Cubicle to the cage Blog #10 Episode 109
In the spirit of full disclosure, I will confess that had spoken with Robin Black about Cubicle to the Cage months before anyone ever considered him as a potential opponent for me. I was aware of his Robin Black, Cage Fighter TV series. Starting his MMA training in his late 30s, I knew his story in some ways paralleled my own. And I knew he was working as an MMA analyst and journalist. But, when I reached out to him initially, I wasn’t looking for an opponent, rather, I was looking for advice and possibly some assistance promoting the show. He was incredibly supportive and generous with his time. Even without having any official involvement with the show, he offered to make some introductions and provide any insight or advice we wanted.
As the months passed and production ground on, I became increasingly focused on my training and less and less involved in the production side of the project. So, I’d pretty much forgotten about my conversations with Robin. When Peter showed up for class one night and offered me Robin as an opponent, I was quite taken aback. I knew he had been training for several years at that point. I knew he had nine pro fights. And I knew his record was 4 – 5. So, for a split second I was shocked Peter was asking me to fight a guy with so much experience. I’d always expected I’d be fighting another 0 – 0 fighter. I certainly never expected I’d fight an opponent with nine professional fights. But, if I had any real hesitation at all, it was only for a matter of seconds. The combat authority assessments had only been a couple of weeks before and I was still being driven by the frustration and embarrassment of being told by the commissioner that, no matter what I’d learned, I didn’t have what it took to be a fighter. If there is one thing I’ve learned about myself, it is that the sure fired way to make sure I do something is to tell me I can’t do it. I’m stubborn that way.
In the days since getting my fighter’s license I had brought a new level of intensity to my training. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t acting like a complete savage. It wasn’t as if I walked into the gym the next day and started miraculously beating people up. But, I now approached my training differently than I had in the past. Before the assessments, it was as if I was trying to score points when I sparred. I think I always approached sparing or grappling as more of a partnership than a competition. I certainly didn’t have what you would call a mean streak. Now, however, my perspective had changed. I didn’t just want to hit my sparing partners, I wanted to hurt them. I didn’t just want to submit them, I wanted to dominate them. On the few occasions I landed a clean shot or locked on a submission, I took great pleasure in seeing my sparring partner either wobble or tap.
I also changed my opinion on tapping. I’d always tried to focus on technique when I grappled. If my opponent caught me in a submission, I had no problem conceding I’d been caught. Not any longer. Unless I’d exhausted every technique I knew and every ounce of strength I had, I refused to tap. Among other things, this lead to an awful case of cauliflower ear. While I wasn’t submitting people a whole lot more than I had been, I learned to take enormous satisfaction from outlasting a bigger, stronger opponent. While there is no joy quite like nailing a transition, locking on a submission, and forcing an opponent to tap, there is a different kind of satisfaction that comes from feeling your opponent break moment by moment, move by move, position by position. It may not look pretty to the casual observer, but as a guy routinely grappling opponents two weight classes bigger, I learned to enjoy the feeling of grinding down an opponent over several minutes. There is almost an obscene pleasure in feeling them weaken and eventually bow to your will.
I can think of one specific roll where I was matched up with Adam, a guy who had been training Jiu Jit Su for a couple of years. While certainly a white belt, he knew the basics and was substantially bigger and stronger than I was. He had submitted me on many occasions and we’d rolled to a stalemate a couple of times. With the newly minted chip on my shoulder, I swore that I was not leaving the mat unless I beat him or he choked my unconscious. The roll must have lasted close to 15 minutes. The first two thirds of the roll I spent fighting for position and escaping submission attempt after submission attempt. Somewhere around the 10 minute mark I could feel him falter and grow frustrated. I’m sure I was as tired as he was. But I was still completely filled with anger and frustration. And I was able to use those negative emotions as fuel. When I eventually took top position I drove my forehead into the side of his head. I could actually hear his ear popping and crunching under the pressure. As he tried to turn away, I dropped my shoulder onto his neck and hopped my knee up and jammed it into his stomach. I didn’t have the presence of mind or the proper technique to actually look for a submission. I just wanted to hurt him. All that mattered was making him quit. He eventually shrimped away and tried to grab my legs. With his arms reaching for my legs, his neck was momentarily exposed so I locked on a guillotine choke, fell to my back, and squeezed with every fiber of my being. He tapped. I released the choke slammed my arms back on the mat and screamed as loud as I could. A bit melodramatic? Certainly. But, at the time it felt like the right thing to do.
Looking back now, I realize I was in a very odd headspace when Peter told us he’d arranged for us to travel to New York and train at the Renzo Gracie Academy. I think a lot of it had to do with coming to terms with the fact that I now had an opponent. Certainly, something changed once it sunk in that I was actually going to be stepping into the cage. And not only was I going to fight, I was going to fight someone with much more training and experience. The natural assumption would be that I would become more nervous now that I had a fight lined up. But the exact opposite was true. As we prepared to travel to New York, I was as calm and at peace as I had been for the entire program. As I remember it, and as I watch the footage now, it’s almost as if I am watching a different person. The nerves, anxiety and fear that I’d been feeling for nearly a year had been replaced by a quite resolve to do the work and get the job done. The most shocking thing for me, even now, is the complete absence of fear.
The drive from Halifax, Nova Scotia to New York City took over 15 hours. We drove through fog, rain, sleet and snow. All the way, when we weren’t trying to sleep, we drilled Peter on what we should expect when we got there. It was nice to have this downtime with Peter. It was fascinating to hear him discuss his philosophy on training and fighting. And we got to hear some great old war stories from his trips to Renzo’s or to Gracie Barra or Thailand. We arrived just in time to navigate Manhattan rush hour traffic. Talk about aggression. The average MMA fight doesn’t have half the aggression evident on Manhattan’s streets during rush hour. Once safely situated in our Brownstone in Hell’s Kitchen, we grabbed a bite to eat and headed directly to the Gracie Academy.
I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting to find at the Renzo Gracie Academy. But, as Rick Doyle suggested, I think I too was afraid we were going to either be ignored and dismissed as unworthy outsiders, or we were going to get eaten alive by ‘killers’ looking to prove a point. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The moment we walked through the door we could tell this was a special place. There must have been 30 or more people grappling in the main training area. From what I could see, most of them were purple, brown and black belts. Despite the fact there were 15 high level grappling matches taking place, the room was as quiet as a tomb. The amount of respect the players were showing each other and the reverence they showed for their art was startling. Even Rick, who had absolutely no prior knowledge of Brazilian Jiu Jit Su or the “Gracie Way” could immediately sense that we were about to have an amazing experience.
After reviewing the schedule, Peter suggested the cubes join the afternoon Muay Thai class while his pro fighters Gavin Tucker, Mike Malott and Pat Carroll would roll into the advanced Jui Jit Su class. As the Muay Thai class started I was immediately relieved to discover that the pace and intensity of the class was not nearly as intense as we were used to back at TITANS. Obviously, this was an open class for recreational students, not the elite Gracie pro fight team. Whereas our cube classes were an equal mix of intense conditioning, technique and sparing, the introductory Muay Thai classes consisted of a light warm-up followed by extensive drilling of basic striking technique. While the classes had a slightly different focus than we were used to, it was comforting to realize that the techniques we were learning back at TITANS were the exact same techniques being taught here. Unfortunately, this meant the instructors were pointing out the same mistakes. My elbow was far too low when I threw a lead hook. I dropped my right after throwing a punch. It was oddly comforting to know we were at least working on the right things.
Once our class was over, the cubes had a chance to sit and watch the TITANS pro fighters roll in the advanced BJJ class. It was awesome to see them hold their own with what we knew were such high level grapplers. We cubes had only ever trained MMA style grappling and had never trained in the gi, so it was incredibly disappointing that we didn’t have an opportunity to join the beginner Jiu Jit Su classes. I can’t image what a rewarding experience it was for Gavin, Mike and Pat to test themselves in that environment. As the ultimate cherry on the top, after a private lesson with Igor Gracie, Mike and Gavin were awarded their purple belts with the entire gym watching. Many, took the time to come over and congratulate them. Both Mike and Gavin were visibly moved. It was a great honor for us cubes to stand witness to this huge honor bestowed on these young athletes we’d grown to respect so much.
The next day, Peter booked the MMA cage that sits on the second floor of the Gracie Academy so we could get in some sparing. I have to say, it felt absolutely surreal to train and spar in that beautiful facility, with world class fighters and grapplers wandering by. It was quite literally a dream come true. For perhaps the first time all year I felt like I actually belonged in the cage. I may never be a world beater, but as I sat there wrapping my hands, watching Igor Gracie and John Danaher stroll by, I felt I was doing everything I could to earn my shot.
I don’t know if it was the long drive, the poor sleep or the adrenaline dump after so much excitement, but the sparing workout with Peter was absolutely exhausting. I don‘t think I’d struggled so much in a class for months. When Peter felt we’d done enough, he told us he had another surprise for us. We would spend the next two days in private lessons with some of the academy’s head trainers. We would be treated to BJJ lessons with Professor Igor Gracie and Professor Zed Chierghini, as well as a private Muay Thai seminar with Kru Jamie Crowder.
We’d all heard Peter talk about the high level Jiu Jit Su at the Renzo Gracie Academy, but it was quite another thing to see it first-hand. Out of necessity, Peter had been really focusing on the grappling basics with the cubes over the past year. And it’s no secret that Brazilian Jiu Jit Su is far too complex an art to master in a year (or a lifetime for that matter). So, rather than trying to teach us BJJ as you would a student wanting to learn the sport in the traditional manner, he instead tried to drill us on the basics we would most likely need in an MMA fight. The detailed instruction and tips and tricks we received from Professor Igor and Professor Zed were quite simply mind blowing. Likewise, drilling the Thai plum with Kru Jamie was equally enlightening. As the smallest and weakest guy in the program I had always dreaded clinch work. Any time we did MMA sparing and my partner got their hands on me, things did NOT go my way. Breaking down some basic trips with Jamie was eye opening. Once the light bulb went on and I finally understood the technique required to ‘conquer the hip’ and off-balance my opponent, I felt like a kid in a candy store. Rick was generous enough to let me toss him onto the ground nearly a hundred times as I drilled the technique. As I became more confident with the technique, Rick tried to muscle his way out of the throws. He found it absolutely hilarious that no amount of brute strength could counteract the properly applied technique.
We certainly were not in New York long enough to learn, drill and master any substantial amount of fighting technique. But I came away from that trip with something far more important, confidence. I certainly picked up a couple of techniques that I felt I could employ in an MMA fight. But, I left New York with a growing sense that I had as much right to step into the cage as anyone.
Upon returning to Halifax, I returned to training a more aggressive, more determined, and more confident version of myself. To anyone who has gone through an eight week fight camp leading up to a professional MMA fight, it will come as no surprise that my new-found confidence was short lived. Enter, sharkbaiting.
For those unfamiliar with the term, sharkbaiting is the sparing technique whereby a fighter is placed in the ring to fight 2 or 3 minute rounds against resting opponents. This puts the fighter in a severely disadvantaged position as they become increasingly fatigued while facing a fresh opponent every few minutes. The major benefit to sharkbaiting is it closely simulates the fatigue a fighter is likely to experience in a professional fight. The frustrating part is it is nearly impossible to effectively employ