The real struggle begins weeks before Fight Night. Suddenly, with a jolt of icy electricity, your hands are shaking and your hair is bristling. I have a fight this very month. A person somewhere out there is training to hurt me. It’s impossible to know when the nerves will strike. Maybe in the grocery store while comparing brands of oatmeal. Or you’re pulling your clothes out of the washing machine. This psychological boondoggle will break you down if you don’t deal with it. The real struggle doesn’t happen in the ring. It comes to you no matter where you go. At work. In your bedroom. On the phone with your mom.
For this reason and many more, sport fighting is so much more than a fistfight. If you can’t get your head straight, you will defeat yourself. I mean this literally: A guy who fancies himself a badass will fake an injury and back out of his fight. The nerves beat him before his opponent even laid eyes on him.
That’s an extreme case. Usually what happens is your weaknesses surface and your training suffers.
Nerves manifest themselves in different ways, and strike at different times during the training. One guy will feel it as soon as the promoter confirms his fight. Someone else will be fine all month and suddenly wake up in the middle of the night, eyeballs throbbing with adrenaline.
Everyone responds to the nerves differently according to his or her psychology, and must be coached accordingly. Three other people at my school are fighting on the same night I do. One of them, a girl who’s in better shape than anyone I know, slows down and locks up during sparring despite her fitness, paralyzed by self-doubt. Another one of our guys feeds himself with anger, stops listening to his coaches, and abandons his game plan. Each of us breaks down in his or her own way, and one of the many great things about our instructor is he understands how to coach each of us.
As for me, the nerves finally struck last week during sparring. I was clinched against the wall with one of the best guys at our gym, and it suddenly occured to me how difficult things will be with adrenaline coursing through my body. With about a thousand people watching. My mouth went dry, butterflies exploded in my stomach. Oh, there you are, I thought, as my partner broke the clinch and started gamely driving knees into my stomach. Hello, nerves. That’s how it starts. This is the real motherfucker. Three weeks, me and my nerves in an anything-goes deathmatch. What you see on Fight Night is just the fallout of a long struggle each fighter has had with himself, between his own ears and inside his soul.