This one time, I submitted a UFC fighter. He had been out of the gym for a few months, but he had just signed a contract and it was time to get to work. Near the end of an open mat session, we slapped hands and started trading guard passes and sweeps. He was winded, barely holding on, consumed by fatigue. Sitting in his guard, I heard the 30-second mark on the round timer, laced his leg with mine, caught his toes in my armpit, and twisted his heel, gently. (Training, after all.) His hand came down. It didn’t matter that I was, for once, in better shape, or that I outweighed him by a few dozen pounds, or that this was the only time I ever got the best of him, or that it happened in an industrial park in front of an audience looking elsewhere, preoccupied with the safety of their own limbs. I won.
This other time, a UFC fighter whom I had tapped out two weeks earlier gave me a mild concussion. You can understand why I might have felt emboldened when we sparred in big gloves. We circled one another, I blocked his high kicks and threw some jabs. He backed against the fence, his hands were low, and I knew I had him. I came over the top with my right, dropped my left, and then…silence, diffused blackness, time lost, and the sense that something was very wrong. I waved him off and stepped out of the cage. My head ached and wobbled for some 24 hours.
The code of silence embedded in training sessions has found a narrative line ever since All-American-wrestler-and-part-time-barista Patrick Cummins became an injury replacement to fight Daniel Cormier at UFC 170 last week. The gist of the story goes something like this: Leading into the 2004 Olympics, Cormier and Cummins tussled in the training room, and Cummins got the best of the exchange, drawing tears from Cormier in the process. It was among the first things UFC president Dana White mentioned to Cummins when offering the fight. Cummins, now a 4-0 Strikeforce vet, confirmed the story, and the fight had its hook: Cummins makes tough men cry. Fellow ’04 Olympic medalist (and UFC 170 competitor) Sara McMann defended Cormier and emphasized the plight unique to Olympians as the root of his unraveling. And in an exchange on Fox Sports Live, Cormier scolded Cummins for the transgression. “You need to be careful what you’re saying, bud. Things that happen in that wrestling room stay in the wrestling room.”
Circumstances being what they are, maybe breaking the omertà of the training room was justified. Consider the promotional gymnastics of making a short-notice match between a Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix champion and an UFC newcomer with a far-shorter, -thinner résumé. As a UFC debutant drawing little to no casual interest, who was working in a coffee shop when he got the call from White, what would be Cummins' incentive to downplay his training-room triumph and Cormier's training-room shame? This might be his one shot.
There is a price to expedience and breaching the boundaries of a safe haven, however. The training room is a place to experiment, to try techniques and strategies destined to fail so that one day they might not. It’s where the invincible expose their weaknesses. Off the mat, no one wants someone else tracking the Web sites they visit or analyzing the metadata from their phone calls or otherwise advancing into their private lives even when they have nothing to hide. Privacy gives us the freedom to form ourselves away from eyes that would look down and evaluate something unfinished.
Back on the mat, those private victories only matter in aggregate—individually, they mean next to nothing. In 2007, at the Dave Schultz Memorial International Open, Cormier outgrappled Cummins in the quarterfinals. This weekend, Cormier is the betting favorite by wide margins. Patrick Cummins is not preordained to lose. The past is not precedent. But what happens in the training room eventually sees the light of day.
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