A UFC Virgin No Longer
You can hear the rumble from the crowd as we descend the multiple flights of stairs of the Palms Resort and Casino that lead directly to the ring. Ben Saunders and his boys from American Top Team are in front of us only a few paces away. Marty (SSG Martinez) is the buffer between their camp and ours as Jason and I follow closely behind Dan Barrera. We finally emerge from the staircase into a long narrow hallway where the final four fights are staged.
The ground is shaking. Bruce Buffer’s voice is echoing in the background as he announces the beginning of the UFC TUF 6 Finale. We are fixated at the opening that leads to the Octagon. Suddenly Mac Danzig, soon to become The Ultimate Fighter, leaps from his waiting room to slap Dan on the back hard and get him fired up. Mac grabs Dan by the back of the head and tells him to go all out. Dan nods and smacks Mac on the shoulders.
Saunders is already in the ring. The UFC escort gives us the nod to go and we step forward into the lights…
What is Nick doing as a UFC Cornerman?
Only one week ago, if you had asked me if I thought I would ever corner anyone in the UFC, I would have said absolutely not. Have I cornered guys before? Yes. Have I been involved in fighting since I was eleven? Yes. Am I one of the top thousand guys you’d think of when you were choosing your corner for the highest level of professional MMA? Not a chance.
So when Dan Barrera called me and asked if I would join Jason “Blind Fury” Keaton, the Fort Knox Army Combatives Instructor and owner of Cyclone MMA, and SSG Aaron “Marty” Martinez as his corner, I was a little taken aback. I actually asked him if there was someone else that might be better for him. Dan replied that a lot of people wanted to corner him, but that he wanted the guys that really got him there to be with him when it all went down. I was really honored that he asked, and when it became clear that his mind was made up, I set about trying to live up to his expectations.
Holy Crap, He is not made of Plastic!
About an hour after I landed in Vegas, I was on the ballroom level of the Palms, getting my corner’s license and credentials from Greg Hendrick of the UFC. The UFC crew was extremely friendly and professional and their excitement about the sport was infectious. As we were waiting for everything to be finalized, Marty and I stuck our heads into one of the training rooms. The experience became instantly surreal when we realized the dude whaling away on the heavy bag was none other than the infamous “love to hate him” Mike Goldberg, Joe Rogan’s commentating cohort. In a complete twist of the perceptions of every fan that I’ve ever met (myself included), the dude actually looked alright and appeared to be in solid shape – dare I say it – perhaps Mike is actually an MMA fan…
The Weigh Ins
I’m not the kind of guy that is big on celebrity-worship, and thankfully, neither are Jason and Marty, because as corners, we were sitting with a whole lot of UFC stars. Having been around a lot of movie/music celebrities before in a number of situations, I can attest to the fact that the fighters, even the big name fighters, are a lot less Hollywood than average. In almost every case they were regular dudes. Joe Rogan, in particular, was especially cool. You can tell he is both a real fight fan and a genuine guy, and all of the fighters seemed to trust him explicitly, which says a lot.
Anyway, we sit down, and Matt Hughes sits down right next to us. This was interesting to me because I never trust rumors and I certainly never trust television, so I wanted to see what this dude was like. We all know Matt gets a lot of bad press, and I cannot tell you what is warranted and what isn’t, but here’s what I can say:
1) He introduced himself and his wife to me and was extremely friendly.
2) He invited all of us to go train with him while we were there (which we did) and left an open invite to the Fort Knox guys to come roll with him whenever.
3) He has gone out of his way repeatedly to help Dan in a number of different facets, both in and outside of fighting.
4) He has a history of genuinely supporting the military.
Now, let me be clear – he is not a chuckles, giggles, and sunshine kind of guy, but truthfully, I was rather impressed that he was as cheery as he was considering the way everyone pretends they are his best friend. I barely know the guy – he probably couldn’t pick me out of a lineup – but in the few hours that I was sitting next to him, probably 100 dudes rolled by on overly familiar terms. One D-List celebrity straight up hugged him – and I mean a “I just saw my girlfriend for the first time after a year-long trip to Iraq” kind of hug – and was like “What’s up Matty?” After he left, the awestruck Mr. Hughes asked his wife, “Who the hell is that guy?” She didn’t know either. Eventually, the security guard explained the mystery personality…and there was much rejoicing…
So the weigh-ins began. Everyone was making weight. Some guys, of course had to drop their shorts to make it. They then all promptly put them back on.
Dan decides that he will drop to his silver skivvies and just stay that way as he squared off against Ben for the pre-fight photos. The chuckles in the room were audible, not so much because Dan was in his underwear, but because he seemed to revel in it. Shit – we were laughing and we were his freakin’ corners.
Before the fight, each fighter is assigned a conference room (yes-the same kind you’d go to for a business meeting) that had been outfitted with a wrestling mat and a heavy bag. The main event fights – in this case Tommy vs. Mac and Guida vs. Huerta, get their own rooms. Everyone else shares them – about 5 fighters to a room.
Besides Dan, we had Jonathan Goulet, Richie Hightower, Dorian Price, and John Kolosci. The tension behind the scenes is palpable. These guys are the best at what they do and with the exception of Goulet, who is a more veteran fighter, you can see that the magnitude of the situation is weighing on the guys.
Right about the time that they all start warming up, Clay Guida walks in to give everyone some well-received encouragement. He reminds me a lot of Tim Kennedy before a fight – extremely relaxed – almost like he is ready for a nap instead of a huge fight. The contrast between his countenance and the other fighters in the room is sharp.
Warm ups begin. Hightower is warming up with Jason Chambers, from The Human Weapon. Dorian is throwing side kicks so hard that they hurtme when they hit the bag. John is getting himself pissed off in preparation for the fight. Every fighter is very different and every one has their own routine.
When matches are over, each fighter must return to the same room. Each time, win or lose, the fighter is greeted with applause from the other fighters and corners. There is a strong sense of brotherhood here, even among those that don’t know each other well. Finally, after the other four have met their challenges for the day, it is Dan’s turn…
We emerge from the doorway towards the ring and walk right up to Big John McCarthy, who, by the way, is quite big and deserves his moniker. This would be John’s last night as a UFC ref, which absolutely blows, but in retrospect, it was kind of cool to be a part of it.
Big John checked Dan out and gave us instruction on how to get to our corners. Now keep in mind, none of us have ever been corners at a UFC event, and there was no briefing prior to the event explaining what we were supposed to do. As such, we screwed it up.
When the round began, there we were hanging out in the corner, when all of a sudden a cameraman was yelling at us to get off the edge and into our chairs. We ended up scrambling away, running along the side of the cage as if we stole something, and actually missed Dan’s first exchange. Awesome. There’s nothing quite like starting off a nationally televised event feeling like a giant douchebag.
The plan going in was as follows:
1) Box your way in with the heavy hands that Ben Saunders has to be worried about.
2) Close the distance and take him down. (i.e. Ground)
3) Hit him repeatedly about the neck, head, and shoulders. (i.e. Pound)
So Dan goes out there – they circle a bit and exchange a few and Dan shoots a double, taking Ben down pretty easily. We’re fired up. A lot of people thought that Saunders would be able to submit Dan in this position, but Dan is actually very crafty and super strong, and we weren’t too worried about a submission as long as he was able to keep Ben’s legs down. He trained hard with Jason Keaton, Greg Thompson, andTim Kennedy on this position – we were waiting for the punches to start raining down on an unsuspecting Ben Saunders. But instead, Dan threw a bunch of small hammer fists, and Ben was actually throwing elbows from the bottom. Nevertheless, we thought he came out on top of the first round, but it was close.
As the round expires, Marty and I run out there. Marty is telling him he is doing well but that he has to stay busy on top, when the “doc” taps me on the shoulder. I need to leave because his cut has to get looked at, and only two people can be in the corner at once. My friends watching at home all assumed I screwed something up and broke some rule, and continue to pretend that is what actually happened, even though it is not remotely true. The line “remember when Nick got ejected from the Octagon” has been used no fewer than 1000 times in daily conversation.
“How’s the weather today?”
“It’s 38 degrees. That reminds me…remember, when Nick got kicked out of the Octagon?”
They do this because they are giant assholes. I, of course, would do the same thing to them.
The round opens and after a brief exchange on the mat, both fighters are stood up. Ben Saunders opens the restart by throwing a flying knee as Dan simultaneously shoots a double leg takedown. Bad things could have happened, but Dan managed to slide underneath him. They pop back up and Ben lands a couple of knees and strikes, but Dan takes him down again. Same position as round one. Same result. We’re screaming that he needs to hit Ben. Saunders is trying submission after submission, but Dan deflects all of them easily.
The round ends – no one did any real damage, but even though Dan maintained dominant ground position, we had this one going to Ben because of the strikes at the beginning of the round and a kick at the end.
We ran out again to corner him. Marty and I are both telling Dan that he needs to throw leather. He needs to box and damage Ben, and then he needs to ground and pound. We’d seen plenty of ground, but the POUND was clearly lacking. This was a now or never moment.
Suddenly, Matt Hughes stands up from the front row in the crowd and screams in no uncertain terms what we have just told him. As one might imagine, the words “Dan, throw leather! Throw some damn leather!” meant more coming from Matt than it did from us. Dan nods. He is going to come out swinging.
The round starts – there is a split second where Dan and Ben both throw – reminiscent of the end of Rocky 3 – where I am reminded that these guys are incredible athletes. The speed and power of the strikes would have been incapacitating. They both miss.
The fight goes to the ground and Ben skillfully gets Dan’s back. Dan will not submit to the rear naked choke and eventually breaks Ben’s brutal body lock and achieves top position again.
Marty, Jason, and I are screaming that he needs to POUND him. As we all know now, Dan would not do enough damage to win this fight.
Ben Saunders’s hand was deservedly raised in victory.
At the decision, the only person a bit surprised with the outcome was Dan. At the time, he felt he had won. In his mind, he was never hurt during the fight, and he had dominant position throughout, so it was clear. This is because, self-admittedly, he still has a bit of a wrestler’s mindset. But we’ll get back to that.
As we rapidly gathered all of Dan’s belongings and headed back towards the tunnel, we were once again right behind Ben Saunders. Tito Ortiz stopped Dan and told him “Good fight, Barrera”. Joe Rogan looked at me, laughed at my ”My Ops are Blacker than Your Ops t-shirt”, and said, “That was a tough fight man, but he did really well”.
In the tunnel, a doctor checked both Ben and Dan and then the UFC dude handed them their checks right on the spot. Ben received about $16k minus any expenses and corner fees that the UFC had incurred and Dan received about $8k.
We followed Ben and the American Top Team guys to the elevator and the UFC escort asked if they could ride on the same elevator. Dan and Ben both looked perplexed as to why they wouldn’t be able to. So we all hopped in and the two fighters relived the fight blow by blow.
“That was a great knee you caught me with.”
“I’m really glad you missed that punch in the third.”
“Nick really is the shit isn’t he?”
Ok, they never said that last one, but it woulda been cooler if they did… Nevertheless, I thought it was awesome that these two guys were so professional about the fight that I took the opportunity to snap a picture.
Three Drunk Guys Sitting in a Bar Watching the Fight with Dan Barrera
After the fight we did what any respectable set of corners would do: we proceeded to get drunk and re-watch the fight we were just a part of on one of the Palms Casino’s many televisions surrounding the bar. While Dan did not take part in the booze, he did take part in multiple Red Bulls, which result in what I like to call “Super Dan”. Super Dan likes to shadow box around my head, grab his buddies at inopportune times and begin wrestling matches, and dance oddly as often as possible. While everyone who doesn’t drink likes to say things like “I’m so wacky that I don’t need alcohol to have fun” but in actuality suck the life out of the party with their non-drinking selves, Dan legitimately does not need to add alcohol to Super Dan. In fact, Dan, please do not ever add alcohol to Super Dan.
Anyway, after watching the fight, Dan was shocked. He then realized very clearly that Ben had won the fight, and looked at us and said, “I thought something very different was happening in the ring. I am going to be a lot more aggressive next time.”
And he will be.
He’ll be better next time.
He’ll be better still the time after that.
What most people don’t really understand is that this was Dan’s first professional fight. The dude freakin’ debuted in the UFC in front of millions of fans. He has only been doing MMA for a year! He is loaded with raw talent, has an unbelievable work ethic, and is always trying to learn. He has no ego about his ability and is always looking for people that can pound him so he can better.
I know there are a lot of “Dan Haters” out there in the MMA internet universe, but I have to tell you – and I hate most people – Dan is a great guy, with a great attitude and he is going to surprise a lot of people in the next few years.
The After Party
The After Party was at Moon at the Palms. The place has a ceiling that opens every once in a while like a stadium to cool the place down, which I thought was phenomenal Vegas excess.
After Parties are weird events. You have four groups of people at these things:
1) The Fighters and camps.
3) Exceedingly hot chicks.
4) People that want to spend a couple of hundred bucks a head to hang out with groups 1-3.
Guy Rule Number One – You do not publish a bunch of embarrassing stuff about people when they are hammered at a party. That’s about as cool as indoor recess. As such, I will just very briefly hit you with the highlights from my vantage point that were notable, but not in violation of said rule:
1) Robbie Lawler, who was hysterical, decided it would be funny to aggressively dance with anyone that walked in front of our table, whether that person be a guy, girl, animal, plant, vegetable, or mineral. Hilarity ensued. I snapped a couple of pics.
2) Matt Pena, a former Marine and cofounder of Matt Hughes’s new camp, was also hilarious, keeping a Joe Roganesque commentary going all night about the club’s goings-on. My favorite was his “Dancing Girl” analysis. As with most every Vegas club, there were hot girls dancing all around on elevated platforms. At this point, Pena let me in on his theory regarding these women: “Notice that they don’t dance that hard right now, but as the night goes on, random drunk girls will start dancing up on the empty stage, and when that happens watch the pros – they won’t have it.” Sure enough, like clockwork, as the Drunkettes began to do their thing on the stage reserved for the amateurs, the Moon employees took it to a new level. You could actually tell they were pissed off at the “challenge”. I turned to Matt and said, “You are wise in the ways of many things…but there is a sadness to your wisdom…”
3) Roger Huerta, who is as cool in person as he is good in the ring, brought his mom to the club. She was awesome and very sweet and while there is nothing funny about that, what was funny was when some random girl would come over and explain to Roger what they were willing to do to him/wanted to do to him and he would say, “I’d like you to meet my Mom,” and step aside so they could see her. I’ve never seen women more disarmed – they’d turn red and introduce themselves. This occurred several times, each time to my total amusement.
I know I’m not Bill Shakespeare, but I’m a bigger fan than I am an “insider” and while I will never publish anything that would infringe on a fighter’s privacy or embarrass anyone in any way, I wanted to give the fans out there the chance to get a glimpse into this world. I was honored to be a part of it, even for a day.