Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Championship Belt and a Tragedy

On Saturday Sep. 29, my best friend, jiu-jitsu student, and wrestling coach Paul "The Wrecking Ball" Reihner won a championship at Gladiators of the Cage in Butler, PA via triangle choke in the second round. I have been training Paul for four years now and have been in his corner for most of his fights. To be a part of his success, to have a role in his realizing one of his dreams, is a nearly indescribable feeling. It is more rewarding than anything I have accomplished personally. To see the look on his face when that mediocre ring girl strapped his belt around his waist was exhilarating.

And I hated every minute of it.

Cornering Paul is hard for me because I worry, a lot. For the two weeks preceding the fight, I was irritable and distracted. If my mind had a moment to wander, I would think about Paul's fight, about what could go right and what could go wrong, about what we needed to do the day before and the morning of and during weigh-ins and at lunch and at the rules meeting and to warm-up and what we had to do during the walkout and where I would have to sit and what I would have to yell during the fight and what we would do after the fight was over. Fight time is fairly miserable for me.

My incessant worrying is part of why Paul has me in his corner. He knows that I will do enough worrying for the both of us and then some for his wife, so he can relax and focus on his fight and nothing else. He also knows that my worrying balances his hyper-competitiveness. If taking a particular fight is a bad idea for any number of reasons, Paul knows that he can count on me to be the voice of reason and tell him no even if he is eager to strap on his gloves and jam to his walkout music. We work well together because we are the same in the right areas and different in the right areas.

What worries me most, though, is Paul's safety. Like all of my students, Paul is like family to me. I care more about his health than I do about his record. In a sport like amateur MMA, my worry is completely justified.

As much as we talk about MMA being safer than boxing and being well-regulated, we are actually making an unspoken distinction. These sorts of discussions refer to professional MMA, a sport where one highly trained and well-prepared athlete faces off against another. We would rather not talk about the realities of amateur MMA because they are frankly disturbing and embarrassing.

Amateur MMA is rife with gross mismatches of ability. Athletic commissions do what they can to stop this by rejecting matches with significant win/loss differences, but when most guys have two or three fights, it's difficult for athletic commissions and promoters (assuming that they are trying) to organize fair match-ups. Fighters themselves don't help the situation because most of them are high on Ultimate Fighter reruns and believe that they should be prepared to fight anyone, anywhere. Coaches too are not blameless. They have a responsibility to help their fighters make wise decisions, and their integrity should be such that they are willing to lose a payday or lose a student (if the fighter disagrees and walks away) when they take a stand in the best interest of their fighters.

I say this because at about the time Paul was making fun of my celebratory kiwi margarita at Applebee's, another fighter on the same card was in an MRI, learning that he had fractured his C1 vertebrae. I was backstage during the fight but was told that the fighter was on the receiving end of a suplex and landed on his head. Either the suplex was improperly executed, the suplex was improperly defended, or the injury was a freak accident. In my mind, all three scenarios are unacceptable. This was an amateur event at a Days Inn across the street from a sewage treatment plant, not a million dollar prize fight pay per view.

Though I do not know this fighter's specific situation, I have seen dozens of fighters enter the cage far too soon, and they almost always end up hurt. I have seen promoters book morbidly mismatched fights. And I have seen coaches permit or push their fighters to compete before they are ready. On the whole, we need to see a higher level of skill in amateur MMA, but we won't see that change unless everyone involved starts to worry a lot more about each other. Tough guys can care too.

The discussion of this article over at r/MMA is getting really good. Check it out.

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