Waking up on fight day can mean any number of things. Most recently, it’s been a chance at redemption, after long arduous times away from the sport. Today I wake up intent on leaving all of that behind me. I try to learn even in victories, and my last contest, against Caio Magalhaes, taught me that I fight better when calm, collected.
I check my phone, and the Timehop app on my Facebook reminds me that my dog died one year ago, to the day. It’s coincidences like these that turn people to religion. I hadn’t realized the connection until just now, and my emotions get the better of me.
I take some time to myself before putting the past out of my mind, and heading down for breakfast. I eat all the things I wasn’t able to while carb depleting; biscuits, cereal, a couple pancakes. The omelet guy at the breakfast bar and I are friends now, and he makes me a couple of them without having to tell him what I want.
I return to my room to pass out for a bit before we have to report to the arena. Most of my fight day is spent doing the same; eating, sleeping, visualizing. I call room service to deliver a final meal to wake me in an hour. Grilled chicken sandwich, pasta, and lots of fruit will be my fuel for the day.
I head downstairs, and we are split again into different rooms determined by corner. The demeanors of everyone in the room vary. Many have sunglasses on, looking down. A UFC employee is taking roll call, and struggling badly. Cole Miller looks comfortable. He makes a Dumb and Dumber Samsonite joke after the guy butchers my name, and the room lightens up a bit. People begin to make small talk, and we’re finally called to the buses to transport to Amway.
We get to the arena. I’m expecting to get drug tested, per usual for the previous three fights. I’m not tested, nor are we weighed on fight night as we were told we would be. I make my way to the cage to get a feel for the canvas underneath my feet; a tool to help acclimate myself to the area. Myles Jury joins me. We’re not given long, before the arena is opened to fans and we are shooed out of the cage by production. I take one final glance at the bright lights, and head back to the locker room.
It’s around 4 o’ clock now, and I am scheduled to walk at 6 PM. Having an exact time is nice, and not something that is afforded to folks on regional shows. Before a fighter makes it to televised MMA, they walk when the last fight is over, leaving a +/- 15 minute period that is not easy to account for warming up.
Greg Jackson, Sarah Kaufman, and another coach of hers are in the back with us. Greg is watching the fights, looking every bit as bored as one might expect from someone who’s cornered nearly every UFC in history. He’s probably already got enough Reebok stuff to start his own store.
My warm ups are long. I move a bit, then stretch, then shadowbox more actively, stretch again, then impact; mitts and grappling, and one final stretch. I’ve fallen victim to slow starts in the past, and long warm ups are how I’ve learned to combat them.
Two hours pass by as fast have they ever have, and a UFC employee comes in to give me a three minute warning. I’m pacing, visualizing, pacing. I’ve remained calm, for the most part, except bursts of emotion and excitement every few moments. Those are natural, and not worth fighting anyway. My name is called, and it’s time.
I stand behind the curtain pacing, while Tamdan makes his walkout. They show his highlights on the screen, from almost a decade ago, and mine, more recent. I hear my music, and officially make my way to the octagon for a fourth time.
Fans reach their hands out on both sides. I feel bad not touching hands. It’s never been my thing. I usually ask my opponent before the fight if they’d like to touch gloves, though I prefer not to touch. I make it to the cage, hug my corners, get checked by the refs, and feel the canvas yet again.
I take a lap around the octagon, no acknowledgement from McCrory. I feel Rogan staring at me intensely. I remember him doing this last time. He’s trying to catch a glimpse of my mind space it seems, and I wonder if he does it to everyone.
Buffer crushes it. It’s a funny thing, having one particular person saying your name serve as a reminder of all the years of hard work. "Tallahassee, Florida," and I hear an extra cheer from the crowd.
Ref asks if we’re ready. He is. I am. Bell rings.
Fight starts, and I move to gameplan A. Leg kicks, and distance. On first impact of shin, he goes tumbling to the mat.
I know that I’m a more dynamic striker, but for a fighter who has had a fair share of KO’s from top position, there’s something so inviting about someone underneath me. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this, as the opening frames of a fight with another talented grappler went the exact same. Kevin Casey fell in the same manner when I kicked him, and he kept in his pocket a similar armbar-triangle combo. It’s hard to fight feelings of fuck that, he won’t catch me.
He gets back up. I bring him to the mat again. He is equal parts active and calm. The round is scramble heavy, a series of submission attempts, submission escapes, and half guard passes. It’s difficult for a viewer to understand the physical demands of a five minute push at 100%. I win the round, but it’s hard fought.
He's grinded down now. Surely he’ll slow.
My corner pleads with me. "Play your game, Josh. Play your game." While pace at distance was plan A, metaphysics as Bloody Elbow's own David Castillo put it, good old fashioned physicality was a close second.
It’s frustrating being a coach, having a fighter who isn’t doing what they’re told. I know it is. There’s just something difficult to resist about dictating where the fight takes place, once realizing it can be done. It is ego-driven.
I’m tired, but worse, I have a false sense that McCrory is more tired than me. In many contests, pace wins the fight, and I rely on the fact that my opponent will return in the second more fatigued than I am.
I try to pick up where I left off, and I succeed in another takedown. It feels good to have him try to fight it off, and to still get what I want. My joy is short lived, as I get reversed immediately.
I’m stuck in the corner now, and am toying with a bit of a cage rope-a-dope, trying to try to let him slow himself.
He'll start breathing heavy after a few of these.
The opponent gets tired much more quickly if they're slinging haymakers. In the midst of the fight it’s sometimes hard to tell how hard strikes are. I judge by how loud they are, and if I’m the one getting hit, whether I see stars or not. I’m not seeing much flash when I get hit, but I hear my corner tell me to let the referee know I'm fine. He and I make eye contact and he nods at me in acknowledgement. I’m hoping the dialogue about the fight ending gets McCrory excited to go for a finish. He maintains pressure, methodically.
Bing, bam, pow.
I want him to gas, but it becomes clear he’s not going away.
That’s supposed to be my game.
The round is beyond saving, but he backs up and gives me the most space I’ve had all round. His face looks inviting.
If I can just time an upkick...
I fail, and he sucks back the pocket of space. He attempts a kimura lock. I hold on, taking deep breaths, trying to prepare myself for a rally late in the third. The round ends, and back to our corners we go.
The instructions are more of the same from last round. I agree with them now. I know what I need to do.
If only I could lift my arms.
In my mind before the bell rings, I’m ready to strike. I enter the round with a conscious notion of trying to relax, slow things down, and give this thing everything I’ve got before I find myself on the losing end of a scorecard. I’d felt the quicksand that was his guard, and he wasn’t showing any signs of slowing.
It’s a strange thing, having a disconnect on what mind knows is best, and what body wants to do. Somewhere between the bell ringing, and us tying up on the fence, something changed. It seems to be my body’s autopilot, that somewhere wired in my mind my natural form of aggression is by trying to be physical, moving forward, and having a hold of someone.
I end up on bottom again, and am upset with myself for it this time. I can feel the deflation coming from my corner.
I’m not out of the game yet.
I’m trying to time my explosions. I only have a few left. Enough to win the fight.
It’s my time.
I end up on top. I wonder how much is left on the clock, and someone reads my mind, screaming "two minutes!"
I’d been cracked a couple times early in the round, and I want to get him back.
His face is right there..
My mind goes to a dozen different places at once. Me telling the media I’ll never lay on someone to win a round. Video of Gono catching him in an armbar from mount, and Hazelett subbing him in a scramble. Winning 50k in a last minute comeback.
How is he still so active?
Somewhere along the way, he throws his legs up. I shift, plant, and adjust, until finally I feel him reach underneath my left armpit, Gable gripping his hands together. The lights start to go out. I wave back and forth the only thing I have any control left over; a few fingers. The ref stops the fight.
It is all over. Barncat defeats Samman, via triangle at 4:10 of round three.
I lay on my back for a moment, trying to take the moment in, so that I may use it for fuel for later. I have déjà vu of the last time I did this, sitting in a cage in a Las Vegas warehouse as Kelvin Gastelum screamed in celebration.
McCrory waltzes over. I congratulate him on a job well done. He joins me in his own self praise, referring to himself in the third person.
I watch the replay on the big screen as Rogan interviews him. It’s hard to remember what exactly happened until I’m able to go back and watch it in full.
My initial thoughts after the fight are not so much why did I do that? but rather I need to get better at grappling. Going back and re-watching the fight reinforces that notion.
It’s easy to look back and say "if only," to blame it on a tactical error, but the fact of the matter is I think the bout would have been closely contested no matter where it went. McCrory is a veteran of the game, and our grappling exchanges are a good measuring stick of where we both fall in the division. I think there are few middleweights in the world that could've kept up with those scrambles, and when I look at the bout objectively, I see two guys who are at the top of the food chain, with both a bit higher to climb.
I got tired, but that doesn’t lead me to more strength and conditioning for next time. Instead, it makes me inclined to focus on my own technique. Moving more effortlessly, as McCrory did, and relying less on strength and power, those are things that improve when technique improves. Learning, repetition, and a renewed interest in the martial arts aspect of fighting is the best place to grow from, in this loss.
Ultimately, it’s important for me to look at the defeat not solely as a product of questionable decision making, but because he was better than I was. That’s the best state of mind for growth; not to say that I’ve whiffed, or to blame it on an off night, but to simply say he was better, and use it as motivation to improve myself.
Sometimes an outings success or failure is not determined by whether your hand is raised, but rather, did you elevate yourself? While I think the answer is yes, I’m still left feeling a bit empty, vacant of that earned satisfaction that I’ve become accustomed to.
Post fight weeks are usually spent binge eating and drinking, and while I’ve had a bit of both, there’s little accomplishment to digest, which is what I’m really hungry for.
It is in times like these that I have to remind myself: Sometimes, hungry is the best thing to be.