I got into fighting when I was younger. Although I didn’t manage to keep it up, I still learned a lot from training MMA. It taught me a lot about myself and others that I don’t think I could have learned from anything else.
Content Warning: This story will mention the abuse of a child.
When I was younger I was often beaten by my stepfather. He would chase me around the house and drag me out from under the bed where I was hiding. He knew how to make it hurt without leaving a mark: he didn’t want my mother to find out.
Eventually I got used to the pain. I learned how to ignore it. So I started doing that. Every time he’d hit me I’d just take it with no reaction. I stopped running away. It was my way of fighting back.
It must have worked. Not having a chase, and not getting a reaction must have taken the fun out of it for him. So he stopped. By the time I was 12 years old and starting secondary school, he had stopped altogether.
While I was working at Codemasters I decided to take up MMA. I had been attacked a few times on nights out, and I had resolved to learn how to fight back. Of course, one of the earliest lessons you learn when you take up a fighting sport is that fighting on the street isn’t worth it. I relearned what I had learned as a boy: it’s better to ignore bullies and walk away from them. Actual physical self defence is a last resort, not an opener.
The gym I trained at in Leamington Spa wasn’t the best, but it got me into the sport. We would train almost every day, and we would spar a lot. The coach was a combination of a traditional fighter, and a former hooligan street fighter. Though he was probably not the best person to teach MMA, he did teach a few techniques that can surprise people in the ring.
For example, I’ve since met people who dislike the standing guillotine choke as it isn’t very effective. He taught me that simple dropping down with bent legs, then quickly standing up again allows you to tighten it quickly, and unless the opponent has a good defence in place, will usually lead to a tap (or the opponent falling unconscious).
Later I would move to London. Well, that depends on if you count Bromley as London. It is a London borough, but I’ve been told so many times that it isn’t London.
I found a new gym nearby – SJ MMA based in Beckenham and started to attend. This place was larger than I was used to, with around 50 people attending regularly. From young students to older bodybuilders, everyone was there to learn. When the more experienced fighters saw my sloppy technique, they would come over and give me pointers to help improve. Teaching-as-learning was a philosophy adopted at this club.
They had three coaches here, each specialising in a different area. One focused on no-gi BJJ, the groundwork. The second focused on boxing, kickboxing, and Muay Thai: the standup. The third was an Iranian wrestler. He would teach takedowns and brought the general MMA fighting style together.
We trained hard here. Every training session was 3 hours, broken into 1 hour of pure cardio, 1 hour of focusing on technique, and finally 1 hour of sparring. I had lost sight of the original reason I got into MMA. I didn’t care about bullies on the street anymore. I was here to focus on getting fit, and having some fun. But I never wanted to get into the cage and have a real fight.
I had been training for several months and was feeling fitter and stronger than I had ever been. One of our coaches announced an amateur competition was coming up. For some reason I felt compelled to enter. I told him I wanted to do so, and was surprised when he just accepted it. For some reason I believed he would tell me I wasn’t ready. Maybe I was? Either way, I had a fight coming up now.
We increased the intensity of our training, even bringing in a real cage and fighting each other full on. At one point I bruised my ribs. When we spar we usually talk to each other first to see what we’re comfortable with. Often amateurs will ask only for body punches, and no blows to the head. With my hurt ribs I was the only one asking people to keep all punches/kicks aimed at my face.
One problem I had coming up to the fight was that I would tire out easily. This would lead to me yelling and gasping for air sometimes, but I could still hold on. However, my coach told me that since it was an amateur fight, coaches are quicker to end things for safety reasons. If I yelled out like that during my fight they would declare it over and a loss for me.
So I started running regularly to improve my stamina. On days I wasn’t training MMA, I’d be running the 5-10k around streets of Bromley. My coach gave me the idea to do what’s called “sprint running”. The idea is you jog slowly for a few hundred meters, then sprint for 100 meters. Then back to jogging before doing another sprint. The idea is to simulate how you would expend energy in a real fight – lots of control trying to maintain a position, followed by quick sharp bursts of energy as you try to improve your standing.
It worked. By the time of the competition I was able to last several 5 minute rounds, and I was built like a brick shithouse. I was in the best physical form of my entire life.
The day of the competition came. I learned that everyone was meant to have two fights that day. This made me nervous, but it also calmed me a little. They clearly weren’t expecting any serious injuries if everyone was to have two fights.
The night before I was in my hotel room looking at myself in the mirror. I had a messy beard and hair halfway down my chest. I didn’t look right. I needed to look scarier. I pulled out my beard trimmers and started cutting hair. By the end of it I was bald, with a neatly trimmed goatee. I had done a Heisenberg before I even knew who Heisenberg was.
I went to the gym where the competition was being held and we were all weighed in. The UK has no laws about weight classes like the USA, but people generally stick to them anyway, since it leads to better competition. With our weights recorded, we were matched up with people in our respective weight classes.
I was in the second match to happen that day. My opponent was younger, taller, with a huge reach advantage. I was usually the one with reach, so this started to nag at the back of my mind. To an outside observer I was calm and collected. Inside I was starting to scream.
We both walked into the cage. When I heard the door close behind us I almost jumped. I wanted to run back out. To escape. I was terrified. But I suppressed that fear. Anyone that watched me that day would have no idea how scared I was.
We were on opposite sides of the cage staring each other down. The referee asked him if he was ready. He nodded calmly. The referee asked me the same question.
No I wasn’t ready. What the fuck was I doing? Am I fucking insane? How the fuck did I end up in this situation? I should never have entered this competition. I don’t belong here. I’m not a fighter. How do I get out of this? Fuck!
I also nodded my head calmly. Then the referee said it.
Suddenly the fear disappeared completely. I was in it now and I felt a focus I’ve never felt before. I was in the zone. My opponent rushed me and led with a kick which I blocked, then pulled me into a guillotine choke. He started kneeing me in my legs as his hold tightened.
I remember analysing the situation calmly. The knees hurt, but I knew he wouldn’t win the fight with those. It was the guillotine I needed to focus on. I already had my hands defending this so I let out a burst of energy and broke free. I pushed him back and he rushed me again.
He led with the same kick, but I was ready this time. I grabbed his leg and performed a beautiful takedown. Unfortunately I didn’t get a good position on the ground and he managed to pull off another guillotine. I tried to get out but his hold got tighter. Reality started fading away. I had only one option left. I tapped out.
I lost the fight.
For some reason I was still smiling when I left. I was happy. My first words after that were, “that was fun!” My team mates congratulated me on the takedown, told me that despite losing I had done well. Later my coach would tell me that it doesn’t matter, “it’s all training isn’t it?”
At some point later on I bumped into my former opponent. I wasn’t sure how to react, so I just stuck out my hand and said “thanks for the fight.” He shook my hand and said the same. We talked for a while. It turned out that was his first fight as well. And that he was just as terrified as me getting into that cage. I congratulated him on winning, but I told him I’d get him next time.
I later found out that on that first kick he had hit me so hard he broke his foot. I felt bad about that. Win or lose, a competitive fight is one thing. But a broken foot meant he would have to miss months of training. To me, that sucked.
When I was a young boy I was terrified of my step father. He was the scariest thing I had ever encountered. But I came to a realisation this day. He chose to “fight” an autistic toddler. And when that toddler started fighting back by simply showing no fear, he gave up.
That day I got into a cage. I was terrified, but I showed no fear. The man across from me was the same. We were both looking at tough looking young men opposite us. And neither of us backed down. We both gave it our all and fought as best we could.
The monster that beat me as a kid was pathetic compared to both of us. Compared to anyone who’s ever gotten in a ring. I have never won a fight, never had a professional bout, but I am still more of a man than that poor excuse for a bully will ever be.
On a final note, going home led to a funny situation. Remember how I got kneed in my legs repeatedly? I ignored them during the match, and during the competition I was absolutely fine. Even had a second fight (this one was a draw).
On the way home we decided to stop at a service station and get some snacks. I got out of the car and that’s when I learned that the adrenaline wasn’t pumping anymore. My legs fell out from under me. I couldn’t actually walk.
Maybe I should have worried about those knees a little more…