This is Part 1 of our feature ‘From Writing to Fighting’. Part 2 can be found here.
5 a.m.: My phone blasts like a loud siren, and it’s time to get up. I’ve been trying to adjust my body clock and start going to bed earlier, but this is still way too early for me.
I gather my things, and meet my coach at the gym. It’s a Thursday, and I’m driving to the PhilSports Arena just as dawn starts to break. I can’t say my body is fully awake at this point, but my mind is running overtime.
This is it. I’m really going to do this.
It was just three weeks ago when my coach said he’s competing in Muay Thai come December. “You should join and fight too!” he says in Filipino.
I’ve always been a goofy, thin, lanky guy. Add the glasses and maybe the Engineering degree; most people I’ve met would never see me as a person who would take a fight.
I train on and off for fun. But, since I’ve been covering Mixed Martial Arts for years, in the back of my head, I’ve always wanted to compete at least once before I turn 30. I figure I’ll eventually join one of those small amateur kickboxing events for beginners, with watered down rules, and two 2-minute rounds.
I don’t know how serious my coach is, but when he asks I don’t hesitate to say I’ll do it.
Two days later, he tells me it’s going to be at the Philippine National Muay Thai Championships.
That’s the moment I decided to stop drinking, and train more often.
I arrive at the arena and see two huge rings being built, to pace things better; allowing for two bouts to happen simultaneously.
I learn that there will be over 200 fighters competing from all over the country. This is the first time they’ve opened up the event for gyms that are not affiliated with the Muay Thai Association of the Philippines. These shows are usually held to feature the National Team and their training pool members, but this new rule has paved the way for more athletes to join.
I line up at the registration and apart from a bunch of people in Philippine Team jackets, I already see a URCC champion, PXC vets and other MMA fighters, along with Wushu champs and boxers.
Guys registering are mostly MMA fighters (a URCC champ,PXC vets), National Team members & pro boxers.. and I'm just here playing Pokémon Go— Anton Tabuena (@antontabuena) December 14, 2016
I buy the uniform, get my medicals done, and now it’s time to step on the scale.
There are daily weigh-ins for this event, so I didn’t bother dropping water weight to try and go down a lower division. I also have zero experience in that sort of thing, so I just decided not to worry about dieting, cutting, reloading, and how it all affects my performance.
“62.3 kg”, the official stated, then his colleague wrote it down on my “Boxer’s Book”. The division is at 63.5 kg, and I wonder if I could’ve easily made 60 kg if I actually tried. I’m a hair under 6-feet, so I get that thought out of my head knowing I probably would still have a huge reach advantage at this weight.
I check the list and see 3 other guys from top MMA teams in my division. More importantly, I see the name of the guy I’m facing.
I have a quick nap and then I dress up, as the opening ceremony is about to start. It consists of a mini-parade around the venue with everyone arranged by teams and the city they represent. It’s followed by a Muay Thai kids exhibition, and long speeches from the organizers.
I use the time to scan the area and look for the team my opponent is in. I see about 4 of them lifting their team banner.
“Wait, why don’t we have a banner?” I joke to my coach. He lifts up his ID and asks his friend from the National Team to hold it with him so people can see the small text with our team name on it.
Their camp gets positioned next to ours. I’m not sure which guy I’m matched up with, but this group is probably younger than me, and they’re all tall and lanky as well.
Looks like I’m not getting much of that reach advantage I was banking on.
After the opening speech, the first fight started immediately. I am scheduled as the 4th bout on Ring B, so I walk to the official’s booth and they ask me to leave my ID so I can pick up my gear. The gloves are all brand new. I start gripping, pressing, and moving them around to try and break them in a little.
A lady comes over to me and says, “A fighter from the blue corner didn’t show up, so you’ll now be the third one fighting.”
Shit, that means I’ve got to warm up. Now.
I start moving on the sideline, while watching my teammate fight. He eventually loses a decision, but I try not to think much of what happened and just focus on what I have to do.
As my hands are being wrapped, I see my girlfriend enter the arena and sit on the bleachers behind me.
“Manila traffic?” I think, and I give her a smile. I try to telepathically tell her there’s nothing to worry about, but I’m not quite sure if the message comes across.
I wear the shin guards, elbow pads and body armor. My coach’s friend, a 17-year-old prodigy from the National Team, starts massaging my legs and helping me stretch. We just met this week, but he’s been nice enough to help out and be the second man in my corner.
I step in the ring wearing the Monkol head ornament.
This is it. Go time.
I slowly walk and seal the ring during the ceremonial ‘Wai Kru’. I bow to the opposing coach, and do the same to my foe. I’m excited at this point, and I’m trying to look at his eyes to see if he’s showing any signs of nervousness.
…It turns out, he isn’t actually my opponent.
“Why did you go up!?” the scheduling lady shouts. “You’re Tabuena, right? You’re not fighting this guy!”
What the f—?
Since the opponent from the blue corner hasn’t shown up for the 3rd bout, they still have to formally announce that the red corner wins by default. After some confusion, I remove my Monkol and go back down the ring.
Well that was embarrassing.
They announce my name and I walk back in, pretty sure I didn’t mess things up this time. I seal the ring. I bow to the coach, then to my opponent. He’s much taller than the other guy.
I remove the Monkol, and while I’m being fitted with the headgear, my cornerman gives last minute advice.
“Be careful, that guy kicks hard. Just try to beat him on top,” he said. He thinks his “top game” with his hands isn’t as polished as his kicking game.
Apparently he’s seen the guy workout; he’s in the training pool looking to join the National Team.
Well that’s not exactly comforting. I also think I have far better kicks than punches.
I take a last sip of water and my mouthpiece is put in. After the confusion and last minute details, I’m back to being happy and excited. I focus on what I have to do and what I can control.
Even a small reach advantage could be huge if you control distance well — the same goes if he’s not used to dealing with guys longer than him. Go time.
The referee signals for the bell.
We touch gloves, and I raise both my arms forward. I’m hoping this makes him wary of my length from the get go.
I check two of his kicks from the outside.
I throw a weak jab-straight that was slightly out of range, and once I got a reaction from his defense, I throw a hard leg kick.
“NICE!” I hear my brother shout loudly from outside the ring.
I do a few feints, and he reacts by throwing a leg kick. I check it with my left, block a follow up punch and counter with another kick to the same spot. I immediately step back and circle to the center to reset.
Repeat. Check, another counter leg kick, and reset.
I miss a head kick and he lands a counter of his own. I smile. I throw a few feints and jab at his gloves before landing another leg kick.
I feint and jab again, then I throw a harder kick on the thigh. I raise my arms a little in reaction.
My coaches automatically shout at me for not keeping my hands in proper position.
Relax, coach. I’m out of range, and only doing it to try and maybe get in his head a little. I just want him to feel that I’m winning outside, in hopes of him rushing in the wrong way.
I attempt a body kick that he blocks, but I sneak in a right hand to follow. I then throw a question mark kick and it lands flush on his face.
Oh shit, his reaction completely changed. He did not like that. I should play this up and maybe mess up his game even more.
I drop my hands, and slowly walk to the center of the ring.
“GET YOUR HANDS UP!” my coach immediately shouts.
I try the same jab to leg kick attempt that has been working, but it misses this time. He counters with a kick that was weaker than the first one.
“He’s got nothing! He sucks!” I hear the opposing coach shout in Filipino. He’s trying to motivate his fighter. I smile.
I feint a knee, and land a one-two punch. I see blood dripping from his nose.
I’m not sure if that was from the kick or these last two punches, but his expression is clearly different now.
He tries to push forward and I keep distance with a front kick. He throws a front kick of his own to react, and I step off and counter with a leg kick. I repeat that jab-leg kick, and he’s not moving well on that left leg anymore.
We both throw kicks and his lands flush on my groin. I’m shaken up. He immediately apologizes. The referee does nothing. I can barely move and my opponent says sorry again.
The ref shouts and demands that we fight on, and I’m slowly trying to walk it off to recover.
What the f—? I guess people get away with fouls in Muay Thai too. I’m just glad this guy is classy and isn’t rushing in to take advantage.
My opponent comes forward and I throw a body kick that’s partially blocked. I land on southpaw so I use that to throw a sidekick as he marched forward. I switch back to orthodox to land a leg kick followed by two punches. I briefly raise my hands again.
I throw another kick at that leg. We both miss our strikes as the bell rings.
I head to my corner to catch my breath and get a sip of water.
Damn, these toes are aching bad. Did I hit a knee at some point? …Shit, who cares? I’m actually winning and having a lot of fun in there! This isn’t what I expected when I could barely sleep last night.
Okay. Round 2. Just continue and try hurting that leg even more.
I immediately land a leg kick, then a Superman punch as I made him think I’m going for the leg again. He immediately presses forward more, like his coaches have been telling him to do.
I land a body kick, but he keeps pressing. We land in the clinch and I reverse him on the ropes.
Hey, this isn’t too bad! I expected everyone in my weight to completely out-muscle me in the clinch. Maybe I should see if I could land some offense from here.
I try a few short elbows to his head.
Well these attempts are pathetic. He probably doesn’t even feel this with my elbow pad and his headgear.
“GET OUT! STAY OUTSIDE!” I hear my brother and my coach both yelling the same thing. I finally oblige, realizing I shouldn’t risk blowing out my cardio by clinching for long stretches.
He throws a leg kick. I turn my leg towards it to lessen the impact, and land two counter punches. Step feint, then another leg kick. Another.
He tries a one-two, but I land a push kick to the top of his thigh to stop his forward motion.
I know that’s legal, but I’m sorry! I will try not to Jon Jones again if you promise not to keep pressuring like that.
More feints and single shots, and just me resetting back to the center. Leg kick. Superman punch. More leg kicks, and now he’s walking gingerly on that lead leg, and starting to abandon pressuring me.
I keep feinting to try and get a reaction, and then fire another kick on that same spot. It happens quite a few more times. Now he’s on the ropes missing on counters and not moving very well anymore.
I switch stances to get a reaction, and then I throw a lead kick on the same spot. Instead of resetting, I drop my hands and stop moving.
Please take the bait and rush in so I can counter with a bigger leg kick. Also, I’m resting and I need you to do something foolish to make things easier for me.
He doesn’t bite. I smile and reset.
He finally pressures after I land a lazy leg kick, but he manages to trip me to the ground. The round ends.
“I’m exhausted.” That’s the only thing I tell my coach the moment he removes my mouthpiece after the second round.
F—, why am I this tired, when I’m not even losing? Was it a bad idea competing with less than 3 weeks after drinking and bumming around? Was deciding to stop running last week to rest injuries a wrong move? Shut that out. Breathe.
“Don’t worry, you’re leading!” My coach says a lot of other instructions to motivate me. I nod, but I’m not sure I hear any of it.
Breathe. Relax. You still have time to recover, and only 3 minutes to win against a guy who can barely stand on one leg.
Round starts, and I immediately go with what was working earlier. Feint, jab, leg kick.
He throws a kick. I block and counter, but he tags me with a punch afterwards.
“Let him chase you,” my brother yells from the sidelines. He’s not technically even in my corner, but I can clearly hear him screaming the entire fight.
I land another leg kick and he whiffs with two punches as I move away. I guess he’s trying to box more to really try and counter now. Another leg kick and I reset again.
I smile as I hear both corners yelling.
“You’re almost there! Don’t let him get inside!” my coach shouts, saying there’s not a lot of time left.
“Get after him! He sucks! He has nothing on you,” the opposing coach screams.
I throw another kick on that swollen thigh as he bites on another feint. He’s going after me, countering with punches again. This time he’s pushing forward more aggressively. We clinch, but I manage to break away and reset.
I hear my coach screaming at me not to allow him to get inside position again.
I check two of his kicks, and manage to counter one of them with another strike on that leg. I’m tired, but I figure I’m up at this point so it’s on him to try and chase.
I put my hands down again. It feels like my gloves have weights in them. I decide this is a good time to try and rest while pretending it’s just the same antics as earlier.
At this point, all I can do is to try and feint and land one clean shot. I don’t even mind if they’re not as hard as the earlier strikes. As long as I’m still landing, I’m winning.
Weak teep. Punch. Leg kick.
Switch stance, leg kick, side kick. More leg kicks. These are probably all just sparring level power by now.
His coaches keep yelling for him to get after it. He tries to bull-rush to a clinch a couple times, but his leg must really be hampering his movement. I pivot and manage to get away and reset.
“He’s tired!” my brother yells.
Well I’m tired too!
We both hear the ten-second mark, and he tries a last effort to pressure. I throw a lazy sidekick to keep him away. Bell rings, and the fight is over.
That end sequence must not have been pretty, but holy f—, I did it! I just won my first ever fight!
I walk over and tap him on the back, thanking him for the fight. I do the same to his coaches. They all seem cordial and nice after our 9 minutes in the ring.
I’m taking huge deep breaths. I’m partly trying to recover, but also doing so because I’m starting to realize that I actually did it. I won.
The speaker blares, as 30-27 scores are shown on the big screen. “Winner, on points, Blue Corner!”
I’m completely exhausted, but there are absolutely no words to describe the emotions that rush in as the referee raises my hand.
I thank my coaches and sit on the front row next to my friends. I see their excited faces and they congratulate me as I slowly remove my gear. I look around the venue and soak everything up.
I figure I should’ve done so much more. I could’ve performed better if I threw good follow-ups and combinations. I also need better cardio. But, none of that really matters at this point, and it certainly isn’t enough to take the smile off my face.
The adrenaline must be wearing off, because everything has started to hurt. My shins and knees are battered and bruised. My toe is purple and it’s almost as swollen as my right ankle. But, I don’t care if I can barely walk. I don’t even care that just standing hurts.
Going into this, I was already happy to just be a part of a huge and talent rich event. Now I’m actually going home with the victory? This feels even better than I ever imagined it to be.
I’m still on cloud nine several hours later, but the week is far from over.
I got the win, but that’s just the first round of the tournament. There’s weigh-ins and another fight at the same time tomorrow.
Can someone please get me an icebag or two?