The cage door closes. You hear it lock shut with a solid metal clang. Suddenly the baying of the crowd dims to a murmur. The only noise you clearly hear now are the doubts in your own head, eating away at you:
What’s going to happen?
Am I going to win?
Will I get hurt?
With your feet exploring the unfamiliar canvas, inexplicably different to the mats in your gym, you find yourself looking over at your opponent. This is a guy you have trained to beat. A guy you have sweat, bled and strived towards facing for weeks. But now that he is in front of you, you’re terrified. He looks just as well-prepared as you, just as ready. Can I win? Will I win? In what feels like an instant, the referee is calling you to the centre of the cage. You lock eyes with your opponent and something clicks. He is just as scared as I am. The referee tells you to separate and come out fighting. Here you go, this is it. No more time to think.
Your first MMA fight is one of the most exhilarating, confusing and truly scary experiences in your life. People often say they respect anyone that gets into a cage and that sentiment is echoed for good reason. You are entering a locked arena where only one of you is going to come out the winner. In a sport based on pure competition, winning is the ultimate goal.
In the grand scheme of things, winning your first fight isn’t that important. You’d be surprised how many UFC fighters lost their first professional bouts. If it’s an amateur bout, it’s even less important. I can’t deny that every fight I take part in feels like the most paramount moment of my life, but I also realise that winning or losing is secondary to the experience of fighting. I recall how terrified I was quite clearly, so I’ve knocked out of a few tips below for amateurs making their MMA debut.
Stay calm – or at least, as calm as you can.
Nerves are a double-edged sword in MMA. Going into your first fight, the adrenaline rush you will get is almost impossible to describe. Everything will feel new and that adds to the nervousness you’ll feel. Rest assured though, even the most grizzled veterans among us gets nervous for fights. Georges St. Pierre is famous for it. Even six fights in, I still feel terrified before a bout.
The key is to manage those nerves. If you go in too calm, you may be overwhelmed by a more eager opponent. Too nervous, and you’ll make mistakes they can capitalise on.
Remember – you are not made of glass.
A rule I feel I should have told myself before my first fight. I was so scared of being KO’d or having something broken that I almost ran out of the event before my fight. But – as time, experience and sparring have taught me, no matter how small you are, you can take a bit of a beating. Obviously, I don’t advocate getting beaten up, but remembering you can take a punch gives you a bit of fire to back yourself up with.
Pick a great entrance song that evokes something in you
I always walk out to the same track ‘First of the year’ by Skrillex. When I had my debut fight, this was the song that filled me with adrenaline. Afterwards, despite falling out of love with Skrillex entirely, the track was permanently etched as my ‘fight-mode’ song.
Entrance music should exhilarate you, or mean something. Music is a motivator – proven by the success of musical fitness classes the world over. A good song gets you in the right mood and in some ways gives you comfort and familiarity as you walk into the alien cage.
Consider your opponent – he’s probably just as scared
If you fight someone who is also making their debut, you have to remember you’re on an even keel. My first fight was against a guy named Kai Nolan and I recall being intimidated by his shorter yet bulkier frame and the fact he looked older than me. However, I can bet in hindsight that he was just as scared as I was. Luckily I won that fight, but it’s important to remember that no matter how fearsome they look, they’re probably just as nervous inside. Remember, looks don’t win fights – technique does.
Remembering to enjoy the experience is the single greatest piece of advice I can think of. Your first MMA fight is an important event that, win or lose, helps define you as a person. Mine went well and I won in the first round, but it was more the fact I even stepped into a cage to fight another human being that I take pride in. The rush of the crowd, the searing heat of the lighting in the cage, the wild yet controlled chaos of the fight – all of these things happen so fast and then are suddenly over.
Your debut will come and go, making you doubt why you spent all of those weeks worrying or debating what it would be like. No matter what the outcome, the most important thing to take away is that you’ve done something that perhaps 1% of the population would ever dare to do. You have done it (or if you’re reading this before a fight – you will do it). For that, I applaud you. Never forget your first fight. It’s a defining moment, a learning experience and a damn good way to find out just how much you love competition.
Written by Craig Thomas Boyle