My opponent for that bout was Luis Ramos, a highly skilled grappler with a wealth of both wrestling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu experience. Though this was to be my seventh amateur fight and merely Luis' debut, his team was supremely confident that Luis' superiority on the ground would carry him to victory. A local MMA outlet, WesternMassMMA, was touting him to be the next big thing in New England's amateur bantamweight division because of the dominance Luis had already displayed in grappling competitions. Perhaps the crown jewel of his notoriety was winning NAGA's adult purple belt division as a 17-year-old blue belt.
At the time, I was known primarily as a striker. Though I felt that my grappling skills were underrated, I knew that Luis' were on another level entirely. Getting taken to the ground would mean certain defeat, and it was of the utmost importance that I kept this fight standing where I could employ my kickboxing to its fullest. We had ourselves a classic 'Striker vs Grappler' matchup.
I stepped into the cage and noted the warmth of the stage lights and the intimacy of the arena. I heard shouts from a faceless crowd that cheered from just beyond the borders of the black-fenced, yellow-canvased hexagon that we'd been locked into. The familiar anticipation anxiety sent a tingling numbness down my arms and my heartbeat pounded as if ticking down the seconds before we'd hit the point of no return. I couldn't tell if I wanted the fight to just start already or for it to never start at all. But then it did and nothing else mattered.
We touched gloves in the center and then exchanged a few strikes before Luis scored his first takedown of the night. My quick, but botched attempt at a tripod sweep sent Luis tumbling back and gave me the space to stand up. Once again, my strikes were unable to stop his advance and Luis got hold of me. This time, he lifted me high and slammed me to the mat with a resounding thud. His fans cheered while mine cringed.
I was a bit frustrated but otherwise undeterred. I've always been a slow starter, so I knew I just had to keep moving and make him work. After eating a mouthful of leather-coated punches, I made it halfway through a triangle-to-omoplata sequence before being denied. To defend my futile submission attempts, Luis had backed up and given me enough space to regain my footing. Like before, Luis closed the distance and wrestled my back to the fence.
As we jockeyed for position, I managed to drive a knee deep into the pit of Luis' stomach. His pained exhalation told me I'd hurt my opponent for the first time that night, and I didn't intend to stop there. Within a blink of landing that strike, before Luis could regain his bearings, I used other my leg to trip the back of his ankle and I drove him over it. We fell to the mat, this time with me on top, and I knew this was my chance to pay him back. I intended to do so, with interest.
Many pugilists before me have described the surreal phenomenon I felt in that moment: an eerie, almost psychic connection between me and my opponent. It felt as if our souls were touching. As our fists and bodies had collided within the past two (grueling) minutes, I could feel the fire in Luis' spirit. He felt indomitable and determined: he was the predator on the hunt for his next meal, and it was only through my downfall that he would be sated.
But no longer. Luis' aura of ferocity and dominance had been infected by doubt. After tossing me like a ragdoll and beating me as savagely as he could manage for these past few minutes, here he was -- pinned beneath me against the fence, forced to withstand my vengeful wrath one thudding punch at a time. And with each blow that crashed against his face, I could sense through our momentary bond, that he believed in his victory less and less by the second. The tide had turned, and the predator had become the prey.
The round ended before I'd been able pay Luis back in full, but I returned to my corner invigorated. To have finally found success after spending the majority of that round getting thrashed, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. It was getting brighter.
I swore that I wouldn't be taken down again. We'd played his game on the ground and now it was time to play mine. My corner men left the cage and the referee signaled the start of round two. Game on!
I bounded forward, leading the exchange with my favorite striking combo at the time -- a jab followed by a head kick on the same side. My shin landed flush against Luis' jaw, but he did not crumble as expected. Instead, Luis desperately tackled me to the relative safety of the mat, back into his world.
Yet it did not feel like his domain any more. Where Luis once exuded confidence and aggression, I now felt fatigue and complacence. Where he once was eager to bombard me with strikes, vying to finish the fight, he now was happy to hang on and catch his breath thinking he was safe. And were it not for our unspoken connection that gave me insight to my opponent's mental state, perhaps he would have been safe sitting on top of me with his head buried against my chest. But now that I could smell blood in the water, there was no refuge left for him in this cage.
With Luis so content to abandon posture within my guard, I found it easy to prop both feet against his hips, while keeping his head down with a collar tie. From this position, he was immobilized and largely unable to strike back. I wound back my free hand as far as I could and drove my fist into his jaw as hard as I could again and again until he had no choice but to retaliate. But at this point, I could sense how far Luis' focus had wavered. When he postured up to throw a punch of his own, Luis was so blinded by exhaustion and desperation that he never saw the triangle coming.
I've thought back to this fight so many times, reminiscing and analyzing what took place that night. There were no two ways about it: my opponent was undoubtedly a more skilled grappler than I. And yet while he had forced me into his domain I had somehow defeated him there. The outcome of our match seemed to defy reason, in that the less skilled competitor emerged victorious. But when I thought back to those moments our psyches were so entwined that I felt his mental state as if it were my own, that's when the nature of fighting became clear to me.
Before this night, I viewed fighting as clash of technique and skills. I would try to perform my striking or grappling techniques on my opponent until they rendered him unconscious, forced to submit, or at such a deficit in scoring that the judges would declare me the winner of our bout. And while those outcomes are all valid, at it's essence fighting is so much simpler: we are trying to chisel away our opponent's will to fight by hurting them until they break. We are trying to damage our adversary until they cannot continue, whether mentally or physically. Sometimes the body goes before the mind, or in this case, the mind is compromised which leads the body to further jeopardy.
But regardless, fighting is about hurting another person. Skill/technique is just a weapon, the means to an end. Overcoming this opponent who outmatched me in skill by hurting him until he grew desperate and dull enough to make an uncharacteristic mistake is what taught me this invaluable lesson. And when I look back on that night, I remember it not only as the end of my amateur career and my most hard-earned amateur victory, but also the night that I learned how to fight.