Photos by Paul Erickson for TXMMA.com.
[Ed. On any night of the week, in saloons and school gymnasiums and county fair parking lots across the country, there are small-time amateur mixed martial arts fights going on. Some of the men and women who take part in these fights are hungry and ambitious, looking to work their way up from the grind of the local circuit to the rarefied air of the UFC. Others just come to see if they can stand in a cage for 15 minutes with someone who only got in that cage to hurt them. There’s something wonderful and absurd about these events – wonderful because they strip MMA of all the marketing and fanfare; absurd because these are cage fights taking place in venues that the other 29 nights of the month are home to bikini contests, bull-riding competitions, and concerts by groups like The Randy Rogers Band. Amateur MMA is minor-league sport at its finest. Recently, Nick Altimore, a friend and former sparring partner of mine from Austin, fought his first MMA fight at Cowboys Dancehall, a sprawling honky-tonk/sporting venue in San Antonio. I wanted to know what the experience was like. So I called him up. Here's what he told me.]
The promoter for the Cowboy’s fight, she didn’t call me until November to ask if I wanted to be on the December 2 card. I agreed, and she said I’d be fighting this guy, Jonathan Aguaristi. But she spelled his name wrong when she sent me the information, so I couldn’t find anything about him on the Internet, no video or anything. I just knew he trained at a school with good jiu-jitsu, so my trainer, Ernesto, we drilled stamina and grappling defenses. A whole lot about getting out of triangle chokes or getting out of arm bars and just drilling constantly. More so than working on submissions myself, I was working on defending against submissions. I kind of figured I’d probably be stronger than this guy and probably want to strike more with him anyway.
The weigh-ins were at a bar in San Antonio the day before the fight. All the fighters were there; the crews are there. Everybody’s friendly but sizing up their opponents. You do a whole lot of waiting because they can’t start until everyone’s there. You’re all dehydrated because you’ve been cutting weight, and you’re ready to drink your Pedialyte, which is what they give to kids who are dehydrated from the flu or whatever. I had only started cutting weight that day, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to make 135 pounds. I cut around six pounds in four hours. I went to the gym; I threw on a thermal, two sweaters, two sets of sweat pants, some thermal underwear and jumped rope for an hour. But I ended up making it.
It was weird seeing Jonathan for the first time. He was short. I’m usually the shorter guy. I was going to be striking downward a little bit more. I got a look at him from across the room. Once we went up on stage I figured, Well it’s game-face time. That’s something I’d practiced in the mirror at the gym and it’s something I wanted to practice and be ready for: the stare-down. I wanted to make sure when I did stare down with my opponent, it was something where I could look at him and not flinch, not be scared. The more you practice the more you know what your facial expressions do. It’s like practicing your acting, which is pretty important for a fighter. I feel that fighters are actors until they get in there to fight. Then it all becomes real. I kind of see MMA as a full-rounded business. You have to do more than just fight if you want fighting to be your career. It includes marketing yourself, practicing your persona, figuring out whatever it is you want to be. I’m in the beginning stages of trying to figure out how to go about creating a persona.
My first impression was that he looked scared. I took that as a good thing.
I was at Cowboys for an hour before the fight was set to start. We get there and we think we’re good on time. Ernesto is wrapping my hands, and I’m hanging out with my team. I was originally supposed to be fifth, but when I got there I was bumped to third suddenly, but still I thought I had some time. But the two fights before mine each lasted less than a minute, so when the promoter comes up and said I was going to be on in five minutes, I was completely cold. My hands were wrapped but I hadn’t thrown one punch yet to warm up. I warmed up for maybe 45 seconds, which is nothing. But I said, Well, here we go.
Then you walk downstairs to where the crowd is. It’s a pretty big crowd and a big space, where all the rodeo events happen. You wait on the stairs, waiting for your walkout music to come on. Then it comes on, and you hear a bunch of people screaming. It was kind of surreal. For an amateur event, they put a lot of money into it, so it feels professional. As you’re walking to the cage you got people in the crowd bumping your hand who don’t even know who you are. It was a pretty cool feeling. It was really dark, too, pretty menacing. Which fit with my walkout music. I didn’t want rap or metal. I wanted something that was industrial background noise with a menacing feeling. I chose “Smog Harp” by this band Oghr. It’s got deep bass and a guy whispering over it.
I remember when I got in the cage, I was standing there waiting for Jonathan to walk out, and I felt a tap on my back and there were the ring girls, and I thought, Wow, they’re hot. So now Jonathan was walking up to the cage and his music was playing, and I looked over at one of the ring girls and I winked at her. She just laughed.
When you watch the video, you can see me doing the hand-roll that Wanderlei Silva does before fights. That’s one of my favorite things. Wanderlei is absolutely my favorite fighter. I stole the Wanderlei hand roll and I’m not exactly sure why. It just seemed like an intimidating thing to do. Why did I really do that? Does it actually help warm my hands up? I don’t know. But I stole it.
When the fight started I wanted to get off first. What coached drilled with me was: You be the first to strike when you get in there. You are both new and you want to be the first one to get a hit in. I saw him rising up like he was about to throw a punch so I threw a leg kick. Ernesto stressed the importance of leg kicks. Break your leg on his leg, he told me. That kick hurt him and he realized I’m there for business, not to just pitter-patter, and that set the pace. It gave me a boost of confidence, seeing he felt that pain. After the fight Jonathan told me his leg hurt, so that worked out well.
Like I thought he might, he went straight for the takedown. I was waiting for it, so I sprawled pretty well. But I didn’t expect him to hug that long. I thought he’d have a different game plan, but that’s all he wanted to do. I just sprawled then and tried to figure out where to get my dirty boxing in. He was trying to get a double leg wrestling takedown against the cage. I just wanted to stay up and bang. I was worried about going to the ground because of his jiu-jitsu. Also, when I realized he didn’t want to strike with me I knew that was where I wanted to keep the fight. As long as he stayed hugged on me and we were standing I could pick and choose where to pepper him.
But he got me down. Still, I was comfortable. He wasn’t really in a dominant position; his head was in my armpit. You can see he didn’t throw any punches. In fact, the whole fight he got me with maybe five good punches. He was just holding me down. I didn’t understand what his next move was going to be, so I just decide I was going to pepper him in the kidneys and wait for a spot to get up and get the fight standing.
The problem was I couldn’t hear my coaches. Jonathan did that well: He always looked for the takedown in his corner, and they were speaking Portuguese to him, and I could barely hear Ernesto. At that moment, though, I had a moment of clarity where I could hear Ernesto and he was yelling at me to get up. So I got up.
And that’s when Jonathan hit me for the first time. I didn’t expect him to do that but he popped me in the nose. It was his first real solid shot. I thought, So that’s what his punches are going to feel like. That’s how he punches. Well, that’s that. Not half as bad as I thought it was going to be. I’ve been in fights before. This was not the hardest I’d ever been hit.
Then the ref broke us up, which was fine with me. I wanted to strike. I was feeling good but I was tired after grappling. Going from cold like I was to full-on fighting drains you a lot quicker than if you’re warmed up. And I take a long time to warm up. But the good news is your adrenaline is going and your endorphins are through the roof at this point, so you don’t notice how quickly you’re tiring. I had also practiced keeping up a façade, making sure that even if I was tired or hurt, I tried to keep my composure and not show it. I didn’t want him to know I was tired.
Right near the end of the round I lunged in with a cross and he grabbed me again and took me down again. I knew that wasn’t good for me in the eyes of the judges. When the buzzer rang to end the first round I was really surprised it had gone so fast. People had told me the rounds would feel really slow, but I felt like there wasn’t enough time. During training I had done round robins: me versus five or six guys, five-minute rounds, six rounds straight with a new guy each time. Which beat the shit out of me. In comparison, the actual fight went by extremely fast.
I was really upset about the takedown at the end of the round. Ernesto said between rounds, You’ve got to redeem yourself. Now go in there and punch him in the face. The ref also came by and told me to make sure I didn’t knee him in the face. You can knee to the body all you want but not to the face. I don’t know why he warned me about that. Maybe when I hopped up at some point I almost got him in the face. I don’t know.
When the bell rang for round two I was thinking, I’ve gotta keep this thing on the feet. I’ve gotta punch this guy. So when he tried to take me down again, I made sure to punch him a lot.
All of a sudden I got him stumbling from a hammer fist. I ended up using the front knuckles, not the gloved part, and hitting him as hard as I could in the ear. He went down but I didn’t see it that way at the time. I thought he dropped to get lower on me to take me down. I didn’t relize that he’d dropped from me punching him.
He got me against the cage again and I kept throwing hammer fists. I could tell he didn’t like it. But I was kind of stupid. I had watched a bunch of videos from other fights at Cowboys where you don’t have to be hurting them -- they don’t have to be knockout punches – for them to call the fight. Looking back, in certain instances, I should have just kept throwing random fists and they may have called the fight. But that didn’t seem real at the time. I wasn’t thinking analytically. I wanted to hit him as hard as I could. I was going for the knockout.
When he took me down for the third time, I was getting frustrated but I was still calm. He was a lot more winded than I was. Plus, I knew I had strength on him. But then he got full mount on me and I was like, Holy Shit! This is fucking bad! I heard the crowd cheer. I couldn’t let it happen that way! I remember hugging him and trying to pull him toward me. I knew he was tired; otherwise he would have started throwing punches as soon as he got the mount. I felt his weight shift and I put everything I had into trying to sweep him. I said to myself, This isn’t the way its going to happen. When I flipped him over, I heard the crowd go even higher and I stared throwing heavy fists. I was like, Hell yeah! That was one of my proudest moments.
So I was on top of him and he went for an armbar. But he had my thumb turned the wrong way, so I didn’t feel it. I took my time. I was pretty relaxed. We had practiced it. So I stacked him. I didn’t feel threatened. I just threw some punches and stacked him and waited for him to get tired. That woman standing right outside the cage looked concerned as hell. Ernesto was yelling, Stack him! Stack him! Stack him! At some point I said to Ernesto and the ref, I’m fine. They’d told us they would call the fight if you yell or it looks like you’re in bad trouble or make any motion to tap. So I kept my composure. Still, after the fight, my arm definitely hurt.
When the third round started I wasn’t thinking analytically anymore. I was too tired. I shouldn’t have been, but I attribute it to having no warmup and the adrenaline dump that happens after the fight starts. Now I was too relaxed. Just throwing little things and breathing just to get a little bit more breath in me. Then I got a little more aggressive but I was still slow on my feet. He came in with a hug or something. I was too slow to stop him. I wasn’t throwing good combos, just one kick or one punch at a time, and I was waiting for him to make a move. Usually when I get tired I take guys to the ground, but for whatever reason I was just not thinking analytically and I let him take me down instead of taking him down.
Late in the round I lunged with a left hook and he ducked under and got the double-leg takedown and got me down again. This was the fifth time. He just went at the right time. The whole time we were fighting he cuddled me and held me to the ground. But he picked his moment well. I knew I had to get up or get a submission. I threw up my legs for an armbar. Ernesto was yelling, You’ve gotta submit him! You’ve gotta submit him! You've gotta submit him! I tried one side and couldn’t get it. Then I tried the other and his hand slipped off. I knew it wasn't going to happen. When the round ended you can see I got up and yelled, Fuck! I was angry that I let him take me down right then in the last round.
After the fight, I didn’t want to put up my hands; it’s just not something I cared to do. But Ernesto said I needed to do that because the judges may score the fight differently if you look less winded.
I honestly didn’t know if I had won or lost. When they said it was a split decision, then gave it to Jonathan, I was actually okay with it. The adrenaline and endorphins were still going so I wasn’t bummed at that point. The depression didn’t set in until I watched the video the next day and I was away from everybody. Then I was depressed for three days. I kept saying to myself, Dammit, I could have done this differently and done that differently.
I left the cage. People shake your hands, but you don’t really realize what’s happening. I shook a buddy of mine’s hand. The next day he texted me and I didn’t realize he was there. I didn’t see him. I was in a daze.
I went upstairs to the dressing room and threw up for 10 minutes. Then I laid down on a couch and started shaking. After a fight you body realizes it doesn’t need all that adrenaline anymore, so I was shaking like I had a fever for 15-30 minutes. Maybe it was exhaustion or nerves or any number of things.
Later I went down to the bar and hung out with all my friends who had come to watch me fight. They were all congratulating me; a couple of them said I’d been robbed. I actually saw Jonathan afterwards as well. We took pictures in the bar together. I was very friendly with him and him with me. The next day, I don’t know why, but I was really upset that I’d been so friendly toward him. All of a sudden, in my head a rivalry had been built between us, and I found it sort of ridiculous I’d been so friendly before and after with this guy I was fighting. I think I’d like to keep a little more distance next time.