Rise

UFC @ the Palace

He hadn’t done this in years. He thought he was done, actually. He’d let time take its course, let the creaking in his body set in. He settled into the years that passed. Then the call came.

He didn’t want to do it, but his wife insisted. His retirement hadn’t been official, but it was definitive. An embarrassing defeat given to him by a young up-and-comer. He’d been caught in a triangle choke. Disbelief, or pride, or maybe both, stopped him from tapping. Surely he’d get out. Surely he’d escape. But he didn’t. The choke tightened, and he watched as consciousness left him. When he came to, he was lying on the mat, staring at lights that were like miniature suns, listening to the crowd going wild, the ref and a doctor over him, concern on both of their faces. His body was beaten and bloody, and he was barely able to catch his breath. That’s how it’d happened.

This could be his chance to end on his own terms, she said. His shot at going out on top just like he always wanted to. He could argue some with her points, though he chose not to. What he couldn’t argue with was that this could keep their bank account afloat. That old residual cash wouldn’t last forever, and this could be his way of securing their financial future.

He said yes.

He started training immediately–intensive cardio, sparring, grappling. It hit him all at once just how old he’d gotten. Sure, he was technically only middle-aged, but that was practically ancient for a fighter. Almost unheard of. But he was a big enough name where people wanted to see him fight one last time.

His legs ached from hundreds of takedowns and blows over the years, arms gave him problems if he extended them too far. Still though, he could spar.

He was always a slugger, always preferred standing toe to toe with a guy and putting his strength to the test. He’d come out swinging with such ferocity–a true berserker. Long after most guys would tire and clinch with their opponent to catch their breath, he’d be throwing hooks and uppercuts. It was what he was born to do.

He trained tirelessly, day after day, pushing his body to the absolute limit and then beyond it, having to take some days off when he flirted with injury, feeling like he needed to have an advantage over his younger opponent. But eventually, he could train no more. Eventually, fight night came.

The response he got when his name was announced would sound enthusiastic to the casual observer. He knew that there were plenty of old fans out there, plenty of people paying their respects to a guy like him, a guy who’d help define the sport, but there was pity mixed in there too. They’d seen his career end before, and they expected it to end in similar fashion again. But that was okay. He was used to being the underdog.

Round one. His opponent didn’t touch gloves, so he gave him a jab to the nose to teach him a lesson in manners. He delivered tightly-packed combinations as he was wont to do, alternating between striking the body and the head, not allowing his opponent to adjust. The younger fighter clinched several times to stop the punches, which elicited boos from the crowd. When the clinching didn’t work, the younger guy tried takedowns. But the old man had been training his takedown defense. He sprawled in textbook fashion when the kid tried to come in for his leg, put all his weight on the younger fighter’s back, pushed him down, and got back to his feet.

On and on he slugged with the kid, past round two and into the third and final round. And here was something new: the old man was actually gassed. Sure, the kid was gassed too, but this was still alarming. He threw his trademark combinations, but they were slower, sloppier. The younger fighter noticed and capitalized. He clinched up with the old man and fell backward so that the older fighter would fall on top of him. The kid pulled one arm and pushed the other against the older fighter’s chest, got one leg over his head and the other over that leg. A triangle choke. The old man breathed in slow and deep as the kid worked at the hold. The younger fighter grabbed his own ankle and pulled down, cinching it tighter, squeezing till the old man’s face turned red. He could see himself fade again, feel his strength seep out of his body.

And then he did what had to be done. He got his legs underneath him and stood up. The crowd collectively gasped as he picked the younger fighter up like he was nothing. Then everything went silent. Everyone waited.

The old man slammed the younger fighter down with so much force that the kid was knocked out instantly. The ref came in and got between the two of them before any more damage could be done. And that was it. He’d won.

The entire crowd was on its feet, cheering and applauding as if he were a hero back from war. The kid came over to offer his congratulations and thanks, and the old man shook his hand.

As he walked out of the cage and past the cheering crowd, harsh bright lights like miniature suns up above him, the old man knew what true happiness felt like.

Come Loose

Things Happen

The way the fighter’s coach put it to him as they sat in the gym’s back alley long past midnight was to let the fire do what it needs to do. You could spend your whole life tensing up. Tensing up for a word, for a punch, for a fight. Or you could come loose and strike first.

It was a kind of controlled chaos, the same way the combustion engine harnesses miniature explosions to propel a vehicle forward. The fire, though, must be controlled. He’d been out of control long enough, as a boy, getting in fight after fight, fighting just to survive, fighting because that’s all he knew how to do. No form, no technique, just using whatever would work to stop the pain and inflict that pain onto the other person. So much destruction. So much hurt.

But even hurt can be harnessed.

It felt unnatural at first, having to adapt his wild punches to something more controlled, more precise. Drilling footwork, and takedown defense, and grappling. Practicing the same punch over and over and over, exasperated, asking his coach if he could move on, learn something else. He was hungry. And his coach would bring up the old Bruce Lee quote about not fearing the man who’s practiced 10,000 kicks once but instead fearing the man who’s practiced one kick 10,000 times. And the fighter would laugh and say yeah yeah yeah, get back into position and hit the pads again. Jab, jab, right hook, dodge and roll, right hook again.

He remembered the first time he landed a right hook. Some asshole kid was following him home after he got off the school bus. Making fun of him for having to get school lunch assistance, saying his mother worked the streets but even that wasn’t enough. The bully was getting in his face and shouting insults till his left eardrum felt like it’d burst, till his shoulders tightened and his head got hot and his vision focused. That first time he landed a right hook, it was textbook. He pulled it across with the precision of a conductor, his arm his baton. And when it landed on the bully’s chin, sending him down, unconscious before he even hit the ground, it was like his own symphony had started to play. It continued to play the whole walk home, and it never quite stopped.

He had dreams of making it big, starting a gym in his old neighborhood, and coaching the kids looking for a way out, giving them the discipline and structure he himself didn’t find till he was already an adult and had made his mistakes. He was going to fight for every kid out there who didn’t see a way out of the black hole that was poverty. He knew what it was like having no concept of the future, not being able to think past where the next meal might come from. He was hungry, and he’d stayed hungry. Hunger comes in many forms.

But his coach would come in and tell him the quote about the journey of a thousand miles beginning with a single step. Always with the quotes, his coach. But he was right.

The fighter trained. He practiced punches, kicks, sprawls, submissions. He practiced, but more important than that, he listened. If his coach told him to do something, he did it. Even if it seemed pointless, even if he couldn’t see the immediate purpose, he did it.

Months passed. The fighter shed fat and put on muscle. He found that he could go an entire session without getting gassed. He’d sweat, and he’d feel sore after, but he could keep fighting for as long as he needed to.

He trained on pads, bags, and dummies. He sparred, first with headgear, then without. He fixed his diet, drank plenty of water, and got good sleep. He didn’t realize it then, but he’d worked himself into the best shape of his life.

And then he got his first amateur fight.

He didn’t know what the outcome would be as he stood across from his opponent. Didn’t know then that his right hook would land him a win in the first round by knockout. All he knew was that the tightness he was feeling, that instinct to tense up, was less than useless. So he breathed. He let go. He came loose.