I Sparred With a Pro MMA Fighter
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the best place to enjoy an ass-kicking is from where you are right now.
I have a very strange, possibly self-destructive idea. I want to spar with Gastón Bolaños.
At 24 years old, the Peruvian is an exceptional pro fighter in three sports, but he couldn’t care less about his official record. He is an artist of the martial variety, and performance is his concern.
Bolaños’ first love is Muay Thai, a violent and majestic sport I’ve practiced for four years. Ballet lovers see grace and timing in the vaulting jetés of Mikhail Baryshnikov; I see the same when Bolaños rips a 45-degree angle into a man’s nose with a spinning back elbow.
Kirian Fitzgibbons is Bolaños’ coach, and owner of Combat Sports Academy in Dublin, California. I contact Fitzgibbons and propose to spar with Bolaños and then write something about the experience. Fitzgibbons is skeptical. He gets lots of media requests for Bolaños, but no writer has asked to spar with him before.
Fitzgibbons warns me that Bolaños is a “mean” fighter. He reminds me that Bolaños is Latino, which I understand as prone to machismo. He says that Bolaños fights a little meaner than Joe Schilling, a former world-champion kickboxer and co-owner of the Yard, the prison-inspired gym on Los Angeles’ Eastside where I train. Schilling is an approachable family man outside the ring, but his appearance and physical bearing are terrifying. I have difficulty imagining a meaner sparring partner than Schilling.
I can’t say I precisely remember those nine minutes.
Great fighters attack meanly. But what does “mean” mean? Meanness in fight sports is the ultimate intangible, beyond strategy and technique. “You’re mean” is the greatest compliment a coach can pay a fighter. But meanness in combat is not the same as bullying or sadism. It relates to intent, and the conscious will to inflict damage, or a “killer” instinct.
Bolaños agrees to spar. I try not to think about fear. I will not do anything stupid. I will follow proper sparring etiquette according to my training. And I will not be what Fitzgibbons calls a “comedian,” a guy who shows up at a martial arts gym and impetuously demands to joust beyond his depth with a more experienced partner. Bolaños earned his nickname, “the Dreamkiller,” for his relish in making sure such jokers never came back.
I drive up to the East Bay. OZY Editor-at-Large Eugene S. Robinson meets me at my hotel wearing a black suit and shirt, mustachioed, with his gray-streaked hair carefully conked. Editors do not usually accompany reporters doing fieldwork, but Eugene is a fighter and if someone is going to get thumped, he wants to be there.
I drive a battered, black Audi S8 sedan, a rare model that gives off a distinct ex-CIA-agent-on-the-skids vibe. With a video producer in the passenger seat and the underworldly Mr. Robinson in the back, only the S8’s limo-tinted rear windows prevent us from getting pulled over en route to the gym.
We get to CSA and meet Bolaños and Fitzgibbons. I stretch, jump.
Fitzgibbons gives Bolaños some instructions that I can’t hear. We decide to spar for three rounds, each three minutes in length. Fitzgibbons says “Ding!” like a bell, and looks at me with pity, as if to say, “If you fuck up, you’re going to the hospital.” And we spar.
I can’t say I precisely remember those nine minutes. We often hear of the brain’s fight-or-flight mechanism, but there is a third common response to violence, which is to give up and shut down completely.
I do remember that I did not jump out of the ring and flee, nor did I turn my back and run in circles to evade my counterpart, as Conor McGregor did in his second bout with Nate Diaz. I also remember getting knocked on my ass several times, and sustaining many painful kicks and punches to the sternum, solar plexus and liver. The mental dynamic of sparring with a far more experienced partner moved between fighting to defend myself and shutting down completely.
Ronen Segman, an Israeli psychiatrist focused on combat stress, explains why the event is so blurry in my memory. “In violent situations, your conscious awareness is fluctuating,” he says. “When the pain becomes overwhelming, you dissociate. It’s a mental defense mechanism.”
Memory is subjective and I haven’t seen video footage of the “fight” (which it certainly was for me). But one moment stands out in my mind. I have no idea what round it was, but I noticed that Bolaños’ left hand was lowered, likely from kicking me with his left leg. Seeing the opening, I punched him in the face with my right hand.
Time froze, and I witnessed a portal into my own mortality shaped like a well-groomed, high-cheekboned Latino with the capacity to destroy me.
That’s it, I thought. I pissed him off and now I’m dead. Bolaños looked into me penetratingly, and flicked his head such that his hair would fall back into place. Then he continued beating me up. Face punching is no personal affront in our sport.
I survived three rounds with Gastón Bolaños.
Four days later, in LA, I was signing the check in a diner and noticed I was having difficulty writing. Putting the pen down, I saw my hands were shaking uncontrollably. The reason, leastways as I can figure it: combat stress.