When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares right back at you, K once said to me. I asked her what the stare of the abyss was like, but she never answered, and I didn’t think about it further. Until now.
It all started about three years ago with the one fight that shook me to my core. After that, my reasoning and feelings -- or instincts, if you like -- changed.
I was a young punk, with a couple of years of experience in amateur and semi-professional rings and a hell of an attitude. My trainer Peter arranged a fight for me at ‘Born to Fight’, an event organized every year by the Free Fighting Association.
The FFA was the biggest organizer of fighting events in the country, but more importantly, it was a scouting platform. It picked talented fighters in Europe for Yamato Damashi, the most prestigious fighting organization in the world. There was no serious fighter who hadn’t dreamed of participating at Yamato Damashi’s tournaments in Japan, and the FFA was an excellent springboard to achieve this.
When Peter first told me I got a spot at ‘Born to Fight’ as a replacement, I didn’t care who my opponent was. I was going to win. I had won every fight so far. Only the best fighters were accepted by Yamato Damashi, and I wanted to show the world I was the best.
With only a month and a half left till the fight, Peter made a training program which I followed with the utmost diligence. Driven by extreme motivation, I trained very hard every day. I was brutal and didn’t hold back at any stage of the training. Even my sparring partners became just another obstacle on my road to Yamato Damashi. Gym members and visiting fighters began to refuse sparring sessions with me, which only boosted my confidence further.
At 21 years old, fighting was all that mattered to me. I didn’t have a bad social situation and fighting was not my means of survival. My family was well off and I was a student at the university for social sciences. So, no sob story of a hard life here. I simply loved...well, I needed to fight. Everything else, including family and friends, came second to this need.
My parents were certain my wish of becoming a professional fighter, a wish I had insisted on since I was a small kid, would pass during high school. After my father died, my mother still hoped that this ‘momentary insanity and inclination toward destroying my body and brain cells’, would end once I enrolled at the university. Well, she was wrong. Neither she, nor any of my siblings could understand what fighting meant to me.
Peter’s gym was the gym I had frequented for the past three years, after previously training in a high school boxing club. Quite a few MMA fighters, who made a name for themselves in Europe, were forged in this gym. Peter was known to be a strict trainer who didn’t tolerate fighters that were not fully committed.
I didn’t fit in at the beginning; most of the gym members were rough individuals, who hoped fighting would one day bring them fame and money. They either worked as security guards or had some other jobs which required more muscle than brains, or were unemployed. I was the only one in the gym that went to university and didn’t have any tattoos.
The first time I came to Peter’s training, I told him my goal was to train hard to get to Yamato Damashi. He laughed it off, thinking I’d be out of the gym after the first sparring session. Just like my mother--he, too, underestimated my determination. I broke the nose of one of his fighters, after he caused mine to bleed, and had to be stopped during the fight with another due to excessive violence on my part.
“What the fuck, kid? It’s meant to be only a sparring session!” Peter shouted at me as he tried to prevent other gym members from teaching me a lesson.
Of course I knew what a sparring session was. I’d had many at the boxing club. I just thought the rules in an MMA gym were much less restrictive. Covering different segments of a fight, be that in a stand-up or on the floor, the brutality of it with very few limitations and rules, were the main reasons I got attracted to this martial art in the first place. I felt it gave my fighting abilities a sort of freedom of expression.
After that initial incident, I adjusted my aggression and conformed to Peter’s way of coaching. It wasn’t long before I became his prime student and a respected gym member. The training was all I cared about and I never hung out with any of the fellow fighters outside the gym or fighting events. Although we all liked fighting, for them it was just a means to an end, while for me the fighting was that end. I didn’t let anything get in my way to becoming the best at it.
My opponent for ‘Born to Fight’ was an older, well-established fighter, who was riding a three-fight losing streak in the past year. This fight was important for him as well; probably his last chance to make a comeback and stay in professional waters.
When I look back at it now, I had completely underestimated his motivation. Older fighters know once they fall they only get one chance to hit back. Spending all those years in fighting, there’s little else left for them. A person who has nothing to lose is a dangerous fighter.
Three days before the fight I attended the press conference with all the other fighters. I never met my opponent in person before. We were seated on opposite sides of the hall, as promoters divided home and guest fighters into two groups. When the moment of my presentation came I stood up and slowly, carelessly walked toward the announcer to meet my opponent in a staredown. I looked into his eyes, while the announcer was speaking. A game played between him and me – never avert the eyes first. He wouldn’t give up either, so the announcer stepped in and separated us. After all the fighters were announced it was time for questions.
“I believe my opponent should retire while he can still stand on his feet,” I said. “This old guy here has no chance against me.”
“He doesn’t belong in the ring anymore, this is no game for pensioners,” I continued to insult him. The journalists loved my taunting behaviour and sharp mouth.
My opponent remained quiet in his seat and looked extremely focused. When one of the journalists asked him about his opinion on me he said: “He surely has a big mouth now, but we all know how it is with dogs that bark aloud.”
The audience laughed. The whole matter made me angry and I was even more determined to win.
A day before the fight, as I was about to leave the gym, Peter came to me. “This event is bigger than anything you’ve experienced so far. Don’t let it affect you. You have the home crowd on your side. Just show your best and they’ll love you.”
“I’m gonna win, Peter. I’ll demolish him.”
“Sure you will, my boy. That’s what we trained for!” Peter’s eyes were smiling, but nevertheless bore concern.
This fight was important for him as well. Peter brought up some good fighters in the past, but eventually they all left, and he hadn’t had a fighter qualify for FFA in years. I was his new and only candidate.
Despite many expectations from all sides, I didn’t feel the pressure, just pure excitement. I couldn’t wait to step into the ring and show my skills to the crowd.
We were in a locker room, me, Peter and Najib, a young fighter of Moroccan descent, who started coming to Peter’s gym a year ago. Unlike my opponent, I had no entourage to accompany me to the ring, so Peter took Najib with us, just so we wouldn’t be alone. He was taping my hand and giving me some pep talk, but I could barely hear him. My thoughts were consumed by adrenaline. I got that fluttery feeling in the stomach, but in a good way, like I was going to a party...the best party ever.
I was ready.
The music, Peter by my side, Najib behind. The blinding lights at the beginning of my walkout. I couldn’t see the audience, but I heard them cheering. Gloves checking....I continued, Peter went up first and spread the ring ropes. I made my way into the ring and looked around. So many people, the hall was huge. The announcer called my name. I raised my right hand, and the hall exploded. I had never felt like this, it was overwhelming.
My opponent was already in his corner, nodding to his trainer’s last instructions. I didn’t really hear Peter’s words to me, my eyes locked onto my opponent and everything else faded into the background.
The judge called us to the middle and explained the rules. We touched gloves and the fight began. I moved to a comfortable distance and started with some feints, to check the reactions of my opponent. I noticed right away my body did not move as usual. My legs felt as if I had weights attached to the ankles. I barely avoided some punches to the head and received several into my abdomen. In no time I was pushed up against the ropes and took series of blows.
My brain went into panic mode. What’s happening... I’m not afraid of him, I can see his attacks coming. Why can’t I react in time? Side step and strike! Now! But my body would not obey me. I could only dodge and protect my chin, struggling to keep on my feet as his heavy blows landed on my body. Shit, here comes the takedown!
We smashed on the floor and I thought I was done, but somehow I freed myself and stood up. I had the strength, but my agility, speed, and techniques, I practised specifically for this opponent, vanished.
Yet, the fool I was, instead of waiting for this nightmare to pass, I struck back. My punches were slow and broad, and my kicks didn’t come close to him. I persisted, stubbornly, and closed the distance.
“Put your hands up! Defend!” I heard Peter yelling at the top of his voice.
Too late. My opponent’s attack played out like a scene in slow motion in front of my eyes and all I could do was to await the terrible result without having the slightest ability to alter it. He spun around and his heel connected with my face. Then there was nothingness.