It occurred to me, as I felt my windpipe compress and the room go fuzzy, that I am not built to be a mixed martial arts fighter.
Trapped in what was later described as a "cross choke," I felt a strange mix of panic and resignation as someone mat-side said something garbled about tapping out - the sport's indication that a fighter has had enough. Why hadn't I thought of that? When the man who trains UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre has a hold locked in, no media stiff is ever breaking free.
"As you can see, Darren is now a nice shade of red," Firas Zahabi said, releasing the hold while the small crowd gathered for our training session giggled. I scrambled to my knees and enjoyed the sensation of blood flow returning to my brain. It took all of about 45 seconds of a mat session with the Montreal-based trainer to have me in complete awe of the skill, speed and fitness required to step into the Octagon.
To the untrained eye - mine included - MMA at even the highest level often appears to be little more than two guys rolling around on the ground like one of those high-school fights we all gathered around to watch after class - lots of grabbing and grunting and struggling with no real point.
And for many, the "human cockfighting" label United States Senator John McCain slapped on it in the mid nineties still holds true. While there's no question it's brutal and violent, it's also a science and an art form. Zahabi was nice enough to show me and a bunch of other media types just how technical during a Gatorade Canada promotional event for UFC 129 at the Toronto Kickboxing and Muay Thai Academy in Toronto on Tuesday.
The event was billed as "Train like GSP with Firas Zahabi," but it quickly became a case of "Try Not To Vomit or Completely Embarrass Yourself" for me.
Waddling on to the mat in a bright blue Gatorade jiu-jitsu gi, I had no idea what to expect. I've never thrown a serious punch, let alone been in a real fight, so I was a little out of my element in a sweltering gym full of freakishly fit guys with cauliflower ears smacking punching bags - or each other - with fists and feet.
A soft-spoken philosophy graduate of average build from Concordia University, Zahabi smiled as we shook hands, promising a "fight to the death" before showing my female partner and I how to do a number of ground attacks, like the butterfly sweep.
Up next was something called a Harai goshi, which involves being flipped over your opponent's hip on to your back, then placed into an armbar where the elbow is isolated in the perfect position for hyperextension. While we were clunky and slow putting the sequence together, Zahabi demonstrated on me with speed and precision. I remember standing, thudding to the mat, then looking at the ceiling. He was a blur, suddenly on the mat beside me proclaiming matter-of-factly, "Now I'm in perfect position to break Darren's arm."
Apparently the Harai goshi is one of St-Pierre's favourite moves, used most famously during his win over Matt Hughes at UFC 79. It's now in my fighting repertoire.
The cross choke was next, and, as previously mentioned, Zahabi applied it quite effectively. By the time we were done I was sweating profusely, my gi feeling like a suit of lead.
Next up was the boxing ring for some basic sparring. Zahabi put on a pair of punch mitts while my training partner and I donned gloves.
There was a troubling audible pop from my shoulder when I threw my first jab, but I managed to keep up as Zahabi asked for more complex punching sequences.
"Jab, jab, cross, hook," he said. "Step into your punch. Jab, jab, cross, hook."
I kept the rhythm briefly, but couldn't stop thinking about foot placement and keeping my non-punching hand high to protect myself. Soon enough I was flailing away, fatigue forcing all technique to leave me.
"Good punches," Zahabi told my training partner. "You've done a little boxing, haven't you?"
There were no such compliments after my next set.
"How about you do 20 jumping jacks?" he suggested after I got all crossed up again.
Before we called it a day Zahabi took a few questions from his trainees, giving thoughtful answers about the world of MMA and the upcoming mega card at Rogers Centre.
I asked him to explain to those of us who pass out at the site of blood or feel faint at the thought of a broken bone to explain the mental approach needed to fight for a living.
"Fighting is hardwired in your brain," Zahabi said. "You have this primal instinct to defend yourself. If you harness that primal instinct, if you're in touch with that instinct, you will be able to fight when the moment comes."
Maybe. But I think I'll just cherish my souvenir gi and the experience of training with the guy behind one of the toughest men on the planet. I'll leave the fighting to the real athletes.
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