Tuesday and Thursday evenings were dedicated to sparring. Heavier fighters started at six thirty and went for an hour; lighter weights came in at seven thirty.
The moods in the gym were unpredictable on these nights, though you got a sense of how it was going to go down as soon as you entered. Some evenings, it was relaxed, just a bunch of guys getting together to hone their skills. On others, there was an underlying current that raised the hairs on your arms as soon as you walked in the door.
The sessions always followed the same format. They started with shadowboxing, moved to kickboxing, then to takedowns, on to clinch work, and finally to the ground. Within this structure, fighters tested out different strikes, shots, submission holds.
As at any workplace, there were jealousies, friendships, allegiances, hurt feelings, and rivalries, which presented a list of variables for coaches to ponder when pairing up fighters: Who was coming off a good fight? Who was coming off a bad fight? Who was injured but not admitting it? Who was in a bad mental space? Who wanted more attention? Who had something to prove?
The gym had an implicit hierarchy. Ricardo Liborio and cofounder Conan Silveira were on top of the pyramid. The coaches under them each commanded a level of respect. And there was a pecking order among the fighters that was determined by their standings in the sport and was sorted in part during sparring sessions.
Uncontrolled aggression against teammates was discouraged, but sometimes it was worth it for a fighter to show a little more belligerence than usual, to knock someone down, just to send a message he wasn’t going to be pushed around. And even though coaches tried to keep an eye on things, it was in practice impossible for a few trainers to totally police more than twenty pairs of fighters facing off simultaneously.
At seven thirty, the larger fighters cleared off the mats, replaced by the more numerous crew of fighters who competed between 135 and 170 pounds. As they warmed up, Conan Silveira huddled with Mike Brown, writing down matchups on a clipboard.
There were more than thirty fighters on the mats. Brown called out the pairs. Silveira grasped a stopwatch in his right hand, held close to his chest.
“Let’s go!” Silveira yelled, his voice booming through the room.
Feet slid over the mats. Breaths exhaled short and sharp. Fists pounded flesh. Plastic shin protectors cracked as they connected with legs.
Don’t let them fool ya! Or even try to school ya! Bob Marley exhorted from the gym’s loudspeakers.
Kami Barzini paced the mats, hands clasped behind his back.
Jorge Masvidal, a lightweight Cuban-American UFC fighter from Miami, jabbed his opponent, who countered with a kick at Masvidal’s left thigh. Masvidal caught the leg with his left hand and then kicked his opponent’s other leg out from under him, dumping him on his ass. The kid struggled to his feet, tears welling in his eyes.
A few feet away, Sirwan Kakai squared off with Charles Rosa, another of the gym’s top prospects.
Barzini motioned for me to come over.
Kakai and Rosa stood in range and unleashed on each other. Kakai, usually self-contained, was gripped by rage.
“He’s got blood in his eyes,” Barzini said.
Kakai threw a left into Rosa’s gut. The young fighter crumpled to his knees, grabbing his side.
Liver shots were known to be the most excruciating of blows, sending bolts of pain racing through the body.
As Rosa gasped for breath, Kakai stormed back and forth across the mats like a bull in a pen, his face contorted with fury.
“That’s enough,” Barzini hissed. “Control!” ...
Shortly after I arrived at American Top Team, I got the itch to train. It was unavoidable when my days were taken up with watching other people exercise. Also, I realized that the closest I could get to understanding what I was seeing was to at least try it myself, even if that only meant learning to hit a punching bag.
I began lessons with Rich Attonito, a UFC fighter who supported himself as a personal trainer. In the afternoons between practices, Attonito pulled on his mitts and guided me across the mats, showing me how to jab, hook, throw a straight right, thwack a thigh with a leg kick.
I loved it.
At the start, I lashed out like I was trying to smash through a wall. Attonito, a loquacious guy from New Jersey, was amused. He imitated me, scrunching up an angry face and striking out like Frankenstein on a rampage. He called it “Going Medieval.”
It wasn’t about hitting or kicking as hard as possible, he told me, but learning mechanics, the twist of the wrist just as the punch lands, the rotation of the shin when you kick, coiling and uncoiling your body to deliver force. Anger was fine, he said—it was fuel—but it needed to be subordinated to technique. When you fought, you needed to be loose and adaptable, not constricted with rage.
After a few months of observing my progress, Kami Barzini suggested that I spar with him. “It will take your writing to a deeper level,” he said.
Actual fighting had not been in my plans. Though Barzini promised he would go easy, I was terrified. After more than a week of avoiding the subject, I relented. We set it up for a Friday after morning practice.
It was a time when the gym was usually quiet, and there were only a few fighters around as we pulled on our boxing gloves and got ready to step into the cage.
Conan Silveira was still there. He was a massive Brazilian who had made his name cage fighting in the Wild West days of the 1990s. When he saw what we were up to, he rushed over looking as if he’d just smelled something rotten.
“Do you have life insurance?” he asked me.
I gave a nervous laugh.
“This is not funny,” he said.
With that, I climbed into the cage with Barzini. The fighters locked the door behind us, sliding a pin between two pieces of metal.
Barzini stood in front of me, waiting. I threw a jab that he blocked and then countered by tapping me on the head.
We repeated this several times. When hitting mitts with Attonito, I had felt like a superstar—I threw a punch and he brought the mitt forward an inch or two to meet it, resulting in a pleasing Thwack! of leather on leather.
It’s much harder to hit someone who is trying to evade your punches.
My heart began to race, my breaths coming shallow and quick. Within a minute, I was gasping for air and struggling to hold my hands up.
Barzini ducked, grabbed my leg, lifted, and then dumped me on the canvas, which reverberated as our combined four hundred pounds of weight bounced off it.
As I flailed, Barzini put me on my back and got full mount, one leg on each side of my hips. He postured up and tapped me in the head with light punches as I tried to cover up.
It was incredibly unpleasant. I wasn’t physically hurt, but the feeling of being “mounted” was humiliating. It became clear how much MMA is a game of primal dominance.
Barzini let me up and we sparred a little more. He continued to block my ineffectual punches until the end, when he dropped his hands and I landed a jab into his face.
The fighters, who had been greatly entertained by the spectacle, unlocked the cage. I sat on a bench, soaked in sweat. My heart beat faster than I thought was possible. I later realized I’d experienced my first adrenaline dump: It had flooded my system as soon as we started sparring, but had just as soon ebbed and left me exhausted.
Conan Silveira sat next to me. “He was going about fifteen percent,” he said. “That’s fifteen, not fifty.”
I didn’t care. I had not been killed or injured. The emotions that had swept my body stunned me—from excitement to exhaustion to humiliation to the exhilaration of landing a punch.
It motivated me to get better. A few months later, Barzini and I went again.
My primary goal was to make it longer than thirty seconds before becoming exhausted. In fact, I managed to keep up my energy for several minutes, circling away from Barzini, occasionally stopping to throw a jab, and then moving away again. I tried to pace my breathing, making sure to breathe in and out. After a while, though, I slowed down.
Barzini had been tracking me without expending any effort. Now he came forward and backed me to the cage.
A few fighters watched and shouted advice. I felt something inside me twist and detonate. My fear turned to an annihilating, thrumming black rage. A rush of hatred flooded me.
I swung, catching Barzini with a hook that thudded flush to the side of his head.
The fighters erupted in cheers. A smile flashed on Barzini’s face, which angered me further. I punched in fury, throwing as hard and fast as I could, until I collapsed.
Barzini patted me on the back. “You finally threw some real punches,” he said.
We are known to have separate fear and rage circuits in our brains. When the fear circuit is activated—if, for example, you are approached on the street by someone who wants to harm you—your brain will initiate a series of processes meant to preserve your life: Adrenaline flows, your heart beats faster, your breathing quickens, your muscles receive more blood. Your body will be primed to run as fast as it possibly can.
I felt this during my first sparring session with Barzini, and it had led to a crash.
More extreme fear activates the rage circuit, which is what happened to me in our second session. When Barzini backed me against the cage, there was no escape. I had to fight, and my body responded by providing the reaction needed to fuel my outburst.
It had also unleashed a reserve of buried emotion. It had to do with my dad’s death, but also years of things that had never been expressed between us and now never would be. On top of that was the legal jousting with my aunt and uncle. Added to a stew of free-floating testosterone and generalized rage, it had led to an explosion.
Barzini called it “the Psycho Switch.” Every fighter has it, he said, something they tap into when they need it. His came from what he’d seen growing up in Iran. Everyone had their own thing.
It was something that no one at the gym told me about until I had experienced it myself. Fighters were understandably leery of being portrayed as bros with anger management issues, especially because they knew that’s what many casual observers assumed they were—and there was a small minority of people within mixed martial arts who lived up to the stereotype.
The vast majority of fighters, however, were the opposite when away from the cage—they were often, in fact, laid back and friendly. But fighting wasn’t a sport for content, happy people. To hit another human being or to be hit yourself, when not in a life-threatening situation, does not come easily. Fighters need an inner spark, something to push them to the physical and mental extremes they sometimes have to go to in order to win.
Such emotions unleashed out in the world would be dangerous. Within the space of the cage, however, it is ritualized and relatively safe. The professional fighter has to be able to tap into these emotions and physiological reactions but also control them, to use them as the glue that connects all his skills. To give in entirely to either fear or rage is a sure way to lose a fight: If your opponent can weather the storm until you exhaust yourself, then you will be easily finished.
Every fighter has had an experience of “breaking,” the point at which it just became too much. A broken fighter, exhausted from the effort and ebbing of adrenaline, will give up just to get out of the cage.
Fighters spend years training to master those reactions. Inside the cage, they put that training into practice and transform. I had the idea, now, what that transformation felt like. I understood why fighters often embraced at the end of fights: They were thankful to have been able to express that part of themselves.
Excerpted from "Beast" by Doug Merlino. © Doug Merlino © 2015. Published by Bloomsbury USA, reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.