Iâ€™m anxious, which is a feeling fundamentally different than nervous, though only by degrees. Nearly bursting with anxious energy, I am forcing myself to sit still while Sam Hoger wraps my hands. Hoger is my primary coach. Â He’s a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Black Belt underÂ Â Ted Stickle (Grace Barra). Â My coach also has experience in the biggest Mixed Martial Arts show in the world, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Sitting to my right, talking me through my fight visualization is Chris Luttrell. The first student and senior Black Belt under Greg Jacksonâ€™s Gaidojutsu, Luttrell trains some of todayâ€™s top MMA fighters. He is also one of my best friends. My manager, Erica Dugger, has been running at warp speed all day making sure all of the logistics ran smoothly. She is on my left overseeing the whole procedure with the mindset of a hawk.
I am signed off by Sylvester, the athletic commissioner, and finally I am free to warm up. It feels good to burn off some of this energy! We work simple combinations, strategizing attacks and counters. I loosen my hips, working head movement. I am fighting a very large opponent. Kenny Burke is an undefeated amateur champion making his professional debut. He holds the Lonestar Beatdown belt at 170 pounds. He has chosen to cut weight down to the 155 pound division. I had seen pictures of Kenny at his championship weight and he was already shredded. With what appeared to be only 4 or 5 percent body fat, I wonderedÂ where he was going to cut the weight. I had hoped he cut lean muscle mass. However, after seeing the photos of his interview here onÂ thecagedoor.net (he was swinging a huge kettle bell while wearing a heart rate monitor) I knew that was a false hope. This was absolutely going to be a fight!
I wasÂ alive! Every nerve in my body was hyper-sensitive. A euphoric smile creased my face as I focused more and more on the upcoming battle.
Finally, we are told to get on deck.Â Â They lead us to the entry point and my team mates assemble. Like a rogue band of Vikings before a melee, we slap each otherâ€™s backs and they wish me well. For just this moment, just this fight I amÂ their champion. Their reputations lay upon my shoulders, upon my performance. The lights of the Houston Arena Theater dim and I find myself watching my pre-fight interview. I dressed nice because I wanted to be remembered. I wanted people toÂ know I was serious about what I do. The interviewer had told me he could edit the conversation, so I took a moment after each question to formulate a response before answering. I wanted to sound articulate and intelligent. IÂ want people to care about this fight. (Sometimes having been a nerd on the Lincoln Douglas Debate team in High School pays off) Watching myself on the screen, I feel satisfied that I have not just given the impression that I am a total twirp.
The lights go dark. The crunchy guitar intro to â€œDead Like Youâ€ by local Houston band Black Queen Speaks screams through the arena. The drums comes thundering in and strobe lights cut through the dark. I begin walking forward. Ryan Josey, my team mate and third corner man, had told me to walk slow. â€œTake your time,â€ he said, â€œthis is your time.â€ The words were nearly identical to what I had told him on his amateur debut almost two months ago. I raise my arms as I walk down the walkway. Walking slow, I begin to focus more and more on the cage door. Some kids are cheering me. Thatâ€™s pretty cool. I take off my shirt and throw it into the crowd. I hear cheering but I donâ€™t want to get my hopes up. I show the referee that I have a cup and a mouthpiece and turn to make a bee line for the cage door. Chriss Luttrell grabs the back of my shorts and pulls me back. â€œWhoa!â€ he says, â€œGive your team mates a hug. I nod and begin hugging my comrades. Luttrell has told me to do this to allow my heart rate to slow down, to give me a moment to focus. He wants me to walk the cage and then do three jump squats. I canâ€™t hear him anymore, though, as I am fixated on getting into the cage. I rush the opening and do a lap around the octagon. Once in my corner, I await the entry of Kenny Burke.
I can hear the Beastie Boys song â€œWatcha Want?â€ blasting through the Arena. I dig the song and nod along to it as Burke walks to the cage. Once inside I clap for him as the announcer gets the crowd excited. I want them to cheer! I want them to be excited for this fight. We meet in the middle. Iâ€™m smiling. I love this moment before the battle. There is no turning back. There is only one way out of this fight, victory or defeat. I shake Kennyâ€™s hand and bow to him. Returning to my corner, I put my fist to my face. Grinning across the cage at my opponent, I am electrified.
I should pause here to let you know that I have only seen the video of my fight once. In any situation in which a large amount of adrenaline is dumped into the bloodstream the memory can be distorted. That is my disclaimer. It is an unavoidable side effect of combat. Along with dry mouth, sweaty palms, tunnel vision and auditory exclusion.
The bell rings and I move to control the center of the cage. Kenny circles away from me and I stalk him. I am trying to use my head movement to get around his reach. I attack with a jab and a straight. I canâ€™t tell if I landed or not, but I feel Kenny try to grab me. I base into him and try to deflect the takedown. I am able to disengage. I stalk him again. I block a stiff roundhouse kick. Either the second or third engagement, Kenny times his shot. Following my jab in, he lowers his level and shoots under my right hand. I try to position my hips but Kenny has already transitioned into a hip toss. This guy isÂ strong! I am flipped to the mat, where Burke immediately gains side control. I didnâ€™t want to be here, but I am very confident on the ground. I try to shrimp my hips away as I base on his hips. He counters. His hip movement has improved a lot. Between his strength and his pressure (two completely different things) I am unable to effectively establish a guard or escape. By using constant movement, I am able to prevent Kenny from launching a meaningful attack as he would be creating space for me to maneuver. At one point I am popping my hips up in an attempt to escape the 50/50 and I hear laughter from the crowd. In frustration I muttered to Kenny â€œFreakinâ€™ good side control!â€ or something to that effect. I look over at Luttrell and Hoger. â€œGet guard!â€ they are saying. I reach for a leg and Kenny sprawls his hip into me, driving my head into the mat. I feel him sink an anaconda choke (an arm triangle from hands and knees). Prior to the Wednesday before my fight, the Darce and the Anaconda chokes were key ways of getting me. At Jacksonâ€™s in Albuquerque a Brazilian fighter named Diego had shown me the counters to those two chokes. Kenny gator rolls me and sinks the chokeÂ deep. I am able to bas my arms and sit out. Somehow I end up creating enough space that I am able to pull a weak guard. I attempt a front choke, but I know I do not have it sunk. I hear someone yell out that we have ten seconds. I lean back on the choke and crank. If anything maybe I can wear him down a little. The bell rings and we separate.
Luttrell is in front of me in the cage, â€œYouâ€™re doing great. Breath. Relaxâ€ he commands. I ask for water and he hands me a bottle. I take a quick drink and gulp a lungful of thick Houston air. After about twelve seconds, Luttrell and Hoger begin feeding me information. They want more feints. Lead with my right straight. Use my footwork. Stay away from him. I nod. The time is up. I await the reengagement of the battle with my right fist at my jaw line.
The referee waves us together. I see Kenny move out and begin circling to his right. Instinctively I move opposite of him. I have not yet heard a bell, however, and I maintain my distance as I look nervously toward the referee. The third man in the cage looks back at me as if I am an idiot. At that point I assume itâ€™s on. Kenny and I touch gloves and I begin to stalk him. I use head movement to look for an opening but Kenny is being patient. I fake a right hand and throw an inside leg kick. It lands with what I feel is a satisfying smack, but I didnâ€™t feel like it was very effective.
You ever have that feeling that something bad was going to happen? Well, I didnâ€™t. I lunged in the throw a jab and a straight and saw a flash of light. For about two seconds I was drinking an apple-tini on Queer Street! My next semi-clear memory is of sitting on the mat looking up at a huge Kenny Burke bearing down on me like an angry Rhino. You see, Kenny had just socked me flush in the forehead with a right hand. Iâ€™ve been drilled by the best, and let me tell you, this oneÂ hurt. I staggered backward about two steps before falling on my rear.
I almost lost he fight right then and there. I wonder if Kenny was surprised that he almost caved my head in. He hesitated for a mere second before leaping on me. I felt him, more than saw him, move to a mount position. I couldnâ€™t stay here. IÂ had to get out. Just like when my Jacksonâ€™s team mate, Chris Avila, was beating on me during my Circle of Death I focused on hip movement. I felt Burke land some punches to my head. Somehow I hip escaped out of mount. I think I swiveled and launched myself into a single leg. My head was still rattled. Kyle Seal had worked with me on my single leg, so I adjusted to a higher grip and was able to bring Kenny down. Kenny turtles and I reach over for an under hook with my left arm and try to get my left leg into his hip. I want to finish this fight with a reverse crucifix that Ox taught me, but my corner is yelling for me to take his back. I try to land a few strikes but I donâ€™t land anything meaningful. I hear the ref warn me about hitting the back of the head. â€œYes sir!â€ I remember responding. Kenny begins getting up and turns into me. There is no way Iâ€™m keeping him down. He pins me against the cage and I use my right arm to keep his head down. My corner is telling me to under hook but I canâ€™t figure out which hand they want me to under hookÂ with. Burke knees me in my inner thigh just above the knee. If that strike hurt as muchÂ then as it doesÂ now I probably would have fallen over. I felt like he knew he had scored one on me and I waited for him to throw another one. When he did I lifted my right leg and tried to slip the blow. At the same time I shifted my weight and I was able to sing my arm around Kennyâ€™s neck. I think he felt it tighten because he immediately reached up to defend the choke. I didnâ€™t want to pull guard to close to the cage, but I felt like I had a chance here. Without time to hesitate I went with my gut and hopped back into guard. I wrapped my legs around him, extended and twisted into the choke. Kenny fought it off. I began to become worried that he would not tap, but I felt like it was tight and I maintained pressure. Finally, Kenny taps. I wait for the referee to reach out for me, guaranteeing he has seen the tap, and I release the choke.
Kenny sits back and looks at me like I am a sneak. I congratulate him on a great fight. Nothing was certain in that one, and with as much as my neck hurts from eating that punch, Iâ€™m pretty certain we will see some KOâ€™s from Kenny in the near future. I feel great, I feel alive.
Where to next?
Join me every week as I pick apart my mistakes in this fight. Weâ€™ll go over what I did wrong, and how you can avoid making that same error.
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