When Alan Belcher started warming up, alone on a mat big enough for 100 people, I was still naive enough to believe I was going to be all right. He was gently stretching and limbering up. No big deal.
Then, the stretches got ridiculous. The UFC middleweight contender was contorting his body into unnatural positions, and it dawned on me—this guy might be halfway serious about this.
It was quite a welcome to International Fight Week—a UFC initiative that includes a pub crawl and plenty of opportunities to get some one-on-one time with the legends of the cage. I was among almost 100 media members packed into the UFC's Ultimate Fighter gym, ready to put myself into the hands of four trained professionals.
Pictures filled the building—bigger-than-life images of the greats like Chuck Liddell and Forrest Griffin. But they weren't the only UFC fighters in the gym that day, to all of our chagrin. Their flesh-and-blood counterparts would be putting us through our paces.
Flyweight contender Joe Benavidez joined Belcher at a grappling station. Xtreme Couture fighter Mike Pyle, and his wicked awesome mullet, put us through our paces in the boxing ring.
And waiting in the cage—the ominous and iconic UFC Octagon?
Just Daniel Cormier, United States Olympian and the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix winner.
It started out well enough. After a brisk warm-up, Belcher ran us through some techniques on the mat. Partnered with my colleague Jeremy Botter, I had the chance to strangle him—just like I always wanted to. Benavidez showed me how to cinch the choke in even tighter, essentially by crushing one of Jeremy's arms.
He had to take his glasses off. It was getting serious. This was good.
Botter, of course, was giving it as good as he got it. His hand snaked around my neck as he lived out all of his Snowden-smashing fantasies. In what seemed like an instant, it was over, and we were off to the next station.
Unfortunately, just two minutes separated the two 20-minute workouts, and I was still out of breath as Pyle pushed us through some basic boxing work in a ring. I was wearing down as the session hit its midway point. What were supposed to be full-speed flurries were ponderously slow. By the end, I was feeling every one of my 37 years.
And then, we met Daniel Cormier.
The wrestling machine had us take a squat, and we all tried our best to approximate a wrestling stance. He physically had to put Botter and me in our place. But after 45 minutes, my body was screaming at me. My hamstrings and lower back were quavering. If I wanted to walk the miles and miles of the Vegas strip the next couple of days, I was going to have to make a decision.
"You tapping out already?" Cormier asked. Whether out of genuine or sarcastic concern, I'll never know. That pushed me on further, but the truth was, my body just wasn't going to get in a wrestling stance. I was through.
There was a sense of failure, but more than that, a real admiration for these athletes. For them, this was more like a workout. For the media? Let's just say that our group was suspiciously smaller by the time we reached Cormier's cage.
I know I'm going to feel this workout tomorrow. Heck, I feel it right now. But, seriously, what an experience. To stand in the Octagon with someone I respect as much as Cormier and to have the real professionals take the time to explain just a little bit about what they do meant a whole lot.
The precision of the techniques, the little things, the hard work it takes to succeed—you can hear about these things until the world stops turning, but there's something to be said for first-hand experience—even if it's only for an hour.
I know my colleagues from around the world felt the same way. The UFC staff was thrilled with the turnout, almost 100 strong. And even though they tried to wreck my body and give me a coronary, it was all worth it.
Sign me up for Round 2. Next time, I'll be ready.
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