He confronted his fear as the doors opened to the auditorium. Through a fog of dry ice and coloured light he could see the blurry images of the girls waiting to accompany him to the ring. He heard the announcer calling his name, the rising clamor of the crowd ready for the conflict to come.
The next day Jack Shand would again be a 20-year old university student on holidays, working his part-time job serving lollies at his local cinema. He would be civil and compliant as was expected of him. However, this night as he made his professional debut in the Australian Fighting Championship he would express himself as never before. There would be no holding back, no pretence.
His coach, Traill Dowie from Dominance Mixed Martial Arts in Richmond, had been at his side for more than two years. Now he spoke softly but firmly to his charge.
“Jack, your music will come on soon but you don’t have to move until you’re ready. Nothing happens until you move. Leave all doubt here,” he said.
He could feel the tension in his body. It had been building since Dowie had wrapped his hands in bandages and slipped on the gloves ten minutes earlier. His mother liked to say the midwife at his birth had observed that he had the hands of a concert pianist. His father (this reporter) had boasted that those hands would take the new ball for Australia in Test cricket. Two months earlier, Jack had announced, somewhat uncertainly, that on December 7 he would be making his mixed martial arts debut on the undercard of the AFC 4 event in Melbourne. This was an appalling moment for the parents, the instant they realized the boy had become a man.
He felt no hatred for his opponent, 27-year old Dean Purdon from Brisbane. He had looked him in the eye at the weigh-in the day before and saw someone just like him. Months of training and self-denial had gone into this. He had cut the kilos from his body, five in the past week, finally taking a sauna in a vinyl sweat suit to make the 75-kilo welterweight limit. He was tetchy, hungry and dehydrated, from the effort of making the weight. With that done, both fighters tucked into pizzas provided by the promoter. It was a relief to see his opponent up close and even exchange a few words. We make monsters of what we don’t know, his coach had told him.
He heard the first bars of his music, the theme from 70s film “Shaft”. Now the moment was upon him, he felt calm. He would fight with love in his heart and fury in his hands, like Dowie had suggested. Dowie knew what he was talking about. As a fighter, he had been all the way to K1 kickboxing championships in Japan. However in one of the early rounds, he had smashed his foot on the body of an opponent. There were so many fractures, the foot felt like a bag of cashews, he told me. His fight career was over almost before it had begun. At 34, Dowie now devoted himself to training others like Jack for a shot at their dreams.
For weeks, Dowie had been tuning Jack’s mind as well as his body. After spending much of the day before the fight meditating , Jack felt a sense of clarity and presence. It occurred to him that the brightly-lit ring was in fact a stage. It was time to perform, to entertain.
I have reported on combat sports before, but never with such a visceral interest in the outcome. Sitting in the stands clutching a notebook between clammy hands, a small part of me was hoping that he lost so this “phase” might end. Winning would only encourage more bouts with ever-increasing risk. Mostly, I was hoping that he would come through unscathed.
The possibilities for damage were almost endless in this hybrid of boxing, kickboxing and grappling. Perhaps that’s why it’s the fastest growing sport in the world with a fan base of 31 million people in the US alone. In young men aged 18-34, MMA has already eclipsed boxing as the favourite combat sport to watch on television.
Jack was a half-head taller than his opponent and out-reached him by several centimeters. Purdon would come rushing at him, trying to take him down to the canvas where he could smother Jack’s flying fists, elbows, knees and feet. The AFC follows the rules of the US-based Ultimate Fighting Championship which is derived in part from Americans’ love of freestyle wrestling. You can score just as heavily from taking your opponent down as from more spectacular stand-up fighting. They say a tight contest in boxing takes place in a telephone booth, but in MMA it could be inside a sleeping bag. To win, and to avoid being hurt, Purdon would turn the bout into an intense, writhing test of wills.
From the bell, Jack pumped his left jab into Purdon’s face, following up with leg kicks and elbows to the mid-section. This is what the crowd had to come to see, not human origami played out on the canvas. Jack could feel a surge of energy as the crowd roared its approval to his flying head-kicks and spinning back heels.
Purdon moved forward relentlessly, pushing his opponent back onto the ropes where he could try to take him down, soaking up time from the three-minute rounds. By the middle of the second, both fighters were “gassed” from the adrenalin dump. Purdon could do little more than press Jack down. If he tried for a submission hold he would risk losing his top position. The weight bearing down on Jack was slippery and hard to grip.
They began the last round at one apiece. Purdon was desperate to lock Jack up again. Mid-way through the round, he got his take-down but after nearly a minute of exhausted inactivity, the referee ordered them upright again, much to the approval of the baying crowd. Purdon swore and prepared for a last onslaught, but he had done enough to win.
When the split decision went against him, Jack smiled and warmly congratulated his opponent. Winning now seemed less important than getting this first fight away. The journey to the ring had been character-building but only by stepping inside could he know what that character contained. Now he did.
Later Jack stood watching the heavyweight bouts with his mates from the gym. Four time Olympic judo player Daniel Kelly from Jack’s gym was pitted on debut against a heavier, experienced opponent Fabio Galeb.
The flashy, tattooed Galeb was slowly getting over Kelly, mainly through repeated fouls. By the end of second round, Galeb had twice kneed Kelly in the balls, he had held onto the ropes twice and up-kicked at his opponent’s head from the canvas. It was more than enough to be disqualified but, after the bell he had driven his knee into Kelly’s forehead.
As Dowie half-carried Kelly back to his corner, Galeb was celebrating a victory with a round still to go. But there would be no submission. In the third, Kelly came at Galeb like a raging bull, demanding that he put him down. Out of the blue, he hit Galeb with a massive left hand and poured on the pressure for the rest of the round. Galeb, rocked and shocked, had nothing left to return. His force had been met by a greater will. I saw my son smiling broadly as Kelly’s hand was raised for an unlikely victory.
As a parent I would never have chosen this for my son, but this was his choice to make. And besides, weren’t these the qualities – determination and indomitable spirit – that I had always wished for him? Even if he never fought again, he had distinguished himself from his peers who lived in a world of artificial violence in video games and UFC on television. He seemed as fulfilled and contented as he had been in his entire life.