It’s the third week of fight camp for my sixth amateur MMA bout. I am beyond tired – my body already feels broken, with bruises picked up in places I didn’t even know existed, my sleep schedule is messed up and I’m short and ill-tempered with everyone at work and at home. I’m flitting between a 9-5 job, through an hour long queue of traffic to the gym I train at then back to my girlfriend’s flat for maybe an hour to ourselves a night. Put simply: I am completely exhausted.
This training and dieting regime is a far cry from the months of bliss I’ve spent with her over the winter, drinking beers and eating home-made cakes (delicious I might add.) Now, my only foods come from a low-gi diet that places all my favourite things (white bread the main culprit) strictly off limit. I’m craving a pizza and a cheeky beer with my girlfriend in one of the amazing little bars we have discovered living in Newcastle, but I know it’s a gruelling three weeks away. My patience is being tested.
But I will not crumble. I will not relent. Just now, I’ve been on the treadmill pushing myself to the brink of exhaustion. Sunday is going to be my day off and even then I feel almost guilty.
So what is this all for?
I have a fight on the 24th of May. My biggest yet, fighting an opponent with 6-1 record who figures to be my toughest challenge. Like every other fight I’ve had thus far, there are times when I’m driving to the gym and I just want to turn my car into traffic or close my eyes and pretend I’m not here. There are times when I feel like I’d literally prefer to jump off a bridge than go to training.
Then, almost like magic, two hours later I leave the gym I’ve trained at for four years and feel amazing. I’m unbeatable, impregnable, complete. These are the feelings that come post-training at Spartan Gym, which is practically my second home. Throughout all of my youth I was bullied, unable to stand up for myself and unwilling to fight back. MMA and Spartan Gym have given me the tools and the mentality to stand up to the world, and to life.
But what is it that makes me fight? Why sacrifice my lifestyle of comfortable leisure and occasional training for six full weeks of hell? I’m not a natural born killer, I have no desire to hurt my opponent and I don’t have any delusions about ‘making it’ through MMA. I’m from the North-East of England and – not counting Andy Ogle and Ross Pearson – most of us do not make full-time careers out of fighting. As an amateur fighter, I train basically as hard as a professional yet get paid approximately zero pound per fight. So it’s definitely not the money.
It is also not aggression or a desire to ‘avenge’ the transgressions against me in the past. I’ve forgotten and forgiven most of my fellow students for the way they made me feel in school, when some days were so bad I’d constantly fake illness and even my teachers would bully me about it (I’ve not forgave them. They were adults and should have been more understanding to a thirteen year old kid afraid to walk out the school gates because there were other boys there waiting to tease and try and fight me.) Maybe it’s my forgiving nature or maybe I’m just placid, but I hold no ill will to my opponents. One of my favourite things about MMA is the handshake and conversation after the fight. So it’s not the violence of it, either.
Instead, I fight because it is one of the few things on the planet that makes me feel certain of myself. Through the six weeks of hell I constantly tell myself I want to give up, that this will be my last fight, that the diet isn’t worth it or that I’m sick to death of MMA. But then come fight day, when the cage door shuts and all the eyes in the arena are focused on my opponent and I, it feels like all of my doubts and worries vanish. There is no room for error, no margin for excuse. I simply go in and do what I’ve trained for. It is in that moment that I feel truly alive and certain. For a person who spends his adult life worrying and second-guessing his future, that feeling of perfect clarity and urgent desire to triumph are a relief from the anxiety and doubt that plagues me all through fight camp and all through life.
I don’t think my case is unique. I feel like most people I have met in MMA aren’t naturally inclined to violence. Instead, they find themselves enamoured with the purity of the competition that MMA provides. It’s not a sport where alternatives can come into play. I remember hearing an anecdote that I’ve used since to explain why I love fighting so much. It goes something like ‘If you lost a football match or you’re losing a game of tennis, you still sometimes think well, it doesn’t matter because I could still beat him up. I’m still better than him. But in MMA, you can’t lose and then think well, I’d beat him in a tennis match’ Not to take anything away from Tennis or Football, but I feel that sentence really does sum up why so many people from all walks of life are attracted to MMA. Not for the violence, not for the money – but for the pure competition. We want to prove to ourselves we are the best, to know in our hearts and our minds. No other sport on Earth matches it for that.
I have three more weeks of dieting and training to get through. Then it is once again my turn to find out just what I am made of and to put me and my teams hard work over the weeks into practice. Will I be the bullied teenager who couldn’t stand up for himself, or will I prove to myself once again that I am not made of glass, that my opponent is no more fearsome or dangerous than I am. Come May 24th, win or lose, I will once more experience that sheer and complete feeling of competition and, in that moment – I will thrive.
Written by Craig Thomas Boyle