Do you remember the first time you stepped into the ring/cage and lost your MMA Virginity? My high school football coach, John Lawler, used to tell all of us cocky nobodies, “You guys are just one ‘ass-kickin’ away from being nice guys.” I did not understand what he meant by that at the time. That is, until I got my “ass kicked,” so to speak. He was talking about humility, gratitude and respect. There’s not much about cocky nobodies that separates us from any other fighter-wanna-be, except maybe how we learn respect.
I tried to recount specific fights and experiences. All I could really come up with is a series of memory fragments, moments that send little glimpses of fear, anger or adrenaline through my soul. You know, like the smell of “Aquanet” and “Charlie” reminds you of junior high dances. God I’m old. Anyhoo, it’s funny how the mind works. You catch a whiff of Aquanet and shazam, you’re making out with Ronda Brown in the gym bleachers. But I digress, I thought I would throw out some of those random memories and see if you can relate.
I decided to watch my first fight, from 2004, Sigma Chi fight night, a boxing match. Almost immediately I got drawn back to a time when I thought I was trained up and ready. Soon I was thinking of all of those “do-you-remembers.” Reminiscence echoed extra loud for two reasons: I just started training in Muay Thai again lately and dammit I still feel that familiar adrenaline junkie pull to get back in there and do it again. Nevertheless, I started remembering the insane mixture of naivety and heavy self-confidence I felt that night. And remembering put me there again, peaceful. I remembered my coach Kurt Podany. And I remembered why I needed this.
I had a handful of full-speed sparring sessions and a ton of street fights under my belt before I trained for my first real fight, a Muay Thai event in Peoria Illinois.
My Muay Thai coach was top notch and I believe all my training was of the highest caliber. I felt I was ready to fight at this point. I believed that because I was training with Kurt Podany. I felt like I was untouchable. Kurt sets me up to fight in the Muay Thai Regional event. The winner goes on to nationals. Most of the other fighters have a number of Muay Thai fights under their belts. This is my debut, yeah, I’m nervous.
The fight is set at 165 pounds and I’m walking around at 170-175. I remember, Kurt did not feel right unless I puked at least once a week from training. We were training in a garage in 90-plus degree heat like hard-cores. I remember about 10 days before the fight he made me do a 30 minute round with him at about 80%. Now that may not sound too bad but keep in mind that he is six-foot four-inches tall (I’m 5’7″) and outweighs me by about 20 pounds. Not to mention, he has a world title belt in Muay Thai that he won IN THAILAND!!! That round was the hardest thing I have ever done.
It’s a nine-hour drive to Peoria, Illinois, from Omaha. I sit in the car, miserably nervous but trying to play it cool.
I weigh in at 167. It was 98 degrees that day and I remember going outside to jump rope in sweats for about 20 minutes to shed the last couple of pounds. I come back in and step on the scale again, 161. I lost so much that Kurt told me that I have four pounds to go. I reminded him that I was fighting at 165 not 157. To this day, we cannot figure out how I lost 6 pounds in 20 minutes but hey, I made weight.
I have no idea how to re-hydrate so I drink about six Diet Cokes and a Gatorade, because that is all they had. I ate some candy and a protein bar and my stomach turned with the first food inside it for two days.
I met the other fighters and trainers. There were two pro Muay Thai fighters in the locker room. I’m too nervous to say anything, but I watch what they do and how they interact with the other people to get a sense of what I should do. My nerves are making my feet pace like crazy. My voice gets too loud and I laugh too much. Kurt tries to distract me with some pads.
I meet another guy fighting on the card, He tells me he loves Muay Thai but that this might be his last fight, he’s 40. He just wanted to get one more fight out of the way. He says this, matter-of–factually as if full contact Muay Thai is a 40-year-old’s most natural thing to do. All of the fighters had some unique and bizarre stories.
I remember feeling in my element with the people around me.
I see my opponent when we change, but I am numb to any consequence of him. I don’t know how to act. He doesn’t smile, all business. He weighs a couple pounds more than me. He is from Chicago.
I don’t sleep much that night.
Nervous as f#$%. I pretend to be cool, but cracking my neck compulsively, which is me coping with stress. Jumping around, trying to control the hurricane that is blowing through my mind. Don’t want to show fear, so I grin like a fiend and crack jokes. I guess my brain makes me do the same things when I’m drunk as I do when I’m nervous.
The lockers and warm-up rooms are separated into two sides. The corners are gray and damp and look like a jail cell. There is an intrusive sweaty, moldy smell. The bathrooms are on the other side of the locker room so at least you don’t have to walk through the crowd to pee. I think I had to pee about 30 times.
Someone calls my name. I walk up a narrow aisle and I see my opponent looking at my American flag Thai Shorts. And we wait to walk out onto the stairs into the ring. There are no pyrotechnics, no fanfare, just raw emotion and energy as Kurt steps on the bottom rope, pulls the top-ropes over my head and I step into the ring. The crowd is cheering. My heart is in my throat as I stare down the man that wants to kill me.
Kurt whispers in my ear, “He is a spinner, hit him hard with leg kicks right when the bell sounds.”
Bam. Fight on. I can’t remember the details, except he loved that spinning back and side kick, so I know I need to slam that plant leg. Sure enough, right out of the gate he tries to spin and I throw a hard leg kick to the plant leg, he goes down. I follow him down with several straight punches. Oooooh that felt good. Ref pulls me off and stands him back up. I did that twice in the first round but damn I was out of gas. My mouthpiece almost falls out. Bell rings; round one is over. I was on top of him twice in that round. I’m winning, right? I go to my corner and I don’t really remember what Kurt was saying to me except, “Keep your head up, don’t lunge and keep attacking that plant leg.”
Round 2. He spins at me, I try to clinch and trip and fall over my own feet. I back up and wait for the plant leg. Clinch. Separate. He whacks me when I try to kick. We clinch again and he tries to trip me. Again he spins with a side kick to my abdomen which throws me into the ropes. The ref gives me a standing 8 count. Which was a B.S. call. The kick did not hurt me, it just looked strong because I flew into the ropes.
I swung wildly with my head down. I was clearly getting tired. My head got caught up in the ropes. Break, the bell rings.
Round 3. I am gassed but I know that I have to win this round. He landed some more strong spinners. He was really good at that. I don’t remember much from the round but the very end. I had him against the ropes and I remember thinking, keep hitting him as hard and fast as you can. You need the knock out. The bell sounded and his coach came straight over to me, rubbed my head and said, “You’re one tough son of a bitch.” That was cool but I could tell Kurt was disappointed.
I lost the fight by decision.
It’s impossible to quantify the feeling I had back then. My life was a mess and fighting changed all that. Kurt Podany changed my life. He gave me a job, he trained me and he became one of the best friends I have ever had. And I do remember the first time I stepped into the ring coach, but virginity? I don’t know about that comparison but I do know that my high school football coach was right. Humility is much easier to come by today. And after nearly 20 years of knowing Kurt Podany and throwing those theoretical punches and kicks, I am swimming in the gratitude and respect that I have for him and all that he has done for me. Kurt Is having heart surgery this week and as a friend, I am worried for him. But as a fighter, I know the champ will come out on top.
So hey coach, we will never be able to go back in time, but you have to get better because, I wanna go again!