Eye of the Tiger

Diary of a wannabe cage fighter #1

In the foreground is Georges St-Pierre and Yoshiyuki Yoshida. In thebackground is Rashad Evans sparring with Nate Marquardt. Coach Greg Jackson looks on.
In the foreground is Georges St-Pierre and Yoshiyuki Yoshida. In thebackground is Rashad Evans sparring with Nate Marquardt. Coach Greg Jackson looks on.

Ahead of my upcoming feature story on cage fighting in Albuquerque, I’ll be training at Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts gym (5505 Acoma SE). For the next few weeks you can read about my training adventures here, where I’ll be blogging about my adventures in learning the arts of whoop-ass from some of the word’s finest instructors.

I popped a few Advil just in case before entering the gym last night for my first kickboxing class. Soon I would learn there are more effective ways of killing pain.

I ran into Greg Jackson, the gym’s founder, on my way to the locker room. As usual, he greeted me with such warmth it’s difficult to believe he’s a master of cage-fighting. But the juxtaposition between good vibes and controlled violence is something I’ve come to expect here. There’s more testosterone, tattoos and aggression in this gym than a rumble between the Hells Angels and the Banditos, but there is also a palpable lack of malice and ego. Even if there weren’t legions of children running around—numerous kid classes are offered—the atmosphere would have to be described as family-friendly.

“Hey,” said Jackson, clapping me on the shoulder, “You wanna see someone die? C’mere.”

He turned to Joe “Daddy” Stevenson, a pro welterweight, and barked, “Alright Joe, gimme 100 feet.”

Stevenson was harnessed into a ladder-climbing machine that delivers an endless supply of rungs to climb, and started huffing his way up the equivalent of 100 feet of elevation, while staying in place. Then Jackson chased Stevenson to another part of the gym where he would whip these heavy ropes up and down. This was followed by sets of “burpies,” which are a combination of pushups, squats and jumps. Then sprints. Then chin-ups.
On my way to class I walked between a regulation octagon, or fighting cage, where a class of advanced grappling students was warming up, and a boxing ring where UFC world-champion welterweight Georges St-Pierre was sparring with a Muay Thai kickboxing expert named “Kru” Phil Nurse, who’d been flown in for a week from NYC to help train the advanced kickboxing students and professionals. Finally I reached a mat where an instructor named Frank warmed up my beginning kickboxing class with stretches, push-ups, sit-ups, and the like.

Frank lent me a pair of shin guards and boxing gloves, and paired me with an experienced kick-boxer named Virgil Begay who began teaching me the basics. We started with wheel kicks in which the shin is envisioned as a knife blade to be sliced through your opponent. Virgil warned me to take it easy—not so I wouldn’t hurt him, but so I wouldn’t hurt myself, since I still have nerves living in my shins.

“It took me about six months to finally kill the nerves in my shins to where I can take or deliver a nice kick,” he said. “Some people roll beer bottles or rolling pins over their shins to kill the nerves. Or just kick on that bag over there.” He pointed to a large black bag hanging in the corner. I later tried kicking that bag and learned, through my shin guards, that the nerves in my shins are alive and well.

Virgil showed me outside and inside leg kicks, how to throw jabs and overhand power punches, and how to block these kicks and punches. Then he had me put them together into a sequence.

“OK, now give me a front kick to the belly, then a left jab, right overhand, and outside leg wheel kick, bam-bam-bam-bam.”

I practiced my combo on him for a while, and eventually got to the point where I could deliver a half-decent combination.

“Now you’re kickboxing,” Virgil said with a smile.

Next week: ground and pound.