There's an undercurrent of energy inherent in every UFC event, even if you’re watching it from the comfort of your couch. But when you’re there in person you can feel the momentum of the crowd shift and build with every new fight. You can be in the rafters or sitting in the front row next to the guy whose next-door neighbor’s cousin is making his UFC debut, and you will still get stung by this communal sense of excitement. And even if you can’t hear the frenzied glee in the voices of the commentators as they explain to you over and over again just how much you should love what is happening right now! ... you feel it.
UFC 166 was like being stoned on a rollercoaster.
I love MMA fights but I will freely admit that watching them is sometimes excruciating. If I’m at a viewing party, the guy who has 10 billion questions or the drunken loud girl is inevitably drawn to me. If I’m attending a live event, my running in-seat coaching monologue causes the people around me to shy away, or the aforementioned next-door neighbor’s cousin guys will take it upon himself to disabuse me of the obvious misinformation that my decade of experience in the sport has imbued in me. And If my teammate is fighting, I grip the edge of my seat and begin muttering like a witch. When they win, I scream and gloat. When they lose, I furtively wipe away tears and sulk through the next fight, snarling at anyone who tries to talk to me.
I had come to Houston because six of my teammate/friends were competing on the 166 card, and though I was cheering for all of them, I had an insane emotional investment in two of my favorite training partners, John Dodson and Sarah Kaufman. I have known Johnny since my first day at Jackson’s/Winkeljohn and we actually appeared on the old Tapout reality show together in 2008. He is, regardless of any attention or fame, the happiest, most giving, and most loyal teammate I have ever met. Seriously, two days after this fight he was back in the gym sparring and helping me get ready for my own fight in December.
Also he introduced me to my dog, so I’m pretty sure he’s going to heaven.
Sarah Kaufman and I have been friends since we met at an all-female fight summit in Indiana about five years ago. We clicked pretty easily, as I am slightly vague at times (I like to say ADD) and she is the opposite: very orderly and good at keeping me focused. We have been traveling back and forth between Albuquerque and Canada to work with each other since our first meeting, and I’d like to think our friendship really cemented when we realized that our respective coaches, Greg Jackson and Adam Zugec, tease and prank us mercilessly. You can’t argue a bond like that.
I had phenomenal seats for the event, but my blood pressure was soaring before I even got to them. One of the easiest ways for me to soothe my nervous, loud thoughts is that magical place called Twitter. Lame as it seems, if I see the ridiculous things in my head written down and share them with thousands of strangers, I instantly feel better. Social media is the ultimate therapy for the mostly-but-not-quite-introverted. Unfortunately my therapy drains my cell phone and is completely dependent on Internet availability.
I tweeted furiously in between the rounds of Sarah’s fight, but I was apparently too intent on the action at hand, so I didn’t even realize until much later that the only tweet I actually sent the entire evening said, “What the fucking fuck.” Which, I should say, sums up nicely my reaction to the judges giving the fight to Sarah’s opponent and not to her.
I can’t claim to know what was going through Sarah’s mind when she heard the announcement; I can only base it on my own experiences. When you're a fighter and you lose a war, the intense pastiche of emotion ranges from satisfaction that you “showed up," to sadness that you didn’t get the nod, to anger at the decision (particularly when it is close), back to pride in your performance, and then rage again. A friend once asked me what the appropriate thing to say to a fighter after a loss is, and, despite having suffering quite a few, I still don’t have the right answer.
By this point, my phone was down to about 15% and I stared at it, not sure if I was going to see Sarah backstage or where her head was. I slumped in my seat, glaring at the people around me. My voice was getting ragged and my dying battery was pissing me off.
But then it was time for Johnny. The anxiety returned and I leapt to my feet as he walked out. Since there was no digital forum for my rambling anymore, the crowd got the full effect of my hoarse voice, and damn did I use it. After Johnny staggered and dropped Darrell Montague the first time, I was on my feet screaming, “YES YES YES!!!” as if in the throes of ecstasy. When he knocked him out a few seconds later, I’m pretty sure I was reduced to incoherent shouts and quite possibly started speaking in tongues.
As Johnny walked out of the cage, I collapsed in my chair, ragged but mollified. I know that there is always an element of luck in victory, but seeing Johnny win was like a ringing endorsement for training, hard work, and sacrifice. And he’s just so damn happy, it’s contagious.
The roller coaster continued when Shawn Jordan got knocked out by Gabriel Gonzaga. Shawn is another incredibly happy guy, and even though he’s been spending less time at our gym these days he is a family favorite at Jackson's/Winkeljohn Gym. His girlfriend had been sitting next to me earlier in the night but had moved seats to be near more friends and family. She texted me and I could almost hear the tears. I drained the rest of my battery trying to explain what had happened.
And then Diego Sanchez/Gilbert Melendez happened and it felt like the world was going to explode. That fight … it reminded me why I fight. How can you measure the toughness of the human spirit without putting it to work? I find myself unable to say or quantify what that fight meant to the people who saw it there that night. It was simply the best fight I’d ever seen.
When I watch good fights, the logical part of me is aware I am not the one fighting, yet somehow I feel such a connection to the combatants. I feel every punch and throw in some weird primitive empathy. I can’t be alone in this. I feel like the fighter at play is subject to some strange level of universal identification. That’s what makes fighting so compelling. That’s how people can turn the practice of prize fighting into these million-dollar spectacles and simultaneously make it seem so intimate, so personal. Because it’s not simply my good friend, teammate, or even myself out there competing time and again; it’s the piece of pride in all of us that wants to shout, to test ourselves and walk away from battle, knowing that we have given every part of ourselves in search of a profound experience.
Check out Julie's earlier tales:
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