Cubicle to the cage Blog #4 Episode 103
MMA Behind the Scenes
Before beginning training, Peter wanted us to take a good hard look at what we were getting ourselves into. So he invited us to shadow several of the pro fighters at an event being held by his Extreme Cage Combat (ECC) promotion.
Getting an opportunity to hangout backstage, in the locker room and cage side during an MMA event was an honor, a privilege … and an eye opening experience. First and foremost I was struck by how differently each fighter prepared themselves for their fight. Any fighter about to step in to the cage, has likely invested years of training, months of conditioning and fight preparation, weeks of dieting and mental preparation. They have also taxed their body and brain with a 10 to 20 pound weight cut in the 48 hours leading up to the fight. Many are trying to build a career, chase a dream, or prove something to themselves or those closest to them. None of them want to let down their families, friends, coaches and training partners. The pressure is immense and the tension in the locker room is palpable. But how the fighters handle this stress is as varied as the styles in which they fight.
Three experienced fighters I watched closely that night were, Mike Kent, Ricky Goodall and Gavin Tucker. I’d seen them all fight previously and I’d watched them training just the week before. To see them in the locker room on fight night, you’d hardly recognize them as the same people you’d meet on the street or in the gym. Mike, an extremely relaxed guy with a permanent smile and wicked sense of humor, was a bundle of nerves. He paced the floor, shadow-boxed endlessly and made multiple trips to the bathroom. As his fight approached, he looked so anxious I wasn’t sure he was going to actually make the walk to the cage. Backstage, he certainly did not exude the confidence of a then undefeated fighter with 8 fights under his belt. Ricky Goodall on the other hand was the exact opposite. Normally a focused and driven businessman, pre fight, Ricky was so calm you might suspect he was unaware that a 190 pound professional fighter was about to try and smash his face. Standing in the hallway, waiting to make his walk to the cage, he looked as relaxed and at home as if he were heading out to pick up some milk at the grocery store. And Gavin… Well, Gavin Tucker has to be one of the most soft-spoken, considerate, and polite individuals I have ever met. On the surface, your average kindergarten teacher would intimidate you more than Gavin. Well, apparently he reserves all his passion, intensity, and ferocity for when it counts. As his fight approached he transformed into something akin to a caged animal. He was literally (not figuratively, literally) bouncing off the walls. A wolverine trapped in a leg-hold trap would be more composed. As I watched all this unfold I tried to imagine how I would behave if I were the one about to step into the cage. Would I be jittery like Mike, cool and collected like Ricky or bursting with energy and aggression like Gavin. Just thinking about it made me want to slip quietly out the door. I made a mental note, if ever I find myself moments from stepping into a cage to fight another man, I need to know where the nearest exit is… you know… just in case.
We were also fortunate that night to have an opportunity to follow Nathan Hamilton to the cage. Like us, Nathan was new to MMA and would be making his debut. He seemed remarkably calm in the locker room. He was focused and calm and seemed like he was eager to fight. His confident air was warranted as he performed well in the cage. Right from the start he had success against an opponent who was much more experienced (not to mention one of the toughest SOBs on the local circuit). Nathan dominated the first 4 plus minutes of the fight. We cubes, feeling a debutant connection with Nathan, were all on a huge high as the final seconds of the first round ticked away. So, it was a huge hit for us (pun intended) when, at the very last second, he was knocked out.
With the exception of Jannette d’Entremont, who’s fiancé, Mike Kent, was fighting on the card, I don’t think any of us had ever had a tangible, emotional connection to a fighter before. Seeing Nathan, not only loose, but get brutally knocked out was a gut wrenching experience. Watching his tearful reaction in the locker room afterwards and the supportive response of his family, teammates and coaches, we saw for the first time, the emotional commitment these athletes make. For many of us, this was the first, sobering moment where we were forced to acknowledge the magnitude of what we were about to attempt. MMA might be a sport, but this was not a game. I wondered how many of the cubes in attendance would quit before they started and not show up for the first day of training after what they had witnessed that night.
As the evening progressed we all got to experience (albeit second hand) the thrill of victory and the sting of defeat as several TITANS fighters were victorious while others came up short. But win, or loose, the locker room was a haven of support and understanding. I was struck by the sense of camaraderie amongst the fighters. It was clear that this wasn’t just a group of random fighters, it was a brotherhood, a family. And winning or losing were not nearly as important as just stepping into the cage and fighting well. For me, this introduced something new to the journey. I’d always assumed fighting was a solitary endeavor. To see a fighter in a cage, alone, save for his opponent, you might believe that he had gotten there on his own. But now, seeing the fighters, their coaches and families sharing equally in their successes and failures taught me that fighting is anything but a solo sport. Also, for the first time, I got an inkling of just how much I would need the support of my family, my friends and my fellow cubes as we began this adventure. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would later learn that when my goal seemed least in reach, it was some of those very fighters I watched that night who would challenge me, support me, and carry me (sometimes literally) towards my goal.
It was a motley crew that showed up at TITANS MMA and Boxing the following Monday for the start of the Cubicle to the Cage training camp. The group was made up of 25 men and 11 women, all from different backgrounds, but each with the same goal, to take the first tentative steps from the ordinary, to the extraordinary, from the Cubicle to the Cage.
Like just about everyone else in the room, I was a little nervous… ok, who am I kidding…. I was scared out of my wits on the first night of training. Only a couple of weeks before, we’d witnessed a pro fighter sustain a potentially career ending knee injury. One minute he was punching and kicking like some crazed, padded ninja, the next minute he hit the ground, a tangled mess of torn ligaments and busted dreams. Following that up with our first look up-close and backstage at a MMA event was sobering to say the least. As I stood there before our first training session, trying to keep my heart from beating out of my chest, I could still hear the echoes of fists hitting faces, shins digging into thighs, and sleeping heads hitting canvas covered board.
For the briefest of moments, I glanced at the garage doors and wondered if anyone would notice if I just slipped out into the night and retreated to the safety of my cubicle. But before I could formulate a decent escape plan, (“Excuse me, but I think I left the bath running.”) head trainer, Peter Martel, bellowed, “Lets go… RUN! What are you waiting for?! GO! GO! GO!”
For the next hour, my heart was beating out of my chest for a whole other reason. There was no room in my thoughts for fear… every fibre of my being was devoted to keeping me moving, or at some points just staying upright and on my feet.
Let me be perfectly clear here, I was 40 years old, I had 3 small kids (an exceedingly tolerant wife) and a desk job. I by no means had any illusions that I was an elite athlete. That being said, I was going to the gym at lunchtime, I lived an active lifestyle, I even ran marathons in my late 30s. So, I was under the horribly misguided impression that I was ready for what Peter had in store. But the cardio workout that Peter put us through that night is not something I could ever, ever, EVER have prepared for. It was a series of the most exhausting, energy sapping, sole crushing exercises I had ever experienced. Burpies, knee tucks, pushups, leaping (full body off the ground) pushups, squats, crunches, lunges, etc… etc… Even now, I get phantom pains in my legs and my lungs burn just thinking about it. There is no other way to describe it other than to say it was a shock to the system.
After what seemed like an hour, but what was probably more like 5 or 10 minutes, we were given a minute to ‘recover’ before diving into our first introduction to the most basic techniques we would need to learn if we were to have any hope of one day calling ourselves mixed martial artists. Peter, and boxing coach, Tyson Cave, had intended to drill us on basic punching combinations. Unfortunately, things very quickly fell apart when they realized that most of us, far from being able to throw a punch, were barely able to stand properly or hold our arms up. I felt embarrassed for myself, sympathy my fellow cubes and fearful that Peter and Tyson were going to simply throw up their hands and walk out. But they didn’t. Instead, they slowed things down, and backed things up. And, I mean, they backed things way way up. First, they showed us how to stand. I know, I know, a group of grown men and women should know how to stand without instruction. But this was the point at which we learned that watching fighting and actually fighting are two completely different things. The simplest kick or punch that a fighter throws has a thousand components, all determined by an infinitely complex set of interconnected causes and effects. Initially Peter seemed to take great joy in repeatedly asking us to take a fighting stance and then casually walking over to a random cube and, with a single finger, pushing them over. Note to self, having your feet perfectly in line, one behind the other, in essence turns you into a 2 legged stool. Not to mention a two legged fool. After a 30 minute lesson on how to stand without falling down, we were ready to start punching. And that’s when things got really ugly.
With the exception of a handful of cubes with some boxing or traditional martial arts training, most of us had never thrown a punch in our lives. I will likely never forget the look of horror on the faces of both Tyson and Peter as we spasmed and flailed around the gym. Nobody lost an eye. Let’s leave it at that.
Perhaps for the first time realizing the true magnitude of our incompetence, Peter decided to spare us any further embarrassment and instructed us to cool down. Now, we must pause here so I can share with you a small quirk of Peter Martell’s personality (there are several). He sometimes ascribes his own meaning to words that have a very different meaning to everyone else who speaks the English language. Take for example the aforementioned “cool down.” I’ve played team sports, run long distance, pumped out some P90X in the basement while the kids were sleeping, so, I’m pretty sure I know what the phrase “cool down” means. A cool down sounded great to me. It conjured images of cool lakes and lemonade on a summer’s day. I was thinking we’d do some light jogging, a little stretching, some yoga and maybe a quick meditation. To Peter, however, cool down had a distinctly different meaning.
The last 10 minutes of class was an even more intense repeat of the blitzkrieg warm-up we’d barely survived less than an hour before. I’d like to say it was a tough challenge, but, I had the mental toughness to push through it and take whatever Peter threw my way. I’d like to say that… but I cannot. I stumbled. I fell. On one occasion I even fell to the floor behind a larger cube (thanks Colin) and hid there until I was afraid Peter would see me. I screamed and I cried. At one point, during a seemingly endless period of lunges, burpies and knee tucks, I found myself saying the names of my children out loud. “Annika, Malcolm, Mariah, Annika, Malcolm, Mariah, Anniaka, Malcolm, Mariah.” I didn’t even realize I was doing it until I heard the words coming out of my mouth. I guess my brain was just not willing to follow my body into the fire, so it retreated to my happy place. And that apparently would be thinking of my children. Good to know. I filed that one away for later.
Our release ultimately came with the sweetest word I think I have ever heard. When my legs were rubber, my lungs were burning, and my entire body was absolutely screaming in pain, from somewhere in the distance, and over the roaring in my head, I heard Peter shout, “TIME!!!”
I don’t remember the drive home. I don’t remember getting a shower. I don’t even remember going to bed. All I can remember is that I ate all the food in the house, everything, even the baking soda, washed down with a half bottle of mustard. And then I slept.
The weeks that followed were a monotonous pain and fatigue filled blur. Six classes a week of conditioning, conditioning and more conditioning. Each workout was spiced with basic techniques in boxing, Mauy Thai, wrestling, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and MMA, but for the most part it was a plyometric nightmare. As my grandfather used to say, I was born at night, but I wasn’t born last night. I could see what was happening here. Realizing some, no, most of us were lost causes, Peter had to thin the herd, and fast. He was ratcheting up the pressure and keeping a keen eye to see who would crack. Better to cut the dead wood now and focus on the few (very few) who he thought had a legitimate shot at actually surviving the training. But, he was in for a surprise.
Considering the relatively poor physical condition some of us came in with, Peter assumed several cubes would quit in the first week. A decade and a half of training fighters had taught him that half the people who walk into the gym wanting to be fighters don’t last 3 months. Less than 90 percent will become lifelong martial artists and only a fraction of those will fight professionally. So, weeks into the program, Peter was shocked to find virtually all the cubes who had started the program were attending several classes a week. For the first time, he started to suspect he may actually be on to something. Perhaps the tryouts and the selection process he had used for choosing these prospects had already narrowed the field a little for him. Perhaps nearly all of these folks who had made it this far had that little something extra that separates fighters from everyone else. While a happy problem, this was still a problem. The group was simply too big and a majority of the cubes just did not have the potential to fight in 12 short month. Somehow the field would have to be narrowed, and quick. The going was about to get very, very tough.