The town is empty, and it’s hard not to feel like the TUF 21 finale is an afterthought. It should have been an appetizer, but is instead served cold, and disguised as dessert. The fans had scraped the plate and gotten their fair share of violence the night before, and most are heading home before the event tonight.
I’m at the breakfast spot I had eaten at most mornings this week. By now the server behind the bar knows my name, and has seen me fluctuate from 205, down to 185, and back up to 210. He knows to leave a pitcher of water near my seat to save himself the trips back and forth, filling my cup.
The gentleman I’m sitting next to is telling his neighbor on the opposite side about his night. It was his first live fight he’d been to, one of the many folks popping their UFC cherry that weekend. He doesn’t know much about the sport, he says, but his daughter is a fan. She’s getting older, and he’s trying to find ways to identify and spend time with her. He says that McGregor fella was the most exciting thing he’d seen since Shania Twain. The story is nice to hear, and funny; families coming together through face punching.
He notices me listening, and asks if I’m a fan. I tell him I’m a fighter, competing on the show tonight. He tells me he didn’t even know there was an event tonight. Many folks didn’t. The bout card online wasn’t even completed until days before the show, and that was only because I had bugged the folks at the website several times throughout the week.
He wishes me luck in my fight, and I head upstairs to fall back asleep. It’s 11 AM, and report time is not until 2 PM. I wake up a couple hours later, and make my final descent to have one last meal before my fight.
This time: Tom Yum soup. This is the soup Clint Hester always gets when we eat Asian, and I figure now is as good a time as any to finally try it. They ask how spicy I want it. I tell them very. I’m always pushing the limits of masochism when it comes to spiciness, feeling as if I’ve been challenged by the waiter when asked.
It’s good, and very spicy. Mid meal a gentleman comes and introduces himself as Bloody Elbow’s very own Paul Gift. He’s super nice, and has a good looking woman with him that he introduces as his wife. We joke that we are the first folks at the website to have actually met. Funny how that works, a network of teammates all working on a common goal, most of whom had never been face to face.
My coaches join me towards the end of the meal, and we head to the Grand Garden Arena. The first order of business is always to get to the cage as soon as we enter. I notice right away that it’s the 25 foot cage, not the usual 30 ft. This bothers me, as we’ve been training in a 30 ft this whole time, and cage size can dictate strategy. I try to not let it unnerve me. I’ll be asking in advance from now on.
I feel the canvas, running my bare feet along each and every sponsor logo to see if any are more slippery than others. I lay on my back and look up at the lights. I imagine myself getting out of tough positions. I imagine him being the one looking up at the lights, after being knocked unconscious. I rub my back across each and every panel of cage. I want to know as much as possible about the arena in which I’m fighting, and give myself as much time to visualize, now that I've actually been in it.
As I return from the cage I’m instructed to pee in a cup, the first drug test I’ve had all camp. The agent administering the test makes me expose myself fully before pissing, the first time this has ever happened. I hand him the warm cup, and I'm instructed to watch as the stickers I initialed before pissing are placed over the samples, acting as seals.
Next is getting fitted into our Reebok gear, as cameras have begun rolling around the backstage of the arena, and anyone who doesn’t have their Reebok on is being prompted to change. It becomes exponentially more difficult to decipher who's who. It sounds silly, but in a hallway and room full of coaches and fighters, the most easily identifiable item on each person is their team shirt, and from the looks of things we are all on the same team. Unless I’m specifically looking at faces, I can’t readily identify my coaches from my opponent’s coaches from all the other coaches and fighters walking around, pissing in cups and warming up. I hope that these are just growing pains at the beginning of a long process, and assume they will be introducing some colors besides black and white sometime soon.
I’m greeted by Big John McCarthy for a customary pre-fight meeting. This is the first time he’s refereed one of my fights, and I’m delighted for another mini milestone in my career. He tells me what he expects from his fighters, that he will be communicating with us the whole time. He covers back of the head strikes, as well as referee standups. Interesting note: he says that if man on bottom is the one holding on, causing a lull in the action, then he will not stand the fight up, because it is the fighter on bottom stalling. This is the first time I’ve ever heard a referee say that.
I sit next to my locker with my name on it, and other Reebok stuff hanging. The whole thing really does look official, and I take some pictures for myself before getting my hands wrapped. There are several hand wrappers and cutmen floating around the back, and in the midst of wondering which one has been assigned to me, Stitch walks in and greets the group. He looks at the sheet in his hand, looks at me, and asks me if I’m ready. I am.
Stitch has wrapped my hands in the past, on The Ultimate Fighter. He asks how I’ve been, and how I like the Reebok gear. I tell him besides the hilarious fashion show a few weeks ago, I don’t have much of a problem with it. We both agree that the shoes they gave us sucked though, and he tells me he said "fuck it," and put his other shoes back on. "I’ll stick to my civilian clothes" he tells me. A bit prophetic, perhaps.
He wraps gauze and tape on my hands until they feel solid, fit to unload on a thick-skulled Brazilian. I thank him and shake his hand. He reaches out for a hug, and I accidentally gorilla slap him in the back with the same hands he just wrapped. He gives me a WTF face for a moment, then laughs. I apologize. "I think you’re ready" he says. This was a nice last experience with a legend, and I’m glad he was the one to wrap my hands that night.
Greg Jackson is in our locker room. I’d never met him yet either, although he looks busy and uninterested in meeting anyone new. I usually like to have things in mind to say to these people when I meet them for the first time. "Hello Greg, my name is Josh. I really liked when you went psycho-coach on Condit and it helped him win against MacDonald." That’s what I would have said, anyway. Instead I just go lay down on the mat and take a nap
I wake up in time for the first fight, watching my locker room buddies from earlier in the week lose by TKO to Willie Gates. TVs are set up in the back so we can watch the event as we prepare to walk out. The whole time we’re watching fights we’re rooting for the folks we know, but we’re also rooting for finishes that aren’t dramatic. It’s not that we hope for boring fights, because we want the energy in the room to be charged when it’s our time, but we also want to leave with nothing less than 50 thousand dollars, and performance bonuses are relative to your peers on the night of. Gates’ win is put in the "possible performance bonus" category.
We watch the next few fights as we start to warm up, alternating between shadowboxing, mitts, mat drills, and lots of stretching in between. I feel as tranquil as ever. I’m wondering if the thrill is gone, if I’ve somehow become numb to fight or flight. The calm feels nice.
Daniel Cormier walks in, looking for a toilet to blow up. I teeter between cracking a KFC joke, or telling him how I predicted from his days in Strikeforce that he would eventually become the UFC light heavyweight champion. I introduce myself, and let him hurry back to his UFC Fox booth.
I begin my dance, shadowboxing, switching stances, moving my feet. They give me a five minute warning, and I ask my coach to hold the leg kick pad for me. Before fights I have a short list of attacks I want to open the fight with, a series of three or four moves, and I don’t decide which one exactly I want to begin with until a few minutes before the fights. Today feels like a calf kick kind of day.
Someone besides Burt Watson tells me it’s time to walk, and I wait at the Garden Arena curtains as they show Caio’s highlights on the big screen. He’s walking towards the cage, and soon they’ll be playing my highlights. They show some ground and pound, and me knocking out Tor with my fists. They show me finishing Kevin Casey with knees, and slinging my shin across Eddie Gordon’s face. They show diversity. It’s time to show more.
I walk out to Mobb Deep, and it's the Herbie Hancock sample that gets my blood pumping for the first time in the night. I feel maniacal under the impending violence. Another surge in intensity, this time as I hear my hometown being called by Bruce Buffer. I’m feeling the energy now, and not a moment too soon.
The bell rings, and I let him approach towards my side of the cage. I take a step forward to gauge his response. He moves back. I throw the calf kick I practiced dozens of times in the back. It lands. I throw another. It lands. A front kick. Each time I engage he moves backwards. Another leg kick, then another. He’s letting me at this point, and I immediately know this could be the manner in which I win. I move forward with more kicks, and he continues to retreat. My inner monologue tells me to put my hands down and taunt him.
Shut up, you’re not Nick Diaz.
Hey. That shit would be tight though.
Maybe next fight.
He’s doing a terrible job closing the distance, and I decide to play it safe with kicks, getting off as much damage as he will let me before he realizes standing way out there is a bad idea.
Finally, he commits, and hits me, hard. My vision out of my right eye is gray and blurry. I put my poker face on, and move towards my traditional orthodox stance to box for a bit. Right away I land a jab, and his whole face changes. He begins to bleed, and retreat towards the cage. I follow, and throw some more punches before a body kick.
We return to the center of the cage, where I kick low as he kicks high, and we fall to the mat. He’s on bottom, holding on tight. He attempts a triangle. I escape, and back him up to the fence. I can feel his nose bleeding worse and worse as he turns and tries to escapes. Right hook in, left hook in, and I’m around his neck now. He tries to slide me off the top, then slams me backwards towards the mat.
I’m stunned by the slam, and expect him to turn around into my guard. I’m still holding as tightly as I can, before making the beautiful realization that he’s not going to be turning around, that he wants out of the fight. He’s doing some strange flappy thing with his hands, as if he wants me to let go without wanting to technically tap. Both John and I are unsure of what is going on for a moment, and I wait for the referee to intervene before releasing the choke.
I stand up, adjust my cup and remove my mouthpiece, and attempt to shake his hand, as I had tried several times throughout the week. He responds just how he did every other time, with a snarl and a closed fist. I wave him off, and suddenly my coaches are jumping over the fence in his direction. It’s not until the producers replay the tape that I see I've just gotten blood spit all over me.
Man, this guy has had a really, really bad week.
The blood added to the drama of course, and created opportunity for good sportsmanship. And it’s because of times like these that I’ve learned to trust the journey, to not sweat the small stuff, to fret over only the things I have control over, and let the rest of the chips fall where they may.
I sit at the press conference, my first ever, and stare at the bright lights in front of me. This is another milestone. Dave Sholler announces that I won the performance bonus, that I had indeed changed my life again for the better, like I promised myself I would.
Dallas Green’s "Coming Home" plays on my Pandora as I board the plane the next day. I take a look at the spot on the floor that I had been sleeping just a week earlier.
I trust the journey.