My cousin was diagnosed with cancer when she was twelve. Burkitt’s lymphoma. That means it’s a blood cancer that’s very aggressive in spreading. She had to stop going to school. She couldn’t fight the weight loss. She had to go through treatment. She lost her hair.
She was twelve. Her name is Kaitlin.
Cancer treatment is essentially spending your days in a hospital where a chemical is pumped into your body for hours on end. Essentially it’s a toxin that fights the cancer cells. Think of it as fighting fire with fire. As a result the body deteriorates. I couldn’t see my cousin deteriorate.
My uncle and aunt gave our family bracelets to wear, lime green awareness bracelets like the Livestrong brand. I only visited once or twice. I lived five minutes away from my uncle’s home in Oviedo. Only five minutes. Three hundred fucking seconds. It took me longer to drive to school, work, training, or even grocery shopping than it did to go visit my cousin and her family – but I couldn’t do it. I tried several times and failed time and again. I could go downtown to drink my emotions away but not to the hospital to be there for her treatment.
I’m a piece of shit; you don’t have to tell me. I’m just not good with emotions; or rather emotions aren’t good with me.
My mother’s brother’s youngest daughter was twelve years old and dying. How the fuck did this happen? This is something you hear about, read about, but never think to experience. I had a friend die in a car accident years ago, I overcame it. In this case I wasn’t ready to watch the car crash happen in slow motion right before me. I wasn’t there for her at all but my mother spent practically every waking minute with her and held my absence against me, but I didn’t want to see her hair falling out. I didn’t want to see the tubes in her arms. I didn’t want to smell that hospital smell. When I was twelve my biggest problem was acne, my biggest problem was passing algebra, my biggest problem was trying to not make a fool of myself at dances.
I was buying groceries at Publix one day. There was a Giovanni’s next door. As I was walking out with my cart my cousin and her family were walking parallel to me into the restaurant.
“Shaun!” my aunt exclaimed.
They recognized me and I can only imagine how off guard I must’ve looked, stopping dead in my tracks in the middle of the crosswalk.
“Hello, strangers. Fancy meeting you around these parts.” I tried to recover with wit.
“Where are you going?” They crowded around me in the crosswalk.
“Ironically, I’m putting the money I earn from Publix right back into their pockets because eating is my unconditional first love. If I didn’t work out all the time I would be doing sumo not cagefighting.”
They laughed. I eyeballed Kaitlin. She looked skinny. I could probably lift her up with one arm. A surge of guilt shot through me.
“Have you eaten yet? We’re just going in to Giovanni’s, why don’t you join us?”
“I mean, I actually love that place but I have fish and frozen vegetables and what not.” I made an excuse. I could see my cousin’s demeanor change ever so slightly in the background. I beat myself up in my head.
“Well, you could always come join us after or maybe dessert?”
“Actually, you know what? I don’t live far I could drop my groceries off in the fridge and be back in five, ten minutes tops.”
“Alright, sounds like a plan.” My aunt smiled wide.
“Save me a seat, and remember I’m a lefty I need to sit on the end of the booth.”
They laughed and I nodded and waved as I paced to my SUV. I just didn’t have the heart to say no, I felt obligated. Ten minutes went by and I returned after dropping off my refrigerated groceries into my apartment kitchen. I returned but I thought about running, making up an excuse. I was a sorry excuse for a man.
I run. I just run from emotions, as hard and fast as I can. I hate showing moments of weakness. I hate hugging. I hate saying goodbye. I hate taking pictures. I hate saying I love you. I hate crying even though I was a cry baby as a child – maybe that’s partly why. Funerals I run, hospitals I run, and therefore I’ve become too good of a sprinter.
I wore my lime green wristband religiously. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was out of shame. Maybe it was out of guilt. Maybe it was out of fear. I fought in a cage for a living. I was ready to enter the police academy. I was ready to take on whatever the world threw at me. I wasn’t ready for this. I was helpless. I had no control. For once I was in a position where nothing I could do would change or dictate the outcome. I felt afraid. I felt scared. I felt terrified.
I felt helpless.
I remember sitting in a booth in Giovanni’s putting on my best brave face. I clouded my fears and insecurities with humor. Joking constantly and making small talk.
“I’ll have the calzone. It’s like a taco and a pizza, the best of both worlds.”
“You don’t want something else? Maybe pizza? It’s on us buy whatever you like,” my uncle implored me.
“Classy move, but I remain firm and steadfast with my choice of calzone.”
I fought the urge to order a beer. “Can I get a refill on my water whenever you get the chance, please?”
“Absolutely,” the waitress chimed.
Kaitlin was wearing a blue beanie with a sewed in bow that matched. She was drinking out of a Dasani water bottle when I asked about it.
“Kaitlin’s drinking water too,” my aunt commented with a smile. “We just bring Dasani because we have to make sure there isn’t anything in the water besides filtered water, you wouldn’t believe the stuff that’s in tap water.”
I nodded and smiled. “Yeah, I was refilling my gallon of drinking water out of my gym’s hose at one point. Turns out it was well water that they used for their toilets and showers. I guess my immune system is a force to be reckoned with.”
They laughed. That was the last time I saw them during Kaitlin’s treatment.
My mom used to text me her daily scolding about how I could put more time into training than I could into my family. Old-fashioned and unforgiving was how she always treated me. ‘You’re fighting for fun, she’s fighting for her life!’ she would say. I couldn’t argue, I couldn’t disagree, and instead I just estranged myself out of the simple fear that I was weak and helpless.
One particular night when I didn’t respond to her slew of messages she sent me a particular text that made me cry for the first time in years. “Your cousins are always asking about you, especially Cameron and Kaitlin, she’s fighting just like you but for her life! A real fight! They just want you to visit them. You’re their hero and mine!” I was their hero? I felt like jumping off a building. I was a disappointment, a coward who wasn’t there for his family. I couldn’t face the facts that Kaitlin was going to die and there was nothing I could do. I didn’t want to feel the pain of losing a loved one. I didn’t want to say goodbye knowing it was going to be the last.
So I ran. I just ran.
Walking to the cage with “Country Boy” sounding through the A La Carter Pavilion tonight was my night. I was going to win, not just win but dominate. I had committed three months of my life to this training camp while day-in and day-out juggling being a full-time student and working a part-time job on the side, doing two-a-days getting beaten up by fighters twice my size and experience, dieting and cutting water weight to go from one-hundred and eighty pounds to one-hundred and fifty-five to make my weight class, every training session pushing to the point of exhaustion and exercise-induced asthma, it would all be worth it tonight. I more than expected to have my hand raised at the end of this fight. It was my first professional fight and my amateur career was a success, no one ever stopped me inside the cage.
“This was my time.”
I dedicated this fight to my cousin, Kaitlin, she was fighting cancer, what was this in comparison? I was going to make my family proud. I wasn’t going to let them down this time. Only my dad was in the stands but my family was behind me completely.
I wanted to inspire them.
Bouncing back and forth, there’s no other place I’d rather be because I come alive under the lights. The planks beneath my feet have little give, I know they will be unforgiving if I get slammed. The black coated mesh of the cage feels tight against my back, I’m glad. I know if he takes me down I’ll be able to put my back against the cage and wall walk back to my feet time and again. He will not be able control me, I will exhaust him trying.
I’ve watched his tapes of his past fights. He’s slow lobbing his strikes, he relies on his wrestling making him predicable, he will try to control me and fail.
My strategy is too sly and unorthodox. I will tire him out, beat his body till it’s hard for him to breathe, I will come forward and make him fight wild and desperately, and when he starts to wear down I will choke him until he waves his white flag. I imagine his health bar dwindling like the Mortal Kombat arcade games and laugh at my resolve.
Making slow struts around the cage I peer into the crowd so they can see me show off the American flag stamped across my mouth guard and the 4oz. gloves that do little more than protect my knuckles – these are my weapons of mass destruction.
I can’t help but catch the eyes of the pretty women in the crowd and I recognize who is and isn’t rooting for me. I point at the people booing me and then point down at the cage’s floor. “This is my house.”
The air is so cold I continually bounce and shake out my arms to stay warm and loose. I smile and laugh inside at the diverse expressions of the audience. I remind myself to take deep breaths because I forget to breathe when my nerves and adrenaline pulsate so relentlessly. I filter out what I hear because the arena is filled with commotion, all I hear is my corner men and all I see is my opponent, the rest is tunnel vision.
My father was in one of the front rows. My relationship with him had always been rocky. He didn’t have the heart to admit it, but I never rose to his expectations. I was never the all-star athlete, never the straight A student, never the role model of a son. I drank whiskey, swore constantly, and became infatuated with tattoos despite his indifferences. In other words, I was just never good enough. I accepted this but strived for the day I would change his opinion.
Years ago I confessed to him that I was considering beginning an amateur mixed martial arts career, his reply was, “You’re not seriously thinking about competing? Because they’ll tear you up man.” Always skeptical and never saw my dream as realistic, his rebuttal was engrained in my memories. I wanted to finish my opponent directly in front of him. I wanted to prove him wrong more than anything, it’s what made me tic, what woke me up in the morning, what made me push till my limbs ached for days after. Proving the naysayers and doubters wrong fueled me through all my trials and tribulations.
My opponent is being announced as the hometown favorite. The crowd roars like they’re in a stadium as he makes his walk out entrance. He’s a wrestler. They don’t like to get hit. They don’t like to be on their back. If they can’t control you they break. I will prove this belief true.
I wanted to lick his blood off my gloves; I wanted to beat him in his hometown in front of his friends and family, I wanted to take his heart and make him quit. That was my mentality as the cage door shut behind him.
The referee brings us into the center of the cage to discuss the last minute rules and touch gloves as a show of sportsmanship. My opponent and I lock stares like rams lock horns and I can’t help but reveal my trademark grin, I imagine I look like the Joker or another insane serial killer. Some fighters smack themselves, some jump up and down, some yell – I smile to show that’s how prepared I am. I want him to know I fear only God.
The referee separates us and sends us to our corners of the cage opposite each other and asks, “Are you ready?” I nod my head but keep my stare locked on my target like a bull getting ready to charge at a matador.
I rush forward and take the center of the cage and throw a straight punch down the pipe; he counters with a body kick and I block it and smile. I throw out a pair of long jabs, fake a straight cross, and initiate a clinch. I feel his strength and am surprised but not impressed, “He’s strong, but I’m stronger.” We scramble back and forth fighting for control; I find my opportunities to throw knees and elbows. I want to make him bleed. I go for a guillotine choke and overcommit; I get slammed hard as a result and the wind gets knocked out of for me for an instance, I think, “you’re fault suck it the fuck up and move.”
I posture up, scoot my back against the cage, and scramble to my feet.
He tries to take me down again and again, every time I get back up. In wrestling there is nothing worse than spending all your energy getting a takedown and then have your opponent get right back up to his feet. It kills the cardio, more importantly it kills the spirit.
The fight turns into a grappling match, his wrestling against my jiu-jitsu, his cage control versus my dirty boxing. I hear my corner-man yell there’s one minute left in the round. I get over aggressive and rush in to force an exchange. He succeeds in landing a head and arm throw where one of my arms is stretched and draped over his shoulder and his hips turn into mine in order to throw me over his head. Think of it as the motion of pulling a fireman hose. I wind up on my back in the center of the cage. “Let’s see what you got.” I wrap my legs around his waist in a position called closed guard. I throw elbows from my back. I land every one. He tries to throw big strikes, he postures up and winds up, telegraphing, I block every one. I throw up a triangle choke where one his of his arms and his head are trapped between my legs, cutting off the blood and oxygen flow from his neck through to his brain. “It’s only a matter of time before I catch you.” He fights and I give up the submission attempt in exchange for more elbows, the round ends with him trapped in my closed guard eating elbow after elbow with no answer. “Saved by the bell. He didn’t land a single strike.”
The judges probably give him the round 10-9 from takedowns, but my strategy is working. He looks worn down, tired. He couldn’t mount any real offense. He didn’t hurt me but I hurt him. “He’ll break, I won’t,” I assure myself as the bell rings for the beginning of the second round.
Lights are all I could remember seeing. Bright like a football stadium on a Friday night. I couldn’t see through my blurred vision it was like opening your eyes underwater. I saw black coated mesh; “I was in the cage still,” I realized. I was kneeling on one knee for some reason.
Rising to my feet I was struggling to maintain my balance; it felt like I was standing on a balance board. The referee shoves his hand in my sternum and thrust his other in the air and waves. He was stopping the fight.
“What? No! Let’s keep going!” I yell.
“No! No more!” The ref grabs me and forces me onto a stool, I see the ringside doctors approaching me fast. Their questions I cannot remember, I was in such disbelief I had just lost.
I lost via technical knockout in the second round of my pro debut because I failed to give my opponent the respect he deserved with my reluctant father in the stands watching.
A mixture of emotions hit me but primarily disappointment and anguish at myself for failing at what I am best at. It was my greatest failure thus far, a lesson in humility, and a missed opportunity to take a big stride in making my dreams reality.
I texted my dad one word from the locker room, too ashamed to face him in the audience “Sorry”.
As I walked into my training center a couple days later I made a B-line to my head corner-man and coach. “What happened?”
He took a deep breath, almost a sigh. “He came out in the second and just started lobbing head kicks, started throwing them out of nowhere. He knew you were hurt because you smiled and started brawling in the pocket. He hit you with two head kicks and there were some punches, you dropped to one knee. It was a good stop.”
I nodded my head and look up at the ceiling; I fought the tears forming in the back of my eyes.
“You alright? How’s your head?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I manage to mumble as I begin to walk off, too embarrassed and ashamed.
Anger surged through me in the bathroom as I stared at myself in the mirror – disgusted. What is it like to lose a professional fight? It’s like someone reaching out and taking your manhood in every sense of the word. This man had bested me at what I am best at; he has humiliated me in front of the world, taken money out of my purse and made me a part of his highlight reel. You second-guess a lot of things when you lose; mainly you question your belief in yourself. Most of all you can’t escape the feeling of being defeated.
A close friend decided she would send me a text message after hearing I lost. “If losing a fight is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you in your life, you’re doing pretty good.” She had a point. Kaitlin was more important than this. I would train and fight again and come back but family was a priority while fighting was my passion. My eyes were opened but one thought has clouded my mind since. I am going to make this loss the best thing that has ever happened to me.
Kaitlin beat her cancer within a year. Science said she would never be a teenager. I visited her after taking a loss in my professional mixed martial arts debut. I had dedicated the fight to her even though it became a losing effort. I visited her and her family being a loser and her a winner. I stood around in their home with my mother taking pictures, having dinner in their kitchen, making small talk. No one mentioned my absence, no one mentioned my lack of support, they provided nothing but understanding. They treated me as if nothing had happened. I did not know what to think of this. We took pictures as a family, we broke bread together, and we talked about nothing but positivity. I didn’t deserve their forgiveness or understanding.
Perhaps that’s what family is all about, accepting family for who they are and what they fear, being there for them even if they are not there for you. My family and I may never see eye to eye. My brother and I may butt heads every time we are together until the day we die, seems likely considering we’ve been doing it for twenty-three years, but when push comes to shove I will always be there for him and protect him if need be and I am positive he would return the favor. My mother may scold me via text message at every given opportunity and my father may never approve of my lifestyle, but they raised me to be who I am today which may not be much to some but they did the best they could with what they have, I am affirmative I would have sent the majority of parents into an asylum. I may never talk to my sister and may be a shithead of a cousin but on the seldom occasions our paths cross they see past my downfalls and treat me better than I deserve, for this I am always grateful.
They are who I call my family; they are all I have while many cannot say the same. I am glad God made them.
I stood taking a picture next to Kaitlin, one arm around her and the other making a fist pointed at her in dry humor, my lime green wristband intact.