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11/10/09 9:10 PM - 65 Seconds

Saturday I had the honor of cornering Roxanne Modafferi at Strikeforce in Chicago. The winner would challenge for the most prestigious title in women’s MMA. Fight ended in 65 seconds, via an armbar so definitive it necessitated a trip to the ER.

Wednesday Oct 28, in Tokyo, Japan where Roxy lives and trains, she awoke at 2:00 am to her cell phone ringing – her manager Shu Hirata was calling from New York to see if she would take a rematch against Marloes Coenen the following Saturday. They often say a fighter is game like a pit bull; pit bulls are actually game like Roxy. She said some equivalent to Oh Delicious and danced around her tiny apartment.

She had already called up Berlitz where she works teaching English to take off the end of the week as she was sick, but then had to take off the following week too. Her boss is a fight fan, and said OK.

By Sunday she was in the USA playing video games, buying gifts for friends, vlogging, running into Fedor at Sports Authority, being a little bored. Thursday I showed up, took a cab to the hotel, saw Fedor, and  eeeped like a teenage girl seeing Edward Cullen. I had not felt the same way since seeing Renzo for the first time in 1995; he was washing mats, had a blue bucket.

For the next couple of days I accompanied Roxy to media interviews, lost at every board game, held pads, took walks, and ate too much. One of the least pleasant things pre fight is cutting weight. I have cornered way over 100 fights; for the first time we had to do the Upper Cut.

The fight was at 145 (with a one pound allowance as it was non title), Roxy walks around at 137 or so, can lose five pounds in a single workout, and the commission rule was there could be maximum five pounds difference. Marloes is usually listed at 70 kg (154 lbs) so we figured she would take the extra pound. To be safe Roxy had to make 141. The plan entailed a two-pronged approach, first, IHOP, second, water.

IHOP has made an international institution out of convincing soon to be fatter people that dessert is a meal. Americans don’t take that much convincing, but Pecan Pie Pancakes are not the right way to start the day, unless that is, you are about to fight Marloes Coenen. Other useful meals included the healthy sounding Country Omelet with 1343 calories and Country Sausage Loaded Hash Browns with 1700 calories.

The scale was edging up and the final push began with breakfast, first course cheesecake, and finally involved pounding water while waiting to be called out for the public weigh in. The only problem is that girls have a bladder the size of a mustard seed. First Roxy looked determined, then alarmed, then ashen, then she said I HAVE TO GO. Roxy is a warrior not a complainer; go means go.

I went over to Marloes’s trainer Martijn de Jong to ask whether she would be taking the extra one pound? He looked puzzled, said “For the catch weight? Of 150 pound?” I stopped breathing, he cocked his head, looked inquisitive, before finally breaking into a wide grin. “Hahaha you got me” I replied while imagining a stick of dynamite in his head, the burning fuse coming out of his nose.

The water pounding began anew. Weigh in was in jeans at 141.6. Marloes weighed in wearing pretty much nothing but a six pack at 145.2, commission took something off for the jeans, and another pre fight worry was over.

Earlier in the day we fixed a banner issue. Shu worked admirably to secure sponsors on the shortest notice and late Friday night a courier dropped it off, from another State. Roxanne sounds like roku san (63) in Japanese, so her web site is 63fighter.com. When the banner unfurled, emblazoned across the top, there it was www.69fighter.com.

The hotel lobby printer was out of black ink, so the staff kindly printed out a number 3, in 450 point, reversed. Then I cut out the number with my medical scissors, got some glue from a store, and it was passable. Also a sponsor, the awesome fightlinker.com, was missing so we downloaded their logo to a memory stick, went back to the hotel staff, cut that out with scissors. Third grade arts and crafts class finally paid off; the banner was complete.

We were the swing bout, last prelim. Solid warm up, then wait, and planned a last warm up while the fifth fight was on. Deray Davis was completing the warm up for his bout with Mark Miller when someone came running in and said to Roxy “Can you go right now?” She replied with her usual complete honesty “I have to pee.”Guy complained and off she went. We went dashing out.

 I asked where I was supposed to stand and the guy said I was walking out with her. I knew this was a filmed bout, and that only the fighter could stand in the designated area, as there were flames behind, and I did not want to become Johil De Oliveira with a spit bucket. I said I thought this was a TV bout and he ran off and came back and said “Yah you are right okay, okay you go around to her corner.”

I wade unaided through guards, fans, technicians, commentators and finally end up in the far corner only to have some official run over and yell that she doesn’t have her mouthpiece.” I was doing exactly what I was told to do, and offered her mouthpiece. “I don’t want to touch it” he said. So I went to the other ramp, gave Roxy her mouthpiece, and went back to the other side.

We exchanged a couple of quiet words. And it was on.

In training the last few days, with every moment my confidence grew – Roxy had improved in every way. Her striking was a world better (now it hurt). Her submissions were smoother and faster, throwing gogos, triangles and leg locks with pain. And her wrestling was slick, angling, bumping, pulling, switching off single, double, high crotch and back up to pummeling.

Moments in she took a teep, then landed a right, then ate a big right, and dropped for the first time, reaching for a single as he fell. Marloes was looking for her back and ended up on bottom. The big right was bad but this was where Roxy was great – I yelled to posture.

Roxy looks like a college kid, but can take a shot like any seasoned pro. She may not have realized that she had one foot in queer street, and moved immediately to pass from low. Coenen’s legs came up menacing like a giant squid, triangle was coming on. Again I shout to watch the triangle and posture.

Marloes beat Becky Levi with a flying armbar, in 2000. She improved hugely since then, and transitioned threatening an omoplata and then rolling for an arm bar, belly down. Roxy has great escapes but the elbow was popping one two three, and she tapped the mat hard, over and over. I saw the hand in slow motion.

It was over in 65 seconds. The flight from Japan. Ten years of hard training. The opportunity of a lifetime, over in 65 seconds.

I came over with her sponsor shirt and could barely get it over the hurt arm. Coenen’s hand was raised, I congratulated her from the heart, said she was the best female fighter in the world. Marloes was sweet, offered a rubber match, and Roxy and I went back to the dressing room.

For days I had been hoping the fight would make the CBS telecast. Last time I went from wanting something that bad to wanting to throw up I was 10 or 11, found my uncle had left an unfinished can of beer in the living room. I gulped it and discovered he had been using it as an ashtray. Now I just wanted us to disappear somewhere to talk it through.

Deray and his camp were still there still warming up and I tried to shield her; using a towel to hide pain is sad. A decade of training built up to the biggest moment of her life, and not only did she lose, none of her great skills were showcased. I talked about how she came up a class in weight, took the fight on 10 days notice and a 13 hour time difference, had cage rust from not having a fight in a year. In the end though, that doesn’t matter.

Later, at the press con I overheard Marloes telling someone that she had been sick. It suddenly struck me that what had looked to me like a stern, even ferocious face was actually Marloes trying to hold down lunch the last few days. Everyone fights hurt.

I held Roxy’s head and she cried and it still wasn’t okay but she could think. Now I wished I had someone to hold my head so I could cry. Rogers or Bigfoot are about the right size, but they had other problems, so we kept talking. The pain in her arm was racing with the pain in her heart; her elbow had a fruit basket growing out of it. Doctor looked at the arm, and we decide to get an x-ray.

Finally secured a van driver, but when we got to the ER, I beheld a room with over a 100 people, coughing, crying, bleeding. The diagnosis was immediate - The Bad AIDS. Panicking, I started breathing into my post arena fight armpit, coming up to say “We came from the show at the Sears Center a fighter has a maybe broken arm, how long is the wait for an x-ray?” “I can’t say” the tired lady replied. “Maybe two or three hours” I blurted hopefully. “I can’t say” the tired lady said again. “You can’t say?” “I can’t say.”

I went to the van. “There are over 100 people in there. They all have the Bad AIDS, the airborne one. This is a Chicago ER on a Saturday night. They can’t say how long it will be. Will be two or three hours for sure.” Roxy thought and then replied “They have hospitals in Japan, let’s go see Fedor.”

So we went back and walked into the stands. Then one after another fans came up and asked for an autograph or a picture, many dozens in all, in a constant blessed stream. With each one, Roxy felt a little less disastrous. Finally, she whispered to me “I think they still like you when you lose in America.”

I explained that the model in boxing was to feed a prospect a string of tomato cans, then put him against  a couple of gatekeepers, then a title shot. But in MMA the most beloved figure is Randy Couture and he has a 16-10 record that would be making him 475 bucks a fight in boxing. In MMA, the fights are fair, and losing is a part of it, and that everyone likes her.

To each of those fans, in fact, to every fan of this sport, I want to offer my most heartfelt thanks. I tried everything a corner can do to buoy her even a little, and failed. It was everyone who came up to her that set her heart towards recovering.

We walked around and met a lot of UGers, including Tracy Lee. “She is beautiful” said Roxy. “I’ll say” I replied “And my God that doctor should have paid her.”  A surprised Roxy responded “Tracy Lee had breast augmentation surgery?”  That was probably the moment I started to feel a little better.

Went back to the locker room and Deray was still there, just sitting on a bench, a little demoralized, still expecting to fight, maybe. I watched Mayhem v Shields, and then went back to Fedor’s locker room. I don’t believe in UFOs or ESP or much of anything, but when Fedor came out of the locker room, he scared me. Not like a guy waving a gun scary, I mean Fedor was living under my bed when I was five years old scary.

Fights ended and the press con started. When someone asked Fedor if he thought the cage hurt his performance, he smiled. His performance spoke for itself. Everyone builds Fedor up as a superhuman machine, fulfilling fantasies that are best suited to nine year olds. Fedor ever explains patiently that he is human. Then in the world’s toughest sport he gets hit clean, gets the kayo in the second round, and people are anxious, looking for excuses for why he has fallen so, and don’t his abs not quite look the same?

Another reporter cited his accolades, and asked how his fame in the US compared with his fame in Russia. He said, he was more famous in the USA, but he hoped that would change as the show was broadcast nationally in Russia, for the first time. Fedor is not even very popular in the US.

Sir Rudyard Kipling famously wrote
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings

That is fighting. Roxy is back in Japan, going to train hard, and build up another string of wins.

There is the assumption in many fan’s mind that fighters train to a razor’s edge peak of physical and mental perfection, and then meet in a perfectly orchestrated clash. When they don’t see their own fantasy, they can turn, hard. The truth is that everyone fights hurt, everyone struggles mentally, everyone has personal issues, every event has chaos backstage, and the whole point of a fight is to create chaos. I think if fans knew a little more, they would appreciate the sport a little deeper.

I have about as modest record as exists, but last fight, I was supposed to fight early, then rest, then corner two guys. Then the card fell apart and I was the main event, so my guys were supposed to fight early. Then that didn’t happen and I ended up cornering, taping my own hands, cornering again, and then fighting the next fight. Two weeks out I pulled a hamstring muscle pretty good and tried creatine as I heard it promoted healing. My weight has held steady at 205 for decades, but when I weighed myself Thursday just to be sure, I was 213, and had to make a catch weight of 195, so I drank nothing for two days. By the time fight started, I didn’t want to be there.

I have done martial arts pretty much every day since 1973. I have been knocked out, listened to a parade of college kids relate how sifu’s arm in so laden with chi it feels like a car bumper on your shoulders, had kids shake a poop out of the gi pant leg, but always wanted to be in the gym. Before that fight, the only time I can remember wanting to be somewhere else, the toilet clogged with something that snakes went past but things still got caught in. Plumber are expensive and gyms are not cash cows; I got some tools, drained the toilet, removed the bolts, spun it over, and shook. A red aerosol can cap came out, followed by a log. I squealed, dodged sideways, dropped the throne, and didn’t want to be there.

First clean punch that I land, my right hand breaks. We had a gentleman’s agreement not to do “any of that Royce Gracie shit.” So I slogged through. Like I said, I have about as modest a record as exists, but it is universal that the people in the ring are as human as the people watching. Even Fedor.

That is a person up there. And if you look hard enough, you can see everything a human has.

I wish every fan understood that MMA is not a movie with a dozen takes, or a comic entirely unbound by reality. MMA is real. Every match I ref I tell the fighters that they are human, and they are going to make some mistakes out there, and that I am going to make some mistakes too. I believe that the asses in seats pay the ticket price and they don’t have to love every fighter. But if they knew a little more, If they appreciated how much can be lost in 65 seconds, it would be more than entertainment, they would be broadened as human beings.