Hello everyone and welcome to my blog: The Caged Type. I’m Craig Boyle, an active MMA fighter and general fighting and gaming enthusiast from the north-east of England. As well as starting this blog, I also contribute to fightstorepro.com. To start this whole site off I thought I’d showcase my highest graded assignment for University, a piece of creative non-fiction about my first fight. It’s lengthy and I do not expect everyone to read it to the end, but for those who are wondering what it is like to fight for the first time, or people who want some insight into me as a person it’s the best way to ‘step through the looking glass’. Without further adieu, please enjoy the story of my MMA debut, a tale about a guy who spent the majority of his teenage years being bullied stepping into a cage to fight someone.
A flash of light and a sickening crunch. Solid black spots spring into my vision, obscuring my vision of the boxing glove clad man in front of me. Pain is all I can feel after his vicious uppercut smashes my nose. I taste the metallic, copper tang of blood in my throat and I know immediately my nose is bleeding. Tears fill my eyes. I raise my hands up and turn away from my sparring partner in a clear sign of defeat. He looks concerned and watches me turn away with a regretful “Sorry.” I feel angry at myself as soon as I’ve retreated to the changing rooms. Given up. A punch has broken my will to train any longer. I have only a week left until my first amateur mixed martial arts match and my desire has already been broken in the gym. Quitting seems inevitable.“One!.. One two..!!”
Jab. Jab. Right hand. Pain in my knuckles, sweat streaming down my face.
“One two, left kick!”
The sound of bone smashing against leather is sharp and loud in the tiny, bright room. My wrapped and gloved hands shake slightly as I hold them near to my face, throwing punches at leather pads held up by my mentor and coach, Paul Grieves. We are both red faced as we circle one another, bare feet treading over a few rubbery blue mats that slip on the brown-gold carpet. I curse loudly every time they slip, as my foot shoots back and messes up a punch. My surroundings are boiling hot and the smell of sweat begins to get noticeable over the dry, damp muster of the room itself.“One two!” He calls again and I throw a quick jab and a hard right hand, with as much power as I can generate. I feel exhausted already, sweat dripping down my forehead. Paul is unrelenting though, continually calling for combinations on the pads. I throw everything he says, desperately trying to keep up. A man’s head pokes through the heavy oak door.
“Craig Boyle. You’re up.”
I stop throwing punches even as Paul holds the pads up. A sickly, lead feeling drops into my stomach. There’s a window in the corner of the room and the night sky is plainly visible through it. I look out into the night and in my head, a fleeting thought of running away occurs. It seems brilliant for a moment, to leave and not have to face such responsibility. As quickly as it came, it disappears. I’ve trained for this. Bled for this. Hell, I’ve even cried for this.
My coaches gather up the things we need during the fight, Vaseline to limit bleeding, water for when I’m so exhausted I can’t stand, bandages for if it all goes wrong. The heavy door is held open for me and I step out of it into the upstairs lobby, my bare feet on the carpet feel heavy. I can hear the crowd already as I head down the long passage, through a door, through another. It seems an endless series of doors, the noise of the crowd getting louder. Random music plays through loudspeakers and it blasts me in the face, almost deafening as I exit the final set of doors and walk down a narrow path between the crowd and backstage.
The cage, where I will be fighting, is well lit and I stare at it for a moment as I walk. I am shirtless and glistening with sweat, the seated audience notices me walking behind them and some offer a few shouts of “Good luck!” Most just stare. I feel their eyes burning into my back as I’m led to a little dingy white room. There are two chairs here and a pair of old blue shoes, my opponents, I realise. My coach keeps offering me a drink of water. I have my gum shield in, limiting the sips I can take from the warm bottle. I find myself coughing and spluttering, making things infinitely worse. The waiting room seems to be filled utterly by me, Paul, Tom and my head coach Warren. My opponent’s entrance music dies down and then mine comes on. I grin to myself.
My memory drifts out of the room and back to two weeks earlier, when Warren, whose coaching transformed me from a teenager scared of my own shadow to a comfortable young adult, sent a text to my phone. I was just finishing off an unbelievably nice meal in an Indian restaurant. I can still recall the tang of the spicy chicken and taste the cider in my mouth as I read the text message: “There’s a fight for you in two weeks if you want it.” Didn’t really pick the best time to read it, but nevertheless, the impact was astounding. I sat stunned. My girlfriend, mother and her friend all looked at me. I remember wishing I could vomit up the unhealthy food I’d just ravaged my way through. I stared blankly at the bottle of Woodpecker I’d drank. The restaurant full of people gorging themselves seemed disgusting to me now. Finally, after two years of training in mixed martial arts three to four times a week, exhausting myself daily in the gym, I would get to fight and shut up all the people who claimed I was all training and no action. I didn’t hesitate to reply: “I’ll do it!”
What followed that text message were the hardest two weeks of my life. Instead of my usual schedule, which comprises of training Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and seeing my girlfriend of two years on the other days, I began training every day. Two times a day, at that. In the mornings I’d go for a long run, which burned my legs and made my lungs scrape my chest as I panted for breath. I’d go on a long route and when I arrived back at my house I’d collapse in the street, chest heaving as I tried to suck in air. A few hours later, I’d be back in the gym throwing punches, wrestling and snatching chokes on people. Mentally I began to wear down. I remember the moment the previously mentioned uppercut smashed my nose a week before I was due to step into the cage. It seemed so stupid; me, a short, skinny young adult who spent five years of school being the butt of every joke, standing in my gym with teary eyes and a sinking feeling of insignificance. But I pushed through. I trained harder than I’ve ever trained. The last few days before the fight, which took place on a Sunday, were difficult.
Thoughts raced through my head as I tried to get to sleep in the last couple days before the fight. I had two days of complete rest. I lay in bed, both of these nights and thought to myself: “Why am I even doing this? I should just stop. I’m not good enough.” Not only this, but all I knew about my opponent was his name, Kai Nolan. I didn’t know what he looked like, and impossible images of people that scared me in school kicking my head all over the cage dominated my thoughts. I wasn’t too scared to get hurt. I was scared of losing, of letting everyone down, of failing to live up to the faith people had in me. And then, before I knew it, it was Sunday and I was at the event, standing on scales for the big moment. Had my diet worked? I weighed in at 59.7 kilograms, far lighter than I wanted to be. This was the first chance I had at seeing Kai. He was shorter than me, stocky and looked like every bully I’d ever known, with a hard face and a shaven head. It was a strange sensation, looking at the person you’re about to try and beat up. I felt nothing at all, instead offering a handshake, which he begrudgingly took. He didn’t make eye contact at all. I’ve never looked intimidating and I remember realising, to my bemusement; he was as nervous, if not more so, than I was.
A few hours later, There I was in the waiting room, my entrance music blasting loudly through the Lancastrian suite and the couple of hundred people sitting around the cage ready to watch me fight. Warren offered me a nod, and with that, we were off, a fake tanned, good looking girl leading me down a ramp to the cage with my coaches following me, lights and smoke flashing around, camera’s flashing. I felt nothing. The sight of the audience flooded my vision, dominated by the well lit octagonal cage in the middle of the suite. I’d like to say I was nervous, but really, it felt surreal. I was detached even as Paul rubbed Vaseline on my eyebrows and nose to help prevent cuts, I felt alien as the referee checked my gloves and gum shield. I noticed my opponent already in the cage, banging his chest and pacing around like a gorilla. I almost smirked, it seemed so different to the strange, ethereal mood I found myself in as the referee, whose bald spot shone in the bright lighting above the cage, nodded at me then motioned to the open cage door. Before I moved, Warren came over and gave me the briefest of hugs. It was a strange moment, a man I respected so much who was so stern giving me some kind of affection. The bump of shoulders lingered on my mind as the referee once again motioned to the door and said,“Let’s go.”
I stepped inside the cage and felt the heat of the lights immediately, the sheen of perspiration gathered on my skin shone in the brightness. I stared across the spotlessly white canvas that; later, would probably be stained with blood. I remember hoping it wouldn’t be mine. Kai, across the ring from me, looked like an angry bull, trying to psych himself up, slapping his knees and making aggressive looking gestures to himself. There was a camera crew in the cage with us and two ring girls, the one who’d walked me out and another who’d done the same for Kai. I hated the way they were dressed and sexualised. Today, all I cared about was the sport, not some scantily clad women. One of them tripped over as I was motioned by the referee into the centre of the ring. A camera was pointed at my face and I felt awkward immediately, unsure how to react to the shiny glass lens.
A few paces forward brought me to a stare down with Kai. He was glaring directly into my eyes with a frown on his brow. I didn’t even return the look. Instead I nodded a good luck as the referee asked “Any questions? Touch gloves, come out fighting!” It all felt so eerie, as though I wasn’t there. I went back to my side of the cage and was only slightly aware of my coaches giving me last minute advice as the camera crew and girls exited the cage, leaving me, Kai and the referee. The door shut with an audible clang. I heard the latch on it locked into place. This was it. A bell rung and the fight began. I still felt detached as I came forward and met my opponent in the centre. He threw a big, telegraphed right hand that I blocked with ease. I threw a heavy kick at his lead leg. I felt my shin drive through his hamstring and I knew immediately it had hurt him. He backed away a little bit. I stared at his leg as though I was going to kick it again but instead threw a high kick directly for his head.
My foot smashed into the side of his temple and I heard the audience cheer and a chorus of: “Oooooo!” Kai took it well though, not falling over or anything. Instead, he dropped to one knee and grabbed my waist, looking for a takedown. I managed to reverse him and landed on top. After a minute or so of grappling, I managed to lock in a triangle choke and there were a few agonising moments of having him trapped, knowing I had won if his hand just tapped the mat a few times in submission. I squeezed hard for the choke, knowing he had to give up. I wondered if I’d have to choke him to unconsciousness before he finally, desperately, tapped his hand on the canvas. The referee broke up us and I stood up, victorious.
The whole thing lasted two minutes twenty seven seconds. I was glistening with sweat and I could see nothing but the blinding lights and the cheers of the audience. I had my arm held up by the referee as the announcer shouted out: “Your winner, Craig Thomas Boyle!” Once again, the cameras were in my face. This time I was grinning, my gum shield accidently left in my mouth. It’s black, so I looked like a toothless moron, smiling inanely, unsure how to act. I applauded and shook my opponent’s hand. He looked devastated. I remember feeling almost regretful as he exited the cage first. I had to do a brief interview, still with my clumsy black gum shield in. On watching the footage of the fight weeks later, all I could notice was how stupid I was not taking it out. Instead, I spat out a few thanks to my gym and teammates and with that, exited the cage.
The walk back to the changing rooms was the highlight. The boiling heat of the cage lighting was gone, replaced with cool air on my sweating torso. People in the ground turned in their seats to shake my hand, congratulate me, clamouring to touch me in some way. It was amazing. I felt like a god. And then, as soon as the whole thing had started, I was back in the changing room towelling off and putting my clothes back on. My coaches all offered brief congratulations. I had done it. I’d won. I sat backstage for awhile with two of my friends from the gym, sweat still on my brow. In a fresh t-shirt, I stayed at the event to watch more fights. Kai was still around too, I kept catching awkward glimpses of him, flashes of contempt filled eye contact. Random people kept congratulating me. Even the security on the event gave me praise, with a spat of condescension mixed in: “Good fight kidda.” Everyone assumes I am far younger than I am. It was a strange evening. Halfway through, I had to walk out to the cage again after finding out with a shock I was winning the ‘Fighter of the night’ award.
The second walk out was strange. No music played. Instead, the announcer of the event just said my name, that I was the most impressive fighter of the night and to give a round of applause. Some people booed as I walked down the now familiar ramp to the bright cage, now non-threatening in my normal clothes, gloveless. The booing was brief, but it jarred me a little. What more could I have done in my fight to win people over? I showed off good stand up skills and finished the fight in the first round. Some people are never happy. Maybe they were friends of Kai. I didn’t really care once I caught sight of the giant trophy the announcer, Ian Freeman, held in his hands. My smile was as bright as the trophy. I had to do a brief interview where I thanked my coaches and then the shining prize, the same size as my torso, was handed to me. I couldn’t believe it. Me, the kid who’d never even won a medal in primary school athletics, now holding solid proof that not only was I a winning fighter, I was an impressive one who had caught the attention of everyone at the event.
When I got home after the fights, I immediately felt my life return to normal. Sadly, the feeling didn’t last and monotony replaced the exhilaration. People still congratulated me, but I almost wanted to ask “What for?” Even months after, around Christmas, people I hadn’t seen since school were buying me drinks. It was an excessively strange feeling. They had known me as Craig the nerdy kid, and now it was Craig the cage fighter. I didn’t even feel like I belonged to that title. It floated in people’s perception and didn’t really belong to me. Still, it was nice to watch the video of the fight, look at the photos. My impressions of the whole thing were, until I wrote this, gathered from those photos than my memory now. Having won a second fight since, I imagine that first win, the reactions and surprise of people to know I was a fighter when I had once been a coward, will never expire from being a great moment, a defining part of me turning from a boy to a man.
Written by Craig Thomas Boyle