“WE’RE GOING TO PULL all the small bones in your hand together and make them work as one,” says ISKA mixed martial arts (MMA) lightweight amateur champion Stephen Bass as he wraps my hands in preparation for our workout.
“We use a very, very small glove. They’re used not to protect the face of the opponent, but to protect the fighter’s hands,” Stephen continues.
When my hands are wrapped and my gloves are on, I’m ready to go. I’d taken Tae Kwon Do lessons 20 years ago; an Aikido class the night before, and an aerobics dance class the previous day.
I ask Stephen if I’ll need my mouth guard. He says no. At least my hands are well-protected.
“For the most part the pro rules are set to make for exciting fights and to protect the fighters. They really protect the fighters,” he tells me.
“If you get to a point where you can’t defend yourself in a fight, the referee says ‘get to a better position or we’re going to stop it.’ Whereas in boxing you get fall down and if you can take a step towards the referee they let it continue,” says Stephen.
“I love boxing, but to validate it as sport and ours not as a sport? People still see what we do as little bit barbaric.”
One of the first things Stephen learned, and therefore one of the first things he taught me, was to “tap out.” Tapping is signaling the referee and/or your opponent that you are quitting by tapping your hand on the mat — or if not the mat, on anything.
It’s quitting because the pain is too intense or because you want to avoid injury or because you know you are beat. Tap in an MMA fight and you lose.
Don’t tap when you should have? Either the referee stops the fight, or you get seriously injured. Either way you lose.
The moment I hung up the phone after booking the interview and sparring session there was so much pain deep in my right thigh that I had trouble walking.
The next day the pain had shifted to my left thigh and groin.
Over the weekend my lower back stiffened, neck pain prohibited me from turning my head and I developed a pounding headache.
On the day we were to spar my digestive system revolted.
There was nothing physically wrong with me. My mind was telling my body to tap before I even entered the ring.
And then I was in the gym, on the mat, flat on my back; my right shoulder pulled at an odd angle from body, my right elbow locked at a point of pain, my head pinned into a position where moving it was impossible. I wasn’t even aware the rest of my body existed.
Stephen waited for me to tap, suggested I tap. I didn’t.
He increased the pressure and I resisted. And then it was over. There was a split second where the pain went beyond my threshold, I tapped and Stephen released me.
No damage had been done. I was amazed at ease at which I had been totally incapacitated.
On Saturday evening Sept. 29 at the Savannah Civic Center, 24-year-old Stephen will make his professional MMA debut at the Champion Quest Fighting Challenge. Bouts consists of three five-minute rounds. The anticipated crowd of around 6,000 will be the largest he’s ever fought in front of.
Stephen took me through a simulated fight. After three three-minute rounds against heavy bags, practicing punches, kicks, knee strikes, “ground and pound,” and a toss, I was exhausted.
“I don’t tire. I train too hard,” he says. “I put more time in the gym than anybody you’ll ever meet. I stay here from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. There’s a green mattress pad that becomes my home.”
What’s “training hard” to a professional MMA fighter? When there’s a fight coming up Stephen runs six days a week for six to eight weeks. He can run a five-minute mile.
However, when he’s not in training for an upcoming fight he prefers not to run: “The knees, they have a life expectancy, so you don’t want to burn it out,” he says. So instead he uses stairsteppers or stationary bikes.
Weight training consists of short circuit-training sessions designed with fighting in mind. I’ve been lifting weights for over 30 years and being a man I bench press. I wanted to show off. But Stephen doesn’t bench press.
As he explains, while simulating a bench press motion: “If you’re on top of me and I push you straight up, then you’re arm-barring me.”
The one sport-specific lift he did show me was a one-arm power clean, where a dumbbell is lifted in smooth motion from floor to chest to an overhead press. It’s done to strengthen the body in order to better throw an opponent during a fight.
Even yoga is part of his fight workouts. Stephen practices his own style that he learned from the book Real Men do Yoga.
“It’s got Eddie George on the cover! You can’t argue with that,” he says with a laugh.
And of course there’s martial arts training. A former Golden Gloves boxing champion, Stephen also studies Brazilian jiu-jitsu, free style wrestling, Muay Thai, and judo.
Expecting a long list, I asked Stephen if there are any martial arts that he hadn’t studied that he wanted to. While he acknowledged that every art can have something to offer, his focus is on constantly improving his knowledge within the current forms in his arsenal.
And while Stephen has excellent coaches — including fellow MMA fighter Muhsin Corbbrey, head trainer of Champions Training Center Gym in Bluffton, S.C., where Stephen trains — lots of his training comes from watching and studying fights on YouTube.
Except for his occasional Red Bulls and supplements, Stephen’s diet is not that much different than mine. But because of his constant training it yields a hugely different result.
He’s 24 years old, 5’9” and 156 pounds. I’m a normal-sized middle-aged male: 45 years old, 5’8” and 184 pounds. I lift weights, do occasional cardio and abs work, balance my diet and don’t drink beer.
My doctor recently told me that I’m fit and healthy and that my medical charts were boring. But he hadn’t checked my body fat content. Stephen did. The results?
My body fat content is 19.8 percent. Stephen’s? An amazing 7.4 percent!
Stephen, a certified personal trainer, didn’t miss a beat on my number: “We can trim you right down. There are so many things you can do to make your body perform better.”
For healing bone bruises, Stephen uses the natural plant extract arnica. Creatine and glutamine are used for muscle recovery. For weight gain before a fight? Re-hydration using Pedialyte, which aids in mineral and electrolyte recovery.
His amateur title fight was contested at the140 pound weight class. In order to make the weight he’d come down to it from his natural 160 pounds through saunas, dieting and training — but it wasn’t a healthy weight for him to actually fight at. When he stepped into the ring the next night after his 140 pound weigh-in he was already back to 157 pounds!
I put Stephen’s re-hydration method to the test: The day after our interview I spent ten hours in the searing Georgia sun as part of a crew building a concert stage behind SCAD’s Dyson building. By the end of the evening I was dehydrated, tired, sunburned and overall in really bad shape. When I got home I drank two liters of grape-flavored Pedialyte and a lot of water and felt much better pretty quickly.
Of course fight training is definitely not all training the body. While we were fighting our simulated fight against the heavy bags, I was doing just that — striking the heavy bags.
Stephen was fighting his next opponent.
“Everything I do has to do with visualization. I didn’t kick the bag, I kicked the quadriceps of my opponent,” he said. “In the last five weeks I’ve hit my opponent more times than he’s ever been hit in his life, in the form of this bag.”
Does such an intense and constant mental focus on fighting affect him outside the ring? Stephen says he’s been told that he gives himself sleep pep-talks such as, “Here you go, one more round”, or “Let’s get this guy” or “Are you giving up now?”
I’m not allowed to divulge the details, but he even has a new technique that he is excited about trying out in the Civic Center event; it came to him in a dream.
I wasn’t surprised when he said, “I don’t sleep a whole lot at all.”
One thing that definitely does not happen is a carryover of actual fighting into his life outside the ring. Actually, fighting inside the ring has stopped the fighting outside the ring:
“I was a knucklehead when I was a kid. You’ve seen the movie Fight Club? I organized a real fight club,” he says. “That’s what we did for fun. It wasn’t out of anger, or animosity — it was just an after-school fight party.”
His antics even “made the front page of newspaper a few times,” he says.
He realized at the age of 19 that he had to straighten out. Muhsin’s guidance with goal setting, training and the strict discipline needed to become a professional MMA fighter were instrumental.
“You’ll never see me in a fist fight outside of this gym. I’m a professional athlete. This is my job. I’m not a street thug,” he says.
After he wins Saturday’s fight, he plans to take some time off to build his personal training business. He’ll take some professional boxing matches.
Muhsin says that they plan on building Stephen’s pro MMA record, quickly getting him some ranked opponents. In three or four fights they’d like him to be the Champions Quest 145 champion. Then when he’s ready they’ll shop him to MMA power players UFC and Elite XC.
But first there’s the matter of winning: “I don’t go in saying: I’m going to destroy this guy. I go in saying: With my game plan, I will destroy this guy.”
Normally a little impatient, Stephen is learning: “I’m gonna take my time with this guy. I’m really gonna look to showcase my skills. I’m not just going to jump on him. But if he’s not proficient on the ground, if he’s not proficient standing, it will not be a long and lengthy fight.”
I won’t divulge any of Stephen’s tactics prior to the fight. But since I’ve had to tap out of Stephen’s chokeholds, for me one statement was clearly indicative of what Stephen’s opponent — Tallahassee Fight Club’s Chris Thorne — should expect:
“We’re an attacking style of Jiu-jitsu, so I’m going to lead you in the right direction,” he said. “I’m gonna kind of nudge you to where I want you. And then when I sink that choke in, you either tap or I’m gonna pop your head off.”
Pop your head off? It wasn’t barbaric. It wasn’t pure arrogance. It was just confidence.
Champion Quest Mixed Martial Arts happens 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Savannah Civic Center arena. Tix are $25-75. Call 651-6556.
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