The chain-link fence lining the gym’s wall presses into my back. Pushing forward, I create a mental note of the fences proximity. Jimmy watches impassively, hands moving in constant, small faints. Scars tissue, threatening reminders of his 26 boxing matches, form thin lines beneath his eyes. Raising my own gloved hands, I begin shuffling forward. Close the distance, secure the take down. Makkelijk gedaan.
The United Kingdom Mixed Martial Arts Federation (UKMMAF) had just selected Jimmy ‘The Tomahawk’ Fell to represent the UK in the European Championships. “The Tomahawk” was a natural choice: Aside from his experience in the boxing ring, he had already racked up a 2-0 record in MMA. Our coach Windy, noticing a similarity in my weight and grappling style to Jimmy’s next opponent, had asked me to spar with him in preparation for the upcoming competition.
Jimmy emanates a cold detachment as he slides forward to intercept my advance. We gauge our range with lead jabs and hooks, easing into the sparring. I connect with a stiff jab and receive a hard right counter, followed by a hook to the body, for my troubles. Play your strengths, I remind myself, focus on the take down.
Over the last few months, following an orbital injury, I had dedicated my training almost exclusively to submission grappling. Everyday after work, I would cycle for an hour through England’s perpetual rain to train at Blue Wave Martial Arts, in the small parish of Bury Saint Edmunds, before cycling back. But I wasn’t the only one. Rumor had it every morning at 5:00 AM you would find ‘The Tomahawk’ already in the gym, honing his techniques and sharpening his movements.
Before I can lower my level for a take down, Jimmy unleashes a combination of strikes. As my back hits the fence, he follows up by closing the distance, hammering his shoulder into my abdomen. Heaving sideways, he scraps me along the fence to the floor. There’s no time for self-beratement as I fend off his ground-and-pound and fight to recover guard. With a sudden hip-shift, I manage to sweep his legs from under him. But instead of rolling back to his feet, Jimmy initiates a leg entanglement
His vice-like grip along my ankle sends alarm bells ringing. In my mind, I can already hear the grinding of cartilage as the heel-hook submission exerts pressure on the knee. The twisting motion places strain on the Anterior Crucible Ligament and Medial Crucible ligament, threatening to sever the connective tissue with an audible snap. I start working the escape, my eyes fastened on his hands, watching him slowly secure the submission hold. The round timer sounds.
We touch gloves and rise to our feet, but Jimmy’s gaze is distant, his mind already on his next fight. Except next time, the chain-link fences will form a cage around him, an audience will follow his every movement, and blood might well stain the mats beneath his feet. With his controlled, calculated approach to fighting, it’s unlikely to be his.