An Exercise In Performance Anxiety – UCMMA Norwich 21-09-2013

Josh PalmerMMA Events, Training

Well I finally got around to doing something that vaguely resembles an MMA match. Note: I said match since given the rule-set limitations I don’t personally think you can call a c-class Amateur bout a ‘fight’ anymore than you can any single discipline competition. It’s just semantics but I know how touchy some people get about it.

I’ve been kind of avoiding the scenario for quite a long time, generally due to my history with having some feeling of anxiety over my ability to perform in competition. However a lot of things have clicked over the past few months and having firmly resolved my latest round of dieting issues I’ve really switched gears with competition. After a good outing at the Immaculate Submission Only competition a few weeks ago I’ve been wanting to compete a lot more. I’d already agreed to a submission only gi grappling match in the cage at AWOL MMA on October 6th but following a chat with fighter Ryan Roddy on the way back from our recent jaunt to Chechnya, I’d really shifted my perspective on getting stuck in to competition a bit more. Hence why as soon as I got aback in the gym, I told my coach to put me on the card at UCMMA Contenders alongside several of my teammates.

My coach (and plenty of other people) has been bugging me for a long time to do at least a c-class match and lets face it: not many people train as consistently as I do, for the period of time that I have and don’t at least get their feet a bit wet. On reflection, it’s pretty stupid I haven’t done it before given the skill-set I carry which is about as perfect a fit for c-class rules as you can get.

I got matched fairly quickly against a guy I was told was 0-1. Seemed good to me. Genuinely the only thing I was concerned about was did the guy look ‘scary’ enough to shake my confidence when actually standing across the ring from me. I was told this guy wasn’t so that made me instantly happier.

Being a BJJ purple belt who trains MMA almost as much you might be wondering why I had this trepidation. It’s simple: BJJ is not MMA and training is not competition. This entire endevour had very little to do with the actual match and far more to do with the experience. The weight cut, the weigh-in, the warm-up and the walk out: all those markers along the way when you can be plagued by nervousness and self-doubt. That is what I wanted to improve and that was what I hoped to get most out of the event.

UCMMA 09-2013 - Gear Ready

Look at the photo above. That is paranoia for you. It’s all my gear I had ready to take with me, prepared for every eventuality. Do I need gloves for warm-ups? What about if he tries to argue for shin guards at the rules meeting? Is my walkout music CD actually working? The list goes on. Really funny when I look back at it but that was really what was going through my head.

My weigh cut was pretty much flawless, if a little tough for people looking in on it. I didn’t really change my nutritional approach from the previous few weeks but instead just adjusted my calories to -35% training days and -45% rest days…if you don’t know what that means let me assure you: it’s a big freaking deficit. The only thing that really felt directly impacted was my recovery time but in general as I eat very ‘clean’ whole foods I was still able to maintain a large volume of food and not be hungry. Pretty cool I’d say.

I was able to cut a lot in the weeks prior and given that I have a very good awareness of my body, simply by shifting my carb intake very low and sodium intake to zero in the last week, I dropped about 4lbs in 2 days to make hitting 84Kg virtually effortless. As you’ll see in the scale shot below I actually woke up on the day at 83.2Kg so was able to eat oats with honey for breakfast. Tasty!

UCMMA 09-2013 - Scales

This next photo makes me never want to take any image where I’m not at least a little dehydrated ever again! I mean even I think I look pretty good for a change. Have to say I was also completely blown away by the responses to it on Facebook. Most people know I’ve been dropping weight for a long time and this shot seemed like another big significant jump in the right direction.

Of course this was immediately followed by a monster carb load…because that’s what you’re supposed to do after weighing-in right?! The team first went for lunch at a branch of Jamies Italian. Fairly good sausage paparadelle there by the way. This was followed by munching through the rice I’d made at home. Short grain sticky jasmine rice washed 3 times, soaked for 8 hours, steamed for 35 minutes, left overnight to go slightly stale then stir fried in coconut oil with chorizo and two eggs…how’s that for overkill! But hey I like good food and I’d been waiting for these carbs for six days so I figured I might as well make them taste good!

UCMMA 09-2013 - Weigh-n 83Kg

Now lets discuss the actual nerves since that’s the whole point of doing this. You know what? There almost weren’t any and that makes me very pleased indeed.

Night before I was little apprehensive and I didn’t really sleep brilliantly but during the weigh-in and most of the day I really enjoyed it. I’ve always said one of my favourite times is pre/post competition meal with teammates and this is definitely an enhanced feeling when you’re the one actually getting ready to compete.

Even during the warm-up I was remarkably calm. Went though my usual yoga-based stretching routine, some pummeling, take-downs and kicks just like I was warming up for rounds in the gym. I think this really surprised my coach and a few other people watching. It certainly amplifies to me the importance of a confident mindset.

Then came the part when I can admit: I got a bit shaken up. It was short-lived but a very odd feeling. The runner called me up and I walked up the stairs, along the gantry above the crowd and down to the back of the walkout ramp. My coach and corner were behind me attempting some motivational speaking which to be honest I really didn’t hear much of. I was too busy wondering why my body was walking without me telling it too! It really was a third-party feeling and my first and only real questioning of what I was doing. I knew logically that this wasn’t going to be particularly any harder than many of the grappling events I’d done but it was hard to be cognitive of that fact in the thirty seconds that walk took. As I reached the walkout zone, my coach asked me what my composure level was from 1-10. “5” I replied honestly. Then what my self-belief level was. “8” I responded. “We’re all set then” was all I heard.

My anticipation was never really about the bout just the nature of that many people all focusing solely on you in that context. I knew this was going to be the hardest part and it was just that. But as I actually had to do the walkout, I’d virtually returned to normal.

UCMMA 09-2013 - Walkout

I will say my actual walkout was a little confusing. The other competitor from the previous bout was still coming back up from the cage so I kind of had to dodge by him and in doing so overtook the ring girls before the ‘pose for pictures’ point.

I deliberately picked walkout music that was atmospheric and motivating but at the same time calming to me. I think I’m a far more effectively aggressive competitor when I’m not trying to be aggressive – yes, that sounds odd as hell but that’s how I feel so I wanted a tune to highlight that. I went with the track ‘A little piece’ by ‘The Jezabels. A lot of my favourite tracks are my favourite because I associate them with videos they were sound-tracked to. It’s like an NLP trigger for the way I felt watching the video. This track was used by my good friend Stuart Cooper as the theme for his epic ADCC 2011 highlight. What better way to get fired up to compete than recalling some of the worlds best grapplers going into beast mode. Another good example for me is ‘Release all Light‘ by ‘De La Mancha‘ which was used in a cross-fit games slow-motion highlight: pretty inspiring.

UCMMA 09-2013 - In Cage 01

Strangely, once I was at the prep point it didn’t seem all that unusual. My motions were still somewhat automated rather than conscious decisions but they weren’t odd or nervous.

At this point being in the cage wasn’t any different than being on the mat at the start of contest. I didn’t have any appreciation that anyone was actually watching and I was fairly concentrated on the opponent. Even the MC Dave O’Donnell made me feel even more at ease when he walked over and had a quick exchange of words whilst my opponent was coming in. I’ve only met Dave a couple of times but given that I primarily commentate for what people like to perceive as UCMMAs ‘rivals‘ we were able to have a little chuckle about me competing on one of his shows.

Here’s another part that felt a tad odd to me: the stare-down. Most people who know me will tell you I’m seemingly not very aggressive and certainly not that imposing…and I’m probably not. Physically, I’m a bit of understatement in terms of what my body can do. Other than a significant wingspan when I stretch myself out (yes, I’m aware these long arms also make me walk like a neanderthal) you’d probably think I’d gas in twenty seconds or be somewhat slow such is the blob-like nature of my midsection. That isn’t the case and it definitely throws people off. However, on this occasion I didn’t let my eyes off my opponent from the moment he walked in the cage and I also refused three times to touch gloves with him. That’s not like me and whilst it definitely did it’s job, personally I felt like a complete twat throughout the entire process. I’d have preferred to go with a Matt Hughes-esque calm confidence but it was a useful experiment and as I said, it did it’s job.

UCMMA 09-2013 - In Cage 02

There was never really a question as to whether or not I’d be better on the ground. There’s a very, very small chance you’re going to come across someone with greater grappling proficiency than a purple belt in BJJ or a Judo black belt in Amateur rules MMA. Closing the distance and wrestling is probably the biggest question mark but lets face it, if you can’t get hit the head you can just pull guard…completely pointless in trying to practice MMA in a competitive context but an option none the less. In any event I have very reasonable open space/cage wrestling so I didn’t expect this to be an issue.

However I also have some fairly solid tree trunks on me (who knew being really overweight had a use), good flexibility and a decent appreciation of kinetic linking: that’s my way of saying I kick deceptively hard. Bearing this in mind, the game plan was actually to try something different. It was to kick him very hard and repeatedly….so that’s what I did.

Unfortunately, it took just one kick. It hit his hamstring as he was already flinching away and it also put him down to the ground. He was also turning away at this point so I followed rather hastily to the ground on reflex and essentially ended up instantly in a technical mount with his back turned. Here’s where I’m going to sound like a real bastard for a moment: I took a second to look at my corner and give them a “are you fucking serious?!” look. I was genuinely in dis-belief and a bit pissed off. A lot of training and apprehension had gone in to this and here it was done and dusted before it even started. I lost my temper a little and went for a nastier choke grip dragging the forearm across the throat rather than a traditional RNC. Not that it mattered because he tapped in very short order. A measly eight seconds from start to finish.

UCMMA 09-2013 - Winner

If anyone ever works out why the ‘yay I won‘ feeling you get when having your arm raised in any contest is forgotten so quickly please let me know. I barely remember that part at all and I also can’t remember being able to see anything/anyone in the crowd. Maybe next time.

As for the post-fight interview: I would also like to take this opportunity to apologise to any fighters in the past that I’ve interviewed in the cage post-fight and have asked weird or complicated questions to. I got completely off what I actually wanted to say and probably sounded like an idiot. I had never expected that bit to lack composure, I mean I do it frequently, all be it from the other side of the mic. God knows what it must be like to have someone like me asking you questions after you’ve done a full 3×5 or 5×5 of pro rounds.

Dave definitely makes post-fights energetic though. Lets all take a moment to appreciate the little bit of irony in this photo of me getting tongue tied on the wrong side of the mic…

UCMMA 09-2013 - Post Fight 02

…and just like that it was all wrapped up and in the books! Walked out of the cage, didn’t even look at anyone in the crowd and missed my friends entirely (Sorry guys!). My match was on really early, third on the card so I had a lot of time to just enjoy the rest of the event and the performances from my other two teammates who were competing. Marcin (very quick TKO) and Andre (RNC late on) both grabbed stoppage wins in the first round (under Unified Amateur rules or ‘semi-pro‘ as some shows like to call it) which was brilliant.

I also found time to immediately start my cheat food binge. Several weeks of big deficit dieting with barely any slip-ups so I was really in the mood for some gratuitous eating. Before the show was over I’d enjoyed a packet of fudge, a ‘Gnaw‘ chocolate bar and also managed to sneak out for an hour to get a Pizza Hut. Basically everything I don’t typically eat! I also chilled out the following day and had lots of bacon sandwiches for breakfast followed by a huge beast of a sandwich concoction that took several hours to be ready. Call me crazy but I like doing stuff like that occasionally.

UCMMA 09-2013 - Team

Overall I got a lot out of the whole experience even if the bout itself wasn’t all it perhaps could have been. I’m definitely looking forward to doing some more matches like this especially, as like any competition I do, it gives me a specific weight cut to aspire to. The next Norwich show is in December so we’ll see what happens.

In closing, thanks to my friend and coach Lee Doski at Tsunami Fight Gym Norfolk for kicking my ass and motivating me the whole way through. Thanks to all my teammates for the training and thanks to my Girlfriend for putting up with me when I was getting agitated with the diet.

Next stop: Cage Warriors 60 and the lightweight tournament in London followed the next day by my cage grappling match against pro-MMA middleweight Luke Blythe. Should be fun!