In 2 days, I’ll step into a cage in Las Vegas and fight in my first MMA fight – having never trained any martial art before 6 months ago. When I initially told people about this idea, some thought I was crazy, others thought I was stupid, and still others thought that this was exciting and cool. Maybe they were all right. For me, though, this project was and has been about much more than just a fight. This has been a journey of self discovery, identity, testing my limits and developing my character.
This blog is divided into two parts: Why – in which I try to explain my reasons for doing this and Training/Thank You – where I delve a little into my training and what this process has been like through expressions of gratitude. I wanted to post this before the actual fight because I didn’t want the outcome to influence it’s tone. Poker trains you to disentangle the outcome from the process, the destination from the journey. Whether I win or lose, I will be a different person now than I was 6 months ago. As confident as I am that I have done everything I can to prepare for this moment, I try to only be concerned with the things I have control over.
One of the most celebrated and genuinely incredible aspects of being a professional poker player is the freedom and autonomy it allows. I don’t need an alarm clock or have a boss. I get to play a game that challenges me and that I love as much as I want, whenever I want and from pretty much wherever I want. There is, however, a flipside to this incredible freedom that I think is connected to a life leak I noticed in myself after a while: I lacked real discipline and, in some cases, the willingness to do things that I simply did not want to do. This quality is incredibly important, in my view, to achievement and success generally and part of this project was a desire to develop this discipline in myself.
In addition to discipline though, there are a number of other things that motivated me to take this on. I wanted to test myself physically and mentally and raise my fitness to as high a level as I could. Also, since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to learn how to fight. I’ve always wanted to feel confident that I could protect myself and my family (or at least have a reasonable chance) if I was forced to. I think being able to handle yourself in a physical altercation is an essential skill that all men should have (sorry if this is not a progressive enough view for everyone). Until this point in my life I had never seriously pursued this skill, however, and I think part of the reason for that was my aforementioned lack of discipline. Booking a 6 figure bet with a huge backout penalty served as a forcing mechanism that ensured I would be committed.
Even given all of these factors, however, I was still not convinced this was the right challenge for me. Then something happened. What had started as an interesting and cool idea very quickly became a possible reality when my opponent expressed genuine interest and we started negotiating. When this happened I noticed a change in how I felt. That change was marked by a surge of fear and anxiety. It probably won’t surprise most people that fighting someone (especially someone trained) would produce fear – but my fear wasn’t rational. It wasn’t about being hurt or being embarrassed or about losing money. It was just a large cloud looming over me making me afraid.
At that time, I was in a unique frame of mind that gave me a perspective on this fear that I might not otherwise have had. This is because I was in the process of finalizing a divorce. In my opinion, divorces are universally traumatic for anyone that goes through one but we each experience that trauma through the individual lens of our specific context. In my case, even though I initiated it, my divorce left me lost and alone. As I tried to find my way, I was much more open to thinking about who I wanted to be and how to try and become that person than I had in the past. (I have since learned that this perspective was important for me but not essential. The truth is that every day and even every decision we make, we each have an opportunity to become more like the person we aspire to be) This temporarily altered mindset framed my response to this fear as a crossroads moment. I could give in and come up with a number of different reasons why this wasn’t the right challenge for me – my family was horrified by the idea, I needed to focus on how the rest of my life was going to look, etc. I understood, though, that those reasons would simply be intellectual rationalizations to cover up my emotional desire to fold to my fear. Or I had another choice: I could become the “hero” of my story and decide to try to overcome my fear. Not surprisingly, once I had framed this challenge in those terms, I didn’t feel like I had much of a choice anymore. I wasn’t sure exactly who I was going to be post-divorce but I knew that I could never forgive myself if I chose the coward’s path. (I fully realize there were many other ways I could have framed this challenge, but this was the way my subconscious chose to present it to my conscious mind)
After that moment, I was fully committed. My opponent and I came to terms and my training started.
I originally had envisioned this journey as a primarily solo experience of self-discovery and improvement and in many ways it has been; but I was pleasantly shocked by another element that emerged. Because of many of the people I’m about to thank and especially everyone at ECU, there has been an unmistakable collaborative element in this journey. I am eternally grateful to everyone who has been a part of this process with me and who made me feel like I didn’t have to try to do this alone.
The very beginning of my training began at an Equinox in Manhattan with a massive Russian man named Rufat. His arms were bigger than my legs and he could one-handed deadlift more than anyone else at the gym could two-handed deadlift. He had been in the Russian special forces, trained Olympic weight-lifters and had 17 MMA fights of his own. Rufat was my strength and conditioning coach and a never-ending source of humor and motivation. He created extremely tough MMA-specific workouts and helped get me as strong as I could get. Thank you Rufat.
Within a couple days of announcing this fight, I got a message from someone whose name was familiar to me but I wasn’t sure how. His name is Elliot Roe. He is a mental coach whose client list is majority poker players and the rest pro/amateur fighters – a combination clearly tailor-made for me in this moment. He said he had heard about my fight and wanted to offer his advice/support. He expressed real concern that I was in over my head and was afraid I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into. He offered me a free mental coaching session and access to a number of his connections in the fighting world. Over the course of the past 6 months, he has become a friend and mentor of sorts for me. He constantly checked in on me, gave advice and provided encouragement. His patience and support have been endless and I am blown away by both the generosity of his spirit and the efficacy of his coaching. Anyone who is serious about either poker or fighting can undoubtedly derive real value from working with him. Thank you Elliot.
From the time that I began negotiating terms for this fight, I have relied on the advice and support of my close friend, Joe Ciccone. I met Joe after I tore my ACL 2.5 years ago and he was my physical therapist. A bromance blossomed and we fast became close friends. He has been as loyal and true a friend during this difficult past year as I could have asked for. In terms of this fight, he has helped me in numerous ways. He knew a lot more about fighting than I did and helped me understand what I needed to know when negotiating and setting up my training. He has helped motivate and inspire confidence in me by, at times, having even more faith in me than I had in myself. Out of all the ways he’s helped me, though, none were bigger than introducing me to Tito Hartz and ECU-MMA. Thank you Joe.
East Coast United is a small MMA gym in the Bronx. Its relatively unremarkable from the outside and once you get inside, it’s not that much different. It isn’t flashy or have a bunch of fancy equipment; it’s not even that big. It’s pretty much just two rectangular rooms, one on top of the other, with mats covering the majority of the floor and striking bags at the end. It is, however, a special place. My first day in the gym I immediately noticed in a far corner two cages each containing a gorgeous girl pit bull. Pit bulls, I would soon learn, were a recurring theme at ECU. Their comp team is called the Pit Bulls and Coach Tito and the twins each have a tattoo of one. It is the perfect metaphor for the gym. Pit bulls are instinctually protective, loyal and fearless. They are extremely affectionate with their inner circle of friends/family and if treated with respect and love, respond in kind. They are also easily trainable and when properly trained, are disciplined, well-behaved and capable of controlled aggression. These are the traits personified by Tito, himself, and promoted and taught at the gym.
From my first day, I was instantly accepted. I would have to earn their respect with hard work, commitment and ultimately even some stitches but I was given a fair chance. From said go, I was awestruck by how such a tough and gritty group were also endlessly instructional, encouraging and generous. I would literally go from having a guy on my back peppering me with punches to the face waiting for me to make a mistake so he could slide his arm under my chin and choke me out to the bell ringing and instantly hugging and laughing and him explaining how I could’ve done better. The truth is that Elliot was right and I had gotten in over my head – but ECU saved me. Trying to learn a single discipline in 6 months would’ve been difficult enough but trying to learn Muay Thai, wrestling, Judo and combat Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was a pretty monumental task. Obviously MMA is incredibly difficult and technical and I am still a beginner but I have learned a tremendous amount and grown a ton as a person and could never thank the people from ECU properly for helping to prepare me for this fight. Thank you Marcus, Steve, Saoul, Jhaydon, Jon, Chris, Juan, Celio, Washington, Beriz and many more.
As special a place as ECU is, the gym is best represented by the competition team. I was lucky enough to train with 4 members of the team: Luis, Ross, Brandon and Christian (the twins). My favorite moments from my training were the 30-45 minutes after we were done when I was recovering from getting my ass beat and we would sit around and bullshit. We would laugh and tell stories, they would give me advice and never-ending support and encouragement. They were more generous with their time and knowledge than I could’ve dreamed of or asked for. I’ve been on teams before but this was different. This was a family and these were my brothers.
If I had to use a single word to describe Ross Richardson, it would be fierce. He is as intense a training partner as I’ve had and is an absolute beast. He’s incredibly passionate about the sport and loves training at least as much as I love anything – including poker. I pity whoever has to get into a cage with him. Off the mat, he is incredibly mature for his age, bright, dedicated, funny, warm and awesome. Thank you Ross, for everything.
Luis Gonzalez is as lethal in the cage as he is gentle and humble outside of it. (And with 2 knockouts in under 20 seconds, that’s not to be taken lightly) He is a natural teacher full of patience and positivity. He would constantly check in on me and helped me with numerous intangible elements throughout this journey. His support and encouragement were invaluable. I’ve rarely been as happy for someone else’s success as I was when he won his last fight. Thank you Luis, for everything.
Either Christian or Brandon Medina were there every single day that I trained, and usually they were there together. They are as committed and dedicated to the fight life as someone can be. They train and coach all day, every day and they even ref and judge fights on the weekends. They are both extremely tough and intensely competitive, but also genuine students of the game always wanting to both learn/improve and teach/help others. I am in awe at their maturity and outlook at only 20 years of age. Since they are identical, it was pretty tough at first to tell them apart; but I started to learn their tattoos and eventually was able to distinguish. The first time I took a knee to the face, (thanks Brandon!) I broke my nose and needed 13 stitches. The only thing I remember about my visit to the medical clinic that day, though, was sitting around with Christian watching hilarious videos on his phone. Without even trying, he made me forget that I had broken my nose, that my face would probably never look exactly the same and that I wouldn’t be able to train/spar for a while. I am almost as excited for him to fight and win an amateur belt this Saturday as I am for my own fight. Brandon taught me a couple important lessons which unfortunately came at a moment of disappointment and frustration for him. He fought some classless clown that he was clearly better than but let get in his head and caught a straight right that flashed knocked him out early in the 2nd round. He woke up as he hit the cage and managed to survive not only the rest of that round but the 3rd round as well. Even though he lost the fight, he showed me was true toughness looked like. Then in the days and weeks following the loss, he showed me what true grace and resiliency looked like. He didn’t make excuses or blame anyone else. He also didn’t lose confidence in himself but instead took it as an opportunity to learn and grow. These brothers have truly inspired me and I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to train with them. Thank you Christian and Brandon, for everything.
Every family needs a father and a mother and ECU is no different. Everything that makes it special comes from the couple that own and run it, Coach Tito and Coach May Hartz. May is as beautiful as she is tough; as elegant in a gi as she is in every day clothes; she is the yoga instructor but don’t sleep on her BJJ cause she will straight choke you out. Her smile and warmth are infectious and she always made me feel at home at ECU. Her relationship with Tito is an inspiration for me as I try to rebuild my sense for what a healthy partnership looks like. Thank you May, for everything.
Tito Hartz is the patriarch of ECU. It is his example that we all try to emulate. The is a man who seems like he has already lived multiple lives even though he just turned 40. From being a college football player to a professional body builder to having black belts in multiple disciplines including Brazilian Jiu Jitsu under Renzo Gracie, he is built for achievement. He is a fighter, coach, business owner, husband, father and if he wanted to, he could hack into your email or build you a computer from scratch (I’m afraid to even play him in Rainbow 6) His wealth of fighting knowledge is overwhelming and I know that I hardly even tapped into it over the past 6 months. As much as he has taught me about fighting, he has also taught me invaluable lessons about toughness, grit, commitment and manhood. He is a positive influence in countless lives of the young kids and adults who come into the gym and are fortunate enough to train and/or learn from him. Knowing him has made me a better person. Thank you Tito, for everything.
Though I normally visualize a faceless opponent who is merely an obstacle to me achieving my goal, I would also like to thank my opponent personally. I have nothing but respect for anyone who is willing to step inside a cage and fight and I have nothing but appreciation for the person who is willing to do it with me: enabling me to have this experience and ultimately sharing part of it with me. Thank you JC.
The fight is Thursday 4/21/16 at SyndicateMMA in Las Vegas at 6 pm. Tickets will be sold for $20 at the door and all proceeds will go towards a wonderful charity called One Drop. It will also be live streamed – youtu.be/okYmm56tH-s
Luck is the last dying wish of those who believe winning can happen by accident.
You have to be the nail before you’re the hammer.
Train hard, fight easy.