There is a camera-man crouching in front of me. The producer has his palm out to hold us where we stand at the end of the walkway and behind him I can see the video of myself being played back on a big screen above the cage. My corner-man and coach stand behind me, a hand resting on my shoulder. I’ve never felt this strong. In the last 3 months I have become physically fitter and more powerful than I’ve ever been. Mentally, I feel like a fighter. I’m ready to fight. More than that, I’m ready to win. My name is announced. My music starts…
When it actually comes down to it, it’s all a bit much, really. The music, the lights, the cameras and crowd. The gloves on your hands; your coach’s voice still clear through the din, even the familiar gum shield that now catches oddly in your mouth. Despite all the days of training and the sleepless nights of mental rehearsal for every single possibility, there is one thing for which you cannot prepare. However much you visualise that perfect, cinematic split-second of visceral triumph, there remains a single possibility which you can’t train for – losing.
Three months earlier I had never been in a fight. I had once taken a beating from two guys for sitting on their motorbike and making ‘brum-brum’ noises but that’s the extent of my fisticuffs CV. Three months later, I was about to walk through a crowd of 1000 paying spectators into a metal chain link cage, 30ft (9.1m) in diameter, set in an old cinema in the East End of London. Before, I was a 14st 7lb (92kg) journalist with big glasses, once described as the sort of guy who ‘used to be in good shape but has let himself go.’ Now I’m having my body checked for anything sharp by the ref while my corner man, Dan, rubs Vaseline onto my eyebrows. Now, I am, as the predictably razzmatazz MC announces ‘in the blue corner, weighing in at 83.5kg [13st 2lb], fighting out of Semtex Gym and making his mixed martial arts debut’.
Mixed martial arts (MMA) is the professional and legitimized sport formerly known as cage-fighting. Its name is entirely literal. MMA allows you use the Muay Thai weapons of your fists, feet, elbows and knees as well as the body holds and throws of wrestling to hold your opponent, pick him up and slam him to the ground. Once you hit the floor there is no count from the referee. MMA practitioners are well-versed in the grappling and submission skills of the ground fighting art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), with which even the smallest of fighters can use speed, agility and cunning to best a bigger, stronger man.
Far from the scrappy rolling around it initially appears, BJJ is incredibly skilful, with advanced techniques used in applying everything from basic choke holds to intricate joint manipulation, all of which aim to place your opponent in an increasingly vivid world of agony and force them to cede defeat and ‘tap out’. Basically, it’s rough down there. Despite the pain, or because of it, the sport is immensely popular.
The lock scrapes shut. The crowd, the cameras and all their colours are now very much outside. Afakasi ‘Gus’ Sione, with a professional MMA record of 0 fights, 0 wins and 0 losses, slams his back into the cage to psych himself up even further, hands visibly clenching. His stare never falters. We are called to the centre and given our final instructions. Gus, although shorter than me, is powerfully built and looks monumentally keen to prove it by hitting me. As we step back to our corners and the hooter for the first round sounds, he gets his chance.
There is a simple reason for going from one of the many men who watch to one of the few who fight. From voyeur outside the cage to warrior within, if you like. It will sound familiar. It’s to prove yourself. Nothing grand or heroic and not to impress anyone in particular. Just to stop being one of those that tell themselves that they could do something with a bit of practice and become one of the ones who have. I wanted to be able to say I once had a fight against another man, still the most acutely definitive form of male competition, and won. And, if I’m honest, get into amazing shape while I do so.
Hit all the bases
The men who make it their lives to do so are supreme athletes. Not Friday night psychos hell-bent on beating seven shades of Stella out of one another, but focussed, dedicated men who train hard to fight easy. In order to answer every question asked of you by MMA you must be physically strong but agile and laser fast. You require the physics-flouting power-to-weight ratio of a sprinter but must remain capable of executing highly skilled martial arts moves. The impressive physicality of even amateur fighters isn’t due to hours in the mirror or isolating their muscles ahead of the summer holidays. It is the result of years of honing their bodies to arm themselves to the most devastating effect possible against another man who has been doing the same. They have to be in the best physical shape possible. Their careers depend on it.
My career in the cage starts quickly. We touch gloves and almost immediately Gus launches. His first strike, a left jab, misses. The straight right connects and rocks me slightly. The kick that follows connects with my guarding hand and the back of my head at the same time. His next salvo, which comes after not even a breath, finishes with a vicious kick to my right leg. Thankfully, I barely feel it through the adrenaline. I am very aware of the barely harnessed intensity of his attacks. His raw aggression. It scares me.
But that’s what you train for. For three months I spent up to four hours, five times a week at Semtex Fight Centre. I was under the expert tutelage of gym owner Steve Gladstone and former promoter and MMA coach Andy Geer. Steve is a fifth-degree black-belt in karate, a pioneer of full-contact kick boxing in his homeland of South Africa and a Muay Thai expert with a professional fight record of 67 fights, 60 wins and 7 losses. ‘The Boss’ as he’s known is clearly hard of both body and mind. But he is softly spoken and warm hearted. He’s a teacher:
“Each combination of kicks and punches is like a sentence,” The Boss tells me during my first session in the world of multi-limbed destruction that is Muay Thai. “No matter how many words you use, you should always end with a full stop. That full stop is the leg kick.”
The leg kick and I become firm friends. But he’s the sort of friend who pulls your trousers down in front of the class and dead-arms you repeatedly, right on your BCG injection mark. While I’m starting to get better at kicking, I am not getting better at avoiding being kicked. During one Saturday sparring session, my consistent failure to block or ‘check’ kicks by bending at the knee and raising the then endangered leg leaves me with a useless lump of tenderised meat where my left quadricep used to sit.
Slumped on the bus an hour later I can neither bend nor straighten my left leg, and each step on the walk home prompts a pulse of pain that seems to radiate outwards from the marrow of the very bone. By Monday my outer thigh is still so sore that rubbing it makes me nauseous. Wednesday is my day first day in the office without my limp. On Saturday I spar again. Repeat.
Yet my physical progress made all the repetitive beatings worth the short-term suffering. I was already down to 87kg, so only needed to shift another couple of kilos to make the middleweight limit of 85kg but was bulking up with new cuts of muscle upper body muscle giving me an increasingly menacing physique. The pain of bumping a bruised elbow on the edge of the desk is a high-five telling you that you’re a fighter working hard to do your job. Lunchtimes in the gym aren’t spent in the vague quest for a more impressive silhouette and the hours of training aren’t about burning fat to expose my abs. Although they do. Instead, every round of sparring is fought against the shadow of my opponent. The miles on the treadmill are run against a man I’ve never met but am starting to hate and very rep on the bench is squeezed out knowing that he is sweating to do the same.
Setting yourself a target is vital to staying motivated in your pursuit of your physical goals. If your target is a Samoan-born MMA fighter aching to knock you out skipping sessions does not occur to you. On one occasion I send Andy an apologetic text and decide to head home when public transport conspires against me on the way to training. An hour and a half, two tubes, one bus and a train later I walk into the gym and begin wrapping my hands.
A month out from my fight at the UCMMA ‘Adrenaline Rush’ event and I’m in the finest physical condition of my life. My old colleague alcohol has been given a sabbatical until after the fight and with my Saturdays mornings free from the death-grip of a hangover, I instead get to grips with an hour of sparring, one hour of MMA strength and conditioning and three hours of BJJ. In the evenings I rest my aching muscles and smother myself in Arnica. At night I lie awake for an hour thinking about my strategy and then sleep, deeply.
The strategy is simple. Andy expects him to be superior with his hand and feet but for me to have the upper hand on the ground. So he will come out all guns blazing and I’ll take him down to the floor at the first opportunity. He’s clearly sticking to the script, I should too. I wait for him to stop hitting me, fake a jab and drop onto my front knee moving forward to tackle him around the legs. He doesn’t go down. He stumbles backwards towards the cage and, in a flash, his left arm is around my neck. I feel him clasp one hand with the other beneath my chin and begin to squeeze. I reach up with my right hand to tap out…
Fighting for air
The closest I came to passing out was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. On the Semtex training mats one Tuesday night I am caught by professional fighter and Semtex team-mate, Colin French (2 fights, 2 wins, 0 losses), in a ‘triangle choke’, the same acrobatic and immensely suffocating technique that I watch him win with in the first round of his welterweight fight at the UCMMA event a month before mine. It involves hooking your legs around the opponents head, trapping his arm under his chin and then forcefully choking him on it. It is, quite frankly, awful.
Firstly, and for the aforementioned reason, there is the sense of impending doom as the choke is applied. Then, as it tightens, you have a second or two of final effort, which to you feels desperate but decisive. They are laughably feeble. Your brain starts to miss all that lovely oxygen very much. Finally, the world collapses and the blackness comes rapidly, like a camera shutter, from the outside inwards. When the hold is removed, which in a fight or in training is always reliably quickly, the world floods back through tiny pin-points in the centre of your vision. For a few moments it is not the same world. It is quiet and distant. Then, slowly, the noise begins again.
I don’t tap. Gus relaxes his grip ever so slightly for a moment, hoping to secure a better position with which to choke me with. As half a mouthful of air floods back in I am suddenly conscious of my coach’s voice. We have landed directly next to my corner and I can hear Andy repeating the same instruction: “Put your left arm across his face and push away.” I do, and I am granted more air as a reward. I reach up with my right hand and slowly force his elbow arm down over my skull. At last, my head pops out and I am on top of my opponent, whose own head is squashed up against the cage, exactly where I want him.
Once in a good position on the floor the plan was to use my superior fitness to wear him down. Far from being a nice break from being punched in the face, the ground game is as intensely tiring as the knockout fireworks of being on two feet. More so, in fact. The grappling, wrestling and transferral of bodyweight that constitutes BJJ adds up to a hugely effective workout.
The constant movement of your muscles against the resistance of your opponent’s is uniquely exhausting, but the threat of having your arm twisted off is more than enough to push your directly through your fatigue. As a result, sources having BJJ burning up to 800 calories per hour. On the practice mats, that’s 1kg of body fat burned for every 9 hours you roll around on them. In the cage, dripping in adrenaline and the fear of losing, it can cause you to wield what skills you own in a frenzy. It’s you that burns out. Which is bad.
For the last six weeks of my preparation I perform lunchtime circuit sessions and three, six-minute rounds of sparring, three times a week. The sparring is designed to simulate a fight and then push your fitness even further. I am asked to do six minute rounds instead of five and have 45 seconds rest rather than a glorious minute. Most painfully, every two minutes my sparring partner is swapped for a fresh one, so I’m constantly battling against rested lungs and limbs while my own increasingly ache and fatigue.
It’s horrible and it hurts. It’s sweaty and aggressive and incredibly uncomfortable. You find yourself in positions that are so excruciating you’ll do anything you can to get out of them. When you do, you only find yourself in yet more painful place but now without the luxury of air. Oddly, I liked it.
Two weeks out from fight night and I began to relish the sparring sessions that once made me want to cry quietly. While I get schooled by quicker, more skilled fighters, I’m certainly not struggling to breathe, or ‘gassing out’ as the fighters call it. In fact, I finish strongly, often stronger in terms of energy than my some of my team-mates. At the end of a round I’m tired, but the 45 seconds feel like plenty of rest, not the slap in the face before being asked to go again it once was. My cardio is superb and, by all accounts, would be superior to his on the night. He would tire before I would so by the end of the first five minute round I would have the upper hand. If it went to the second or the third, even better.
In the run-up to a fight a lot of thought goes into making the most of your opponent’s weaknesses. In you mind you are training very specifically to beat one man and improving your own skills is the byproduct. My man is not as fit as me. So I am training to take him down, keep him down until he’s exhausted and then hit him in the head until he’s out.
“When you get him where you want him, you must not hesistate,” I am told by Neil “Goliath” Grove (10 fights, 8 wins, 2 losses), current UCMMA heavyweight champion and fellow Semtex fighter. “You must be like an animal and not stop hitting until he’s out. You’re a nice guy Dave, too nice. When you have him where you want him you must be an animal.”
He’s right where I want him. The moment I wrestle my head free from the grip of his tattoo I hear the crowd surge in support. Escaping from a seemingly fight-ending position is a well-respected achievement in the sport. It shows you don’t want to take the easy way out when impolitely shown the door. I know exactly what I’m supposed to do and cock my right hand high to make it so, but I’m disorientated from the time without proper breath and I hesitate. My strike is weak and ineffectual. Gus heaves me off and we’re back on our feet. Right where he wants me.
On the 10.22pm train home from training I would sit with my protein shake, sore but still fuelled by the taste of not only surviving but succeeding in the cage. I felt like a genuine physical presence. Even with my glasses on. In the mornings I clock guys on the tube in the looking at the marks and scratches on my face from the evening before and I hold their eye until they look away. While I would never dream of using my new strength and skills on the Victoria Line between Green Park and Oxford Circus, I admit that I imagine doing so. I’m also not ashamed to say that I enjoyed knowing that if I had to, I probably could.
He steps straight into another flurry of fuming, overhand punches. I am rocked by a right and stagger back towards the cage. I’m not aware of it hurting, but the world inside that cage, in all its lurid, logo-heavy detail is much less HD than before. Gus moves in again, faking with his right. As I counter thin-air the reason for his feint arrives squarely on my jaw as another big overhand right that separates me from my senses.
My legs buckle. I wake the instant I hit the floor and see the referee kneeling between me and Gus, who is turning away and raising his arms. I try to get up. Not to fight - I know that the fight is over - but to show everyone that I’m OK. That I was down but that can take it. The paramedics push me back to the ground. I answer their questions and Dave O’Donnell appears over me. ‘Alright. Let him up. Can we let him up? He’s alright,’ he says, ever cheerful.
I am not alright. I get up, walk over to embrace Gus and congratulate him. When I turn back to see Andy and Dan waiting for me on the other side of the cage, I’m hit by another heavyweight overhand right, one as unexpected as the last but instantly more devastating. I have lost by knockout after 2 minutes and 36 seconds of the first round. I am now Dave Morton, with a professional mixed martial arts record of 1 fight, 0 wins and 1 loss.
The cage unlocked
Backstage my girlfriend tells me how well I did and that she is proud of me, but I’m not ready to believe her. For three months I fixated physically and mentally on nothing else but winning an MMA fight. All the nights of training after work; all the weekends spent sparring and nursing my injuries; the fighter’s diet of porridge, steaks and protein shakes had been endured willingly. Enjoyed, even. The countless hours my coaches and team-mates had devoted to take me from writer to fighter in the short time they had at their disposal was my problem. It was their commitment that was making losing hard so hard to take.
The following morning I get a text from Andy. “Don’t worry about last night mate. You got in there and did it. We’d love you to come back and train and fight for the gym again.”
I haven’t been back. Not yet. When I do it will be to train, not to fight. Although for those three months I had aimed squarely at winning, it was all the work that went into the point I entered the cage and <didn’t>that was the most rewarding. At the moment my music started and I began my slow walk through the crowd I was the fittest, strongest and most physically well-conditioned I’ve ever been. More than that, I was more mentally focussed on one thing than I thought possible.
But, despite that focus, when I was trapped in my opponents grip and being choked to within a second of submitting, there still existed a massive distance between him and me. He was fighting for his life; I was living the life of a fighter. I did not submit, and for that reason the three months of training, drilling, bruising and dieting had been worth it. The 2 minutes and 36 seconds of my fight had been a success. I lost but I am proud.
This story originally appeared on Menshealth.co.uk