The Amateur: Mixed Martial Arts, Part II

There are many sports out there. ↵Spencer Hall isn’t good at any of them. Join him as he shows off his ↵athletic anti-prowess while attempting various sporting activities for ↵the first time in the “The Amateur.” ↵
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Today we continue Spencer Hall's first-hand encounter with the world of MMA. Read Part I of this experience here. Now, Part II ...
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It's grappling day for the beginner's Brazilian jiu-jitsu class at Hardcore Gym, and the massive Adam Singer is in full command of the class. Tonight's class contains me, whose sole martial arts experience of any sort (outside of a lifelong appreciation of a fine Jean Claude Van Damme film) comes from five months of judo in college. There's little baby-stepping: immersion is the word, and I'm right there alongside the more experienced students surfing guard, watching Adam demonstrate the techniques on George, and playing the part of slightly resistant grappling dummy for my partners. ↵

↵Most importantly, I'm trying not to get anyone hurt in any way whatsoever. This includes me, who came to class without the bare minimum of mouthpiece or cup, a laughable fact given the original intent of the piece: to "spar" with an MMA guy and see just how unfair the cliched and inaccurate notion of the sport being "human cockfighting" really is. As it turns out, you can't just throw someone in and say "go" and expect someone to even know how to practice MMA techniques, since even competent sparring requires breaking down the sport into its pieces: standup Muay Thai boxing and striking, grappling, and then finally the Brazilian jiu-jitsu/Greco-Roman hybrid summing up most of what people do once the fight goes to ground. ↵

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↵An actual rooster would be more prepared to spar than I am at this point, and likely more dangerous. (At least it has razors tied to its legs. I have a few long toenails, and that's it.) ↵

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↵Using Armbars to Make Friends and Influence People ↵

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↵So tonight I'm just doing jiu-jitsu, and even then only doing so very, very carefully. After some rapid conditioning drills, it's lecture time around the mat. The audience is almost exclusively male, though there is one brave woman in the class. Most of them appear to be UGA students, or at least people who could be UGA students: floppy-haired, young-ish, and for the most part very comfortable in the environment of the gym. To my relief, there are a few first-timers, easily spotted by their nervous looks and the flapping of their waivers in hand. Everyone else leans on the walls, stretches on the mats, and enjoys the easy ironic camaraderie that springs up between relative strangers when you ask them to pair up and play fight. ↵

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↵(This is a theme: the odd goodwill that exists between people who, by rule, beat each other up and twist each other's limbs for fun. There's an inverse relationship here: the more intense and serious the fighters, the more at-ease and friendly they seemed with each other afterward. The most experienced guys seemed near-brotherly, and had a physical ease in each other's company you don't see in a lot of childhood buddies. Putting someone else in a well-executed armbar may be a quick and counterintuitive road to solid, lasting friendship.) ↵

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↵Adam Singer, co-owner and instructor tonight takes the reins. Adam is a large man with close cropped hair, a brown belt in jiu-jitsu, and a gruff but friendly off-mat demeanor. Once in front of a class, though, he quickly turns into an energetic professor of his trade, whipping the class through a series of techniques and moves for getting people around guard -- the surprisingly thorny defensive position a fighter is in when they're on their back on the ground with their legs in the air. Singer's almost got a Socratic method going on in class, asking questions to get to more questions, prodding the class along, and piling on new techniques until we've piled up 10 different methods for getting around guard without even thinking about it. ↵

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↵It helps that we're breaking this up with drills as we go: stepping around our partner, lunging down to trap the legs in a move called "stuff," occasionally falling over in the attempt and hoping no one noticed. It's extremely, extremely intense: even going in minute-long bursts is enough to curdle the Chik-Fil-A in my stomach, leading me to think the eight piece with fries was not the best idea on the way over to the gym. I manage not to hurt anyone (including myself) in 30 minutes of sweaty but uneventful practice. ↵

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↵Tapping Out: My First and Best Line of Defense ↵

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↵"Okay, grappling, grappling." Adam's called for the class to go free grapple, pairing up with each other to go in rounds of two minutes each to get the feel for using the techniques in flow. He pads over to me. "Hey, you want pictures? Let's get you with someone the right size. So, how much do you weigh?" ↵

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↵"About 200 pounds," I say. ↵

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↵"Chad will be perfect for you." He smiles. It's only a slightly evil smile. ↵

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↵Chad Shafer is one of the instructors at the gym, a fighter with a very strong ground game. He weighs 155 pounds, 45 pounds less than I do. He is also in hellacious shape and knows what he's doing, which is more of an advantage than almost any amount of weight in the world. He's a bearded, cheerful guy with a day job who has a few amateur fights under his belt. He is a very, very nice guy. ↵

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↵So nice, in fact, that he scarcely wastes any time in putting me down three times with surgical precision. If you're not a dedicated MMA fan, the ground game is probably one of the less interesting parts of the sport: no one's swinging for the fences with a punch, or leaping forward with a flying squirrel attack, or unleashing a vicious kick to the head. Look closer, though, and you'll see a brilliant option game laid out in the tangled mess of dudes lying on the mat. Move an arm, and you could go for a choke; but you expose you weakness, and possibly surrender an armbar. Lock up a leg, and you could immobilize your opponent ... or set yourself up for a hideous joint lock submission that will send you on the express elevator to tapout hell. ↵

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↵Combine the endless tactical variations with this: fear. Sheer, stinking, brain-rattling fear. Standing up and facing someone punching you is one thing, fighting them off when they're threading attempted choke after attempted choke is another. Even in a controlled environment, having Chad's arm come looping around my neck time after time after time is unnerving. Choking is the opposite of hospitality, something your brain recognizes on a deep, primitive level triggering all kinds of unpleasant fear hormones you'd normally associate with being asphyxiated, crushed, or strangled. The physical effort of being in a hold taxes the system, but it's as much the immediate shock of fear that gets you winded when someone's tangled up with you and fooling your lizard brain into thinking you're in a life or death situation. ↵

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↵Chad, as I mentioned, spares me a lot of exposure to this animal fear by taking me out tidily and quickly. The first time, I have zero clue what I'm doing, and somehow end up with him on my back four or five moves after being locked up face-to-face on the mat. The second time, I remain equally clueless but last a bit longer. The third time, he decides to end things very quickly with a rear naked choke, presumably because he was bored and wanted to fight someone who knew what they were doing and wouldn't put themselves almost intentionally into easy chokes, armbars, and other painful submissions. I tap out before the fringes of my vision get pink and fuzzy and I wake up on the floor surrounded by concerned strangers. ↵

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↵ ↵⇥ ↵⇥ ↵⇥ ↵⇥ ↵⇥ ↵⇥ ↵ ↵
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↵It's Like Chess, But With Punching and Blood
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↵I talk about the complexity of it all with Adam and George after Chad has dispensed with me, and I'm a useless sack of depleted lungs and will leaning on the gym wall. I've dropped out, and am sitting watching the experienced fighters go round robin against each other in a circle. My grappling partner tangles with a guy who's a week out from his last fight. Even in a gym full of extremely fit people, he stands out: he's muscle, ligament, and little else, a ball of wire wrapped around Chad, who just minutes ago was easily tying me into a knot of strangling limbs and lungs. ↵

↵Adam's pressing the issue of training fighters so they can be creative, but instinctively so. "I don't want my fighters to think too much when they're out there. They just have to know. It's like -- it is like chess." ↵

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↵George disagrees. "I like this language comparison better." George is Russian, and has the trademark tats in Cyrillic that pop up on Russian fighters and on the American fighters who admire them. (I can't help but think an MMA fighter gets stronger the instant they get Cyrillic tatted into their hide.) "It's like language. You learn the basics, and eventually it just flows. In chess--" ↵

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↵"Not true! I told you, there was this article in Scientific American talking about that. Three moves ahead. That's all the guys had to know. Three moves ahead--" ↵

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↵George and Adam continue to argue -- politely, but insistently -- about the deep strategic truths behind fight strategy. In the meantime, the grapplers have switched. Chad sits against the wall, his shirt soaked with sweat and his chest heaving with effort. The guy still in fight shape springs up and immediately rolls into his next partner, effortlessly tucking himself into a nasty hold of the man's arm and blasting through position after position. The only thought more frightening than the idea of grappling with him right now is seeing the guy who, somewhere in some other gym, was preparing for him just a few weeks ago, and putting them in the ring to see what happens when training met the insane crux of the moment. ↵

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↵I get to see that 14 times in a row in two days, when I follow Cale Yarbrough to his fight in Atlanta, where he meets someone equally fit, mean-looking and ready to split someone's head open in the ring. One of them walks out with a knockout. The other one walks out knocked out with a scrambled brain and a man under either shoulder carrying them out of the ring. ↵

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↵Come back for The Amateur: Mixed Martial Arts, Part III Monday afternoon. ↵ ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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