Matthew Polly has never been a man for half-measures. When he wanted to learn kung fu, he left college for two years to live and train in the famous Shaolin Temple in China. Polly wrote an excellent book about the experience. His new book, Tapped Out, follows Polly on another two-year journey as the author whips himself into shape to prepare for his first pro MMA fight. It wasn't easy. "[M]y weakness for Chinese takeout and Coors beer had taken its toll," Polly writes. But he sought out the best coaches in the sport and wrapped up training with a six-month stint in Randy Couture's gym in Vegas. Along the way, he learned why MMA has become so popular, why fighters need exceptionally patient wives, and why you never, ever act like a tough guy when you first walk into a gym. Polly himself will be here tomorrow to tell us about some of the injuries he picked up while fighting. For now, enjoy this excerpt from a chapter in Tapped Out called "The Green-Light Special," which is what happens to you when you act like a tough guy when you first walk into a gym.
One of the most important lessons I've learned about joining a new gym is to enter like a church mouse: Keep quiet, keep your head down, and keep in the shadows. Play down any past experience and let your coaches be pleasantly surprised at your ability. Puffed up braggarts place a target on their backs.
The wisdom of this approach was brought home during the second pro class I observed. I was sitting next to Johny Hendricks, who was nursing a minor injury. A natural charmer, Johny was a two-time national wrestling champion from Oklahoma State. He was training for his first UFC against The Ultimate Fighter winner Amir Sadollah, who also trained at Xtreme Couture. Betting for that fight was fierce inside the gym.
As the class was getting started Ryan Couture walked over to Shawn Tompkins, the gym's head pro coach, with a slightly overweight guy behind him.
"He's in town for the weekend and wants to train with the pro class," Ryan said to Shawn.
"You a pro fighter?" Shawn asked the new guy.
"Yeah," the guy said with his chin out. "I'm 10-0."
"Oh, so you got ten pro fights under your belt and no losses?"
"Yeah, that's right," he puffed.
"Well, then you should be fine," Shawn said, smirking slightly.
Johny and I were shooting the breeze when I saw out of the corner of my eye that something was off. I looked over to where all the pros were sparring to figure out what was wrong with this picture. It was the new guy. With all their years of experience Couture's fighters have a grace and flow to their sparring sessions. The new guy's punches were too long, his stance too wide, his movements too awkward. He was stinking up the place like a rank amateur. The only way he was 10-0 is if all his fights were against the elderly or the infirm.
It was ugly enough that I averted my eyes and went back to teasing Johny about how he might have won four national championships if only he had been smart enough to get into the University of Iowa. A bell rang, ending the round. The pros switched partners. As soon as the bell rang again to start the next round, I heard this hard, hideous thwapping sound.
When I looked over I saw that Jay Hieron had partnered up with the new guy and was walloping him. It was brutal, relentless. And Jay was using all the tricks, backing the new guy into the kicking bags so he couldn't escape. Hitting him high and low with full force. Not holding anything back. It looked less like a sparring session and more like a gang initiation.
"What's going on?" I asked Johny.
"Didn't you see? Jay went over to Shawn to ask for the green light to beat down this weekend warrior."
"The guy is lucky he got Jay and not Mike Pyle. Mike's much more vicious."
After a particularly nasty liver shot, the weekend warrior dropped to his knees. I could tell that he was on the edge of quitting, but his pride got the better of his sense. When he stood back up, Jay battered him around the head and midsection some more, until he dropped him again.
The new guy said, "Hey, take it easy."
Jay shot back, "This is the pro class."
Then Jay went in for a takedown, picked the poor guy up over his shoulder, and body slammed him. The entire class stopped and turned to where the weekend warrior was lying flat on his back.
"I can't watch," I said.
"Eh, at least he's still conscious," Johny said. "I wasn't after I got green-lit."
"I came in here my first day and was too aggressive," he said. "Too much wrestler arrogance, you know?"
"I grew up in Kansas. I know."
"So Phil Baroni asked for the green light."
"Then he knocked me out," Johny laughed. "When I woke up I thought to myself, That wasn't so bad. Maybe I can make it in this sport."
Before the pro class the next day all the pros were talking about the previous day's green-light special. They all found it hilarious. Being the new kid at school, I didn't.
"The key to getting green-lit isn't the beat down itself," one of them said, "but if the guy has the balls to show up the next day."
Almost as if on cue, the weekend warrior from the previous day walked into the gym. The pros looked at him, nodded, and continued telling tales of green-light specials of yore. During the class, it was clear the his skills hadn't improved, but he had proven he had balls, and so the Xtreme pros were no harder on him than they were on each other.
Many weeks later I hired Jay Hieron to give me a private lesson. (This, by the way, is how to learn from a top MMA pro and avoid a green-light beat down.) When I asked him about the incident, he was unapologetic. "You get these guys, they think they're the toughest dudes in the world. And so they just walk right into our place, our home, our church. I love guys like that. They need to be humbled."
Excerpted from the book Tapped Out: Rear Naked Chokes, the Octagon, and the Last Emperor: An Odyssey in Mixed Martial Arts. Copyright © 2011 by Matthew Polly. Excerpted with permission by Avery/Gotham of Penguin Group USA.