MMA is a weird sport. It’s the only sport I can think of that comprises of various other sports crammed into one, so until they finally invent foot-tennis I guess there’ll be nothing to compare it with. There are lots of martial arts at a fighters disposal, but most tend to pick one as their base and make it as sharp as possible before adding elements of other disciplines. This is why on Saturday, February 27, I found myself in a boxing ring, standing across from a man who didn’t give a monkey’s that I have a pretty slick double-leg. Wrestling wasn’t going to get me through this.
I was boxing.
YOUR POWERS ARE USELESS HERE
At the start of my MMA journey four years ago I had very limited combat sports experience. As a seven-year-old I had been awarded an orange belt in Wado Karate, but my main experience really came from fighting every other week on the rugby pitch. I had also been to a handful of Muay Thai fitness classes. This all meant that before beginning my MMA journey, I didn’t know what type of fighter I was going to be, I just knew I was going to be a fighter. This changed the first time I walked into an MMA gym. I walked in on a pre-class sparring session, and there was a guy covered in tattoos sat at the side, watching and not taking part in the current round. I walked up to him, assuming that he had some idea about what was going on, and asked him about the wrestling class that was due to start. He looked through me and pointed at a nondescript bloke who was dirty boxing a lad against a crash mat. I stood next to the tattooed man and looked across at the four pairs. They were all going at it. Some were on the ground. Some were stood toe-to-toe slinging hooks. All of them looked shattered. As the round came to an end I got the bloke’s attention and asked him about the classes. I instantly saw the tell-tale sign of a constant grappler in the form of two solid cauliflower ears. I told him I was a former rugby player and was interested in wrestling class. He smiled when I told him I was a rugby player, a smile that said “that’s cute, but your powers are useless here”.
THE WAKE UP CALL
I worked my arse off for an hour and a half that day, and in my first ever competitive one-on-one I used the skills I’d acquired as a Hooker and a Flanker to dump tackle that tattooed lad on his head, repeatedly. I’d never sweat so much in my life and I loved very second of it. I went home realising that if I was going to be a fighter then utilising the skills I’d gained on the rugby pitch and focusing them into wrestling was probably my key to success. I’d obviously work on all the skills necessary to be a complete mixed martial artist, but I’d make putting people on their backs and beating them up my speciality.
After two months of training, I took an amateur fight with some wacky RULE SET where no one was allowed to hit each other in the head
This was totally fine with me, because I’d done barely any striking and was sure I’d get my head taken off under full contact rules. It was basically a grapple with leg kicks. In my first three bouts I managed to land nine takedowns, winning the first two by decision and the third by rear-naked choke. I was high on the sport and I dedicated myself to focusing on wrestling and BJJ. Then I ran into someone who knew what I was about to do and had trained specifically to beat me. He sprawled on my shot in the first round and took my back, in the second I took him down but he reversed, and in the third he hit me in the ribs with a knee so hard that I nearly crumpled. I wasn’t surprised in the slightest when the judges announced a unanimous decision to my opponent. I wasn’t necessarily sad about it, more disappointed that I hadn’t brought anything new to the table. It was a gigantic wake-up call, and from that day I placed more emphasis on rounding my game out.
Photos (c) Left Jab Promotions, do not use or alter without permission.
A PROPER PUGILIST
Fast forward to Saturday 27 and the theory of improving my stand-up was about to be put into practise. To test myself, I’d taken a boxing bout in my hometown against a proper pugilist. Two weeks ago I won an amateur title in MMA by knocking someone out, and I was feeling certain that my power would translate into the boxing ring. As in my recent MMA bout, my boxing opponent was a southpaw. Having just beaten one I knew what I had to do. Circle to the left, throw the right straight, follow up with more shots and keep my head moving. However, when the bell went, I failed to conjure up the same magic with my fists in the ring as I had in the cage.
I WISH I COULD BOX LIKE THIS GUY…
With hindsight I can clearly see where my opponent beat me. First, he was tall. Well, taller than me but I’m only slightly bigger than a hobbit. As a shorter man I tried to prepare for this, but I constantly felt that his head was further away from my fist than I expected. When I threw my overhand right it was too slow to catch him. I struggled to get within range, and he invariably moved out of the way or successfully blocked my attacks. It was almost as though he knew what was coming. Second, he had a stronger jab than I expected. After getting hit by it for the first time I unconsciously noted that I shouldn’t let him do that again, but before I had time to implement the change a second – and then a third jab – had landed. After the last one, I finally got the message and started to take my head off the centre line. Third, every time I tried to circle outside his front foot he was brilliant at re-adjusting. Southpaws can be tricky customers, and this one was no different. He knew exactly how to counter and adjust to my footwork. We went back-and-forth over four rounds. I landed some shots, but his were cleaner. I chased him around the ring, and every time I tried to lead, his counters were on point. I’d back him into a corner and try to tee off, but he’d circle out beautifully. At one point I distinctly remember thinking, “I wish I could box like this guy”. Between rounds my cornerman Simon Stadnicki was positive. He told me that things could be going either way, but inside I knew that I was losing. Simon told me to work the body, and I did so continuously. Some of my shots got through, but my opponent had a slick poker face. He took every shot without flinching, and countered with perfectly timed long straights.
After the final bell we were both so spent that we instantly turned to the nearest ropes, grabbed them, and wilted. Neither of us had given up during the fight, but once we didn’t have to box a second longer our bodies instinctively powered down. The crowd was loud, the ref congratulated us both and said it had been the evening’s most thrilling bout. I’d lost, and of course the sting was there, but the feeling was nearly completely quashed by the realisation that despite being a wrestling centric MMA fighter, I had fought four hard rounds with a seasoned boxer!
After emerging from the showers and changing room, I made my way back to the hall. A few people stopped me and told me how much they enjoyed the fight. That also helped the sting. I saw an old rugby friend who had no idea I was fighting that night. He bought me a congratulatory pint, commented on the last piece I’d written for The Knee and also told me how much he enjoyed the fight. I then searched out my opponent, who was rightfully was being lauded by his friends and supporters. I waited until he was free, and we reminisced about how mere minutes before we just tried to give each other concussions. Then I bought him a pint, like a gracious loser.
‘L’ IS FOR LEARN
There’s a saying I hear all the time in fighting circles, ‘L’ is for learn, not lose. I’d always say it to myself after one of my losses in MMA. Make the adjustment’s you need to make in order to not feel the pain of coming second again, or what’s the point in even fighting? So what have I learned from this boxing bout? Loads.
The most important thing I learnt? Taking myself out of my comfort zone was a worthwhile experience. You find holes in your game and you work on them. Maybe I should put myself down for K1 some time…
Big thanks to Sean Reynolds at Left Jab Promotions and Jordan Marsden. I’ve seen talk on Facebook of a rematch. Let’s just put that in the maybe category. I’m going to make my professional MMA début at Fightstar Championship 5 in Halifax on May 21 and all my focus will be on that for the immediate future.