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From Writing to Fighting: Coaching a Colleague

On this iteration of From Writing to Fighting, Anton Tabuena coaches fellow Bloody Elbow writer Milan Ordonez during his MMA debut.

From Writing to Fighting

It’s 8 a.m. and I’m looking up at the stop light, lightly tapping on the steering wheel as I wait for it to turn green.

I’m on the same exact trip I had roughly a year ago, but things certainly feel a lot different this time around. I stop tapping my fingers, only now realizing that I have been fidgety and tense since I woke up.

I don’t want them to notice this, so I decide to just start a conversation.

“How much do you weigh now?” I ask Milan, who is sitting in the backseat.

“123,” he responds.

“So seven pounds? Nice! He gained 10 since yesterday,” I say with a laugh, pointing to my brother, Paolo on the passenger seat. “Ah, the magic of water-loading.”

While not doing anything too drastic, we made sure to be far more disciplined and specific with our approach to our diet and weight cut during this training camp. Apart from conditioning and technical training that’s far better than last year’s, I believe those seven and ten pounds could play a big part during today’s fights as well.

I park the car outside the venue, and head towards the long line of people at the registration booth.

From Writing to Fighting

“One for MMA, and one Muay Thai,” I tell the lady giving out forms. Even this early, she is already sweating and looking stressed from the amount of fighters lining up and asking questions.

I want to avoid this crowd to have more time to rest and relax before the fights, so we quickly fill these out and sign the waivers.

“Did you sign a form for yourself yet?” she asks after I give Milan and Paolo’s papers back to try and get in the venue.

“No, I’m just coaching them today.”

That felt weird to say out loud.

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Fight Day.

Anton, Paolo, and I are walking down the venue to where the MMA fights are going to be held. It is a modest, yet large enough non air-conditioned basement space that could fit about a hundred people at a time. Right smack dab in the middle of the room is the makeshift cage, which is a lot smaller than the UFC’s Octagon.

Around 9:30 a.m., all the fighters are called in to gather inside the cage for the rules briefing. I have no clue who I am facing, so I step inside and look through each and every person lined up around the fence. I’m trying to size up everyone close to my weight, as all I know is that I’m facing a 20-year-old who tipped the scales three pounds heavier than I did.

I am also a bit perplexed and distracted by how soft the cage floor is.

Wow, this is a bed cushion right here.

From Writing to Fighting

After the briefing, Anton and I head to an empty room upstairs to warm up. I’ve barely started to move around and shadowbox when Anton receives a phone call from Paolo.

“What the f—k?!” Anton says on the phone. “Alright, we’ll be right down.”

He tells me that I am apparently being bumped from bout number four, to the very first fight. I have no time to process anything, and I instantly go on autopilot the moment that five-second call ended.

As we’re hurrying down the stairs, everything seems to be moving in slow motion, like in a dream sequence. At the same time, I am also being slapped hard with the reality of the situation. I am mere moments away from entering my very first cage fight, which can either end in jubilation or disappointment; even in utter embarrassment.

No turning back now.

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“Milan Ordoñez! Where is Milan Ordoñez?” the announcer’s voice blares on the speakers, as we’re rushing back cageside.

Since it is Milan’s first ever fight, I wanted to get more drills in during the warm up, and to run through our game plan a few times. That way, his focus could remain on just those specifics, and not on any jitters or outside thoughts.

Well that’s all off the table now, and I’m worried this change is messing with his mindset.

The announcers call out his name again. I tell my brother to help Milan stretch, while I handle the officials and try to buy him a little more time to get loose and clear his head.

“He’s right there,” I tell the official, and point to Milan. “I thought we were supposed to be the fourth fight. What happened?”

“The first three didn’t show up, so you’re next,” he replied.

“Okay. We’re ready, but can I just get him his gear first?” I asked.

He nods, so I head over and look at the officials’ table, where there are four of each pair of gloves, shin guards, and headgear lined up. I’m pretty sure they used some of these last year.

I know these are negligible in the grand scheme of things, but I still try to choose the ones that could “help” get Milan any kind of perceived advantage — even if just mentally.

I immediately grab the white headgear because it’s a newer model, similar to the one Milan regularly trains in.

Familiarity can help, and at least he’ll have the same fit and vision using this.

I take what looks to be the newest pair of shin guards on the table. I pick the opposite for the MMA gloves, and choose the slightly more worn down ones. I toss them all over to my brother and I glance at the opposing team to try and get a read on them.

He’s taller than Milan and is obviously a lot younger, but he’s skinny and looks a bit nervous. His coaches don’t look intimidating or confident either.

I see this as a sign of weakness and catch myself almost trying to lock eyes and stare him down, much like how I do before my own fights. I instantly realize just how silly that is, trying to play up his nerves that way.

Okay, that was dumb. Did you forget you’re not the one fighting? He’s not worrying about a coach right now.

I snap out of it and decide to just focus on, you know, actual coaching.

“All the hard training is done,” I tell Milan. “You’ve sparred with far better strikers than him, and you have more experience on the ground. So just keep it simple, follow our game plan, and you’ll do well.”

The cage door opens, and Milan steps inside. My heart starts pounding hard again.

Holy s—t! I don’t even get this nervous for my own bouts.

From Writing to Fighting

Milan looks calm, but it’s his first fist fight and I’m praying he’s not feeling like me right now.

“Discipline with our defense. Walk him down, counter, then just push him up the fence. See how he reacts and let him waste energy,” I remind him again. “Stay relaxed, and no early takedowns just yet.”

He nods. The cage door closes, and it’s all up to him now. I grab the fence from the outside and yell a few more reminders. I’m starting to feel helpless now.

Several weeks of hard training for this moment. Did I get him ready for every scenario? Did we drill enough? Is my game plan going to work? He trusted me day in and day out, so if it fails, this will be all on me.

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I know I am still on autopilot, but eerily calm and aware of everything around me at the same time. As my opponent enters the cage, I stare into his eyes trying to get a gauge of his emotional state at that moment. I could be wrong, but what I see is a look from someone who has apprehensions about being here. This also puts me a little bit at ease.

“Are you ready to fight?” the referee turns to me and asks. I respond with a thumbs up. He goes and asks the same thing to my opponent, which he nods to.

Here we f—ng go.

The game plan was pretty straightforward: Walk him down and wait for a shot, counter with at least a three-strike combination, before clinching up and pushing him towards the fence to tire him out. Everything was practiced during those tedious rounds of drilling and countless of reps on the pads, so I should be just fine, right?

Not quite.

Just seconds into the bout, I block a few strikes but fail to fire back and counter. I manage to clinch and push him towards the fence, but he was able to win the underhook battle and move out with relative ease. I land a few clean knee strikes to the body, but it doesn’t seem to faze him that much.

We’re back on kicking range, and I am slowly being dragged into a Muay Thai fight. Whenever this happened in the gym, it would usually end with me being lit up with strikes.

Being comfortable fighting on the feet like how I am on the ground is something I have yet to get a good grasp of. This is a situation I definitely do not enjoy being in.

Midway through one of the exchanges, a right hook off the end of a fully-committed three-punch combination connects. It lands flush on my left cheek and turns my head.

Oh, so this is how it feels like to get hit full clip by these smaller gloves.

I am rattled and suddenly feeling gunshy with my strikes. He follows up with a short flurry of power punches, which backs me up, throwing me off my game even further.

“Just relax. He’s flustered and out of his rhythm now,” one of the opposing coaches yells out.

Over at our corner, Anton implores me to counter with my own combinations, at which point I am still in a bit of a daze.

Moments later, my opponent shoots in for a sloppy single-leg takedown, which I do not bother defending in any way. We end up on the ground and I feel this could be the turning point of the fight.

Thank you. Welcome to my world.

The moment we fall to the mat, I immediately move his right leg and place him in between my legs. Now he’s in my open guard.

I control both his arms, one with an overhook on his right arm, and a deep underhook on his left. I then sweep his right leg with my left, while kicking his other leg upward. I destroy his balance and flip him over. Classic jiu-jitsu scissor sweep.

Upon successfully reversing positions, I automatically land on full mount. I move up to put all my weight on his chest, and begin pounding away.

It becomes quite clear that he is not as comfortable on the ground as I am.

I’m in a more dominant position in high mount. What makes this situation a little bit worse for him, is that his corner repeatedly instructs him to bump his hips up and bridge his way out. That’s a futile effort when trying to get out from underneath this position.

Knowing that he is only tiring himself out by incessantly trying to bump me over, I continue to rain down punches on him as hard as I could. I’m trying to avoid hitting the thick padding of the headgear where my fists would simply bounce off from.

“That’s nothing, just keep moving and bridging. Try to answer back with punches,” the other opposing coach tells his fighter.

This ground-and-pound sequence continues on for quite a bit, until I hear the sound of the clapper. They’re signaling the final ten seconds of the round, and it stirs up a bit of a panic in me.

I need A LOT more time to secure a finish.

“Armbar, Milan! Armbar, armbar, armbar!” Anton yells out from our corner. He wants me to try and get a finish as the round closes.

I hear the calls for the submission, but I am more determined to try and end the fight by TKO. I do not want to risk having him reverse positions and escape from a rushed armbar attempt.

The referee eventually intervenes to signal the end of the round.

That wasn’t so bad after all.

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Shaky start, but we easily won that round.

I carry a stool and a water bottle up the steps and into the cage. As I walk towards Milan, I’m peering over the opposing corner at the same time.

His opponent looks tired and somewhat discouraged after spending that much time struggling from the bottom. Milan routinely outworks everyone at the gym, and it’s one of his strengths that I’ve been banking on as we slowly formulated our general strategy during training camp.

“Deep breath,” I tell Milan, before giving him a sip of water. “How’s your cardio?”

I already know the answer, but I just want to hear him say it.

“I’m okay,” he responds with confidence.

“Good. He’s exhausted. So I want you to go straight for the takedown this time. Don’t even strike with him. Just get it to the ground right away,” I instruct him. “It will be easier to take him down now.

“Your jiu-jitsu is so much better. So do the same, control position, land strikes. He will eventually panic and make a mistake,” I tell Milan. “Keep it simple.”

I offer him another sip of water.

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While sitting on the stool, I see my dad and youngest sister from the corner of my left eye. They seem to just have arrived and they’re walking through the small crowd towards the blue corner side of the cage.

Nice. They made it despite the sudden change of schedule.

I notice my mind is still wandering during this break. I’m not sure I processed every single thing Anton said, but I make sure to take note of his instruction to immediately shoot for a takedown.

Round break ends, and coaches on both corners step out. The cage door closes, and I give my opponent a blank but deep stare from the other end.

He is looking a bit spent.

“Round two!” the announcer says on the mic. “Everybody, let’s give both fighters a round of applause!”

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The bell rings and the second stanza begins.

They walk to the center of the cage, and Milan blocks an incoming leg kick that’s immediately thrown. Perhaps sensing that he’s down on points, his opponent follows up by throwing a huge right hand that had all his weight on it. Milan quickly reacts by dropping down to dodge the punch and shoot for a takedown at the same time.

He perfectly timed the shot, but his opponent manages to hook an arm and is trying to explode and muscle out to fend him off. Once he feels this initial attempt to defend, Milan switches it up by pulling him down to his guard, but with his feet in perfect position to take advantage of his opponent’s momentum.

Less than a second later, Milan kicks out, then elevates and flips his opponent up in the air. He lands on top and slides right into high mount yet again.

Another beautiful sweep, one that I’ve seen him pull off quite a bit in the gym.

Milan throws three hard right hands to his opponent’s head as soon as he gets on top.

“Pick your shots and maintain this position,” I remind him.

Milan throws three left hands; two more right hands. That must not feel very good, because his opponent reacts by desperately trying to bridge out to his left. He exposes his back momentarily and Milan capitalizes by getting his hooks in.

This is what we’ve been waiting for. This is where we look for a finish.

His opponent pushes off the ground and gets on all fours to try and shake Milan off his back.

“Get up! Get up!” the opposing coach screams.

Milan reacts and calmly adjusts his weight, breaking his opponent’s posture and getting him back on the mat. He has him flattened out now, and Milan goes for the choke.

His right forearm goes under the chin.

This is it.

Milan locks in his other arm, tightening his grip on that neck. His opponent doesn’t want to tap, but I’ve seen and felt this too many times to even doubt the outcome.

I raise my hands to celebrate, knowing what’s about to happen.

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The choke is in tight, and it takes a good four seconds before I feel two very light taps on my right arm. The referee then pats on my back telling me to let go, and he signals the end of the fight.

I’ve won.

This feeling of relief overcomes my entire body.

I stand up, take my headgear off, and give my corner a high five. I see my dad and sister standing behind them. My adrenaline is at an all-time high, and I still feel very much in that dream sequence from earlier.

I walk over to the opposing corner and shake their hands, thanking them for a good fight. The referee then calls us both back to the center of the cage.

“Ladies and gentlemen, our winner via rear-naked choke,” the announcer says. “Milan Ordoñez!”

The referee raises my hand, a first in my years of martial arts.

I’ve competed thrice in jiu-jitsu tournaments back when I was still a white belt, and I never won a single match. I usually fell short on points from a lack of a working game plan, and ultimately, because of a lack of trust in my own capabilities.

This felt different, and I now know the taste of victory thanks to great coaching, a well-crafted strategy, and smart preparations.

One of the ring girls walks up to me and places a gold medal around my neck.

Finally, a piece of well-earned hardware that I can hang up somewhere in my room.

I walk out of the cage and greet my corner and family. I am still in a surreal state of both relief and disbelief. I actually pulled off the win.

Going through that entire training camp, eating nothing but boring, flavorless food, cutting weight, and getting beat up in the gym day in and day out definitely paid off.

I’m on Cloud 9. It is a different kind of high, and I do not want it to dissipate. I got the job done, and it’s time to rest easy.

From Writing to Fighting
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I can’t stop grinning from ear to ear.

Coaching for the first time was nerve-wracking, but achieving one of our two goals for today was far more satisfying than I imagined. Milan worked so hard for this, and I’m just so proud and happy for him after what he just accomplished.

“You really had me worried early on, but I felt so relieved once he took you down,” I tell Milan with a laugh as we’re walking back to the end of the room. I then compliment him on those two sweeps he hit, and we go over a lot of the other sequences and exchanges.

“All of my combinations just disappeared after getting hit hard. Everything, gone,” Milan laughs, noting the things he can improve on.

“Yeah, that happens,” I tell him. “We can always work on that, but the important thing is you got the job done on your first ever fight. How does that feel?”

“Honestly, I don’t think it has completely sunk in yet,” Milan replies.

I congratulate him one more time, while also trying to hold off a bit on celebrations since I still have my brother’s bout to focus on next. I pack my things and tell him to just meet us in the ballroom, where the Muay Thai fights are being held.

Before I leave, I turn around to ask Milan a question.

“By the way, are you interested in writing about all this with me?”

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