Read A Fighter's Heart: One Man's Journey Through the World of Fighting Online

Authors: Sam Sheridan

Tags: #Martial Artists, #Boxing, #Martial Arts & Self-Defense, #Sports & Recreation, #General, #United States, #Sheridan; Sam, #Biography & Autobiography, #Sports, #Martial Artists - United States, #Biography

A Fighter's Heart: One Man's Journey Through the World of Fighting (8 page)

Tony, like many fighters, is without reservation when talking about himself. I think the nakedness of fighting publicly, the exposure for all to see and judge one’s “quality,” makes fighters good interview subjects. They’ll talk about anything. For Tony, “The martial arts are about respect and discipline, knowledge. Fighting is different. Fighting is about ego. When we’re fighting, I’m going to fuck you up. Prove me wrong; prove to me that you’re tougher than me.” And for Tony, ego isn’t the negative “Oh, look at me” ego, it’s more about self-knowledge and total dedication to testing and pushing yourself as far as possible, a way to know everything about yourself.

One Wednesday night, Tony was sparring with a promising amateur named Kenny, and Tony was getting pissed off because Kenny wasn’t coming hard enough. So Tony would throw his arms wide open and let Kenny tee off and hit him flush and open and unprotected, and then close and punish Kenny until he turned away in fear and hesitation. Then Tony would open up again, half taunting and half enraged, until finally he took Kenny down hard and slammed him in the guts. Then he pulled Kenny back up, embraced him, and they talked a little.

Later I could overhear Tony talking about it and he said, “Kenny’s got the speed, the technique, everything, but he lacks a little in confidence…. I’ve kind of taken that kid under my wing and am trying to help him. It’s all right if we beat the shit out of each other in here as long as we never lose to anyone outside this gym.” That was the prevalent attitude: You kill each other in the gym, and then the fighting elsewhere is easy. I heard again and again from other amateur fighters that the people they sparred with in the gym were ten times tougher than anyone they ever met in the cage.



Justin Brown befriended me in a grappling class, because he remembered what it was like to walk in and not know anybody. “People in here were nice to me and took me under their wing, so now I try and help some of the new guys out.”

Justin was twenty-seven and is 4–0 as an amateur, just getting started. “You gotta have your shit together or you get your face ripped off,” he said, laughing. He was divorced with two kids, five and seven, and held down two jobs—as a manager at a local Hy-Vee (a supermarket chain) and a bouncer at Daisy Dukes, a strip club. He had a very strong sense of the Miletich team and the honor it was to be associated with it. He didn’t want to street fight because it might hurt the gym’s credibility. Justin was from Des Moines and said lightly that in Iowa, the mentality is “fuckin’ or fightin’.” “If you’re not getting laid, you might as well find somebody to fight. You’d be sitting around a bar and someone walks up and says, ‘Let’s go outside and fight’—well, okay.”



The gym was a remarkably egalitarian place, and once you’d been accepted, it was friendly and helpful. Everyone gave tips to everyone else; if you saw something, you mentioned it. “Keep those hands up,” Tim might call from the sidelines, watching two amateurs spar on their own time. Fighters of all skill levels were in there at all different times, depending on their schedules, and much of the training was done by peers. The pros would stop you and come over and grapple with you—to show you something or give a little lecture on footwork.

It is one of the more interesting facets of MMA: the democracy. In MMA, there are no grand masters, no belts, no fixed ranking system. Knowledge is shared, so good strikers work out with good grapplers, and they teach each other. Far superior fighters like Tony gave me help all the time, and then, sometimes I would tell him about something I’d seen Thai fighters do in Thailand, and instead of dismissing me, he and the others listened carefully. They were willing to take knowledge from anywhere.

The grappling nights were the best examples. The gym was rife with judo black belts, under Coach Humphries, but the judo guys all came to the grappling nights to expand their knowledge. Nearly everyone in there had trained elsewhere, and everyone contributed to group knowledge. There were Iowa state champion wrestlers, Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts, and everything in between.



Let me try to explain a few of the principles of the ground game, as I understand them. Everyone, more or less, can understand “stand-up” fighting. It’s boxing and kickboxing and muay Thai. You punch, kick, elbow, and knee. Then you lock up and go for a takedown, much like in high school wrestling, often by dropping down, “shooting” in, and snatching up ankles or legs.

Once on the ground, each man works for position. You always want to be on top; your weight is working for you and you have much more control, although some fighters skilled in ground fighting actually prefer to work from the bottom. The bottom man wants to keep the top man “in his guard,” which means the bottom man has his arms free and his legs around the top man’s waist. It looks a little like the missionary position, but it’s safer for the bottom man because he can control the top man’s hips, the key to the ground game. The top man can punch and look for submissions, but he doesn’t have a decisive advantage. So he looks to “pass guard,” which means he wants to somehow maneuver his legs over the bottom man’s legs until he is “mounted,” or off to the side in “side-control.”

“Mount” is exactly like what the grammar school bully used to do to you; sit on your chest with his knees under your armpits and rain punches down. It is very dangerous for the bottom man, as the top man can punch with impunity and easily set up submissions. The bottom man has to squirm, buck, and scramble to either reverse the position or at least get back into guard. Side-control is more stable and versatile, and pretty much equally bad for the bottom man—he has to get back to guard.

When he’s in guard, the bottom man has a lot of submissions he can go for, chokes and arm-bars. He can use his legs to set up a “triangle” choke, where he catches the opponent in a triangle between his legs and uses them (plus one of the opponent’s own arms, pinned helplessly) to cut off breathing. In an arm-bar, he tries to hold one of the opponent’s arms straight and in such a way that he can break it if the guy doesn’t tap out. He can try a “guillotine” choke, a kind of headlock where he exerts direct pressure on his opponent’s windpipe. Those are just the basics and the ones you see most often; there are hundreds or thousands of variations and methods. And some fighters don’t even try for submissions, they just work for position and try to beat their man into oblivion, the “ground-and-pound.”

Other fighters prefer to stay on their feet, as it’s a little more exciting for the crowd and they feel more confident on their feet; so those guys just fight standing and train hard to avoid being taken down, called “sprawling”; when a man dives for your legs to take you down, you kick them out backward, sprawling away from him, and land on top of him with your hips, driving him into the mat. This style is sometimes called “sprawl-and-brawl,” and it’s what I was trying to learn.



I needed to learn to move my head. I would feel the hard stinging impact that jarred my world, the rushing in my ears like I’m underwater, and then I could feel the blood gushing from my nostrils, the droplets spattering my gloves and shirt. I would rush outside to the paper towels, and the gym rats, lifting weights, would stare with a mixture of pity and chagrin. I joked with Pat that I was going to bleed all over my opponents to scare them. And then I mopped up the blood, put my headgear back on, and tried to get back in there, until I got popped again and repeated the whole process. Sam can’t hold his mud.

I didn’t talk to Jens Pulver much, but he is one of the fighters I most admired, devastatingly heavy-handed for 155 pounds, and he moved like a pro boxer—he had won a few pro boxing fights. He said to me at one point, “You got to find a way to survive in here. We all did. We all found a way to survive in here sparring on Wednesdays, on the Hill, during grappling nights.”

The Hill. I’d heard about it for weeks now, and finally one morning Pat grabbed me as I was coming to work out. Along with Mike Whitehead, an up-and-coming heavyweight and a national champion wrestler from Oregon, and Tim Sylvia, who had a fight coming up, we headed out to the Hill. I still had a persistent, hacking cough, but this was going to “blow out” my lungs, said Pat. We parked on the top of a windy, steep little hill and Pat stayed behind as the three of us headed down to start. There was a slight sense of dread, of imminent doom.

The Hill is a killer because it is not so long and steep that you can’t sprint it; you can. It just about kills you to sprint it, but you can, just barely. And then you jog to the bottom and do it again, a total of six times.

So you start pounding up the steep paved road, and you feel okay, and then it twists a little, and you keep pounding, because there’s the corner, and then if you can make
it teases you, because there’s the finish line, so you “sprint” through (in reality just a short, choppy, painful jog by now) and stand there gasping like you have asthma, wheezing with a high note in your chest. The third one felt like it should be the last one, and during the slow jogs back down the hill my hamstrings and ass were burning like someone had injected the muscles with a syringe full of poison. The fifth one felt like I should be dead, or maybe puke a little, but then there’s just one left—anyone could do one more….

I ran the Hill once a week, and I was supposed to pyramid up, to do eight and then ten and then twelve the week before the fight. Pat once ran it sixteen times. “I’ve never gotten tired during a fight,” he said. “The one thing I always knew going in was that I had prepared better and harder than my opponent, that I was in better shape. I wasn’t going to get tired, and when a fight runs to twenty-five minutes, that’s really something.” I was reminded of the adage I’d gleaned from watching muay Thai in Thailand: Whoever’s in better shape wins.

Pat watched me running and dying, and somehow that was where I earned his interest, a little bit, because I left everything I had on the Hill. It wasn’t very much, but it was everything I had, and I noticed from then on that Pat somewhat accepted me into his family.



After about a month and a half, I fought an informal boxing match down at the local bar’s Friday Night Fights. One could drop in around eight p.m. and sign up to fight. They asked me if I’d fight a 220-pound guy, and I looked at the guy and said yeah, because he looked big and soft and had been drinking. Three one-minute rounds, fun for all, headgear and gloves. Tim and Tony were there and cornered me enthusiastically, but the guy was a spaz and came out swinging and I stood there and flailed away with him; he caught me and I caught him, but my punches were straighter. Tim between rounds said, “Now you see why a spaz is hard to fight,” and it’s true; very unconventional fighters can pose problems to amateurs like me—you get sucked into their spazzy world. “Don’t trade, jab,” said Tim (meaning don’t stand there and trade punch for punch with him, but work the jab instead). I started doing that the second round, and the guy quickly ran out of steam and waved me off.

Later that night, as my nose swelled again, I realized I still had no head movement. I’m not seeing the punches coming, and I’m leaving my head still. I sat next to a cute twenty-year-old student chiropractor who wasn’t listening and said, “I don’t think I have the violence in me for this.”

But in a sense, I was kidding myself. I knew that I would probably fall into the trap of humanity: naked rage fueled by self-preservation and ego, the opposite of empathy, closing oneself off to the pain of another.



The following Wednesday night I stayed away from the heavyweights and sparred the little guys and did much, much better. Because I’m tall, I would always stand with the heavyweights, but they all outweighed me by thirty or forty pounds. So instead I sparred with lighter guys and towered over them, but, hey, that made my life easy. I could survive; my nose didn’t bleed. I started keeping people on the end of my jab, where Pat wanted me to, too far away to hit me back.

Afterward, after eight three-minute rounds, we jumped rope, and I felt a little bit like I belonged, like I could stay there and train forever.



Two guys from Team Miletich were fighting in the next UFC in Las Vegas, Robbie Lawler and Tim Sylvia. Tim was making his big comeback after being stripped of the title for testing positive for steroids, and Robbie was a heavy favorite.

I flew into an overcast Vegas on a Thursday afternoon and went to the hotel and found the guys. We took the long walk down to the Events Center. People would first stop Tim, and then they’d grab Matt and Robbie as they recognized them. All of Team MFS navigated their minor celebrity with natural, unforced grace, shaking hands and taking pictures and enjoying themselves without getting too slowed down or frustrated.

The weigh-in was crowded, several hundred people around, and the ring girls and the announcer, Michael Buffer, and some rowdy fans. Over the P.A. I heard that Tim was not going to fight. He had trace elements of banned substances in his system and his most recent test hadn’t come back yet, so the Nevada Gaming Commission wouldn’t let him step on the scale. No scale means no fight. My mouth hung open. I had planned on shadowing Tim for the night, but now that was out. Luckily, I still had Robbie Lawler, a welterweight (170 pounds) contender and one of Pat’s prodigies, twenty-two years old, explosive, heavy-handed, and a heavy favorite (5–2) over Nick Diaz. Robbie was a UFC fan favorite, because he threw bombs—heavy, knockout punches—which makes fights exciting. Robbie looked good at the weigh-in, muscular and heavier than his taller and slimmer opponent.

Tim was disappointed about not being able to fight but not crushed. I asked him if he was coming out for a few beers and he shook his head, “I’m in great shape. Why would I come drinking now?” He’d be able to fight again in two months. In a way, it was as though he hadn’t quite accepted the fact that he wasn’t fighting, or his body hadn’t. His body and spirit had been bent toward that fight for so long that it would take them some time to disengage, even if his mind acceped it. Tim is intelligent and remarkably sensitive—not that he cries at sad movies, but he is aware of his surroundings and the people around him and how they are feeling. During training he can be a bully and will punish you if you stand up to him, but outside of the gym he’s friendly and open.

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