That’s how long it’s been since I’ve last seen the inside of the Octagon. I’m half asleep, wondering to myself whether I’m in the exact locker room, or a next door replica. The familiarity helps, and comforts me knowing that the last time I’d made that walk to the cage in the Mandalay Bay Arena I had returned victorious.
I’ve been in plenty of cages since the one on April 13th, 2013, but none so consequential. I’ve wrestled in my mind with far larger monsters than the one I would face that night, just none so public. The locker room is eerily quiet. An occasional smack of a kick on a thai pad interrupts my pre fight nap.
My teammates and coaches never understand how I can sleep at a time like this. We all have our pre fight rituals, the things we grow to build our comfort around, and the hours preceding competition are now a mere replica of what I’ve done 19 times before.
I like the immediacy of it, napping before a fight. When I awake I know it’s time to begin. There is no slow build up, no gradual rise in anticipation. Eyes open, go time. As soon as I wake, movement begins. Movement relieves tension, and as long as my body is in motion my mind is at peace.
“Slow down,” my coaches say. “We’ve got plenty of time.” Maybe they’ve forgotten how it feels before competition, maybe time just moves faster in my mind, but the next two hours are always the quickest of my life. Two hours, that’s how long I take to warm up. Stretch, shadowbox, stretch, hit mits, stretch, grapple a bit, stretch some more. One by one I flex every muscle in my body. I begin with my calves, and move upwards, into my quads, hamstrings, hip adductors, glutes. Core muscles are next; abs, obliques, the small of my back, then further up. Pecs, lats, delts, biceps, triceps, and traps, everything needs blood flow, everything needs to fire on all cylinders. My mind is last, and most important. My hand wrapping begins, and my final mental preparations with it.
I start to think of them one by one, the people I draw courage from. I begin with those that are no longer here to watch. I suspend my disbelief in afterlives and the supernatural, convincing myself that they’re looking down on me, surrounding and enveloping me, guiding my every movement. They’ve been on my mind every second of every training session for the last several months, and I feel their presence now more than ever.
I move next to the most important people that I know with certainty are watching, the folks who have seen me at my worst. I think of my mother, and those handful of others in Tallahassee. I know that it’s not enough to have just made it here. Setting the stage is not enough, no. I now have to do something truly special with the opportunity.
I think about my corners, the men in the room with me. I think about how exciting and exhilarating and frightening it is to be mere feet away from one of your best friends in a fist fight, not being able to do anything but yell from the outside. I think about how all of us will be celebrating wildly in a few minutes, if only I can just find that off button on my opponent. They all have one. Some have many. I know that I’ll find his. It may take some digging, but I’ll find it.
Lastly I think about all the random folks along the way. All the other coaches, the training partners, the fans, people I know, people I don’t know. They’re all apart of the experience, part of my journey. I use all these people and I paint a picture in my mind that fills me with such fortitude and moxie that I know no matter what happens, the one thing I can rely on with overwhelming conviction, is that I won’t be broken. Not in there. I may win, I may lose, but I will bare all from start to finish, never having to worry about explaining to a single person as to why I gave up.
The time has sped by as I knew it would, and I begin pacing. It’s more of a dance than a pace, a series of footwork movements that I developed somewhere along the way, mimicking all the strikers I’ve ever looked to emulate. My dance is my anchor, another pre-fight ritual as the task draws nearer. I’ve done this a thousand times prior, before sparring, before conditioning, before any physical task that I know will be challenging. My dance is my link to my past lives, something to remind me how I felt when I started this whole thing. This was just one more time, in front of millions more people.
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“We rollinnnnnn!” Burt Watson calls out his signature catchphrase as he sticks his head in the locker room to indicate it was my time to walk. Had I known it would be the last time I’d hear him say this I might have savored the moment a bit more.
I step out of my locker room and look to my left to see my opponent and his corners already there, waiting. I’m set to walk first, led by a production team of cameramen and UFC employees in black t-shirts with the logo emblazoned on the front. Hyper focus begins, minor details become apparent and abundant. I’m stopped at the entrance of the Mandalay Bay Arena, able to see only a fraction of the thousands of people awaiting my entrance. I’m afforded one last moment of self reflection before the show really begins.
My lover’s got humor..
I hear the opening lyrics of my walkout music blasting through the arena speakers, and everything changes. I’m overcome with emotion, and scream viscerally as I sidestep the security guard ushering me in.
Knows everybody’s disapproval..
I’ve walked out to this song a million times before in my head, so many times that it feels unreal to be actually doing it in real life. This is the last bit of outcome that I’m 100% sure of, the last thing that I know will happen how it did in my mind, before the chaos begins.
I should’ve worshipped her sooner..
I reach the end of my walk, and remove my shirt first, then my most prized possession that’s draped around my neck. I place it over the head of my cornerman, and take solace in the fact that it will be there waiting for me when I return.
If the heavens ever did speak, she’s the last true mouthpiece..
I hug my corners, get inspected by the referee, and make the final few steps up the stairs into the cage. I take one last look down at my body as I walk in, and remind myself that however mean that man looks as he comes into the cage, I too look menacing. I remind myself how much work has gone into this moment, and what it took for me to get here. I feel the soft give of the canvas underneath my feet as I continue my dance from the locker room. It’s been too long.
I take the center of the cage, my way of claiming my territory from the onset. My corners are behind me, screaming pre-fight instructions, but their words are drowned out by my opponent’s walkout music. I’m waiting desperately for the moment that I can set my eyes on him as he walks in.
Finally, he enters, followed by his corners. He clenches his jaw and slaps hands with fans as he walks in the arena. He indeed looks mean, as I thought he would, and crawls into the cage before circling me as I continue to stand in the center. I’m looking for any indication that he’s uncertain of himself, any misstep in his behavior, and I’ve found one already. He stops 90 degrees short of 360, setting up shop in the neutral corner. I smile at him and point at his coaches in the red corner, directing him as to where he should be standing. He looks a bit confused, before realizing his mistake. I’m pleased by this. Confusion is good.
We stand across from each other for what feels like a lifetime as production gives Goldberg and Rogan time to do their on air introductions. Enthusiasm travels, I think to myself, and I’m hoping I can get the men calling the fights excited. Shit, I hope they just pronounce my name correctly.
Bruce takes the center of the cage and I can feel my heartbeat in my chest for the first time in the night. I let out one last scream before he begins, and do my best to take it all in. I take a final look at the face on my banner, a powerful reminder of what I’m here for in the first place.
“Fighting out of Tallahassee, Florida!” Those words always sound so damn sweet to me. I think again about the folks back home. I know the ensuing moments will determine how I feel about myself and what people think of me for a long time to come.
Buffer introduces my opponent. My dance continues, as does my staredown. My opponent looks away. Another misstep on his part, and my confidence is strengthened further.
Referee Herb Dean asks me if I’m ready. I nod, and the bell rings. My fate awaits me.
He motions to touch gloves. Our weigh-in interaction yesterday should have dictated that this was not a “glove touch” kind of fight. This is his last and final misstep, and I know now that it’s just a matter of time. I oblige him, and the fight begins.
A kick, a punch, a takedown attempt, and I finally feel his strength. He’s stronger than anyone I’ve faced.
This won’t be as easy as I thought.
An accidental eye poke on his part, an inadvertent knee to the groin on my part. The action is halted. The ref gives him a moment to recover, and I look down at my corners as they urge me to calm down. Calm down, please. I try to.
Another glove touch, more kicks and punches. He throws me on the ground and lands on top. He is fucking strong. I try to be active in guard, but he gives me no room to work, and I opt instead to hold on until a referee standup. I get what I want after a couple minutes of inactivity.
Kick, kick, kick, another takedown. I’m on my back again. My corner tells me that he’s getting tired, and I agree. Another lull in the action, and it becomes apparent that my opponent is there only to win rounds. He’s content being on top, not doing damage. I’ll keep trading those kicks for these takedowns, as long as he keeps reaching down to catch that body kick..
The round ends and my corner rushes in the with the stool. They are not happy. “Set your kicks up” they plead. I’m staring across the cage, trying to gauge just how tired he really is. I look outside the cage, and find Rogan staring at me. His face depicts a picture of confusion, eyebrows scrunched low. I stare back at him, and we lock eyes for a brief moment. I pretend for a moment that I have telepathy. “I’m still here,” I tell him. “I know that last round wasn’t pretty.” The referee interrupts my whimsical conversation, and it’s time to start fighting again.
The round begins with more kicks and punches, as rounds often do. He falls to a leg kick, I follow, and I end up on my back again. I hear Matt Serra tell him to not let me get my leg back into full guard. Hey, good idea. I do just that, and feel safe once again.
Smother, smother, attempted sweep, more smothering. He has his head in the center of my chest, nullifying any offense I attempt from bottom. The crowd boos, and I feel another referee standup is imminent.
We’re back to our feet again. We reset and his hands are low, his breathing labored, and I know it’s time. I switch to orthodox stance for the first time in the fight, and string together a punch combination. Ding, ding, wop. My punches are landing, and I know he’s truly a step behind now.
I fake a body kick, the same one I’ve thrown dozens of times in the last few minutes, and change trajectories at the last possible moment. I feel my shin land with brutal momentum, perfectly nestled in the crevice where his jaw and neck meet.
He falls below my line of vision, and I know he won’t be getting up. I throw my hands up in triumphant elation. The crowd roars, and I fall to my knees in disbelief.
I did it.
I have no control of my emotions as I circle the cage, uncertain of just what to do with my life next. I find the nearest camera, my imaginary medium to the heavens.
I love you Hailey. I love you Jeff, I love you Sue.
My corner comes rushing in, raging with excitement. My coach places my chain back around my neck. Everything is back to happening how I imagined it in my mind again. Rogan comes in, microphone in hand.
“Doubt and uncertainty be damned, never give up,” I tell him, in more words than that. “I love you mom, I love you Tallahassee.” It dawns on me that I just undoubtedly won $50,000.
My opponent is finally up and walking, and I rush out of the cage to apologize to him, a victim of circumstance. We both make our way back to the physicians that await post-fight combatants. There is a thin curtain separating our camps. A doctor shines his light in my eyes and asks me if anything hurts. Nothing hurt, and everything hurt. I burst into tears. One of my cornerman cries flowingly with me, one chokes up but holds back tears, the third with an enormous, satisfied grin on his face.
I’m ushered towards a photographer with a large tarp behind him, asking me to pose in a victory stance, tears still rolling down my face. Everything is a blur, and I’m escorted next to the press. Folks I recognize, folks I don’t recognize, all congratulating me. Cameras flash and more microphones in my face, asking me to explain the miracle that just occurred. I relish in the moment, while simultaneously wanting nothing more than to get back to my locker room and digest the moment in solitude.
I make my way back to the room I warmed up in, and sit with my corners, reliving the moment several times more. Finally I head to the showers. I lean my head against the tile wall, and enjoy the silence and seclusion. I decide it is indeed the same locker room and shower as it had been nearly two years ago. Life is much different now, though.
I wash off my sweat, and the sweat of my opponent. Down the drain it goes, with it the pain and regrets amassed over a tumultuous 612 days. I wasn’t rid of it all yet, but it was a start. I cry more, realizing that it is all over.
Until next time.
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