My bouts are customarily preceded by pre-fight naps in the locker room. My placement on the card dictates that I won’t be shuttled to the venue until late and my nap is done at hotel instead of arena.
There is an element of business-as-usual to the day, and I wonder for a moment if I’m too calm; if for some reason I need silly bright Vegas lights to get me excited about a prizefight. The thrill can’t be gone this early. I put the thoughts out of my mind and remind myself this is the way I’ve planned on feeling today, emotions in check.
There are a few “Keys to Victory” on the screen near me that the production team has deemed necessary for either of us to win. For me; stick and move. Him; use ground and pound. They both sound about right. I think about them while warming up. I do it the same way I have for a decade now. Following a loss, it’s hard not to question whether our tried and true practices shouldn’t be reconsidered, but this one I stick with. Stretch, shadowbox, hit mits, grapple, stay warm.
I relax for a few minutes while waiting on Brock, the jacked white boy from earlier in the week, to come in the locker room and tell me it’s time. He does, and I make the walk, 22nd in total, to the bright lights waiting. I take a seat in my corner and keep my heart rate low. Everything is as I pictured in my head.
Time speeds, the bell rings, and suddenly it is no longer how I imagined. Boetsch throws a front kick and I catch it. He turns away to retract his leg, and my first instinct is to switch levels and try to take his back. The attempt fails and we end up with his rear end against the fence, me plowing forward. I’m loading up on hard knees, trying to catch him just right in the thigh for a dead-leg. He times my third attempt and I end up on my back.
I’m irked. This is specifically what we’d worked on not doing. I take a body lock and close my grip behind his back, working to elevate his hips for a sweep. He stays heavy and I eat a few shots because of it. I’m forced to bail and try to get up, which I do. I disengage, though only briefly, before crashing back into him after a few punches.
It’s this sequence that is the most frustrating of the fight. I’m once again pushing forward with my head on his chest, and I’m not sure why. I’m displeased with myself, but look to make the best of it, ducking under, once again going for his back. I’ve got it this time, and try to turn it into the position I gained my last win with.
Boetsch is too savvy, and reverses the position. We spend the next minute against the cage. I’m on auto-pilot here, and having trouble explaining why I’m still pressuring. Forward just seems to be the direction I want to go, all the way into where my opponent has no free range of motion. It’s as if I’m battling both my opponent and my urge to close distance, when common thought is that I should keep away.
Maybe I’ve been conditioned over years of fighting like that with success, not realizing I can’t do it all the way up the ranks. Maybe I have a hard-headed propensity to test myself in other’s strengths. Maybe it’s an act of defiance to those telling me I have to fight a certain way to win, residual rebellion from teenage years. Either way, I know this is not my best strategy. I know I have better striking. I am confident in it, but confidence is hollow if we don’t stand with conviction when the bell rings.
I quiet the back-and-forth in my head and finally get to throwing leather. Tim and I have some good exchanges before the end of the round, and I’m feeling like I’ve shaken off the voice telling me to clinch with him.
My corners enter the cage frustrated with me, and for good reason. I’m frustrated with myself. The first round is close, but if the bout is riding on distance management then the previous five minutes is a failure.
Slow down, my coach says. More kicks. I try to tell him Boetsch isn’t there for the leg kicks I’ve grown to rely on, but he’s not trying to hear it. Patience. I take some deep breaths and get ready for the second. Focus.
I come out in the next round prepared to fight my fight, the one I've envisioned. I don’t initiate any clinches. I get my footwork under me. I get comfortable. A couple kicks, a nice one-two. I step back and prepare to deliver another series, beginning the next exchange with a kick. He catches my foot and sends me tumbling to the mat.
I look for a submission while there, before falling back into closed guard. It’s here I take issue with my actions once more. My aversion to taking damage while standing doesn’t transfer to a sense of urgency while on the ground, and I don’t know why. It’s baffling. He’s hitting me, and the punches don’t hurt, but I know they are hard. I gauge it by how loud they are. I catch a stinger in the eye and know it’s time to stand up now.
He uses my attempt as an opportunity to advance, and is now in a heavier top position. He stays a step ahead, attacking with an arm lock as he threatens to pass into mount. We are directly in front of his coaches, and I am having a hard time hearing mine. I've underestimated Tim’s guard passing skills and I can feel his confidence growing with each grappling exchange.
I free myself and make another effort to sweep while I still have some semblance of hip control. Boetsch moves to full mount while trapping my left hand. His punches are thudding louder, and I can feel him getting more aggressive. Referee John McCarthy is telling me to move, and I’m doing everything I can to obey. My attempts to escape only transition him to back mount from full mount and back again.
I can feel my eye bleeding now and can hear Tim’s corner telling him to finish it. I feel like I’ve run into a brick wall. This is not at all how I expected it to go. I try to defend my face from punches in efforts to give myself more time but the referee has seen enough. I feel the onslaught stop, and I know it is all over. I sit, deflated, having lost twice in a row for the first time in my career.
My lungs aren't burning. My arms aren't shot. I don't even get the physical satisfaction of having left it all out there. The doctors finally let me stand and I take several laps around the cage, wanting to turn back the clock for the umpteenth time in my life. I’m finally called back to the center to await the official announcement. Tim is declared the winner and the camera pans to my face, looking every bit as rearranged as it should.
Sometimes we are the hammer and sometimes we are the nail. Sometimes I am the painter, and sometimes the canvas. I was not much more than that in South Dakota; merely a canvas to show the viewer how ugly this thing can be when a fighter chooses not to play to his strengths. The cage is an unforgiving place for mental errors, and each cerebral sin is punishable by blood. I stand, humbled.
Josh Samman is an active UFC Middleweight and author of The Housekeeper: Love, Death, and Prizefighting. Stay tuned into Bloody Elbow for part three of Prizefighting Chronicles: Brawling a Barbarian. Part one, ‘The Lead-Up’ can be read here.