The build-up to 'making the walk' for your first bout can be a daunting experience, prompting mixed emotions. James Burman (PICTURED ABOVE, amateur MMA record 1-0) pens some advice.
Deciding to compete in mixed martial arts may seem like a great idea. But you’ll find yourself caught up in an emotional whirlwind. You’ll go through fear, excitement, exhilaration, despair, love and quite a lot else – often simultaneously. Although, that’s what makes it so fantastic.
You’ll have a lot of time to experience all of those feelings. Because, frustratingly, it's a long process too.
Before I explain more, I should make something very clear. Nobody has to fight. It's perfectly acceptable to train and never fight, or not train at all. Plenty of people think that MMA competitors deserve respect just because they step into the ring or cage, and that you have to be brave to do that. I disagree. Brave people make bad decisions all of the time. The best fighters are the smartest fighters. And it's smart to be scared; because it stops you making bad decisions. When you decide to fight, make sure it's a smart decision for you.
Tell your coaches that you want to do it. When the time's right they'll tell you that you're going to do it. That'll start a low rumbling deep in your emotions, a little uncomfortable but equally exciting too. They'll arrange a fight with you on a suitable show and with a matched opponent. The date of the show becomes like a date for a rocket take-off. Everything is focussed on reaching your best form at that exact time.
Having a fight date is a fantastic distraction. Whatever you've got going on in your life it’ll always be at the back of your mind, and often at the forefront of it. Stress at work? You're fighting soon. Bored of the TV? You're fighting soon. Can't sleep? You're fighting soon.
I write ‘soon’… but maybe I should've written ‘eventually’! The grind through those eight weeks, or however long it is, can be exhausting and also rather boring. It’s often repetitive – but that's the key to being good at anything.
You may get fed up with it. This is why it's vital that you tell everyone you know that you’re fighting. Once you've made that public declaration of intent it's much more difficult to pull out. Let your father get excited, your mother get worried, your friends get jealous, and your work colleagues curious. Start selling your tickets, because the sense of support will help throughout the training and on the night. But inform everybody as soon as the date is set, because it's an insurance policy against your own self-doubt.
With that target date you'll have a target weight, too, which is another great distraction. Eating and drinking clean will become an obsession, albeit one that is very likely to wear thin.
In the gym, people's behaviour towards you will change. You're going to fight, representing the gym, your coaches and your team mates. They'll make you a focus of the classes. You could even enjoy the attention, the ‘love’ of sorts.
The substance of your training sessions might change too. You may go from honing new techniques to learning how not to give up. The tone will be less technical, but more mental and definitely more physical. I remember one session where I was beaten so badly that I felt like I was surrounded.
A friend once told me that fighting MMA is the closest we'll ever get to being superheroes (or super-villains, depending on your preference). It's also the closest that most people will ever get to being mugged.
When people picture themselves fighting in an MMA bout they always think about being the person on top, winning the fight, delivering the beat down, being ‘the hammer’. Nobody ever imagines themselves as ‘the nail’, taking the punishment, which is surprising considering that during the fight fifty percent of fighters are experiencing one or the other at any given time.
You'll speculate about what type of punishment you'll dish out. You'll worry about what type of punishment you'll receive. It's natural, and fine.
There will be plenty of times that you want to quit, and that's OK too. That thing that you could do last week that you suddenly can't now. That person in the gym that you usual can beat but suddenly can't. All planting and cultivating seeds of self-doubt in your mind. Your training partners will pick up on this. Help kill this off.
This is one of the misunderstood contradictions of training in MMA. The people who you agree to let punch you in your face are helping you get better. Their empathy makes your improvement possible. They'll have been where you are, and you shouldn't be afraid to be open to that kinship. It'll certainly help in the toughest times.
You’re likely to cry at least once. That's the despair. It'll probably happen in the gym’s changing room. Try not to embarrass everyone else by doing it in the training cage with spectators.
The week of the fight the hard sparring stops. Have you done enough? Are you ready? You'll soon find out.
The fight itself will be personal enough to warrant me omitting any insight here. There's no merit in me letting you into these particular secrets. You'll earn that part for yourself.
After the fight you may feel relief, that date has finally passed, and all of the uncertainty has gone. You may feel depressed; your main focus in life has passed. What do you do to replace it? Fight again?
People say that sport is character building. But that's not strictly true – instead, it’s character revealing. When you're placed under extreme physical and emotional pressure layers of pretence fall away. And you're left knowing exactly who you are. That is the greatest gift of MMA – self-knowledge.