nothing to compare to and didn’t know any better, I would sweat out fifteen pounds of water weight in this time and gain it all back within twenty-fours of rehydrating after weigh-ins. Looking back I was one crazy, naïve kid but damn did I have mind over matter.

 MMA is temporary but martial arts is forever. Very few people can hack it after their middle or early thirties in a top ranked professional MMA circuit but an old man can always put on a gi and give a young up-and-comer hell on the mats.

Injuries are the biggest hardships of MMA. Not having insurance can ruin your life and career. Regularly paying hundreds of dollars for an eye exam and bloodwork is inconvenient enough without sponsors or insurance to alleviate the costs. Having a serious fracture or tear does not only mean a roadblock in your career and constantly being stir-crazy from being unable to train or work but can kill your income and savings simultaneously. I was one of the fortunate few who never suffered a serious injury but was on the receiving end of a handful of concussions and a myriad of stitches, sprains, strains and other pains.

There are few triumphs I can compare to getting your hand raised after a grueling, hard-earned victory. It’s a vast understatement to say it’s one of the greatest feelings you will ever experience hearing your name being announced as the victor. I refer to this as “getting on the mic”.

It’s hard to stay humble in success. Everyone wants to be your friend and brag about knowing you, every girl who’d normally never look at you twice wants to sleep with you, and everyone else wants to work with you and pay you to advertise their business or brand. You feel kind of like a rock star or at least a local hero of some sorts. Letting it get to your head at some point is inevitable for a lot of fighters. Being referred to as an MMA fighter will always be one of my guiltiest pleasures.

A lot of fighters will blow the big paychecks. After fighting for free or for a few hundred dollars coming up and then suddenly being thrown figures that can purchase a new car, cover months of past due bills and late rent, or buy a luxury vacation across the globe it’s hard to simply stash your check into a savings account. I initially had the mentality of kick some ass, make some money, spend it and make some more then do it again. Most of my earnings I either put into rent or tattoos is my honest confession. I’ll never forget hearing one of my former coaches being one of the top picks for a UFC win bonus of $100,000 and he wanted to buy rims for his car while the other fighter, who ended up becoming one of the pound-for-pound greatest UFC champions, wanted to pay for his kids’ college tuitions. My coach won.

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Losing will always be one of the most sobering moments of my life. I will never forget the moments sitting in a locker room surrounded by fighters and coaches but feeling alone in my own world. I believe most fighters would agree they are moments of clarity as well as mini-depressions that every fighter endures eventually. You can be on top of the world one moment and rock bottom the next. As a result many fighters begin to question every aspect of their training: do I need more private lessons, should I drop down a weight class, is it time I change training camps? We all start wondering if what got us here just isn’t working anymore or if we need to revamp our entire training camp because “if it ain’t broke don’t fix up” isn’t our reality anymore. Because of this, after losing a title or just suffering a tough defeat in general many fighters will either have the best or worst performances of their lives in their subsequent fights.

You’ll discover your fair-weather friends sooner or later. Promoters, managers, coaches, training partners, sponsors – many people you encounter have an underlining motive or agenda and after losing or winning you will see if you are being used or manipulated or if they are genuinely there for you or not. One of the most appreciative things one of my coaches ever told me after suffering my toughest loss was “I don’t care about wins or losses, just keep training hard.” I’ll never forget that because I admire him more than he’ll probably ever know and if there was ever a time to discredit my future as a fighter that was it.

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Whether we want to admit it or not every fighter wonders how many more fights they have in them. I’ll never forget competing on Mother’s Day and hearing how I put the fear of God in my mother after decisively losing the first two rounds only to come back in the third and finish my opponent. Moreover losing time to spend with your family, earn a steady, consistent income, or simply not having to worry about what you eat and drink everyday to maintain your weight and conditioning is a dilemma that every fighter endures throughout their career and naturally goes against our human nature.

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2 Comments

  1. The Album

    It’s pretty humbling while watching fighters fight in MMA. People judge your efforts based off of the half hour they see you on TV, rather than the effort and hard work you sacrificed to get to that point. I’ve never boxed, sparred, or rolled but have friends who do and I respect them for it. I always thought the cauliflower ears thing was based off of being experienced and not from genetics. “A wise man once said, never mess with a dude who has cauliflower ears.” I still stand by that because I’m not one to take a chance of getting pummeled haha, great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Shaun Li Stoffer

    Couldn’t agree with you anymore there’s so many silly factors that can affect your performance and the outcome of a fight that people seldom will ever realize. Cauliflower definitely comes naturally for a lot of experience guys but for whatever odd reason I’ve always laughed at people who have been grappling for 6 months will full blown cauliflower while the brown or black belt teaching them has nada, it’s kind of like how some people can’t grow muscle mass easily for certain parts of their body. Thanks for your kind words.

    Liked by 1 person

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