There are clues if you watch the fighter’s hands. Some guys are on their third fight and suddenly forget how to hold their fingers apart and how the wrap tightens from thumb to palm. Some keep a steady hand but talk a lot about nothing and forget what they were saying when you try and keep up the conversation. Others are quiet but the hand shakes.
Marcio Bittencourt has taped up enough men that he has a sense of how the fight will go even before the last bit of bandage is fixed. He started training in jiu-jitsu when he was 9 years old in Brazil; he’s 37 now. He still fights (6-3-1 as a professional) but he spends more time coaching than he does getting ready for his next bout. His English is halting, coming out in sentences you can't always diagram.
“When you are putting on the wrap, that is the moment the training has ended,” he says. “Everything you have done to prepare is behind you now. If they haven’t prepared, you see it. If they are nervous, you will see that. Most of the time it’s that they have too much adrenaline.”
Bittencourt is finishing the wrapping ritual with Tony Dickerson as he talks, though the 24-year-old welterweight doesn’t show any sign of paying attention to what his coach is saying. There are still five more fights before Dickerson walks to the cage and he’s sitting with his chest resting against the back of a steel chair, waiting for Bittencourt to finish. His head is down, his hood pulled up, with the white cords from a pair of earbuds trailing down below his chest.
“This is the best, you know that he is ready,” Bittencourt says as he tugs the wrap across the back of Dickerson’s hand.
They’re waiting in an empty basketball court at a community college in Lincroft, New Jersey, which seems as good as place as any to get your concentration. Down the corridor there’s an athletic center full of fight fans, training teams, cops, and the severe blast of a sound system, but none of that reaches them. Here the only sound is the hollow echo of a basketball bouncing at the other end of the court.
“When I was younger I would have the adrenaline before a fight, so I understand,” Bittencourt says. “People would try to talk to me before a fight to get me ready and it was difficult.”
There was one fight in particular he remembers. It was 2007 and he had flown to Australia to fight an opponent whose name he can’t remember now. By the time he got there the man he was supposed to face had dropped out, and he was instead put up against current UFC welterweight George Sotiropoulos, who made him tap with a rear naked choke in the first round.
“I was so sick,” Bittencourt remembers. “I had been traveling too much with no rest and I wasn’t prepared. I know when they were preparing me and walking me down I was not together. My mind and my body were divided. My trainer was talking to me all the way to the ring trying to get me right. That’s the fight I learned the most in. I learned I could push myself through all that, and I learned how you could put yourself together as you listen to the coaches around you. When I see fighters and their minds aren’t here, I try to talk to them the way that helped me.”
When Bittencourt is finished, Dickerson squeezes his fist closed then opens it again, once, twice, three times. It’s the first his hand has moved since Bittencourt started working.
“He’s got his music and that’s all he needs. You know he’s concentrating,” Bittencourt says. “You can tell this is how he should be. You can tell his head is right.”
When the fighters aren’t right Bittencourt talks to them about the moves they’ve worked on, the things they know they’re good at. Anything that will make them trust that their preparation will carry them through.
“You have to get the adrenaline down,” he says. “The wraps go on and everything must be behind you now. You let all that leave you as you walk to the ring. It is the moment you become completely clear. When you let that go, you’re ready. All you see is what is ahead. If you can’t do that, it will be difficult for you.”
Dickerson’s fight comes and he seems as clear as Bittencourt could ask for. His palms don’t shake, he listens to his music, and when he walks to the ring his eyes don’t waver from the linked cage in front of him. He loses by unanimous decision after three rounds against Greg Quarantello, whose hands must have been steady in the wrapping, too.