I knew I was likely fighting at Cage Fury Fighting Championship (CFFC) 100, which took place last Thursday (Sept. 16, 2021) from inside Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa, Fla., long before I ever posted about it on Midnight Mania.
There were some early opponent changes and negotiation dramas (not on my end), but I had the preparation and planning to do a full eight-week camp leading up to the event. Coming off an injury and subsequent Hawaiian vacation, I definitely started off a bit heavier than normal, but nevertheless pretty quickly found my groove in sparring and felt the weight coming off.
Without getting too lost in the details, my camp went well! I endured no major injuries and relatively few nagging ones. I was happy with my performance in sparring, and I put my hours and hours in beneath the baking, smoke-filtered Sacramento sunlight running hill sprints and doing long distance bike rides. I do the work for these fights every single time, and I’d like to think it shows.
One week out from the fight, I weighed 136 pounds, which is pretty ideal. For the first time, however, my weight really did fluctuate upward when I began my usual water loading process two days later. Waking up to progressively higher numbers while eating relatively little gave me a good bit of anxiety, but I still landed at 133 pounds on weigh-in day morning prior to the water cut.
Seven pounds is a very reasonable amount for a Flyweight, but it proved a bit more involved than expected. My best man and long-time corner, Andrew “Bulldog” Coyne, made sure I didn’t crack my skull on the tub, swaddled me in dozens of towels, and rubbed ice on my face to help get through the difficult moments. We watched the entirety of Django Unchained, and he endured a couple of my corny baking shows afterward. Our hotel room stank like humidity and death for the 36 hours afterward.
Truly, I am thankful for friends like him.
It took four cycles of salt baths and towel cocoons to drain these muscles dry, a roughly 3.5-hour sufferfest. It was the longest cut of my career despite numerically being about the same as normal, and I can only speculate that change was the result of (needed) additional muscle in my upper body and back from all the rock climbing. I am rather meticulous about my diet in the lead up to the cut, so I don’t believe I consumed any accidental sodium or anything else that could have slowed the process.
Still, the weight was made, and a bit of struggle only serves to harden the mind. One hour and three recovery shakes later, I felt like a human being again. The next morning, I was back up to about 138 pounds (where I should be) and feeling great.
After a morning shakeout, I laid around the hotel room, watching The Office reruns and killing time until heading to the venue. CFFC thankfully allowed main card fighters to walk down later than the opening athletes, which cuts down on the usually brutal amount of backstage waiting.
Florida rules meetings continue to be hilarious. For example, did you know that in Florida, if you get kicked illegally in the groin and cannot continue after five minutes, you lose? Apparently, it’s your fault for having a sh*tty cup. It’s also the only commission where the referees promise, “we’re gonna let you fight it out!” instead of the usual, “fighter safety is our top priority.”
Whole state is the God damn Thunderdome.
I warmed up on mitts with Coyne and my other long-time teammate, Angelo Trevino, who now lives and fights out of Florida. I felt in a good place mentally, determined and calm. If you have UFC Fight Pass, the CFFC 100 replay can be viewed HERE, and my walkout starts at about 01:24:45 to the tune “Fame” by David Bowie, yet another disco-y choice.
Heading into the fight, I definitely had a strategy. The general plan was to use my range and distance, working the jab, counters and kicks against an opponent I knew would be pressuring. Whenever the opportunity to wrestle was there, I would do so. Above all else, I wanted to make sure my jab was snappy, my legs were bent, and I was feinting/moving in good defensive position.
I did some of that, sort of — if we ignore the final caveat. I was landing the left early on before my opponent clinched up, and I was able to convert that into a takedown using a neat knee drop trick to win the hip battle, a move I learned from the great Joseph Benavidez last year. As would become a trend throughout the fight, my opponent very much impressed me with his bottom game, immediately putting me on the defensive with submission attempts and preventing me from getting my own grappling offense going.
Credit to him.
Back on the feet, I started landing my low kick with good consistency, and I could tell it hurt. I was still doing a poor job of keeping my guard high — “Motherf—er, get your left hand up,” Bulldog advised between rounds — but I was doing damage too and starting to get the timing down. There was a minute or two where I felt things shifting to my favor, then dude landed a beautiful right knee straight to the jaw that knocked me to my butt halfway across the cage. I was stunned and pretty much played defense from there, but no, the choke attempt afterward wasn’t particularly worrisome.
One round down, and things weren’t going great. After some more exchanges, I scored a foot sweep from the clinch and got on top. Again, he threatened quickly with a triangle. When I got out, I managed to prevent his attempt to stand, dropped a solid punch, but then he rolled into a leg lock immediately.
He sat up quicker than me and thus reversed position. Not that long afterward, I was tapping to a d’arce choke. How’d we get here?
It took me a couple slow-mo watches to notice the precise moment, but in the early exchanges of the second, I caught a front kick pretty much straight to the teeth. My right central incisor (one of the two big front teeth) felt disturbingly loose right away. I’ll be honest, it threw me off mentally in a pretty major way, and I would credit that for the submission loss.
To be extremely clear: that’s not an attempt to discredit my opponent. He is, after all, the one who kicked me in the face, and thus it’s his good work that lead to the finish one way or another.
I am at peace with the idea of losing; it’s an eventuality for all of us who were not raised from birth in a warrior culture in the mountains of Dagestan. I have never carried delusions of cruising to the top as an undefeated champion. But, it more than stings to think that perhaps I could have done better or at least fought longer had I remained more composed after that kick.
It was f—king unnerving, though. Anthony Smith may be able to calmly hand his teeth to the referee, but he has 50 professional fights, and I have five. My tooth is still inside my gums for the concerned, but it’s not exactly feeling wonderful at the moment.
There are lots of various technical notes to address about my performance, and I’m not going to list them all here (nor, respectfully, do I need any more suggestions in my direct messages). I believe though that my biggest issue is mental. Inside the cage, I do not achieve the famed flow state that allows for smoother reactions and fluidity. I remain too aware, too rigid, and ultimately too slow.
On tape, not every exchange looks bad, but in the moment, I consistently felt glacial. While not fatigued, my movements felt forced, and I was expending unnecessary energy as a result. This flaw has been mostly a non-issue when I’m implementing my grappling attack — where conscious decision-making is perhaps even an advantage — but it’s much more problematic in a high-paced, back-and-forth exchange, whether on the mat or in the stand up.
It’s an issue that needs to be solved.
After the loss, I took just a couple minutes to be sad on the phone with my fiancée. Then, I went straight from the backstage to the casino’s Sugar Factory restaurant, because I wanted an absurd $20 milkshake regardless of the outcome. I don’t smoke nor do I drink very often, but I will throw my life away for a good dessert. I also thought the surreal juxtaposition of my still bleeding, closed eye and a sprinkly, colorful ice cream concoction would make for a funny picture (I don’t yet have access to any of the official promotional photos outside of the weigh-ins).
Finally, it is my opinion that if you rush to post on Instagram immediately after a victory but then go radio silent after defeat, well ... you’re a dork.
Post-fight and post-dessert, I hung out with my family members who flew in for the bout, before branching off with a couple OG MMAmania community members (they’re probably banned right now, but still) who also made the trip to Tampa. We tried to check out the CFFC after party, but it was pretty dead by the time we arrived, so I just apologized to MMAJunkie’s John Morgan for failing to prove that MMA media members aren’t p-ssies.
I won $200 playing blackjack then went back to my hotel room at maybe three in the morning. Bulldog (stone sober in preparation for his own fight) and Angelo arrived back several hours later.
So, what’s next? My immediate future was clear to me well before I won or lost. My goal for the next couple months was/is to spend as much of my free time time as possible on the legendary granite of Yosemite National Park. I’ve stockpiled much of the necessary gear in the last two months, and now it’s time to master the systems and skills necessary to eventually ascend a big wall.
Lurking Fear on El Capitan is the goal for 2022.
For perhaps the first time, the bigger picture is much blurrier, and this uncertainty actually has very little to do with the outcome of Thursday night’s fight. Truthfully, the simple question of, “Do I want to keep doing this?” has been weighing on my mind for most of the year, and I do not know that I’m any closer to an answer.
I have been a full-time fighter for seven years now. I do some mix of train, write, and coach every single day. A brain surgery and the pandemic have not boosted my fight-per-year number average, but I’ve been in the training room all the while, plugging away. That amount of time dedicated to combat sports will change your perspective, reveal truths both simple and complicated, and otherwise affect every aspect of your life.
The base problem is that being an MMA fighter kind of sucks. Cutting weight sucks. Injuries suck. Trying to plan your life around uncertain timelines sucks. To live the life of a fighter is to willingly accept that suffering — and the associated burdens it can put on those closest to you — in the hopes that the juice will be worth the squeeze.
Is it? At the moment, the great benefit of fighting is that I love the lifestyle. Waking up each day to hang out with my friends, motivated to work hard with a goal in mind is the best. So many around the globe struggle for purpose; I do not. I consider how far I’ve come or the mass amounts of support I receive from my friends/family/the Mania community, and walking away seems impossible.
Disillusion has perhaps set in on the financial aspect, however. I make much more money covering the sport than competing, and it’s hard to imagine a situation where I’d abandon writing to solely fight. I can think of several friends who made it to UFC, found at least some success, and then were soon spit back out with little to show for it. The money is uncertain at the very best, particularly as a Flyweight.
If that’s the dream, is it worth pursuing?
Still, the potential publicity provided by making it and becoming a UFC fighter could likely prove more beneficial to my life and opportunities than the actual paychecks. Maybe I could parlay that into higher-profile media opportunities or some combination crossover with my side passion of climbing (a la Clay Guida and his fishing company). If I want to really do something extraordinary with my life, I’m still most likely to get there through my fighting.
Hopefully, it is at least somewhat understandable how this “big picture” problem existed for me before this fight, if I had won, and now that I’ve lost. I am not going to provide any definitive answer as to what’s next for my fight career, because no decision has been made, and further time for reflection is needed.
I don’t want to end on such a stoic note, though. Instead, I want to reiterate just how grateful I am to live this life and to receive such an overwhelming amount of support. Complain as I may about the woes of professional fighting, I’ve never forgotten what it felt like to nearly have the entire opportunity ripped away by my brain tumor.
The current decision-to-be-made is my own, and I’m grateful.
Let’s breakdown that banner real quick: four teams/gyms that have helped shape the athlete I am today. Two businesses who wanted to get on the team (please check out both Third Coast Shirts and MMABestBets.com, as well as SacTown Famous for good measure). One website to bring it all together (this one), which includes the 84 individuals who were happy to throw a few bucks to someone they (with a half-dozen exceptions) have never met.
It’s representative of so much, yet it still doesn’t cover half the love and support I get from many difference sources.