One of the hardest things I ever had to do was not fight. After a decade of living the absolute dream, my fight career was over, and I knew it. But it had been over for a while, I was was just too scared to walk away.
I started training martial arts at the age of 25, I was unemployed, thanks to the housing market crash of 2008, and I was looking for a way, any way, to make some money. A friend of mine came over one afternoon talking about the UFC and the show they were making called The Ultimate Fighter. I had seen the UFC VHS tapes when I was younger and enjoyed the idea of being in a no holds barred fight, but had no idea how to get involved, or who to talk to, so I never gave it a second thought. What I didn’t know, was the sport of mma had grown over the years and now there were gyms devoted to just fighting, and there was one only thirty minutes drive from my house. We were in!
The first time I walked in to Team Reality I had no idea how to fight. In fact I knew so little about fighting that I actually believed in my silly little brain that I was already good at it. “I’m a striker!” I said with confidence. Which was met with a hearty chuckle from the Head Instructor. A sparring session then took place that I will never in a million years forget, I got beat up. Not beat up like the bully from A Christmas Story, nay, I got beat like the red headed step child of a rented mule. And right at the end of this once in a lifetime beating, I got hit with a once in a lifetime shot. A kick, a perfect kick, shin to the solar plexus, foot on the liver. Me on the floor. Turns out I’m no striker. But I am not a quitter either.
I was 245lbs. I was out of shape, no cardio, no muscles, just determined to be good at fighting. It took six months of showing up for beating after beating before they even learned my name. Everyone just called me Big John, until one day someone said “He’s not that big, why do you call him that?” Thats when someone said “Hey, whats your name?” I had lost 60 lbs, I wasn’t just taking a beating anymore either, I was dishing them out as well. I was well on my way to becoming “Zombie Mike”.
After one full year of training, I was asked if I wanted to fight. “Hell yeah!” I said with no idea what I was getting myself into. You might be thinking, “No idea, after a year of training?” Yeah thats right, you can train for something your whole life, and you still have no idea until you actually perform, trust me. I remember like it was this morning. I was “in the back”, the warm up area, with my whole team, my coach, and a couple of friends. Going through the motions, warming up, defending submissions, hitting pads, getting ready. Counting down the fights ahead of me, the anticipation building, the anxiety, the out right fear of getting in to a cage with another human that is trained in the art of hurting other humans.
My name is called by the announcer, my walk out song begins, my coach, my corner men, and all my team mates are surrounding me, we throw back the curtains and start the walk to the cage. My friends, my co workers, my family members, are all there, cheering me on. My opponent is in the cage already, pacing back and forth in his corner of the cage, like a tiger in captivity, waiting for his food. I go through the cage side rituals, hugs, vaseline on the face, cup check, good to go. I get in the cage and I look around the crowd at the people I know, and think to myself, look at me, I’m in the cage, I’m gonna fight.
The next thing I know the referee says “Are you ready?” so I nodded. The bell rang, we both trotted out to the center and touched gloves, and then that son of a b*tch hit me right in the face. Thats when it all came together, thats when I realized “Holy crap this is a fight!” I hit him with a straight right that knocked him clean across the cage, then I pounced on him while he was down and began to punch wildly. After about a minute of that he sat up and caught me in a head and arm choke from his guard. I had never been in this choke, I had no idea how to defend it, I panicked, I tapped out. It was over. I lost my first fight.
Losing my first fight hurt, but it made me extremely hungry. I took a week to booze it up, feel sorry for myself, and listen to everyone bullsh*t about how I will come back stronger, and I’ll learn more from losses than wins, they were right. I went back to the gym and asked my coach to put me to sleep. I wanted to know exactly how long I could survive in a choke, I wanted to know what it felt like to get choked unconscious, but I wanted it to be done by someone I trusted. I came to realize that going to sleep in a choke doesn’t hurt at all and has no immediate lasting affects. Not to mention it does not hurt my pride at all when I go to sleep, like it does when I tap out. Then and there I said no more tapping to chokes.
I would go on a 10 fight win streak, in that time I transitioned from amateur to professional mixed martial arts. Shortly after going pro I got a contract to fight in the second largest MMA promotion around, Bellator. I had a few exhibition fights for them, but would ultimately end up being cut from the roster when they found out I was fighting on a shredded up knee. But they fixed the knee for me, so we’re square. I would go on to fight for a few more years but never really got the momentum back that I had before.
After losing a few fights, and breaking a number of bones in various places I was no longer enjoying fighting. It was kind of a sh*t show. Promoters want you to sell tickets, and cut weight, and do media, and blah blah blah. I just wanted to fight. Until one day I didn’t anymore. But fighting was the only thing I had ever done that made anyone proud of me. People I had never even met sent me all kinds of free stuff just because I was good at fighting. Other people would give me money to talk about them on my social media accounts (which I hate). Random strangers would come up to me in the grocery store and ask to take a picture with me. How could I stop doing the one thing that I was known and respected for?
I couldn’t, so I pressed on. I took fights, and didn’t care if I won or lost. I figured, if I lose enough fights the people who love me and are proud of me now, will ask me to stop fighting for my own good, then I won’t be a quitter! So that was the plan, and then my mom died. My mom, who I had disappointed countless times in my life, was the one I was fighting for. She was so proud of how I turned it all around, from a punk kid getting in trouble for smoking weed, fighting, and stealing cars, to performing at a very high level in a sport I loved. I wanted her to finally be proud of me, I wanted her to brag about me like she did about my older brother the honor student football playing marine, that graduated from college. My mom and I would spend the last few months of her life together; she was riddled with cancer and tumors. We talked about the disappointments, and the things she was proud of. We talked about hopes and dreams, love and hate, and we laughed, I could always make her laugh her ass off. And that’s how I choose to remember her, is by her laugh.
Making the transition from a God amongst men to a mere mortal is a lot harder than you might think. I’m kidding. But, seriously, going from full time athlete to working stiff again was not ideal. Working out and training with my friends had to take a back seat to my new full time job. Which as luck would have it would not be a long term job. Right around the same time I decided to retire from fighting, my father-in-law decided he was ready to retire from his business, one that he has built himself from the ground up and doesn’t want to sell. And, as luck would have it, that business consists of a mixture of all the jobs I had other than fighting. Logistics, transport, construction, and farming, perfect for me. I get to travel all over the south eastern United States creating custom livestock working systems; I also deliver and install them. I have a great time, meeting new people, seeing new places, learning new things. But there is still a warrior inside me, an ego that just wont die.
It causes problems in all aspects of my life, it makes me competitive with my business partner, my spouse, everyone I come in contact with. There is a battle raging inside that I have no idea how to manage. Oh yeah, did I mention that during this time my wife and I moved all the way across the country to a place where we didn’t know anyone. This was a perfect recipe for DEPRESSION. I didn’t practice martial arts for about a year, I stopped lifting, and I got FAT. I got all the way back up to the pre fighting days weight of 240. I hated myself, I hated my job, and I hated everyone who was happy. But like all storms, this too would pass. It wasn’t until I did some jiu jitsu with an old friend that I hadn’t seen in years, that I realized what was missing. Martial arts makes me happy, not competition.
I am currently a member of a nearby gym called 10th Planet in Decatur Alabama where I practice jiu jitsu, no more than 3 times a week. I don’t compete in anything, I just have fun. I’m not seeking higher ranks, or trying to prove anything anymore. I just enjoy the game, I enjoy helping the new guys, and the kids. I enjoy the atmosphere, and the people that create it.
For years I told people that they should train jiu jitsu for self defense. It’s the most practical, it’s designed to be used against larger opponents, and it’s a grappling art which is good because most altercations lead to fighting on the ground. But now I tell people just go train jiu jitsu, it’s fellowship, it’s fitness, it’s knowing your body, and how manipulate someone else’s. It is defense against raging ego, and it is defense against yourself.
A lot of times in life we can be our own biggest critic or our own worst enemy, a real self induced nightmare. There is something very therapuetic about being put in a choke and fighting your way out of it. There is value in knowing that you are not made of glass, you are much more resilient than you think. There is a feeling of community, being on a team, but your accomplishments are yours, you either perform or you don’t. Your team can help you learn, but they can’t do the work for you. And we all know the joys of hard work. After years of using to jiu jitsu to make “war”, I am using jiu jitsu to create peace. Peace with my demons, peace with the people in my life who don’t deserve my unjust aggressive ego.
In losing my label of Pro MMA Fighter, I have gained so much more. I am a much more available and attentive spouse, I am a better friend to those I neglected for fighting, I have time to read and meditate, I can eat whatever I want whenever I want, I can take off and go anywhere at the drop of a hat, I am no longer tied to the cage. I love woodworking with a passion, I have learned all about livestock, taught myself to weld, and many more things have filled the hole left in my life since I left the cage. It took some time for me to understand that there was more to me than just fighting, that life goes on as long as you keep on.
I was focused for a long time on what I lost, not bothering to look up from my pit of sorrows and self pity to see all that I had gained in taking my life back from the cage. I have a skill that can’t be taken away, experiences that I will take with me for life, and memories to keep me laughing long into my old age. Life is like the river — it keeps going, no matter what, it keeps moving, and by constantly moving it changes the land around it. If you keep moving, keep going even when things look the worst, you’ll change what you see around you. Just keep your head up, and keep moving, and if you get a chance, drop in to a jiu jitsu gym. Give it a shot, it might just save you (from you).