I lost my last fight against Jennifer Maia in Texas. No matter how a fighter loses, by decision or KO, the intense feelings of pain and sadness are there.
I’ve made my walk to the cage (or ring) 44 times in my life and, of those, I’ve walked away with eighteen losses. Every fight and way I react to it is different. I remember one night, after fighting Laura D’August in 2005, walking around my hotel in New Jersey—outside in the middle of the night in the dark. I was just despairing; having no idea what I should do or what would become of me. That fight had meant the world to me, and my performance was horrible.
Yet, after I fought Nicco Montano for the UFC title, I was still so sad I lost, but also pleased with my performance. Something deep inside me was satisfied. That same night my body collapsed from fever from exhaustion.
Years ago, I came across a story of a scientific experiment involving two ‘loser’ rats. In the experiment, pairs of rats were made to fight each other. The scientists then isolated the losers of those fights and, after a week, the rats stopped eating, showed signs of depression, got sick, and eventually died. They repeated the experiment, only this time they reintroduced the rat who had lost back into their pack—to be around fellow rats. The rat showed signs of erratic behavior for a few days, but then normalized. The lesson I took away: your team can save you.
Therefore, after my losses, I always try and schedule time with as many friends and teammates as possible. I try to have dinner with somebody every night the following week, even if I’m bummed out, hurt, or don’t feel like it. It helps me get back to normal faster.
I felt especially down on myself after my last fight.
A fighter’s perception of their performance is always different than an observers. In my mind, I tried to take Jennifer down off the cage the entire fight, and she muscled me around. It was a horrible fight full of nothing but failure on my part. I give everything in myself to my fights—to fight prep, to dieting. I sacrifice so much, and then give all my mental and physical energy to the bout itself. Many other fighters have families, so they sacrifice time with their kids and wife or husband as well. A loss can be so huge and devastating to our hearts. If a fighter is no longer upset by losing, it’s time to stop fighting.
I wanted to pretend my fight with Maia never happened. I didn’t want to rewatch it. The week after, I tried to hang out with friends as much as possible and do kids private lessons for those who needed it.
However, after I came back from a trip to the anime convention, Otakon, the following weekend, I decided that it would be too much of a waste if I didn’t try to watch and find something to learn and improve from in the loss. I needed to find a way to move on from the hurt. And in my memory, there was nothing. I had a great training camp. I trained for the moves she did (double underhooks, striking combos, etc). I trained for her, but still couldn’t win. Re-examination felt stupid and pointless.
If you don’t rewatch it, then that fight was for absolutely nothing. You know you have to watch it, I told myself. You are a martial artist.
Fine. So, I steeled myself.
And actually, it wasn’t as bad as I thought. It wasn’t really bad at all.
I felt way better after watching the tape of my fight. My striking didn’t look slow and horrible like the impression in my memory. It looked okay. I landed a LOT. It was an exciting fight. Coach John said the same thing when we ended up watching the whole thing together again. Looking back at pictures, most of my shots land clean. Wall take-downs weren’t the whole fight either. My right straight looked great.
I feel like I lost because I failed to adjust and she countered me. She was shorter than me, and heavier, and she missed weight (making her even heavier). I should have adjusted my game plan for her frame. I shouldn’t have used the same strategy that I did for Antonina. I should have changed my game plan.
And she missed weight—that messed with my mind. Would I have been able to win if she made weight and was lighter? She felt so heavy when I was trying to take her down… it was cheating! Or was it just good technique and weight doesn’t matter? I don’t know! What the heck. I wish athletic commissions would do something, like take away points from the overweight fighter’s score card.
In Jiu Jitsu tournaments, if you don’t make the weight you don’t fight. End of story. Now I’ll be forever tortured with “what if” thoughts. I don’t want to sound like a sore loser; Jennifer Maia was definitely skilled. She won a close decision last time we fought. But... what if?
As I said, though, she wasn’t just heavy, she was also skilled. Especially so in the clinch.
Re-watching the bout, I had the realization that I didn’t really know what the best thing to do in that situation was. I needed to get better in the clinch, or rather, these little key moments in this spacing that’s not quite kickboxing and not quite wrestling. Wonderful! I had done it—I found something that I could improve on! I felt a surge of hope and excitement upon realizing that! I had a new goal!
The worst thing for me in my martial arts training is not knowing what I need to do. As long as I have a plan and direction to go in, I will put forth the necessary effort it takes to get there.
I asked my head coach, John, of course, but also our ultra-enthusiastic Muay Thai teacher and fellow fighter AJ Matthews about expanding that part of my game. AJ is excellent at teaching basics like that. He said I don’t always have to grab the neck. What!? Mind blown.
I also needed someone to help me feel excited about striking, since I don’t usually enjoy it. I’ve only ever wanted to train striking with John for… well, ever. When I’m in that situation, I really need a teacher I like, one who makes me want to take the lesson. This also happened with strength and conditioning. My trainer Lorenzo is strong. He reminds me of my dad, so I really want to impress him. That’s natural for anybody, right?
So, I’ve been taking clinch lessons from AJ, and resuming striking training with John, and we’ve been working on… ah, I can’t tell ya. You guys will have to see the results of my training in my next fight, whenever that is.
While it may not have played a major factor in my last fight, there was also the matter of my gi Jiu Jitsu game, as well. I had been feeling a bit lost, honestly, unsure of what techniques to focus on to improve my sport jiujitsu game. I never have to worry about that with Coach John, because he always has an idea every session of what he wants me to improve upon. But, for Jiu Jitsu, I just go to class. I consider my month after my fight ‘The Fun Jiu Jitsu Month,’ because I absolutely won’t get another fight right away, so I can quit doing freaking burpees, fight conditioning, and staying in MMA fight shape. I love being able to focus on Jiu Jitsu training.
I train at Dunham’s Jiu Jitsu Academy mostly, and with Mike Pyle at Syndicate because we clicked and my schedule works out that way. Recently, though, Vinny Magalhaes’ team merged with Syndicate’s team! I used to train under him years ago.
One of their black belts, Chance, happened to be good at the spider guard. That’s when I put my feet in my opponent’s elbows and hold their sleeves with my hands so they’re stretched out and can’t free their arms. I decided that spider guard should be my ‘thing’ when I’m on the bottom. I get there all the time, but I don’t know how to use it once I get it. I have long legs so it suits me. I got Chance to give me some private lessons and immediately started sweeping lots of people in free rolling!
Again, I got really excited! I found an answer!
Every day became fun. I couldn’t wait to go to sleep so I could wake up and go to the gym again for more. I am determined to become ‘Spider Girl’ on the ground, and a ‘Thug Thai Clinch Specialist’ standing up. There’s not enough time in the day for me to do all the training I want to do. I wish I could ninja ‘kage bunshin’ clone myself to send one of me to train with Chance, one with John, one with AJ, one to teach kids, and one to sleep and recover. Then at the end of the day, they would join back together and I’d get ALL the knowledge!
My fight was July 20th, and despite my nose being swollen, I jumped right into training for a jiujitsu tournament at the end of August: IBJJF Master Worlds—a huge international championship. My nose hurt too much to be touched for about 3 weeks, but I did my best and truly got better. I even had to cut weight and diet past what I do for MMA fights because weigh-ins were immediately before stepping onto the mat. I couldn’t rely on dehydration too much. I went into the tournament and surprised myself by winning first place against tough competitors! I managed to suck my opponents into playing my game, which is top control.
They all tried to pull guard, except one girl I took down. I managed to go straight to half guard for one, and I had to pass another girl’s closed guard. From there, I proceeded to work my favorite half-guard pass that Mike Pyle taught me a few years ago that I always use and have success at. I won two matches by shut-out points, and I choked one girl. I couldn’t believe it when the staff told me I had won.
My friends and teammates all cheered so loudly for me on the side. I was so incredulous up until I got the gold medal hung around my neck.
Was I really a World Champion at brown belt!? Out of all brown belts!?
Some people have been telling me that I’m a black belt, but I believe sport Jiu Jitsu is so different. I don’t want to get promoted based on my MMA accomplishments. I want to studiously train gi techniques and live up to gi Jiu Jitsu standards. I have so much I have to improve upon and learn. We’ll see!
I didn’t get win money or a UFC belt, but I feel so ecstatic and pleased with myself, especially after all the years of Jiu Jitsu training I’ve done; struggling to find time to train in the gi, trying to re-adapt my MMA grappling style to sport Jiu Jitsu style when the time is right, and wishing I had just one main teacher.
I’ve become able to be happy with myself and my growth, and I still have a mental list of tons of things I want to improve on! That’s what makes me so excited, so positive, and how I maintain my ‘Happy Warrior’ enthusiasm for training every day. I’ve been fighting for sixteen years come November, and I can’t wait for every day of training!