Talk about memories. Wow.
Just about 6 years ago—in 2009—I had my one and only MMA fight, a pro rules amateur bout. I won by toehold of all things.
I have been an MMA fan for a long time, and I was a fan before I even started training. I always had a goal of doing one fight at some point, check it off my athletic bucket list so to speak. A few of my training partners were fighting on the same card, and somehow they convinced me to join them. Six weeks before the fight, I realized I had never been taught how throw a punch.
Seriously. Beyond some uncle-to-nephew bonding when I was six, I had not even the slightest bit of striking training, and I was a few weeks out from my first fight. If you’re seeing some red flags, you are better off than I was. I charged right past them and into my first MMA experience. If any BJJ players out there are considering MMA, you might learn something from my story.
I was a fresh purple belt at the time. I was confident in my mat work, but my stand-up was awkward. I favored having my right foot forward, and I really wanted to keep that approach, but my coach was not having it. I spent a few weeks awkwardly shuffling with my left forward in a traditional stance. It felt… okay.
“We don’t have time,” my coach said in his Brazilian accent. “It’s okay. Just One. Two. Shoot. It will be fine.”
So I shuffled. One. Two. Shoot. Back up. Shuffle shuffle. One. Two. Shoot. That was the extent of my stand-up.
As foreign as striking felt, MMA grappling was the most jarring. Many of my training partners who I usually submitted during BJJ class were now kicking my ass. I frequently left my head exposed from guard. I gave up dominant positions to rush a submission instead of holding them to deliver strikes. And the gloves—I was not used to the gloves. Suddenly spots where I could easily get underhooks, or sneak my hands into a choke, were suddenly not available. The gloves were bulky and strange, getting stuck and snagged in unusual places.
As bad as I was at MMA, I wasn’t completely new to fighting. I grew up in Chile and attended an all-boys school. I had my fair share of scuffles growing up, and I even had a few after I moved to the US, so the whole getting punched in the face thing was not a big barrier for me. Punching people that I liked—my friends—was the strange part, which put on an odd wrinkle in my sparring. To be clear, I was fine choking them unconscious, but punching them in the face didn’t feel right.
I did my best to push through that. And I shuffled. Shuffled. One. Two. Shoot. With each shuffle shuffle I missed the gi more and more. I’d catch glimpses of jiu-jitsu classes in session and found myself wishing I was in those classes instead of “working on my stand-up.” I realized then that this would be my first and last fight.
I shuffled my way all the way to fight time. Wearing my gi and purple belt, I walked out to “What I Got” by Sublime. As I neared the cage, I felt strangely calm, more calm than I ever felt leading up to a BJJ competition (even today). The cage door locked, and I had a flash of disbelief.
“How is this actually happening?”
The first round went according to plan. I one-twoed my way into a takedown and maintained dominant position. I worked some strikes and got close to finishing a choke. In the second round, my opponent caught on to the complexity of my shuffle shuffle technique. I went in for the one two and he planted a stiff right hand into my jaw. I fell to my back, not sure what was happening.
“Oh yeah, this guy is punching me in the face.”
My jiu-jitsu instincts, seeing that my cognitive awareness had called it quits, kicked in. I threw my legs up, locked a single leg X guard, and forced the sweep. Through the fog of being rocked, I groped for a heel hook. He spun and kicked free. As he wiggled away, I caught a toe hold. His foot crunched as I torqued it. He tapped.
The referee raised my hand. I cleaned the blood off of my face. And we went home. On the way, we stopped in Connecticut for gas.
I walked into the gas station, and the attendant said, “Oh my God! You were mugged! Don’t worry. I’ll call the police.”
I did a double take and realized he was talking to me. My face was swelling and nose was a Rudolph red. It took five minutes to talk him out of the 911 call. He had never heard of MMA, and he was quite surprised that someone would do it for free.
As I look, back I am glad I had that experience, but I would not recommend anyone following in my exact footsteps. MMA is much more regulated now, and amateur rules are much stricter. If you are a BJJ student, with no striking background, here is what I recommend before you venture into MMA:
Get to a purple belt level in BJJ. If you can’t go into an advanced division at your local tournament and hold your own, you have no business stepping in the cage. I have seen too many terrible amateur fights, where one guy hits the ground and was completely lost and takes unnecessary damage that would have been avoided if he knew how to work his hips. I would rather have my students become proficient on the ground before we need to start worrying about strikes.
Learn striking. Take your time and really put some work into your hands. I did not spend nearly enough time in this area, and if it wasn’t for my thick head, I would have lost the fight because of it.
Make sure you can get the fight to the ground whether you work on takedowns or dynamic entries into submissions. Your opponent will work to come back to his feet, so your training needs to account for that as well. This is something that many BJJ guys completely ignore as they are not used to grappling in a striking context.
Put it all together. Remember this is going to be a fight, not a grappling match or a boxing match. This may sound silly, but I have seen many MMA guys with awesome striking and ground work but for whatever reason cannot put them together. Make sure you put work into your transitions from striking to takedowns (shuffle shuffle) and vice versa. Learn how to set up your submissions with strikes, and be ready when your opponent defends your submissions with strikes.
Have fun. This is a very unique experience, and I feel it is a definitely a badge of honor, as Rocky Balboa would say "there is nothing wrong standing toe to toe and saying I am."
These are my two cents. I am by no means an expert on MMA. I had one amateur fight a long time ago, and I have cornered 10 other fights since then. While I think BJJ is for everyone, I really do think MMA is not. Make sure you are really committed to it before you decide to walk into the cage.
Photos credits: Shawn Alan Photography. If you know Shawn, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can get in touch with him.