“Man, your jab is rubbish,” Coach barked from the corner.
Eight rounds into a ten round sparring session, each of Joey’s sixteen-ounce gloves felt like they’d been dipped in lead, and he struggled keeping his hands close to his chin for defense let alone gain an advantage with any sort of offense.
Between rounds, Coach advised, “Measure your distance with a few stiff jabs, plant your feet, and then bring that right to his chin from the outfield.”
All Joey could muster was the biggest punch he could pull from the energy reserves, which, in reality, couldn’t have popped a grape at this point.
Joey’s sparring partner took advantage of the opening, peppering him with punches until he dropped to the canvas, and Coach was right there to remind him, “Jabs before haymakers, kid.”
Any words of encouragement—good luck, have fun, break a leg—other than what Caleb’s mom offered before each fight would have been better: “Why do you want to take a chance of messing up that cute, little face?”
While she saw Caleb’s youthful glow—a trait embedded into every mother’s DNA—a massive frame of muscle, hardened from years of wrestling, turned to look at his mother, and a face—accessorized with knobby, cauliflower ears and a nose hooked like a question mark for the unknown number of breaks suffered—smiled widely, assuring her that there was nothing to worry about.
Of course, the move to pro invited plenty of worry, and Caleb’s coach zeroed in on elbows, especially for his upcoming debut against Mark Riley—a fighter with a reputation for slicing open opponents with the points of his arms like they were blunt force carving tools.
Coach spelled out the game plan from day one of camp, “All you wrestlers are the same: you’re useless on your back, so every movement—whether on offense or defense—is to keep us from winding up like a tortoise on its shell. Got it?”
Unfortunately, the entire strategy focused on not getting into a particular position, instead of what to do if it were to actually happen, and the symmetry in Caleb’s face was disfigured—a roadmap of scar tissue and a reconstructed cheekbone—forever.
The commentators sitting cage side were drawn toward the edge of their seats as Sirens called Odysseus from out at sea.
Hypnotized by the striking clinic on display at the hands of a Brazilian legend in—known simply as “Vibora,” which meant viper in Portuguese—the play-by-play discussion led viewers to believe: the knockout was a forgone conclusion.
In the moment, their analysis didn’t sound home cooking. Human bodies, typically, aren’t supposed to absorb that much punishment, but when you’re a Russian wrestler built like a stack of Legos, it seemed otherwise.
“Vibora” stabbed at his stocky opponent with a combination of two left jabs and an overhand right, punctuated with a tenderizing leg kick.
When the punches missed, the outsider, in one, dynamic motion, snatched the flying leg from the sky, hoisted “Vibora” above his head, smashed him into the canvas, and sent shockwaves through the now silenced arena.
Championship belts lined his wall like a mural of monumental memories.
No doubt, his legendary career would make him a first ballot Hall of Fame candidate. He met the who’s who of the sport in the middle of the cage, delivered round after round of heart-racing action, and could cut a promo that drew audiences around the world like trout to a lure.
One faction of fans call him the G.O.A.T—the Greatest of All Time. Another calls him T.B.E—The Best Ever.
Regardless of the chosen acronym, there will never be anyone as epic as him.
Eleven rounds in to a fifteen round practice and Eli questioned whether he had it in him.
Prior to the start of the twelfth, one of the team’s veterans, Theo “This Guy” Higgins, recognized Eli’s distant stare—a look of uncertainty and despair—through a mask of sweat.
Higgins pulled Eli back into reality with a pop on the shoulder using a sixteen-ounce Everlast club, “You got this man,” he began. “Survive these next four rounds, focus on cutting weight next week, get your hand raised, and it’ll all be worth it.”
Easy for a dude who’s been doing this for nearly twelve years to say, though Eli only nodded his head in return because he knew Higgins, a former Champion with seven title defenses, was right.
“If it were as simple as looking into a crystal ball,” Higgins continued while stepping back onto the mat, “we wouldn’t have to prepare for every possible scenario inside the cage.”
Mike pulled his hunk-of-junk Honda Civic into the usual parking spot. Mike’s training partners, who were much more reliable than his car, were huddled around and chatting lightheartedly, knowing full well that all hell was about to break loose.
Sparring days at O’Malley’s MMA were nothing short of pure chaos, which was exactly what Conner O’Malley, the late founder of the facility, expected. Ever since O’Malley passed away several years ago, Mike, who was willed the gym by the no nonsense, warm-hearted coach, and his crew of training partners continued with the same weekly regiment—especially on the days they’d spar. With his own two hands, O’Malley laid the concrete foundation, constructed the building using pine, rolled out some mats, and hung a few heavy bags, and the half dozen fighters nearly leveled the place when instructed to “go live.”
Who knew: a gym built from Christmas tree wood would be a treasured gift that’d keep on giving?
All the talk and hype was over; the next time Phil “50 Caliber” Callaway and Jeremy “Sand” Mann would meet was in the center of the cage for the Heavyweight Title.
The 50,000 attendees inside Mitchell Stadium perched on the edge of their seats when the bell set Callaway and Mann on a collision course.
During the opening round, the two massive frames attempted to make short work of one another, standing in the pocket and launching strikes like scud missiles at one another.
Five-minutes down and Mann, whose eye began swelling shut and blood trickled from his mouth, wore the worst of the damage, and his coach barked, “Don’t just exchange punches and kicks with this guy, take him down!”
Mann left his coach’s advice on the stool.
As soon as the ringing left Mann’s ears and the stars disappeared from his vision, the big guy from Garberville, California promised to be a better listener in the future.