This is a follow up to From Writing to Fighting: Colleagues Competing
Sounds echo throughout this empty, dimly lit lobby as my shin slams through the pads.
My brother throws another looping punch, which I dodge and counter with the same combination switching to a southpaw stance.
We don’t have much time, but warming up a floor above the venue for today’s fights seems like a good idea. There’s a lot more space, and a lot less prying eyes.
I want to do some last minute drills without worrying that the opposing team is getting a glimpse of my game plan and skill set. We’ve done our share of online sleuthing and have an idea what my opponent will bring. If he wasn’t able to do the same, I’m not about to allow minor scouting and concede tiny victories.
“Your movement and distance should be on point today,” Paolo tells me, before slowly shooting in and making me defend a takedown. “Remember to pick your spots with those kicks. This grappler will eventually just dive on them once he realizes he can’t hang on the feet.”
I’m on this dusty floor, stretching my legs for the third time. I look up and see the familiar entrance to the ballroom, where Muay Thai fights are held.
Two years ago, just a few feet beyond those doors, I was also sitting on the floor not unlike what I’m doing now. My last fight had just ended and I was devastated, immensely disappointed in myself.
I’m never really afraid of losing. My biggest fear has always been that I don’t perform to my ability.
In that moment back then, my nightmare had become reality. I just wasn’t myself, so I vowed to never repeat the same mistakes again.
Today will be different.
I get up and tell Paolo to hold the pads for me again. I’m not stopping until I start to feel tired.
I jog back down the stairs, keeping warm as I return to the competition area. An official tells me to wait for this bout to end, so I head to the red corner’s mat area and continue to stretch.
Warming up used to be something I took for granted. Now I treasure having time to do it properly.
“This guy surely won’t strike with you,” Paolo says confidently. He’s been surveying the other end of the room since we got back. “I’m not impressed with his shadowboxing. And his drills are just one overhand right before going for a takedown.”
I stand up to take a glance. He’s stocky and wide, but I’m much taller, so our game plan remains the same. That’s really all that matters to me at this point.
“Wait. Maybe they’re scouting us, too,” I tell him. “Time for a sloppy takedown!”
I shoot a hideous single leg takedown on Paolo, and we all laugh at my attempt.
“Guys, I’m a wrestler! I swear!”
“Hmm,” I nod approvingly as I put on these small MMA gloves. I like the idea that I won’t have to use those 16 oz pillows from my last Muay Thai fight.
“It’s like they’re giving me +3 to Power,” I tell Paolo with a laugh.
The official finishes taping my gloves, when Paolo points out another observation about my opponent.
“He’s nervous,” he says. “He’s been giving you the death stare for several minutes, and you’re not even looking back.”
“Good,” I respond with a chuckle as I strap on my shin guards. “Let him waste energy. It’s not like someone frowning will make me rethink my life.”
He can pout or shadowbox to nu-metal, for all I care. This is all about me now. I’m just looking forward to testing my skills in this new sport.
As the cage door locks behind me, I look down on the canvas and slowly step towards the red corner.
Milan is right, this is really softer than the cage we’ve been training in.
As the announcer starts his introductions, I glimpse my opponent still trying to stare me down. I just shift and bounce around, getting an idea of how I’ll be moving on this new surface.
“And from the red corner…” the announcer’s voice blares on the speakers. “Anton Tabuena!”
I face my opponent, and he’s still intensely trying to lock eyes with me. I give him a blank look, open my arms wide and bounce my back on the fence. I do this three more times. I don’t think he even blinked this entire time.
I don’t care about intimidation tactics. I just plan on maximizing the use of this cage today.
“Ready?” the referee asks us both. My opponent gives two thumbs up. I nod. “Fight!”
I reach out my arm to touch gloves. He obliges.
I take the center of the cage and he immediately throws a left kick with all his weight. As his leg goes past me, I give him a little smirk for easily dodging that attempt. I want to make it clear that he’s not going to be as comfortable as I am standing up.
He smiles, then immediately dives on my legs. I step back to the fence, defend the takedown, and keep this on the feet.
He shot from way out of range. He really isn’t going to strike with me.
He clinches and goes wild, trying to bully me inside. I adjust to control his head, get a full Thai clinch, and land a knee to his chest. He’s trying to muscle his way out of this clinch, but he doesn’t have the leverage.
I wish knees to the face were legal right now.
He drops down and I defend another takedown, before turning him around on the fence. I put pressure, thinking he’ll tire himself if he tries to muscle his way out again.
Instead, he grabs the fence behind him, and uses it to jump up and wrap his legs around my waist. The referee lets it continue, but slaps his hand and warns him for grabbing the fence.
Seriously? You’re pulling guard from here?
As he hangs on me, I put my forearm on his face, and shove him to the mat. He grunts from the impact, then grabs my head to keep me from posturing up.
I instantly feel his strength, and I’m struggling to break free and land punches from top position. I’m seeing and defending his submission set ups, but I’m getting frustrated that I can’t mount much offense.
He throws up his legs, and I adjust. He lets go and throws a hammerfist from the bottom. I’m finally able to posture up. As I look to land another punch, I feel something weird.
“Sipon??” I think to myself. I’m confused, wondering if I have a runny nose all of a sudden.
I look down and see that I’m dripping blood all over my opponent.
“See, you’re good! His face is already messed up!” I hear his corner yell.
I break his grips and inhale deeply, trying to gauge the damage to my nose.
I can breathe! I’m good. I’m good.
I trap his arm under my knee. As I wind up for a big shot, he bumps his hips just enough. The canvas thuds as my punch narrowly misses his head.
I throw a hard shot to his rib cage, and he grabs my head to control me. I’m annoyed. I can’t believe one short punch has me bleeding all over the place.
I need to get this fight back. I need to make him pay.
I land another shot to his body, but he traps my punching arm, and throws his legs up for a triangle choke. I feel more blood starting to rush down my face.
“F–k! F–k! F–k!” I hear Paolo cursing, but I’m staying calm. I’ve gotten out of worse positions.
I use my length and throw my legs over him to defend the choke. We scramble, but before I can get back to my feet, he shoots again. I post on my arm and scoot my hips back, desperately trying to get my back to the cage.
I need to make this an MMA fight, not a jiujitsu match.
I finally feel the metal fence on my back, and my confidence increases. I make it to my knees and immediately grab a front headlock.
“He has nothing!” I hear his cornerman yell, and notice my blood continuing to drip.
I smile, as this has been my favorite position in the gym.
As he lifts his knee, I sweep him over and get on top, still holding his neck. I squeeze as a distraction, then pass my leg over to full mount.
I try to stretch him out and finish a one-armed guillotine choke, but his damned headgear is getting in the way. I’m at a crossroads and have to quickly decide: get my arm deeper and try to finish the choke, or let go and start punching?
F—k it, I can’t be the only one bleeding now.
I let go of the choke and punch the side of his head. I throw three more before moving up higher on his chest for better leverage.
“That’s good already! Just go! Pound! Pound! Pound!”
I’m hearing Milan and Paolo’s instructions, but I don’t want to just score points. I need to land clean and hard. I need to hurt him.
I’m able to pin one arm under my knee. He still seems weirdly relaxed, but now I know he can’t defend. Now’s the time to really open up.
I grab his free arm, drop my weight and punch him hard. His calm demeanor is gone. I throw another and he’s frantically trying to get free.
I land flush on the center of his face again, making sure I don’t hit the headgear’s padding. He tries to buck his legs, and I throw another solid punch to his chin. He struggles more, and I land another clean shot. Another. And Another.
The bell rings and referee pulls me off of him.
Dammit. I needed more time!
My face feels drenched. I know this isn’t all sweat, so I wipe my mouth and look. It’s all dark red. I’m starting to feel livid.
I shake my head, and flick the blood off my hand. I walk back to my corner furious at how this is all unfolding.
How am I the only one bleeding? F—k!
“Can you breathe?” Paolo immediately asks as he enters the cage.
“Yup. I’m good,” I reply, before motioning for his water bottle.
Before I can take a sip, a swarm of doctors and officials surround me. At least two of the medical staff are cleaning blood off my face with damp cotton swabs.
Did they just push my cornermen to the side? What is happening?
It’s chaotic. I’m being crowded, and they’re all talking over each other. If Paolo and Milan are giving me instructions, I can’t hear them, much less process them.
More cotton swabs are smushed on my face. I hear mumbled comments about how the bleeding isn’t stopping, and I suddenly feel scared that they’re about to stop the fight.
Wait. You can’t do that. No. Not like this.
“I’m fine! I’m fine!” I yell out. I know amateur fights get stopped quickly, and I’m desperately hoping that’s not what’s happening now. “I’m good! I can continue!”
I raise my arms, plead my case and try to calm them down.
“If the blood isn’t affecting him, if it isn’t going into his eyes, you don’t have to stop it,” I hear a voice from outside the cage.
“Yes!” I react after hearing what I assume was another official. “I’m okay! I can fight.”
They all seem to relax after that, and I breathe a huge sigh of relief.
The referee signals for the next round. I didn’t hear my corner during that madness, but at least the fight is still on.
I push one of the cotton swabs away, while trying to politely smile at the doctor.
“Is it okay if I take a sip of water now?”
The bell rings to start the final round, and I don’t bother to touch gloves. I’m still furious. I just want to hit him back for busting me up.
I fake a jab and kick his leg hard. He nods as it lands clean, and tries to return the favor. I dodge his kick, but miss with my counter.
“Don’t engage with his striking!” I hear his coach yell.
“Distance!” Paolo says, warning me that this guy is only going to shoot. I’m feeling a sense of urgency and I’m intentionally ignoring him.
Nope. I need to hurt him. This is how I get back at him.
I walk him down, feinting uppercuts and knees to make him wary of diving down for a takedown. He hesitates, so I press forward even closer and make him uncomfortable. I feint a jab and draw out a defensive push kick from him. I deflect it and kick hard on the same spot on his leg.
He’s winding up for another big kick, so as he lifts his leg, I meet his forward momentum with a stiff jab that snaps his head back. I follow with a straight right.
He clearly didn’t like that. I push forward despite my corner’s instructions and open my arms out wide. I’m baiting him to punch instead of diving for a takedown.
I’m up close. My face is wide open. Throw a f—king strike!
He takes the bait, and throws a wild overhand right. I step my lead leg back just enough to make him miss, before throwing the same southpaw combination I drilled earlier. I land a slapping left hand, a right hook and a hard leg kick. He dives for another takedown in response.
He drives forward with a tight grip on my legs, eventually muscling me over, and putting me flat on the mat.
Don’t accept bottom position. Use the damn cage.
I twist my hips, get to my side and try to cage-walk. I get to my knees, but I’m stuck, weirdly unable to move. I quickly realize my opponent’s grabbing the cage, trying to pin me down and get my back.
“Ref! Fence again!” I shout, furious that he’s breaking the rules again. The referee swats his hand and I manage to get to my feet as he lets go.
He’s pushing me to the cage, grabbing my shorts, and desperately trying anything to get a takedown. But I’ve done so many fence drills with better grapplers that I’m confident he won’t get me down from here.
He eventually lifts his leg the wrong way, and I instinctively reverse and take him down. I get off some weak shots to the body, and a better one to the head, but he’s strong and I’m struggling to land decent offense again.
“He has a weak ground game!” the opposing coach yells. “That’s nothing!”
I land a few short punches and I’m finally able to break free from his guard and stand up. He stays down, and it doesn’t look like he wants to fight on the feet anymore.
“Move away! Move away!” Paolo screams at me.
My corner wants me to hang back and make the referee force my opponent to stand, but I want to keep him in this embarrassing position a little longer. I stand over him and kick his legs a few times for good measure. He still isn’t getting up.
Suddenly, he rolls and dives for one of my legs. I’m forced to scramble. I rotate with him and end up on top.
Was that an Imanari roll? What?
I’m back in his guard. Again. He’s trying to hold me down. Again. He’s physically stronger and none of my strikes are landing clean. I need to deal damage, but I can’t.
As my frustration builds, the bell rings to end the fight.
I offer a hand and help my opponent up, before thanking him for the match. As I walk towards my corner, I look up at the ceiling, struggling to process everything that just transpired.
The fight is really over, and an immense feeling of disappointment surges through me.
Why did I take him down? Why did I play his game? Why didn’t I listen to my corner? I could’ve done so many things better. I should’ve.
Regret. Disappointment. Anger. Frustration. Sadness. Thoughts are instantly flooding my head, and all these emotions are coming in with it. I didn’t get tired during the fight, but now my entire body feels so heavy.
Months of killing myself in the gym, for that performance? F—k. F—K!!!
I’m in the center of the cage, with my head down. I’m furious with myself but I can’t go anywhere just yet. The referee is still gripping our wrists, waiting for the official decision to be announced.
I don’t even care which hand he raises. None of this matters. I fought like shit and I need to get out of this cage right now.
Seconds start to feel like minutes, and it’s like I’ve been standing here forever.
“And your winner, by majority decision,” the announcer blares, “From the red corner, Anton Tabuena!”
The referee raises my hand, and I have a puzzled look as the ring girl puts a gold medal around my neck.
I’m so much better than that.
That thought keeps repeating in my head as I rush out of the cage. Calling that a “win” isn’t making me feel any better.
“Congrats! That was so good,” a friend and training partner says excitedly as she comes over from the crowd.
I look down at my medal, almost disgusted that they’d reward such a terrible performance. As I try to take it off, Paolo pulls hard on my arm.
“You forgot this,” he says.
I turn around and he hands me a massive trophy. I’m surprised, because I haven’t seen these given to anyone else. I just put it down on the floor. I have no interest in holding that right now.
“Wait. Why do you think you lost?!” Paolo raises his voice to drive home his point. “You easily won that!”
“I wasn’t paying attention. I just sucked and made so many mistakes,” I respond. “He was so strong but I stupidly played his game. I did nothing. I just got controlled and neutralized.”
“No. Think! What was he able to do to you?” Paolo responds. “My only worry was the judges getting distracted by all your blood.”
“Yup. You also won on the ground,” My jiujitsu training partner says. “Mount, sweeps, takedowns. Trust me, you were so good!”
I see Milan also nodding in agreement.
I stuff another tiny ball of tissue in one of my nostrils, hoping I don’t bleed all over our food.
In our post-fight tradition of sorts, we’re back at my favorite Japanese restaurant in the area for a celebratory meal. Only this time, I’m worried that my appearance is freaking out the other diners.
I ask for some ice, and the waitress instantly reacts to my bruises.
“I got punched in the face,” I say with a smile. I don’t think that helped.
“From a competition! He won,” Paolo immediately interjects before laughing.
“You should’ve seen the other guy!” I add. “Just kidding. His face still looks exactly the same…”
I’m already in a much better mood. Amidst close friends and good food, I can’t help but feel nice about this entire experience. I’ve learned so much about myself, which is really the main reason for doing all this in the first place.
Everyone raises their glasses, and we toast to all the hard work and the two wins that came from it. I take my first sip of beer in a long while, and I swear that San Miguel has never tasted better.
I realize that no matter the outcome or how I’ve performed, I’ve always been furious at myself after each of my bouts. I dwell on every single mistake, that I tend to forget the things I actually did right.
“You know how some fighters weirdly apologize to Joe Rogan for a ‘bad’ performance despite a big win?” I ask them. “Shit, I guess that’s me?”
I get uncharacteristically emotional and irrational immediately after fights. I’m just glad no one’s ever shoved a mic in my face when I’m about to throw a tantrum.
As we’re grabbing our things and preparing to go our separate ways, Milan comments on my trophy sitting on the back seat.
“So why did you get one and I didn’t?” he asks with a laugh.
“You were dominant,” I respond. “But maybe they felt bad for the scrawny guy bleeding all over the place?”
A couple of hours ago I didn’t even think I deserved this thing. Now it fills me with pride. It’s the perfect reminder for all the things I’ve learned about myself through this fight, and all the sacrifice it took to get there.
— Anton Tabuena (@antontabuena) May 26, 2019
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 ]
About the author