Sunday, December 20, 2009
The following is an account about a personal challenge that I took on after documenting a story that inspired me. To see a video, follow the link at the end of the entry. Or find it here
ALL PHOTOS BY GREG BRYAN, VIDEO BY DEAN KNUTH. Thanks Guys.
Thanks for looking.
About three years ago, I walked into a boxing/fighting gym looking for a story for the newspaper. What followed was a two-year project to document the rise of an everyday guy from gym rat to professional mixed martial artist. On Oct. 24th, the multimedia piece on Beau Tribolet won a regional Emmy award for Advanced Media: Sports.
Early in the process of the story I joined the gym to take group workout classes and get in shape, and to keep an eye on Beau. I was intrigued by the idea of learning about boxing, and I felt like maybe it would hold my interest long enough to actually get a health benefit out of it. I remember losing my breath just trying to jump rope in Grandma's garage, and I could barely get through the hour long sessions at the gym in Tucson. And I laughed when Beau said that I should learn to box and actually fight. "I'm a photographer man, I'll never be a fighter, I know my limitations".
About two months ago, I was just leaving after a workout like I always do when one of the employees says "So, you going to do Fight Night?" . Fantasy Fight Night is an event that the club holds once a year that gives members a chance to sign up to put their skills to the test against another member of the club in an exhibition bout with amateur rules.
"No!" I laughed "I'm not a fighter, you know that"
"Too bad." She said. "You've been training a long time, and your tough enough. Aren't you curious what it's like? Are you scared?"
"No, it's not that. I just don't have time, I have a career and all,......" It trailed off, I went home.
But I couldn't stop thinking about what she said. I had been inspired by Beau's commitment, his rise and fall and rise and......I was curious. I was busy and all, but really when would I be younger, in better shape, or have a schedule more convenient to doing this than now? When it came down to it, I really was just scared.
Then I realized that I wasn't just scared of fighting. With a crashing economy and a failing business model in journalism, I was scared that my career was going to evaporate, scared that I would get stuck falling short of my potential and ultimately wondering what might have been.
I was scared about being a good family member, a loyal friend, and I was scared to let anyone really emotionally close to me. I was scared of being afraid.
Then I got mad.
I was so mad at myself for being dominated by fear that I decided to do something that I never thought I would do: I took the fight.
This is between me and me, I thought. And I was going to kick some butt.
What came in the following months was some of the most challenging, rewarding, difficult, and fulfilling times of my life. The theme through it all was learning to deal with fear through this metaphor, this training, this fight.
I opened by refrigerator and grabbed whatever beers I had in there and dumped them out one by one and put the empty ones back in the fridge. I ate better. I kept a strict schedule and calendar.
Suddenly I had a very real accountability to manage my time and efforts toward a focused and high reaching goal. That focus and urgency meant that there was no longer any time for excuses.
On the very first day of my new training phase, I sparred one of the more experienced guys at the gym. He beat me up pretty bad. I ended up with two black eyes, one of them painted purple all the way around my left eye socket, and I had to go to work the same day. I tried not to let my head hang too low as co-worker after co-worker reacted to my new look: "What the F*& happened to you?!" was the first and most common reaction. It took almost two weeks to clear up.
That same week I found out who they were planning on having me fight, and I started to think twice about whether this was such a good idea. Aaron Johnson is one of the most muscular and athletic guys at the gym, and a hard worker. He outweighed me, had a longer reach, and was faster.
My friend Heather clapped her hand over her mouth to stop her laugh when she found out we were matched up.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to laugh. It's not that you look like a wimp at all, it's just you don't really look like a fighter."
I signed up for one on one sessions with a trainer so that I could really learn about boxing, I started doing technical practice in the morning, then I would come back at night to work on my conditioning. I had a lot of learning and work to do in 7 weeks or Aaron was going to knock my head clean off of my shoulders.
I also knew that I need to start sparring. After the purple eye that I got after the first round I was a little gun shy, but I worked hard for a couple of weeks with a boxing coach, and I had learned a lot, but that was punching bags and mitts. So I got in the ring to start the hard part: getting punched back.
Beau Tribolet, the fighter from the story I did, weighs 235 pounds and stands about 6ft2in. He has a professional mixed martial arts record of 3-1 and pro boxing record of 2-1. Way back when I started the story about 3 yrs ago, I thought about ways to understand him, how to get close, how to tell the best story possible. Now that the story was over, by ethical boundaries as a journalist could be relaxed a bit. So I fought him.
I trusted Beau to be a good teacher and partner, and I trusted that he would be able to control his punches enough to be safe with me. Still, at his size, every once in a while one would get away from him. The first day he hit me with a clean left hook and a flash of white erased my vision for a split second. He would say later that I just stood there for a second looking like I had a girlfriend over in the corner or something. "When you get hit, don't lose your focus" he said. "It's a fight, you're going to get hit. The important thing is to keep your hands up, your head moving, and keep working your stuff. Even if it hurts, don't ever let the other guy know that"
We worked hard. Every time that we sparred Beau turned it up on me a little bit. I started to catch on. I stopped being terrified of him and started trying to beat him. Still, hitting Beau was like punching sand bags, I never felt like I could phase him.
One day when I got tired, I made a combination attack that opened him up and I got a clear right hand to land on his chin and it sent him back into the ropes.
When I got tired he would push me harder. "Nobody's working this hard for Fight Night" he would shout across the ring between rounds. "You think he's going to hit as hard as me? Now stop cutting off your punches and let your hands go! Hit me!" He pointed to a tattoo on his left arm: 'Live by the Gun, Die by the Gun' it said. I must have photographed it a hundred times while I was working on the story. "Get in there and just fight" he said.
On Oct. 24th Beau had a fight in North Dakota against his toughest opponent yet in the cage. The guy tapped out in the first round after Beau took him to the ground and knocked his mouthguard out while continuing to punish him with punches. The only mark that Beau had on him was 4 cuts on his index finger from the guy's teeth.
Late that night, I called him from Phoenix from the backstage area of the Rocky Mountain Southwest Emmy Awards to let him know that the story I did on him won in the Sports category of Advanced Media.
We had one more week to fight night. Most of it was a blur but also felt like I was as alive as I had ever been. I was dealing with insurance because the week before I had been involved in a car accident that totaled my Toyota. The doctor cleared me after examining a bump on the head, saying "You'll probably get more damage from boxing than the accident". There were projects due at work, freelance work due, and I had to be careful not to burn out and over train after 7 weeks of pushing hard to be in top shape.
On Thursday my best friend from college, Wendell Brown came out from Sacramento to visit and to see the fight. We hadn't seen each other in 3 years and had a rich experience of remenicing and getting to know each other all over again. On Friday we went to the gym to go through a light workout the day before the fight. Then we just hung out and talked, ate, toured around the area by car.
Oct. 31, Saturday afternoon when we went to the gym to get ready for the show and they asked me "What's your fight name? You have to have a name"
I turned to Wendell. "I can't name myself" I said. "What's it going to be".
Wendell came back with a throwback to our time at the University of Kansas. "The Hawk" he said.
It was a blessing to have many friends there to support me. Cecil and Carol Schwalbe, I rent Cecil's old house from him and guest speak at Arizona State University where Carol is a journalism professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Brady McCombs, my good friend and colleague and border reporter for the Arizona Daily Star. We've been through a lot together.
Greg Bryan and Dean Knuth, friends and photographers from the Star who were there to cheer and take some pictures and video, but mostly for support. Brenda Abbey, my date to the Emmys and patient soul and listening ear through all of the training and ups and downs. She would tell me later how nervous she was because of a dream the night before about beatings and broken bones in the ring, but she was there to cheer anyway, bless her heart, and she never showed her worry.
Mitch Riley, a photographer and producer from Tucson 12 TV was there, working on a piece that he began in the summer. I have no idea how it's going to turn out, but can't wait because he is a super talented guy and I have loved other work of his that I've seen. I made him a little nervous about a month before because Fight Night was originally scheduled on the same day as the Emmys, and I was thinking of skipping the awards to do the fight, and he said that he would skip too to be able to include the fight in the story. Good thing they rescheduled Fight Night so he could go to Phoenix, he took home 6 awards.
I didn't see any of the other fights. I just took my time to jump rope, stretch, and try to relax. Try to get in to the same mindset as when we train. The biggest enemy to a fighter is nerves and excitement. The adrenaline can take your breath away and sap your strength. By the time you get into the ring, you're already tired. Beau taught me that, talked about the fights that I had seen him in and how it was important to stay calm. What was more like an hour seemed like days, each tick of the clock bringing me closure to this ultimate test. Two months of work and sacrifice and focus was going to be laid out for everyone to see for a measly 6 minutes, three rounds, two minutes each. It was weird to have cameras on me. I did my best to ignore both Mitch and Greg while they did their work but I couldn't help but think "So THIS is what it's like". It gave me a whole new appreciation for the people that I do stories about, and how much of a gift it is to have an opportunity to document their lives.
I wrapped my hands and got warmed up as I congratulated competitors coming back to the red corner's ready area after their fights. Sweaty hugs and big smiles for some. One guy just sat in a chair, beaten up and bleeding from his mouth and both nostrils. A younger guy threw up, trying not to pass out from exhaustion.
Finally it was time to get the gloves on. They had us using 12oz amateur heavyweight gloves, and I had never worn them. I'd been training with 16oz gloves, so I was hoping that would help me have faster hands. They were also smaller, which meant less glove to cover up and protect myself with.
Beau came back and reviewed our game plan as he put on the mitts to warm me up. "These fights are going fast so you're almost up. Remember, keep your jab up and snappy. If he opens up for that right hand, feed it to him and put him to bed. Every thing comes off the jab."
My heart rate started to rise just standing there.
"Calm down" he said. "Breathe".
He claps the mitts together and starts to circle. "Nice and easy now" he said. "Relaxed, calm. One, one two. Two jabs. Ah ha!"
My hands turn over just like they're supposed to as I throw the combination he calls. The leather pops nice and loud as I hit the mitts.
"That's it, nice. Nice and snappy" Beau said. "Rest".
He walks away, tells me not to get to excited, stay calm, keep that adrenaline down. We go a few more times to make sure everything is firing. I feel good. Then he drops a bomb on me.
"You're up, this is the last set, then we gotta go".
The most pure, terrified fear drops in my gut and makes my hands go numb and takes my breath away.
This is not nerves, it is absolute horror. Every piece of me wants to run out of the building. I'm scared to death. This is what I came here to face, to overcome.
I can't even feel the hits as we go one more time on the mitts, I can't feel my arms, my legs are shaking. I hear the bell and I know that our fight is next. "This is it" Beau says. "You're ready, you know you're ready. Now let's go stomp this guy."
My focus comes back and I want to get to the ring, get started. Hang back Beau says, slow, slow. I hear them call my name and I practically dart towards the stairs. "Slowly, slow down" Beau says.
I try to calm down. I know that there's music and people clapping and an announcer, but I can't hear it. I can't hear anything. It's like being under water and having everything slurred and muffled. I see a blur of color and light but no faces, just shapes, silent swirls.
Aaron climbs into the ring opposite of me and strips off his shirt. He's huge and ripped and has a giant snake tattooed across his entire back. I don't even know what to do. I'm just standing there, waiting to get at him. I've been here before, this is my corner. I've stood across from Beau about to start a round. So I remember that I've gone toe to toe with a man twice Aaron's size. He doesn't look so big now.
The referee gives the signal and we both come out with our gloves raised, they meet in the middle and touch in a sign of sportsmanship.
Then we go at it.
I throw a quick jab and connect. I connect with another jab and miss with a right hand and throw another combination and another. I get caught and feel my head shake under Aaron's glove.
Jab, jab. Aaron throws a set of furious shots and charges in hard, his huge arms rushing by my face and head. I block a couple, duck one, then he catches me with three straight, but I'm still moving, they didn't land clean. He's grunting with every throw and his eyes are wild. The sound and the intensity of this attack is intimidating, and I find myself protected, moving, but backing up. I'm against the ropes, trying to stay calm and endure this massive push of world destruction. It's furious and strong and I can't just take it. Gotta keep moving, make him miss! Let him wear himself out.
"Keep that chin down, chin down!" I can hear Beau over Aaron's grunts and I just keep pumping that jab to interrupt Aaron's assault.
Jab, jab, jab. I catch him with a couple and circle out to the center of the ring, retaking some kind of control. What was a blow for blow exchange felt like I merely survived. It felt like he was trying to flat out kill me.
"Don't turn it into a brawl James!" I can still hear Beau, it's all I can hear. "Box him. Box him!!"
I remember our game plan. Stay fundamentally sound. We knew he would come out hard. Knew he would street fight me. But we would out box him. Technique, control, everything off the jab. Keep moving. Make him miss. Hit him straight down the pipe. Wait for that gasp for air, that split second that he takes his eyes off you, then go get him.
I connect with a jab and a right cross. Aaron shakes his head like a dog shaking himself dry and I know I stung him. I gain some confidence and get more aggressive, but just as I think I'm going to take control the tough sonofabitch charges with a flurry. I take a few shots but land some solid ones and twos. By the end of the round I'm just getting a rhythm, but my headgear is jacked a bit to the side and I can taste the metallic sting of the blood in my nose. Still, I'm okay, I can take this.
"How do you feel?" Beau says as he pulls my mouth guard out.
"He's not hurting me" I try to say, not quite believing it. What the hell just happened out there? It was the most intense moments I had felt in a very long time.
"What?" He says.
"He's hitting me but he's not hurting me, I'm okay."
"I know" he says "You're beating his ass."
Now I start to think that he's just lying to me. Trying to boost my confidence so I don't get knocked out when I stand back up. It felt like I was barely surviving. How could I be winning?
"Listen to me" he says, demanding that I take water. "He's tired. I want you to go out there and finish him off, you hear me? Don't let him out of this round."
We had talked about this before. It was the game plan. If I had any advantage at all over Aaron it was my cardio. I'd been pulling two a days and pushing as hard as I could. When I sparred Beau we would go 5 or 8 three minute rounds. This was 3 two minute rounds. Outlast him, get him gassed, and then take over. One, two. Jab, right hand. Over and over until he falls. Keep moving, make him miss. Put him down. That was the plan. But already? I thought maybe by the third, but....
"Hey, finish it" Beau says. He squirts water in my mouth and shoves my mouth guard in.
I trust him, he knows better than me. He must be telling me that for a reason. He would tell me in training "If I'm going to help you the one thing that you have to do is let your hands go and throw punches like you f*&ng mean it. No playing it safe".
I jump up chomping at the bit. The bell rings and I meet Aaron in the middle and we clash. If he was tired at all he wasn't tired anymore, immediately unloading a barrage of power shots and charging in. I cover up and try to circle away, get some distance to get my own shots in. I land a few, trying to take over but he just keeps coming. Then I see a huge uppercut coming and stick a jab in his face before it gets there and stop him, then I back him off with a right.
I take a turn and tracking him down. One two move. One two, one two. We go back and forth for most of the round. I hit him as hard as I can square on the chin and he just hits me right back, rocks me upside the head and keeps throwing. One of them sent a flash of white across my vision and popped by ear drum, ringing like a gun shot just went off. I remembered what Beau said about not letting it show and came after him even more.
By the end of the round I was getting the better of it. Following him around the ring just trying to connect. I hit him as hard as I can and he shakes it off and just won't go down. Tough bastard. The bell rings.
I can't even remember what Beau says in between rounds. Basically, stop screwing around and finish. I was starting to feel it in my arms. I threw as hard as I could that round, trying to make sure there wouldn't be a third, now we were going to see if the cardio was really as good as we thought. This was the test. The next two minutes would determine everything that I had worked for in the past two months. It wasn't about beating Aaron anymore. It was about giving it absolutely everything that I had. I couldn't go back to that corner with any gas in the tank or it would have all been a waste of time. I try to remember the training, the discipline, the sacrifice. Don't let that go to waste now.
Do what Beau says: "Just fight".
I get up and jump around like an idiot, as if to defy my opponent, to show I'm not tired. I almost believe it myself.
The bell rings and I go right into a flurry of body punches then to the head. He was tired last round, maybe it would break him. Then he rushes me again. Are you kidding me? What kind of a robot are you? He just wouldn't stop. I cover up and move, get my feet under me and fire back. My arms are burning now. How many punches have we thrown? It must have been hundreds, back and forth non stop. His eyes get wide and he gasps for air, he's wobbly. I tell my arms to punch but I can't feel them. It's like I'm wearing 20 pound weights on my hands and swimming in peanut butter. When I get close to him he grabs my arms and leans on me and it saps my strength. I'm punching with whatever I can but I can't put anything on it. I'm so tired, but I just keep throwing. I try to get him off of me, get some distance so I can throw the right hand and he grabs me again. I'm sapped and I'm leaning too. I punch him. I punch him. Uppercut, uppercut, hook, hook. I even try to punch him with my shoulder when my arms won't work. At one point I spin him into the corner and unload a right clean and hard. I hear the crowd cheer but he just throws right back. How is he still standing? How am I still standing? Till the last bell we go blow for blow. We throw down. We leave it all in the ring. Who woulda thought?
The bell is the sweetest sound I've ever heard and I practically fall into Beau's arms as he slaps me on the back and grabs my head. "Nice job. Nice f*%g job." He says. Its the greatest compliment I could ask for "Game plan, executed. That was a proper stomping".
The next few hours are a blur of disbelief and raw emotion. I almost loose it when I hug Wendell and tell him how much I appreciate that he was there, and leave him a blood stain on his shirt for good measure.
Somewhere evaporating into the air or drifting out the door was a piece of myself that got left behind that day, and in its place a new sense of myself in my heart. I don't yet fully understand exactly how the course of those couple of months will impact what kind of person I continue to be. I only know that it had very little to do with boxing.
Now that the fight is over there are new challenges to be faced, new fears to overcome. The hardest times will most certainly still be ahead. I only hope that the lessons of perseverance, dedication, heart, and challenge will stay with me in whatever I face, personally or professionally. It was one of the times that I was the most alive I have ever been, and I look forward to applying the lessons from it to other areas of my life. I know that fear will try to enter my heart again.
The test will continue to be what I will do about it.
To see a video of the fight in its entirety, go here.
Posted by JamesGregg at 7:29 PM