“Fighting is crazy,” I think to myself as I lie in bed. It’s the same recurring thought I’ve had all week. “Years honing your craft, weeks of intense training, and countless hours of hard work and sacrifice — all for just a few minutes of actual competition. No repeats. No bounce back games.”
There are so many things I’ll be doing for the first time on this fight, and the last few nights, I’ve found myself wasting hours just thinking about all the unknowns heading into this.
I put my earphones on, looking to shut out any and all negative thoughts. I’m competing tomorrow, and I just can’t afford to waste energy and emotions on things I can’t control.
Party for one, hey! If you don’t care about me, I’ll just dance for myself, back on my beat!
I crank up the volume, realizing how this album is exactly what I need at this moment. I mean, how can anyone even stress about face punching while listening to Carly Rae Jepsen?
I’m imagining my jacked opponent pumping himself up and aggressively shadowboxing to nu-metal, while I’m just bobbing my head and dancing to bubblegum pop.
This weird image is stuck in my head, and I’m laughing alone like a crazy person.
I guess my plan is working.
Back on my beaaaat!
I’m on the backseat of the car, on our way to the venue for today’s bouts.
Anton looks back from his seat and asks if I’m feeling anxious. He notes how I can’t just freeze up on striking exchanges like last year.
“I wasn’t nervous. This just wouldn’t turn on,” I jokingly respond, laughing about those flaws we’ve worked to fix.
I’m not really sure why, but I have yet to really experience those nerves before my fights.
On some level, I guess I have a good reason not to feel much apprehension. Unlike last year’s debut, I heavily worked on my striking for this fight. That meant six months of boxing and Muay Thai sparring, getting toyed around in the gym, and experiencing a couple of mild concussions along the way. All that fun stuff.
I always have my grappling and wrestling to lean on, but I can say I’ve grown more comfortable fighting on the feet this time around.
We arrive at the venue, and walk down to the basement where the fights will be held. I take a quick look at the area, and I’m met with this very familiar feeling. Still no nerves though.
“Filipino time, as usual,” I think to myself. It’s obvious that things are running late again.
We’re back to the waiting game, which is a nightmare for many competitors. I take this time to give myself some last-minute reminders.
Stick to the strategy. Play your game. DON’T. F—K. THIS. UP.
I extend my legs and lean back on my seat; another futile attempt to find a more relaxing position on this flimsy plastic chair. I look over to my right, and watch as Milan’s hands are being wrapped.
If he wasn’t about to fight, I probably would still be lying down on some corner, taking a nap until it would be my turn to compete.
Milan pounds on his fists, checking his wraps a final time. He begins to stretch and move around. I’m still just trying to lay back and conserve as much energy as possible.
My brother Paolo starts to hold pads for Milan. He will be in both of our corners today.
I give up on finding a comfortable position, so I get up from my seat and walk over to the center of the venue, where a worn down looking cage has been set up. I grab its fence from the outside, shaking and pulling on it a little. I’m checking to see how much movement it allows, trying to get a better feel for this new fighting surface.
Yep, this isn’t Muay Thai anymore.
I’m listed for bout number two, and they seem to be following the schedule this time around. I’m watching the opening fight unfold, and I remain unruffled. I’m actually finding myself in tune with what’s happening.
That was a nice armbar attempt, if only he had the guy’s thumb pointing upward.
Paolo is helping pick out my gear, and we both scout the guy at the other end of the room. He figures I’m facing a predominantly Muay Thai fighter, based on how he’s doing his warm-up drills.
This calmness that I’m feeling is both relaxing and a bit bothersome at the same time. After all, I do need a healthy amount of nerves and not be overconfident, right?
This fight gets stopped just before the end of the first round. I’m next. My mind starts to go blank.
Just like in my debut, I feel a switch in my brain flip.
All of a sudden, I am back on that same autopilot mode, but with just a tad bit more confidence this time.
“Blue corner, Ordoñez!” the announcer calls me out on the mic. “Get ready!”
“Just sit down and relax. I got this,” Paolo tells me as I try to check on them again.
He’s right. I can’t repeat the same mistakes from the last time I coached someone before fighting. I want to help more, but I also can’t get too emotional. I can’t have spikes of adrenaline for someone else’s bout.
Paolo is also coaching today. Trust them. Save all that energy for your fight.
“Why am I always super nervous when it’s not me that’s fighting??” I blurt out as I feel my heart pounding.
I realize that might not have been the best thing to say out loud next to Milan’s loved ones, who are probably much more anxious than I am. I awkwardly try to laugh it off, and assure them that Milan is more than prepared for all of this.
I tell them about his massive strides in the gym. I tell them he destroys me on the ground every time. I’m not sure if I’m helping.
I see that Milan has worn all of his fight gear, so I get up to talk to him.
“When he throws, fire back, then clinch up and put him on the fence,” I tell him. “Trust your striking. We’ve done the work and you’ve improved so much.”
Milan knows all of this already. We’ve drilled it countless times, but it’s worth repeating.
“He’ll be explosive early, so if he defends your initial takedowns, don’t worry about it. Just strike on every break then repeat,” I give him more instructions and tap him on his shoulder as he walks toward the cage. “Defend, counter, and clinch, over and over. Wear him down and your takedowns will get easier.”
Milan goes up the steps, and they lock the cage door behind him. I give him a final reminder.
“Keep it simple! Discipline on defense, and don’t rush anything.”
My heart is racing again.
As soon as we touch gloves, my opponent instantly throws a big overhand right. It lands flush on my left cheek. It throws me a bit off-balance, but I remain unflustered. I’m somewhat relieved for those concussion-inducing sparring rounds I went through during camp.
Thank god I’ve been hit way harder than this.
I continue to move forward with a two-punch combination, before engaging a clinch off the fence. I specifically drilled this over and over during the last few weeks of training and made sure it became almost second nature.
In a matter of seconds, I break his balance with a double-leg takedown and he falls to the mat. I continue to put pressure from up top before transitioning to full mount. As I try to move up to high mount, he bridges out and flips me over to reverse positions.
I end up on the bottom, in full guard. I immediately break his posture by clamping my right arm on his neck, as my left hand holds an overhook on his right arm. I flip him over and land back on mount with the exact modified scissor sweep I used in last year’s fight.
“Nice. Pound, pound, pound!” I hear my corner saying.
I oblige by slamming right fists onto his face, as my left hand holds up his extended arm. He tries to bump his hips up and throw me off balance, but to no avail, as I make sure to lock him in place.
“Bridge out, bridge out!” the opposing coach yells from the other side of the cage. Her fighter isn’t going anywhere this time around.
I see his face redden and his eyes tear up from absorbing all these punches. I continue this ground-and-pound sequence until the final moments of the round.
“Nice, niiice!” I hear Anton saying from the corner.
The whistle signaling the last ten seconds sounds off. I land a few more punches before throwing a last-ditch armbar attempt to hopefully finish strong. The bell rings and the round is over.
Alright, we got this.
“How’s your cardio?”
It’s the first thing I ask Milan in between rounds, even if I already know the answer.
“I’m fine,” he responds.
“He came out with that big punch early. Expect him to be even more desperate now, so be careful of those first few power shots,” I tell Milan, before giving him a sip of water.
“He doesn’t use the fence properly to defend takedowns, so just do the same thing. Back him up, then take him down from there.”
The referee signals cornermen to exit the cage as the next round is about to begin. Paolo grabs Milan’s stool and we give more advice before going back down the steps.
“Do the same, but be careful of his first shots.”
Our original game plan was to pressure my opponent towards the fence and drown him with strikes. I was even hoping to connect with a few knees to end the fight standing.
That’s off the table now. I just see the same opening as we enter the second round, and I decide to shoot for another double-leg off the fence. I complete the takedown and land inside his guard, right in front of his corner.
“Place your foot on his hip,” I hear one of the coaches instruct him.
He manages to create some space by kicking me off a bit, but I also see an opportunity to capitalize. I slide my right knee in, drop my right shoulder to his chest, and transition to side control.
“Nice pass!” I hear Paolo saying from our corner.
I hold the position for a while before inching to knee-on-belly, then to full mount again.
“Fight to finish, fight to finish! Let’s go, let’s go!” the referee urges me.
I land more punches while all my weight is on his chest. His corner is starting to get frustrated.
“Bridge out, bridge out! What are you doing??” one of the opposing coaches yells.
Sorry, guys. Your boy isn’t getting out of here.
As I keep punching him, I start to feel some lactic acid build-up. My right arm is getting heavier and heavier as I switch back from hammerfists to straight punches. I start to worry a bit, as I hear the referee’s calls to not throw “baby punches.”
Milan is constantly pouring on the strikes and his opponent is starting to look helpless on the ground. He’s in his element, and I don’t really need to give him much instructions from this position.
“Ref, he’s not doing anything anymore,” I just tell the referee from outside the cage, wondering why he’s allowing this one-sided beating to go on this long.
Someone then taps me on the shoulder.
“Anton Tabuena? Go to the waiting area on the opposite corner and get ready. You’re fighting soon,” an official tells me.
“What? Shouldn’t there be four or five more fights?” I respond, a bit irked that they’re trying to get me out of Milan’s corner right now. He then explains that other competitors haven’t showed up, so I would be bumped up a few bouts earlier.
“Okay, but can you at least just let me finish coaching my friend?”
As soon as he nods, I quickly go back to my position cageside. Milan is still raining down punches from full mount.
Phew! Okay, good. He’s still in control.
If something bad happened during that interruption, I would’ve been more annoyed at them. It’s also a huge relief that Milan is performing so well. It means I can relax and start shifting my mindset from coaching to getting ready to step in there myself.
I continue to throw labored punches. My opponent just grunts from underneath, and the referee threatens to stop the fight.
“No, no, no!” my opponent yells out with both hands covering his face.
I’m now throwing left hooks to the side of his head, while the opposing corner continues to urge their fighter to bridge out from underneath me.
I hear the whistle to signal the last ten seconds of the match, and I am enveloped with an immense feeling of relief.
I throw a few more punches and the final bell sounds. The fight is over.
I have to admit; I’m a bit worried that the decision won’t go my way. That’s the pessimist in me talking, I guess.
“Your winner, by unanimous decision,” the announcer’s voice blasts through the speakers. “From the blue corner, Milan Ordoñez!”
Milan’s hand is raised by the referee, and a gold medal is put around his neck. Milan’s family comes over to offer congratulatory high fives to us in his corner, and everyone is in a great mood from this accomplishment.
“Dominance!” I tell Milan with a smile, patting his back and congratulating him as he exits the cage.
He goes over to greet his family and friends. I have the urge to join in and celebrate, but I leave them for a minute and pull Paolo aside. I tell him about my conversation with the official.
“I’m fighting soon. Help me get ready.”
I sit with my girlfriend and family, and I’m still trying to soak this all in. Another fight is in the books, along with a 2-0 record to be proud about for now.
This entire experience was similar, yet completely different from last year’s. I employed the exact same strategy, but the confidence I got from half a year of training helped a great deal.
If I decide to fight again soon, I’ll be given a bigger step up in competition, against more experienced fighters. That could be my make-or-break moment, the deciding factor on whether I’ll fight professionally or not.
I know it’ll be another grueling few months of training, but I’m liking my chances, especially with the same team around me.
In the meantime, I will enjoy this hard-earned win.
I grab my cup and mouthpiece, and I’m rushing over the opposite side of the venue. I’m slightly bumping over some of the people in the audience, murmuring apologies as I squeeze through and look for the official from the red corner.
Paolo is following behind me, carrying our training gear.
“Tabuena,” I tell the first official I find, pointing at my name on his list. “They told me I’m fighting soon?”
“You’re here. Good,” he responds. “Your opponent has been getting ready.”
I look across the cage and I see this muscular guy in the back, moving and jumping around. I’m already worrying about repeating past mistakes and not having proper time to prepare.
Do I even have enough time to warm up?
Continued on From Writing to Fighting: Bloody Debut
Previous ‘From Writing to Fighting’ editions:
[ Opening Round | Second Round ]
[ Brothers in Arms | Millennial Medals ]
[ Coaching a Colleague | Preparing for Pressure ]
[ Colleagues Competing | Bloody Debut ]
[ Thailand Part 1 | Thailand Part 2 ]
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