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How it started VS how it is going …

Open Guard is going to deliver in depth, true, authentic, insights as to what a fighter’s lifestyle is actually like. I want to go beyond what is usually discussed in normal interviews. Yes, fighters are regular people who go through ups and downs like the rest of us, but they are trained to be able to deal with high stress, high risk situations where the odds are stacked against them. Situations where they get hurt, physically and/or mentally, and they keep going. Is it just human nature to keep fighting, or is there anything special or different about those who choose to fight for a living?

The only way to really document this accurately is for me to experience, firsthand, what it is to be a fighter. Train and earn the acceptance of this community so I can report from the inside. And to be a fighter, well, you often have to fight..

One of the early supporter of Open Guard is UFC and Bellator veteran David Branch. He holds two world champion titles from World Series Of Fighting (Now PFLMMA), is a BJJ black belt and opened up his academy in Hoboken in 2016. When I approached Dave and talked about Open Guard, he immediately showed support. Before opening his academy, David was the head MMA coach at Edge Hoboken, a famous wrestling club that also offered Muay Thai classes I use to attend. This is where I met Dave, back in 2013 or 2014.

At his academy, every Friday evening, a group of amateur and pro fighters journey to Hoboken with their gear; shin guards, knee and elbow pads, mouth piece and MMA gloves. The format is quite simple: some loud music and an old timer set to 3,4 or 5 minutes with 30 seconds breaks in between. The first round is usually kind of a warm up round, consisting mainly of light kickboxing with take downs mixed in. But as soon as the 2nd round starts, the group raises it to another level where let’s just say, creativity is at its highest. Picture walk on wall Spiderman punches, back spinning heel kicks, imanari rolls, etc. At this point, I don't hear the music anymore.

The technique:

I consider myself a MMA enthusiast. I have always loved combat sports but had huge gaps of multiple years where I completely stopped training. so in order to be read to lead this project, I started to follow a strict training schedule. The background I have in combat sports is just enough so that I can survive in this shark tank a bit more than a random person off the street. Some of the athletes on Fridays are intimidating. Taller, stronger, younger, they could break your average man down in seconds flat. Keeping up the pace, protecting myself, moving around and hitting them back can be extremely challenging. After all, I am probably the oldest and certainly the least experienced fighter in the room, but I don't want this to be an excuse. My training includes running, push ups and pull ups, dips and sit ups, and most importantly, I reduced the amount of sugary foods and beverages I take in. Lot of food, less fat, more water. I don't want to end up sitting on the side, exhausted while the others are training. I would feel ashamed to do so as this would show a lack of respect for the team and for David, welcoming me in for the session. After all, they are here to work, and I am not here to waste anyone's time, mine or theirs. When I am tired and slow down, I think about my partner. Most of these guys commute for an hour or more to Hoboken to get good sparring rounds in. They are here to put into practice all the small adjustments they made that week in training to increase their performance. They might be annoyed when they see an old dude like me who wants to join the party. I sometimes wonder if they might think sparring with me is a waste of their time. I think about it all the time while we fight. I don't want to waste these guys’ time and it motivates me to give it my all and keep going at them. From having fun to giving everything you have and show respect, I think I am starting to understand what the mindset is. During those Friday sessions, the energy is electrified, the amount of respect is incredible, but at the end of the day we are all there to "learn".

The strength:

Sparring hurts, yeah, It hurts! It is not just from the punches or kicks. Sometime you can be taken down violently and get slammed to the mats, this could certainly and severely bruise or break a rib or two. I have been having ribs pain pretty regularly since I train. The pain is sharp and spread across the chest every time someone hits or put pressure on the area. It is extremely painful and almost paralyzes me. No matter what is the amount of protection you have, there are always minor to medium injuries. I have significant amount of pain in my toes, ribs, knees, back, nose and various other places. During a recent sparring session, I sprained my right ankle while switching guard and felt a sharp pain for about 2 seconds that went away. I went back in for the rest of the rounds. It didn’t bother me much during the rounds, but it started to hurt later in the night with numbness and pain going from the ankle into the toes. The next day, I showed up to gi class and rolled for almost 2 hours. I didn't know at that time it was a stupid idea, but it was almost the beginning of my training for Open Guard and I didn’t want a small injuries to impact my motivation or training. After coming home that night, and realizing my foot was swollen. The next day, my son had a wrestling camp and the head coach, and friend Jeff Marsh who knows a ton about sprained ankles told me to take a week off for sure and gave me further instructions. I knew very little about the R.I.C.E. method: This acronym stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. No matter what grade of sprained ankle you have, you should start with R.I.C.E. Absolutely the opposite of what I did after I injured myself. So I listened to my friend, started putting ice, compression socks, and elevated the leg, and took my first week off. The ankle has recovered, but the rib has not, and I may have to take another week off soon.

The mindset:

When your body hurts, your mind starts to think differently. You are not the same person anymore. You start wondering if what you are doing is worth it, if you shouldn't just take the next round off, skip a class or take the week off. Stop the project? After all, what are the odds it is going to work? As Mike Tyson said: "everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face". What is difficult is to sustain a level and amount of training that generates new injuries regularly. I start wondering "Can I make this project while I take it easy on the sparring?", "Is it a big deal if I slow down on the hard stuff?" and "maybe it is actually better if I am the guy out of shape that can't keep going". All kind of bullshits and excuses that Humans generally make when they are in uncomfortable situation. Sparring is about being in this spot. Your partner is a Human being, a punch is a punch and it hurts. Everyone is uncomfortable and maybe the first lesson I am learning from all of this is if you are comfortable, you are not gaining anything. Gain only happens in uncomfortable situation, when things are difficult to achieve. Whether it is at work where you have to outsmart the competition to solve a new problem, or on the mat to fight your mind and keep going despite the pain and stress, being in a tough spot is where the magic happens, where brilliant ideas emerge, where progress happens, and always how champions are made. For most people, Friday evenings are for pizza and drinks, just relaxing after a long week of work. It used to be like this for me. Saying that it is easy to show up at 6:30PM on a Friday to get beat up would be a big lie. The pressure actually builds up throughout most of the week. Monday is cool, Tuesday too. But starting Wednesday, I start to feel anxious. However, I don't believe this is negative energy, most likely it is my desire to perform better and the pressure I put on myself to reach a new level (like a video game where I would unlock new character skills). Every session has its share of excitement, when you land a head kick, a lead hook bringing your opponent to your right side, or a good sprawl protecting you from a takedown attempt. It can also be as simple as slipping away from a cross coming right at you. It feels like I am in a Rocky movie, I sometimes wish someone was here to record just this exact second (although reality must disagree with what I picture in my head when such thing happens). And there are times I wish nobody will ever see what just happened: turning my head away, closing my eyes (yeah, this still happens), the face I make when I am hurt. I regularly end up on the ground, on my back eating punches on the face for the rest of the round, trying to turn the situation around and gain control over my opponent but always end up burning all my energy and eating more munches. On the photo below, the punches to the head are keeping me busy and stressed out and I am not doing the proper defense that would be to start with going into half guard. Being in this position and while getting hit in the face is extremely uncomfortable.

Sparring is really an interesting and unique activity. You hit and get hit by guys you barely know. During those rounds, we give all we have, we sweat, we bleed. Land a kick on your partner and he will respond right away, harder. This is a place where you pay for each and every mistake you make. Training during the week can often be grueling and intense. But going live is when you see where your level really is as a fighter. There is cardio kickboxing, and there is kickboxing, they are absolutely not the same. Someone who punches bags for hours should have a basic understanding of how to properly throw a punch, but a bag doesn't move, and more importantly, a bag doesn't get angry, see your mistakes and use that as an opportunity to hit you back. While sparring, your partner will remind you every time you drop that right hand, every time you don't check those leg kicks, you will get hit in your face if you let your guard down. One would think, if someone hits you in the face, they must not care about you very much. You'd be surprised to learn that it is quite the opposite. The harder the session is, the more you give to your partner, and this is always recognized as a mark of respect. When you have no gas left, but you keep going, even if you are hurt, keeping the pace and pressure till the last second. When you get there, your partner shows you respect, and congratulates you for the good round with a fist bump or a hug or a kind word.

Facing the reality:

I quickly realized I wasn't good enough to keep up. I needed to push my body so I can run this project as planned, but if I get injured, Open Guard would have to be paused. The only obvious thing to do was to get a better technique and I started by improving my boxing and kickboxing skills. Exactly at the same time, back in June of 2021, an old time friend of Dave named Shy joined the academy. A poll circulated by email asking who would be interested by a 9AM MMA class running from Monday to Friday. Within 5 minutes, my name was on the list! And the next week, I showed up to the first class. Little I knew at that time how this class will change my life. Shy is one of a kind coach but more than anything else, a hell of a fighter. Being able to train with him 5 days a week for months has literally changed my approach to fighting.

And this is how I became almost silent for the rest of the year. Not because I stopped or gave up, not because I was discouraged or tired, but because I was being transformed already. Living as a fighter, training with a goal. For the past 7 months, I have been training daily the very basics of boxing, footwork, slips etc. mixing drills and sparring everyday. Sometime going light, sometime going hard. Experiencing the pain from a liver shot, getting elbowed in the face, slammed to the ground, or kicked so hard my arm used to block was about to break (not by the coach, but by less experienced fighters who think it is OK to throw elbows without elbow pads or headgear). I discovered how beautiful the sport of boxing really is, from practicing hours and hours, understanding what Shy tells us regularly: " all the moves in boxing are the same, but it takes a lifetime to master". Shy educated me about boxing, kickboxing and because he is a true BJJ master, I can't wait to spend more time on the mats improving my grappling skills the same way I improved my stand up.

When I think about myself early in 2021 and a year later, I realize how much changed. Physically, from training so much, I became stronger, lighter, faster (still fucking slow would say my coach). My mindset changed too. I am more confident, more dominant and understand more of the complexity of MMA. Fighting opened my eyes on a whole new way to approach life in general.

I started Open Guard to discover and understand the world of MMA, and sparring is an essential part of it. This means getting tougher and getting injured too. Maybe I can train smarter, and I will probably pay more attention to this in the future, but I also want to go in without any inhibitions. When my friends hear about the types of injuries I am sustaining while training; poked eyes, sprained ankle, elbow popped, bruise from a head kick, and so on. They tell me I should stop or slow down, that I am not young anymore and should be more careful. While this may be true, I decided to keep going. I'll get better at it, and smarter too. The main objective of Open Guard is to document the lifestyle and culture of MMA fighters. How can I do that if I give up after some injuries? Fighters don't give up.

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