Josh Samman's Prizefighting Chronicles: Brawling a BarbarianGet the Full StoryJosh Samman returns with an exclusive Bloody Elbow three-part series chronicling his UFC Fight Night 91 bout in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I'm propped up on a chair near the water fountain and the room is spinning. I'm not drunk, though a cold beer does sound nice. I'm in muggy Miami, surrounded by Brazilians in a warehouse that's been home to my training camp for the past six weeks. The walls are red, with pictures of our victories lining the room. The last day of sparring is done and I'm recovering near the watering hole.
My gear is strewn about the room. Gloves are near the wall, wraps are underneath me, mouthpiece nowhere to be found. This is sometimes the case after the last exhausting round, pieces of equipment falling where they may. Before I leave I'll gather it up, wet and sweaty, and throw it in the truck with the rest of my belongings to head to my hometown of Tallahassee, Florida. There, I'll spend the last week of camp before heading to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to do battle with Tim "The Barbarian" Boetsch.
I got the call two months ago, days before leaving for Europe to help an old rival from The Ultimate Fighter get ready for a fight in Italy. It wasn't the first trip I'd committed to over the course of the eight weeks in question, and more than one friend has asked me if I'm focused. I tell them I am, and I really am.
I fight because I need outlets at my disposal to take pride in, for myself and where I come from.As I exit the interstate on North Monroe in Tallahassee I see a billboard for a recently penned memoir written by the capital city's cage-fighter-turned-author. I was the first from the state's panhandle to make it to the UFC, and while feedback from the project has been positive, I know it's made folks wonder how much my heart still lies in the face-punching realm. Following a memorable KO victory in 2014 against Ultimate Fighter winner Eddie Gordon, I'd be lying if said I didn't question my purpose as well. There have been times where I debate if that moment can be topped.
Such thoughts have led me to the help of sports psychologist Hector Morales, comrade of hometown friends and mental instructor for the Pittsburgh Pirates. I call on him late in the game, and after our first talk I know I should've employed him sooner.
He asks me what my motives are, if not to be champion of the world. I tell him I fight because I enjoy competition, and elevating my status in the MMA community. I fight because it affords me a medium for creative expression, and serves as a vehicle for accomplishment. I fight because I need outlets at my disposal to take pride in, for myself and where I come from. He tells me my motives alone are something to take pride in. He says to embrace them, that they are unique to me and to not compare mine to others.
We address what could've gone wrong in my most recent outing; a last minute submission loss to BJJ-savvy Tamdan McCrory. The performance left fans baffled as to why I initiated ground-fighting in lieu of striking with the 6'4" sharp-shooter. Folks like to play Monday Morning Quarterback and I try to justify my actions by reminding them I had winning moments of the fight and was trying only to continue the assault. Hector tells me justifications aren't necessary. Water under the bridge, and execute better next time. It's all about controlling my emotions, he says.
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My emotions are in control, for now. There are moments where my heart beat rises as I imagine those few seconds after the referee asks me if I'm ready, or the touch of the canvas under my bare feet. When I have feelings of nervousness I do my best to accept them.
Over the course of the next week, 96 combatants will try their hand at glory in the Octagon. UFC's International Fight week is upon us, and the event I'm in, UFC Fight Night 91, is the last of four in the next seven days.
In 2015 I fought around the same time, immediately following the biggest card of the year. Vegas felt like a ghost town that night, and I have a feeling Sioux Falls will be no different. As I fly over South Dakota I realize that I am indeed in what could only be described as the opposite of Las Vegas. Shiny lights and blaring noises have been replaced by cow pastures and square plots of land. The landscape is littered with rodeo fields and fairgrounds, and an occasional industrial truck parked near a farm building. I feel like I'm flying into the set of Little House on the Prairie.
Inside the dinky airplane I have a Miami shirt on, and a guy asks me what the hell I'm doing in a place like this. I point to the rest of the folks that walked in with an assortment of training gear and cauliflower ears, and tell him I'm here for the same reason they are.
Behind us, my UFC contemporaries sit with their corners. I've always found it amusing to see a plane cabin taken over by fighters. A camaraderie is often formed, and makes for familiar and comfortable travel to the hotel awaiting us.
The town we're in is not far from the home of the other Brock, Lesnar, and it looks like everyone in the restaurant has eaten beef and potatoes for their entire lives.When we check in, we're greeted by UFC staff, a jacked white boy named Brock, whose name reminds me of the UFC 200 spectacle we're missing out on a few states away. Brock points us in the way of our limo drivers, who the UFC has set up to shuttle us to and from the grocery store. They have nice Audis and Yukons, and it's a gracious luxury to be afforded. Romanian strawweight Cristina Stanciu and her corners join me on one trip to the organic market. She makes a charming attempt at joking, broken English, looking over my full cart. "You know we supposed to lose weight, no?"
A few of us opt to watch the fights at the nearby Buffalo Wild Wings. I take a seat with the Brock and the rest of the UFC staff, perusing the menu. This is one of my favorite parts of going to events; engaging with the employees. Behind the scenes, it's fascinating to observe the cylinders on which the UFC fires.
It's not easy to find something healthy to begin the coming days' weight cut, which becomes a theme for the week. The town we're in is not far from the home of the other Brock, Lesnar, and it looks like everyone in the restaurant has eaten beef and potatoes for their entire lives. A diverticulitis joke escapes me.
Speaking of Lesnar, he's on the screen now hipping into Mark Hunt, in what has to be the most pure striker vs. grappler match since early UFC days. He eeks out a win, and the restaurant-goers approve. The majority of them get up and leave before the Nunes vs. Tate main event, to the annoyance of UFC staff.
Ceremonial events of 200, from gold cage and gloves, to Buffer's white-then-grey suit, are all supposed to be in sync with promotional muscle flexing, and in the wake of the Jon Jones debacle, the muscle came off as a bit strained. It makes no difference, as we wake up two days later to news of a four billion dollar UFC sale to media group WME IMG.
Monday night comes and with it, the slew of ex-Zuffa, now-WME IMG employees, and other figures that are a staple of the events. Commentary team, ring girls, referees, media; it begins to feel more like fight week at the UFC.
The week has transformed into a blur of grocery trips, weight checks, and walks to and from the make-shift offices. Pictures, Twitter Q&A's, equipment fitting, radio station phone calls; they give us a list at the beginning of the week with things planned meticulously.
Mental walk-throughs are one recommendation of Hector, and I do it a few times over. One of my coaches arrives and runs through warm-ups with me. Nice, calm, and in control of emotions. I sweat a bit and go to bed, looking forward to a 9 AM weigh-in.
With the Mike Tyson of bantamweights johnlineker. Going to be a violent night. #UFCSiouxFalls pic.twitter.com 5K00TWgJTd Josh Samman JoshSamman July 13, 2016
They've been moved from 4 PM to give athletes more opportunity to rehydrate, and it is uniformly praised by all. The following morning requires only a brief trip to a nearby sauna and a few minutes of paperwork. Everyone is on the scale by 9:15 and in the breakfast diner by 9:30. It is a glorious thing.
The rest of the afternoon seems almost whimsical in comparison to a typical weigh-in day. We eat at a diner in the middle of a grocery store where old folks are playing Bingo. I run into John Lineker and his coach at the hotel and tell him I'm a fan of his style. His coach later tells me he wishes Lineker would fight smarter, but John says they all hit like pussies. That part was awesome.
When the mock weigh-ins do come at 4 pm, the environment is a stark contrast to what it once was. No one is unpleasant, starving and wrung dry. No one is wondering whether they're going to miss weight on TV or not. Boetsch and I have already had our initial interactions. He was polite and introduced himself, deceivingly soft-spoken. We face off and I imagine that Tim and I both know the outcome of this fight; that the process to come is merely a formality.
Perhaps the problem is one of flippancy from the beginning.
A UFC employee is grabbing fighters here and there to meet fight-goers that have purchased the Ultimate Fan Experience. This is another part of the gig that I enjoy, meeting and talking with folks who've traveled far and wide to see us. Usually, this line is at least 20 minutes long. Today, just a single fan; Miguel, a lone VIP all the way from Mexico.
I eat dinner again with the few friends that made the trip. It feels good to have had more time to fuel back up, that I'm not gorging myself too much in the evening to make up for the day's weigh-in.
When I wake the next morning, I am confident. I am not nervous, I am not anxious. I am calm and happy to be there. The moment of reckoning will soon be upon us.
Josh Samman is an active UFC Middleweight and author of The Housekeeper: Love, Death, and Prizefighting. Stay tuned into Bloody Elbow for parts two & three of Prizefighting Chronicles: Brawling a Barbarian.