Cubicle to the cage Blog #6 Episode 105
The night we received our DRAKO sparing gear was definitely a pivotal moment in the program. Up to that point we’d been using borrowed gear or stinky, disgusting club gear that was too repulsive to describe. To now have shiny new shin guards and boxing gloves, mouth guards and head gear, we were able to take the meager striking skills we were taught and begin using them in actual sparring. And as with receiving the rash guards and shorts a few weeks before, receiving the sparing gear was a sign. Many of us felt the gear was a reward for the hard work we’d put in so far. So when the doors opened and we saw all that shiny new DRAKO equipment, we were overjoyed. Sebastian O’Malley summed it up best when he said it felt just like Christmas. But the joy was short lived.
Still needing to thin the herd, Peter took the first night of sparing as yet another opportunity to test the cubes’ resolve,… and their willingness and ability to take a punch. A handful of cubes who do not feature prominently in the TV series were integral players in the program none the less. The key players that first sparing night were Sonny Adamski, and the brothers, Jerome and Sonny Wilson. Along with Morteza and Sebastian O’Malley, these guys were in many ways the ringers in the program. 21 year old Sonny Adamski is Peter’s brother-in-law and had been training with Peter in one fashion or another since he was 17 years old. He had fantastic physical conditioning, was completely comfortable sparing, and was as skilled a grappler as I have ever seen in a white belt. Being my size, he would become one of my key training partners. Jerome and Sonny Wilson were 48 and 49 years old respectively. Being good friends of Peter’s, I expected they were only selected because Peter wanted them around for his own entertainment. The first night of sparing, however, I realized that was not the case. Both Jerome and Sonny had been boxing for over 30 years. Sonny also ran triathlons and had the physical conditioning of a man half his age. Jerome, while not having Sonny’s conditioning, had an absolute wealth of boxing knowledge, and a right hand that could knock out a moose. Both were as tough as nails. It also didn’t hurt that Jerome and Sonny’s nephew is Canadian MMA pioneer and UFC light heavyweight Roger (The Hulk) Hollett.
I wasn’t privy to the conversation between Peter, Sonny, Jerome, Sebastian and Morteza, but I’m guessing it included Peter telling them to A) make sure they didn’t hurt anybody and B) to make sure each cube got hit to the body and to the head at least hard enough to know what getting hit feels like. Again, for any fighters out there reading this, we have to remember this was the first time many of the cubes had been in ‘the fish bowl’. Even light sparing was completely foreign to most of us. As a matter of fact, many of us cubes had never in our lives been punched or kicked. It was clear to me that night that this one simple factor is one of the lynchpins of becoming a fighter. If you are unwilling to get hit, or even if you are afraid to get hit, the chances of you becoming a fighter are near zero. A great deal of learning to fight involves trial and error, and in this sport most errors will get you punched or kicked in the face.
Peter, Sonny Wilson, Jerome and Sebastian spread out across the mats and the remaining cubes took turns rotating in for 1 to 2 minute sparing sessions. I personally had no idea what I was doing. I figured out in a couple of seconds that standing still and doing nothing was a very poor option as it resulted in being punched in the stomach and head repeatedly. With 4 or 5 groups sparing in a confined area, running away was not much of an option either. So I went on the attack. I don’t mean to say I used footwork to get inside and then threw combinations before dodging counters and moving away, careful to avoid my partner’s power hand. No, by attack I mean I ran blindly at my opponent, punching as hard as I could. My hope was that my attack would put my sparing partners on the defensive and I wouldn’t get hit so much. Wrong. Instead, I was introduced to the technique known as counter punching. But, with no other technique or strategy at my disposal I continued to throw my face in harm’s way. With the exception of a couple of hard shots to my mid section, the guys actually took it pretty easy on us. Peter, a natural southpaw, continuously ‘adjusted my head gear’ with pillowy lead hooks every time I made any attempt to move towards him. Jerome on the other hand was simply impossible to hit. He sidestepped or bobbed his head away from every punch I threw. He eventually tired of me constantly bum rushing him and he stopped me dead with a straight right that snapped my head back and almost took me off my feet. Before I could put up any kind of a defence he stepped off to my left and threw another punch straight into my jaw. Realizing he’d tagged me pretty good, he backed off. My (involuntary) reaction? I rushed him again. This time he put a little more juice on his right hand and sent me staggering back off the mat. After class, Jerome gave me a pat on the back and shared (only half-joking) with Peter that I had an “over abundance of stupid.” But, thankfully for me, I now knew I didn’t really mind getting hit. I was far from in love with getting punched in the face, but I didn’t completely shut down or run away. Other cubes did not fare so well.
I won’t throw anybody under the bus and name names, but I did notice a few cubes had an enormously negative reaction to getting hit. A couple of people, after only one or two hits to the face, were standing in the corner looking , as someone suggested afterwards, “like a dog that had just been hit by a car.” And don’t misunderstand. They weren’t severely rocked. It was all very controlled sparing with none of the experienced guys throwing punches more than 20 or 30 percent power. Well, except for one body shot that Sonny Adamski hit me with. I would imagine that one was about as hard as he could throw. I didn’t go down, but I may have peed myself a little. There is just something about getting punched in the head that screws with your mind. I was fortunate, I’d been working on this project for over two years at this point. While I hadn’t been training, I had all that time to get in the proper headspace. For many of the cubes, who had no idea this was coming, the shock of being punched in the head was a bit too much for them to process. They didn’t walk out the door that night. But as the days and weeks wore on, and sparing became more common, a number of cubes drifted away.
The way the story comes across in the TV series, you may think that Peter threw Morteza into a pro MMA fight after 4 months of training. Nothing could be further from the truth. Morteza had been kickboxing since he was a kid. He had tons of competition experience in both the ring and cage and he’d been grappling (at least occasionally) with Peter for a year or more. As I say, he wasn’t purely a cube as some of the others, like me, Rick, Steve or Jock were. He, like Sonny Adamski and Sebastian O’Malley were added to the program to provide the much needed, higher-level training partners that we cubes would need to work with if we had any chance of learning enough in one year to become competent mixed martial artists. So while his entry into his first professional mixed martial arts fight may seem a little rushed, it in fact was not outrageous for him to be stepping into the cage at that time. He was more physically ready than many of the pro fighters I’d seen on several local MMA cards. The question that haunted Peter, not to mention many of Morteza’s training partners, was the question of whether or not he was psychologically and emotionally ready.
As Peter says in the show, maybe Morteza was the kind of guy who needed to lose before he could take the next step towards becoming a great fighter. As Morteza stepped into the cage that night, all of us, who were hanging out with him back stage and sitting cage side, were torn. On the one hand we knew how much skill he had. Lord knows we’d been punched and kicked by him enough in the previous weeks. But, on the other hand, we were not confident that his head was in the game. He was too relaxed, too nonchalant, and too lacking in focus. In short, he’d bought into his own hype. And having spent the past couple of months training with newbies, people he could easily beat on his worse day, had given him a false sense of security. While we all wished dearly that he would perform well, confidence was not high.
Lucky for us, the day before Morteza’s fight we all had a fantastic diversion. We were given an opportunity to do a grappling seminar with MMA great Jeremy Horne. Originally in town to fight on the same card as Morteza, Horne lost his opponent when Roger Hollett was pulled from the card as an issue was detected on a routine heart scan. While not being able to give the fans the fight they wanted, the promoters asked Horne to hold an open clinic for anyone who held a ticket to the event. The seminar was awesome. It was fantastic to train with someone who we all knew and respected as being a real legend of the sport. We were further encouraged when he said that while nobody is going to become an elite level fighter in a year, most anybody could go from a, “tub of good on the couch to a reasonable fighter in a year…. if they put the work in.” This was the first time I’d ever heard a pro fighter say that what we were attempting to do was in fact possible. To hear it from someone with the training and experience of Jeremy Horne was nothing short of inspirational.
The moment the fight started we could all see what was going to happen. The second he ate the first punch, we could see our concerns were warranted and Morteza’s head was not really in the fight. His years of training did come out somewhat. After being taken down, he was easily able to get back up, and he landed a couple of kicks. But, when he did come forward, he didn’t attack with any sort of violent intent. He was coming at his opponent, Matt Heim, as if he were in a friendly sparing match. Matt on the other hand was attempting to take Morteza’s head off with every strike. They were fighting at two completely different levels of intensity. When Matt rushed him in the final exchange, Morteza retreated straight backwards. He was like a deer caught in the headlights. When Matt’s wild, looping right hand connected with Morteza’s chin, those lights went out.
For those of us in attendance, this was the second time we’d seen a TITAN fighter in his first fight go down to a vicious knockout. Having now had some experience being punched, albeit lightly, in the face, we had a better understanding of what that was going to feel like if it happened to us. If fear had not been driving us at that point, it was about to become one of the dominant forces in the program. The question was, would it drive people forward, or drive them away.
And if the image of Morteza getting knocked out was not enough to scare us, his initial reaction to the loss certainly would. For the longest time, nobody could even find Morteza. After being inspected by the ringside doctors, he simply disappeared. He was eventually located in an empty part of the arena, still in full fight gear, including his MMA gloves. He was crestfallen. The entire image that he had of himself had been shattered with a thousand people, including his closest friends and training partners looking on. This was a devastating and humbling moment for a young man with so much passion and potential. While he almost immediately acknowledged the error of his ways, it would take many weeks for him to pull out of his depression and move on. Seeing how depressed he was, seeing him carry the enormous weight of disappointing and letting down his team mates and coaches was a sobering sight for all of us.
Team TITANS had a rough evening that night, losing several fights. But there was a small bright spot in all the gloom. Cubes Ashley Welsh and Nicky Bourdage had a chance to get into the cage before the MMA event started to do an exhibition kickboxing match. This is an opportunity Peter tries to give any of his aspiring fighters. There is so much more to fighting professionally than just punching, kicking and choking an opponent. Completing medicals, cutting weight, preparing back stage, hand wrapping, walking out into an arena of hundreds or thousands of (possibly drunken) screaming fans, stepping into the cage and hearing the steel door close, the bright lights and the noise, these are all distractions that can throw off a first time fighter. So, having an opportunity to do a glorified sparring session with a teammate is very beneficial. And Nickie and Ashley put on a great show. Ashley had been taking kickboxing lessons for a couple of years and had perhaps some of the best technique in the entire program. Her leg kicks had sent me limping off the mats on several occasions and her straight right was finding my nose far more often than I care to admit. Nickie on the other hand was very new to the fight game. But, she was probably one of the hardest workers and toughest individuals of the group. With 10 years of rugby behind her, she was no stranger to aggressive physical contact. They probably went after each other quite a bit harder than Peter would have liked, but they came away uninjured and with the knowledge that they had put on one of the more entertaining fights of the night.
The next few weeks we would all start to question our desire to see this experiment through to the end. And Peter, unable to identify anyone he felt would be ready to fight in just over six months, began to second guess the wisdom of taking on this challenge.
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