‘Your ancestors survived for this long for some reason,’ I would remind myself. ‘Tap into that.’
If you asked my friends and family to describe me in a few words, it is unlikely they would choose ‘tough’ or ‘brave’. When I told my father I planned to enter into my first mixed martial arts match, his initial response was confusion. People who asked me in the past if I ever wanted to do MMA were usually met with adamant refusal on my part. But for some reason, when an opportunity to register for an MMA event materialized, I put my name down alongside two teammates from my Jiu-Jitsu gym.
I told myself I wanted to see who they would match me up with and that I probably wouldn’t accept the matchup. Weeks passed before I got an email. I saw my opponent, looked him up on Youtube, talked to my coach, and then accepted the match.
Thus began one of the most stressful months of my life.
I don’t have a particularly calm demeanor under normal circumstances, and my teammates would laugh at any assertion to the contrary. I have always approached BJJ as more of a game than a fight, but nonetheless, it is a game that means a lot to me and one I take seriously. Loss is painful for me and wins are jubilant. Now I was actually going to fight someone. There were rules of course, but the line between game and fight was now barely visible.
While I trained to improve my abysmal boxing skills and my non-existent cardio, I constantly flitted between mindsets for the fight. I would listen to heavy metal while I walked to work and think about ripping my opponent apart limb from limb. But part of my mind always lingered during those times, laughing knowingly. It very much doubted any ability or desire to rip another person limb from limb. I like poetry and being the little spoon. I listen to The 1975. I knew I wasn’t a Viking, so why was I pretending to be one?
‘Your ancestors survived for this long for some reason,’ I would remind myself. ‘Tap into that.’ Sometimes this pep talk would work and I would continue visualizing mauling my opponent. Other times I would turn to another modality of thought.
I cycled through everything. I would listen to relaxing and happy music. I visualized losing and accepting my defeat. I visualized winning. I tried self-talk when I got nervous. I meditated. I listened to fighters like Dominick Cruz and Donald Cerrone share their thoughts on competition and defeat. I listened to popular thinkers ranging from Jocko Willink and Jordan Peterson to Alan Watts and Terence McKenna. No matter what I heard or told myself, I still felt a chasm open up in my chest whenever I thought about the fight. My heart accelerated and adrenaline started unloading into my system.
The physical preparation was no less frustrating. Not only did I get my ass beat on the daily whenever we did any type of striking, but my entire style of BJJ had to change as well. As I said before, I see BJJ as a game and my style of play reflects this attitude. I like to play from the bottom, take risks, and go for leglocks and sneaky submissions. It was like starting BJJ all over again in some ways, especially when strikes were added in.
People always talk about how BJJ is a great way to rid yourself of your ego. This may be easy for others, but when you spend a lot of time getting good at something it is frustrating as hell to get beat at that thing all of the sudden. I was trying a new way of playing this sport so I should have been able to reason with myself over these losses in training. I have a history of unrealistic expectations however, so they felt even more painful than usual. This was clearly illogical, but with the fight always looming in the future, failure in the gym meant getting annihilated in a cage with all my friends and family watching.
So I slogged through all the training, videos, self-help, outbursts of frustration, and dieting for around a month.
Gameday arrives. The moments of anxiety increase in frequency.