Tuesday, October 4, 2011

From the Pages - Heart for the Fight

Excerpted from Heart for the Fight: A Marine Hero's Journey from the Battlefields of Iraq to Mixed Martial Arts Champion by Brian Stann, with John R. Bruning

Fight Night, Las Vegas, August 2008  

Their screams are the worst. We’re more than a hundred meters away, on the other side of the river, but I can hear Marines dying. Their armored vehicle hit a land mine. It caught fire with fifteen men aboard.

They scream as they burn alive. The radio chatter is desperate, almost hysterical. Nobody can get to them. There will be no salvation, only a torturous death in the flames. From our position across the river, we hear every agonizing moment and can see their funeral pyre rising over the riverbank.

I can do nothing. It is the most helpless, enraging feeling I’ve ever experienced. I have no way to get across the water to those burning men.

It takes forever for the last screams to fade away.

My eyes flick open. I’m instantly alert. For a second, it feels like I’m back in western Iraq.

Travis Manion, one of my closest friends, stares at me from across the makeshift locker room, as if he senses I’ve relived that day in 2005 all over again. He knows I always do.

You gotta have heart for the fight, Bro.

Travis says that before every bout. He’s a wrestler with butt-ugly, battered jug ears that he had to drain after every match at the Naval Academy. Fighters break their fingers so often that they frequently become useless digits. Wrestlers get their ears boxed until they’re bloated and fluid filled. It’s just part of the game. We understand that sacrifice, and respect each other for it. It is who we are—Marines driven to win at whatever cost.

I am the WEC light heavyweight champ. Tonight is fight night. Steve Cantwell and I are the main event.

I won the belt with heart and a hell of a lot of work, not with my technique or my skills as a fighter. On that front, I’m still raw, a fact my new coaches repeatedly remind me about. I haven’t had the years to develop like other fighters have. While my opponents have been training, I’ve been in combat. Every time I go into the cage, I face that disadvantage.

At least everyone else says it’s a disadvantage. It has never bothered me before. I’m not the kid who couldn’t get his backpack off anymore. I won’t be caught off guard, and I’ll be damned if there’s another fighter out there with more heart than I.

Besides, after days like that one in 2005, everything seems a hell of a lot easier than combat.

At the moment, I have time to kill. I’m in the lull, that dreadful space between arriving for the fight and actually getting in the cage. Here at the Hard Rock Casino, they put us fighters into a cramped storage room near the loading docks. The hotel staff divides the room with a curtain, and our opponents can be heard warming up on the other side. We’ve also got 8x10 mats on the floor so we can warm up when it’s time. Flanking the mats are folding chairs with our names taped to them.

I’ve been here for over an hour now. My fight isn’t until seven, and it is just after five. Around me, the undercard boxers are suffering through the same lull. Some sit and stare at the ceiling, lost in thought. Others listen to music. A few join their coaches on the mats and start to warm up.

The tension here is like no other locker room I’ve ever experienced. Football at the Academy was intense, but never like this. At times, the tension borders on quiet desperation. For us fighters, our careers hang by a thread. One loss and we will see our contracts torn up, our endorsement deals vanish. That’s just the start. A loss can send you back down to the local venues where a fighter’s lucky to make two grand per event. Many of the WEC fighters have families. If they lose, they’ve got no way to cover next month’s house payment. One wrong move, one punch not blocked, and it is over. The dream of becoming one of those few who can make serious money at this game will evaporate, and it’ll be back to living on a relative’s couch between bouts.

Tonight, careers will be destroyed, fortunes won and potential ones lost. Our destiny resides in our fists.

I have two major endorsements riding on tonight’s championship fight. If I lose, they’ll stop courting me. Nobody wants a loser as a shill.

I sit back in my metal chair and listen to my iPod. Travis leaves me alone. So do my corner men. Frank, my brother-in-law, knows my routine and stays out of my way. My new coach, Rory Singer, has another fighter on the undercard named Brian Bowles. He taps Brian on the shoulder and tells him to warm up. Together, they walk over to the mat and get to work.

My other corner man, Thierry Sokoudjou, is a fighter of great reputation and skill. He’s been with me in one other fight. He keeps his distance, but I know he’s watching to make sure I stay relaxed—or at least as relaxed as I can. The worst thing a fighter can do is get his heart rate going prematurely. That’s a hard thing to avoid when you’ve got a three hour wait for the biggest five minutes of your life. I don’t tell him about my recurring memory. For some reason, it always pops into my head on fight nights. I guess it serves as a reminder of who I am and what I went through.

I don’t fight for myself. I fight for my Marines, for the kids I lost in Iraq and the friends I helped lay to rest at home. The bonds we sealed at the Academy? They are stronger than death, but it doesn’t make their loss any easier.

I do know this: Every time I put my gloves on, I feel them at my side. Their presence and memory guides and drives me. I cannot let them down.

I will justify their faith in me with every strike.

Thumbing through the tracks on my IPod, I search for a song that captures the moment. Nothing seems to fit. In past fights, I’ve always found a song that clinches my mood, one that sparks my final mental preparations before the fight. When I took the belt from Doug Marshall in the spring, I listened to rap. I hate rap, but it just felt right. When I took on Craig Zellner, I played Bullet for My Valentine’s Tears Don’t Fall over and over. It reminded me of Iraq, and it filled me with cold fury.

Tonight, I try out some classic Guns N’ Roses. Paradise City does nothing for me. I move on to Night Train, but that’s a dud as well. It makes me feel unsettled. Something’s not right. A fighter’s mental state is critical. A ripple in his psyche can mean the difference between victory and the cold kiss of the mat.

In the final moments before a fight, I bundle up all the grief and rage and turn it into fuel for the battle ahead. When I step into the cage, I unleash all of it on my opponent. It explodes out of me and becomes a force of its own. One of my pro fights lasted just sixteen seconds. So far, nobody has been able to go more than two rounds against me. I am 6–0. The undefeated Marine.

I represent the Corps every time I climb into the cage. I’ve said that to the media many times during the pre-event hype. On camera, I’ve talked about the people I’ve lost, the friends I’ve seen die and how their memory propels me forward. The truth is, fighting is how I cope. It is my release, and it keeps my life in balance outside the cage.

How many friends have you lost?

Too many.

Trav knows. He’s been through it with me.

There’s no way to escape the grief. Instead, I pour it out through my fists and feet.

I hear them screaming. I can almost see their faces.

Cantwell hasn’t seen these things. He didn’t smell burning flesh. That motherfucker on the other side of the cage—he didn’t go through that. And I’m going to show him. I’m going to make him feel the pain I live with every day.

My gym bag sits nearby. I reach down and rummage through it until I find my wallet.    

By now, we’re well into the undercard. The clock reads six-thirty. Two fights to go, then I’m up. Bowles leaves for his bout, Rory trailing after him. I hold my wallet and watch Brian climb into the cage on one of the flat-screen televisions mounted on the wall.

I clutch my wallet and feel that ripple in my psyche again. It flows across the rage I’ve been trying to create and feels even more unsettling than before.

Brian wins his fight. He returns to the locker room all smiles. Rory is pumped. He slaps my shoulder and says, “Cantwell can’t handle ya, Brian. No way. He’s all yours.”

“Thanks, Coach.”

Burt, one of the WEC organizers, enters the locker room. “Hey, the card’s moving quick now. You got about twenty minutes, Brian.”

From my wallet, I extract a small business card. On the back, below an embossed anchor, are words first shared at a classmate’s funeral. I glance up at Travis, then back down at the card. He’s not smiling any longer. He knows the score.

Make my lonely grave richer
Sweeter be,
Make this truly the land of the free
And the home of the brave.
I gave my life to save
That I might here lie
Forever free.

The spirit of the Corps. These are the words that sealed and bonded our brotherhood. It exists beyond the realm of this life. Nothing breaks it. It is stronger than death. That’s what makes the Corps unique, and why we Marines have accomplished so many historic things.

Travis watches over me. Those words have guided his life as well. They are what made him rush to the sound of gunfire in Iraq and try to save a wounded comrade. They are the reason why he received a Silver Star.

My brother-in-law, Frank appears next to me. “Let’s get your gloves on.”

I stand up, and Frank slides them onto my hands. These are my weapons now. In Iraq, I carried an M16 and could call down laser guided bombs, artillery, and tank fire on my opponents. Here, in the cage, it will be my fists and feet against Cantwell’s.

I step onto the mat. Rory comes over, holding pads. Time to warm up.

Another ripple rolls through me. This is my first fight with Rory. I’m not used to him holding the pads I’ll soon be striking. Travis used to do that, like several of my Marine training partners since. We’ve worked together for years now. I remember nights where we didn’t even have a gym to practice in, so we dragged our pads onto a lawn and worked out in the dark as best we could. We did whatever it took to get better.

Tentatively I strike the pads. Rory encourages me. I push a little harder. It still doesn’t feel right. Whatever it is that’s bothering me, it is too late to fix. I just have to make the best of it. I get to work.

Fighters know that the warm-up before a bout is almost as important as the bout itself. Stepping into the cage cold shocks your system. Your heart rate spikes to 180 and your body loads up with lactic acid. You get stiff quickly and lose your wind. The best warm-ups are the ones that get you all sweaty and tired. The fight itself becomes your second wind. Your body has time to adjust to the exertion and abuse it will take.

“Okay,” Rory says at last. “Now, let’s go out there and get it done.”

“Roger that, Coach.”

Burt arrives and tells us it is time to go. We follow him out the Casino’s back door, around the corner to the front entrance. We walk through the main floor, surrounded by gamblers and cocktail waitresses. Rory, Frank, and Thierry stay protectively close to me. I can’t see Trav, but I know he’s close too.

We pause at the staging door. On the other side is a small room that then opens onto the arena. Steve Cantwell waits inside. As the challenger, he’ll be introduced first tonight, which means I have to wait.

I bounce on the balls of my feet, trying to keep my heart rate up. The wait continues. A drunk wanders up to me and asks, “Who ya fightin’?”

Somebody else asks me for my autograph, which was kind of silly since I’m wearing gloves and can’t sign anything. In the past, I’ve been able to focus during these final moments, but now, I’m distracted by the people around me. Travis appears, and I see he looks unusually serious, borderline worried. In a different situation, I know he’d take me aside and ask me what the hell was going on. Our friendship starts and ends with blunt honesty. We never pull our punches because we know whatever we say to each other is designed to make us better. Better men. Better officers. Better warriors.

More looky-loos gather until I’m in the eye of a mini mob scene. I look around and see we’re ringed by drunks, all of whom are shelling me with slurred questions. Some cheer me on. A few try to pat me on the shoulder to wish me good luck. One with liquid legs wobbles up to me and exclaims, “Who the fuck are you?”

The staging room doors open at last and I’m led inside. We leave the chaos behind us. A few final seconds of silence and then I’ll be Teddy Roosevelt’s man in the arena once again.

“We’re at commercial. Stand by,” says Burt.

Brian. You’re not a Marine anymore.

The ripple just became a tidal wave. I try to ignore it.

You’re not a Marine.

I will always be a Marine, even if I did leave the Corps earlier this summer. This is my first fight as a civilian.

Who are you?

Oh come on. Don’t even start. I’m a veteran of Iraq. I’m the Light Heavyweight Champion of the WEC.

You aren’t a fighter. You don’t have the skills. You brawl. You strike. But your technique is weak. And now, you’re not even a Marine. You gave that life up for your wife and daughter.

I have no answer for this. This summer, after I left the Marines, I moved my family down to Atlanta. When I did, I left my sparring partners and coaches behind. I had always trained with other Marines; now I had to find a new home. I ended up training at two different gyms, relying on four different coaches. It was so decentralized that I learned things from one coach that canceled out the things another one was trying to teach me.

My coaches all agreed on one thing: I don’t have the skills yet. I have the heart, plenty of that, but at this level, they told me, heart ain’t enough.

Travis doesn’t buy that. Neither did I, and that’s how I got this far.

You gotta have heart for the fight, Bro.

Another wave crashes over me.

A jolt of fear jabs my gut.

Oh hell no. Not this. Not now.

I have always had confidence in myself. I’ve never doubted my heart. Another shock of fear courses through me. For a second, I feel like I’m in Iraq again, getting ready to sortie on a mission with my platoon.

Brian, you have never let fear get the best of you. Don’t start now.

That’s what Travis would tell me if I had time to talk to him about this. But any second now, that other set of double doors will open, and I’ll walk into the arena alone, thousands of fans cheering or booing, millions more watching on television. It’s too late for talk.

Okay, what am I going to do?

As I wrestle with that question, I realize my body has cooled off. The wait on the casino floor went longer than I thought. I’m not sweaty anymore, which is a bad thing. I’m going to climb into the cage cold.

Frank gives me a quick hug. “I love you, brother. Kick his ass.”

“Okay, we’re back and live,” Burt announces.

The second set of double doors fling open. The crowd screams and howls. A camera waits just across the threshold.

I step forward and pass through the doors like a man in a dream. No, not a dream. A nightmare.

I’m going to lose this fight.

1 comment:

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