One of the silly questions that people love to ask is, "what are you choosing for your walkout song?" Other than a few guys in the training camp, I kept the answer a secret. In fact, I did more than that; I had even concocted a tall tale, a cover story about how Battlefield wanted full control of production and would force me to come out to something of their choosing. But in my mind, I was never coming out to anything other than the classic montage song from the Karate Kid: "You're The Best", by Joe Esposito.
I chose this song in large part because I knew people would love it. But it also represents me well. The vast majority of people come out to heavy metal or hardcore hip-hop because they want something intimidating and aggressive to fire themselves up. If you know me at all, you'll know that's not me. "You're The Best" is a great song to get hyped up to, but I love that it is cheesy and decidedly non-threatening. No one who takes themselves too seriously is very likely to come out to this song, and so I'm happy to express that.
walked skipped out to the song from the Vogue backstage out front with a big silly grin on my face. My song was playing, and it was time to have fun. I embraced my coaches and team, the official applied the Vaseline to my face, and I climbed the stairs into the Battlefield cage, and it was all just as I'd visualized it. I heard a lot of yelling. I was able to pick out a handful of distinct voices of friends, but once I was in the cage, I couldn't see anyone in the crowd. I was under the bright lights, but everything outside the cage was a big black void of noise.
The referee reminded me of some rules. I can't really remember which ones. I checked the firmness of the cage floor. It was softer than I'd expected, which was good given my injury. If we went to the ground with violent impact it was less likely to hurt me. I checked the give of the cage and the turnbuckles. As the first fighter in the ring, I had lots of time to do this while I awaited Tony's entrance. Paulie reminded me to "check my paces"; that is, how many paces (in stance) to the front or the back of the cage. I did all of this with a big smile on my face. There were still no nerves, just energy and excitement. After a rollercoaster eight weeks, this was really happening! It was really going to happen!
Writing this six days later, I remember a lot more than I could remember on Saturday night, but it's still not a lot. Once I see a clear video I'm sure I'll remember more. I remember the signal to fight, and Tony offering to touch gloves. I recall that we touched very conservatively, both of us making sure to protect ourselves as we did so. Little would either of us know that later that evening on a much larger stage in Las Vegas, controversy would erupt because Victor Ortiz would forget that cardinal rule and Floyd Mayweather would have no hesitation in exploiting that lapse.
I don't know who threw hands first, and I don't remember how we got into the clinch, but I know we were there and I took an uppercut from him. That uppercut was that punch I'd always heard about; the one that "lets you know you're in a fight". I cinched a rear waistlock and tripped him to the ground. He got up quickly and I again committed to another takedown, and this one solidified my position on top. As my team and I expected, I had a big advantage once I got to the ground in top position. It sounds bizarre, but there were actually times where I forgot to punch. It was my first fight, and I fought conservatively; there were a number of times where instead of punching I simply consolidated position first. Highly skilled and experienced mixed martial artists use strikes to set up their passes to dominant positions. I could strike, and I could pass, but it certainly wasn't as fluid as you see from elite level fighters.
But my choppy MMA ground skills were enough to get me to full mount, where I finally started to attack with some good ground and pound. My jiujitsu instincts kept me driving my knees into his armpits, making it difficult for him to escape. I felt him bridging hard and using a lot of energy, but I made staying on top my full priority. I transitioned a lot from mount to knee-on-belly and vice versa, those being the best striking positions. I tried to throw as many punches as I could, but Tony was doing a good job of tying up my arms and protecting himself. I was buoyed by hearing my name chanted throughout the crowd. Late in the round I crept up his torso and set up an armbar, but he was able to wriggle his arm free. From there I transitioned to a triangle but right as I locked it in, I heard the 10-second warning clap. I knew I wouldn't be able to finish it given that time so I transitioned the triangle back to an armbar and yanked hard. Unlike the first armbar, this one was very very deep and I was confident I was going to get the tap. Tony was in a lot of trouble and I was very surprised he wasn't tapping. The referee asked him twice if he was okay, and he didn't respond. I hipped hard into it but Tony was just incredibly tough and refused to tap, surviving to make it to the bell.
I really managed to fuck this up? Really?
I was tired and stayed on my knees for a moment, but then I noticed that Tony was still on the ground beside me, even though we were in my corner. He was too tired to get up, and that was a great feeling. I only remember saying to Paulie, "I'm tired, but he's more tired," and him responding, "fuck that, you're not tired." I don't remember anything else either he or our wrestling coach Sina said in that round break. The only other part of the break I remember was the "Seconds Out!" call and looking across the cage to see an exhausted Tony. That made me stand up immediately and start moving my feet. He'd shown fatigue and I wanted to show strength and further sap his will. The Round 2 bell sounded and I charged to the centre of the cage.
This time I didn't need to get punched to know I was in a fight, because I smelled blood. I shot in for the takedown and managed to press Tony into the fence. I was not very technical along the fence. My head was too low, which would not only put me in danger against someone with a good guillotine, but it also makes it hard to finish the takedown. I also took some knees and punches to the body; luckily the hardest blows landed on my uninjured ribs. Sina would later tell me that I was wasting a lot of energy against the cage. In truth, I figured I needed only one more takedown to win, so I was charging up for it. I can't tell you anything about how I got the fight to the ground in the second round; I just know I did. It was not anything technical; I simply grinded it out and got it there by being the fresher guy. The one thing I knew from the first round is that once I got the fight to the ground, it would be lopsided. Confident that I would not be reversed, I threw a lot higher volume of strikes in the second round in an effort to stop the fight. I had multiple opportunities to finish by submission, but remembering how resilient Tony was in the first round, I decided to keep flurrying with punches instead of taking the gamble. At one point I thought it was almost the end of the round and moved my hips forward for another armbar attempt but heard Paulie's voice cut through the noise with a sharp "NO!" and went back to the ground and pound. My arms were definitely starting to get tired from hitting him so much, but the referee was warning him to fight back -- ref code for "I'm close to stopping this fight." Hearing that was all I needed to get a little extra energy to continue firing hard punches. Paulie's voice rang out again, this time yelling "FIVE SECOND FLURRY". Dutifully following instructions, I postured up one last time for what would be the fight-ending salvo. The official result was a TKO (referee stoppage due to strikes) at 2:52 of the second round.
Late 2nd round, the beginning of the end.
It is, as you would expect, a tremendous feeling to feel the ref push you off your opponent to stop the fight. No matter how tired your arms are in that moment, the weight of the world has been lifting off your shoulders. I turned towards my fallen opponent and bowed, an homage to Genki Sudo's famous win over Royler Gracie. I trotted around the cage, not quite sure what to do. I considered scaling the cage, but my honest thoughts were, "I'm short, the cage is tall, and my legs are tired. I might make an ass of myself."
The Battlefield cameraman got directly in front of me in the midst of my celebration, clearly expecting something from me. It was at this point I finally did the one cliché thing and spouted some babble into the camera about how Battlefield fans can expect a lot more of that from me, or some such. I dunno. I can't be unique and self-effacing all the time. :)
Backstage, I was giddy. It was a tremendous feeling and I wanted it to never go away. I loved anyone and everyone. Everyone I ran into said, "great fight". I took some time to relax backstage and then went out to say hello to everyone in the stands who had come out to watch me. My handwraps were still on my hands. For the first hour or two, I simply didn't want to take them off. I was enjoying it too much. By the time I decided I actually wanted them off, it was the co-main event, everyone was gone, and we couldn't even find a pair of scissors. So I wore them all the way to the burger bar where I finally got scissors from one of the restaurant staff.
It was truly and unquestionably the best night of my life and just incredibly magical. It was just too much fun. Levon won his fight as well -- in dramatic and impressive fashion -- so aside from Zach's illness, it was a great night for the team. MMASucka.com called us "the biggest winner" of the night (and if you scroll down, you'll see I got an individual award too).
In truth, I could go on and on about what a great night it was for me. This is something I've wanted to do for so long, and in a sense going through the injury and the recovery and finishing up with the fight going exactly the way we'd planned made it even sweeter. I'd gone through the worst case scenario and made it through. I'd taken one thing I'd always knew I'd had, smarts, and combined it with the one I wasn't sure about, guts. It was a storybook ending.
Only it's not an ending. While I'm sure some readers out there would prefer I take this experience and walk away, that won't be happening. I'm officially hooked (if I wasn't already hooked long before the fight). I want to see where this thing will take me. I'm 30 years of age; not young, but not too old. In a few weeks I should be okay to resume full-intensity training. There's another Battlefield card in mid-November. If I can fight on it, great; if not, I'm okay with that too. I'm still a passenger on the ride, and I don't know where it's going next. But if last weekend is any indication, it'll be fun.
* Photo credits: Creative Eye Media, VanFighter.com and MMASucka.com