Cracked Ribs, Staph Infections, And Poked Eyes: What It's Like To Train MMA

Last week, we brought you an excerpt from Matthew Polly's new book, Tapped Out, which chronicles his two-year journey to prepare himself for a pro MMA fight. Today, Polly tells us about the various injuries he sustained during that process.

MMA fighters don't fear pain. It's such a constant in their lives that they are inured to it. They fear injury. That's because, as one veteran explained to me, "There ain't no DL in MMA." An aging, overpaid Mets player (are there any other kind?) pulls a groin muscle, that's a four-week paid vacation. A UFC fighter has to pull out of a match, it might be a year before he gets another gig. That's a long time to explain to an angry wife why you can't afford to fix her car.

Much has been made of the brevity of UFC on Fox's heavyweight fight between Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos—one minute and four seconds. The simplest explanation came after the match. Dos Santos had torn a meniscus in his knee so badly he was still on crutches a week out. He couldn't afford to withdraw; he couldn't afford to let the match go into the later rounds. So he took the highly risky strategy of going all out from the opening bell and TKO'ed his opponent.

Injuries are a part of every fighter's lore. They might forget their wedding anniversary, but they remember every detail of every injury. And as a kind of gallows humor, they delight in recounting them in detail.

I spent two years training to be an MMA fighter for my new book, Tapped Out. As an out-of-shape, overweight, 38-year-old writer, I lived in terror of an injury that would ruin my project. So I was extra cautious, or as my wife would say "lazy." Luckily I avoided major injuries, but it is impossible in MMA to avoid at least some minor ones. And they are as vivid to me today as they were when they happened.

CRACKED RIBS: Concussions are, rightly, the talk of the sports world for their debilitating long-term damage. But for short-term pain and suffering, a headshot is nothing compared to a brutal body blow. In a Muay Thai clinch lesson, my coach dug a sharp knee into the left side of my ribs. I collapsed to my knees. "I'll avoid your left side," he said. So then he dug a sharp knee into my right side, leaving me unable to move.

With injured ribs, it is nearly impossible to draw in a deep breath without howling in pain—so no running, and especially, no laughing. My jiu-jitsu coach John Danaher made a joke about how my training—given my pear shaped body—was the Battle of the Bulge. I laughed until I cried. That was only the daytime. At night, I couldn't sleep. Every time I'd doze and roll to my side I'd wake up screaming. It took three weeks before my ribs healed and I could stop sleeping on my back.

STAPH INFECTIONS: In a sport where sweaty men spend hours trying to dislocate each other's limbs, abrasions are inevitable. Roll with the wrong guy and you'll get the gift that keeps on giving: an antibiotic-resistant infection. I spent several weeks training jiu-jitsu in Brazil. When I returned home I noticed an eight-point rash on my right thigh—tiny red pustules. Uncertain what it was, I went to my lesson with Danaher, and showed it to him. He jumped back like I had leprosy. "That's staph, mate," he said. "Don't come back until it goes away."

Not only was it good, precautionary advice, it was necessary. Staph infections attack the immune system. For two weeks I lay on my couch watching reruns of CSI Miami, completely spent, suffering from chills and fevers. I could barely move. My white blood cells finally won the battle and the rash went away, but the fear of catching another one never left.

BROKEN NOSE: By far the most common injury in MMA is a broken hand. Skulls are hard; the 27 bones in the human hand are exceedingly fragile. Padded gloves are not to protect the face; they are to protect the fists. (If sports commission really wanted to protect fighters from concussions, they'd ban gloves. They don't, so they won't.)

After hands, the most common broken bone is the nose. Mine was busted by a left cross from my Southpaw opponent at a kickboxing smoker in Las Vegas. Blood was pouring out of my nose, but I didn't realize the extent of the damage at the time. It didn't look any different, so for days I couldn't figure out why I suddenly needed to eat with my mouth open. Broken noses turn you into a literal mouth breather. I'd wake up each morning with my face pressed into a drool-covered pillow.

I went to a doctor recommended to me by my MMA coach and he said, "We could re-break and reset your nose. But I'll tell you what I tell the other fighters. You're just going to have it broken again, so what's the point?" After about two weeks my nose seemed to reset itself, and I stopped drooling into my pillow.

EYE POKE: Boxing gloves are closed and rounded; MMA gloves are fingered for grappling. It is a necessity for the sport of MMA, but it comes with this caveat: a jab in the eye. The most famous case was between Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture (UFC 52). I asked Randy about it several years later and he was still angry.

At my MMA match, my opponent either poked me in the eye or grazed it with a right-hook. (In the middle of a fight it's impossible to tell.) The contact lens in my left eye popped out. For the rest of the match, I had no peripheral vision on my left side and zero depth perception. The poke changed how I had to fight. I needed to finish or I knew I'd be lost.

STUBBED TOE: Of all the injuries I sustained, and this is only a partial list, the worst was a jammed toe. Let me explain. I was throwing a high right roundhouse at a teammate's head and twisted my left big toe on the mat. Stubbed toes are tricky bastards, because they don't hurt all the time, so you forget about them. And then when you try to kick or run or shoot in for a takedown, a jolt of pain lights up your entire body.

I was working on some ground and pound with a top pro fighter in Vegas when I made the mistake of trying to push forward with my left foot. Before I could stop myself, I groaned involuntarily. "What's wrong?" he asked. "Should we take a break?" "It's just a stubbed toe," I said, trying to play it off. He shook his head derisively and said, "Yeah, I don't stop for toes." And that's the most upsetting thing about toe injuries. You get no sympathy for them.

Fighters are never 100 percent. If you are, you didn't train hard enough. There will always be the nagging injuries. The difference between a good fighter and a great one is the ability—given how masochistic the profession is—to discard those concerns.

Cracked Ribs, Staph Infections, And Poked Eyes: What It's Like To Train MMA

Matthew Polly is the author of American Shaolin, which documents the two years he spent learning kung fu in the Shaolin Temple in China. Polly's new book, Tapped Out, is about the two years he trained to become an MMA fighter. That's Polly getting punched in the face to the left. That's also him getting poked in the eye up top.