A little Las Vegas diary. I had written some of this in my hotel room over there, but things were just too busy to post or edit it in any way.
Sunday. Travel day.
A short hop to London and then a 10 hour flight to Vegas. I dread the thought of flying more than the experience itself. I get nervous in the days running up to a flight which is a problem because for a while there I was flying at least once every 2 weeks with judging, working, and coaching commitments. Like a teenager looking for a 5 spot I was trying to score some Valium for the journey off anyone who’d listen. People were telling me just to get drunk but I’d rented a car for Vegas so that was out of the question. Someone had some for me and then I didn’t see them before I left, then Nathan texted me the night before and said he’d have 2 waiting for the morning. We drove to airport, dropped off the car, and then just before the London flight I asked him for the pills. They’re on my kitchen table, he said. So for the full 4 hours between getting on the plane in Dublin and getting on the 747 in London, all I could think of were relaxation strategies. Well, those, and escape strategies for when the plane goes down. As it happened, I was actually really fine on the plane once we got airborne, and aside from the boredom and the usual discomfort of a long-haul flight, it was actually pretty pleasant. I felt for Nathan though, he got on the plane at 68.5kgs, due to make 65.8kgs the next day and to maintain a percentage of that over the course of the week. More on that in due course, but the upshot is that every time the stewardess came around with food, I took his desserts, cookies, pies and so on, and he was left with the bulgar wheat salad. Coach life, I keep repeating, stick around long enough and you get to eat the cheesecake.
We were only a short drive away from the airport down the highway, or a much longer one down the famous Las Vegas strip in traffic, but this was Nathan’s first time in Vegas, so we took the scenic route. Scenic being a relative term here. Your first time seeing the strip is a mixture of what, how, and why? I think it’s equal parts horrible and brilliant for all manner of reasons but you have to have a grudging admiration for a place that is purely dedicated to recreation of all kinds. No other industry- just get your wallets out.
Monday- Weigh in, check in, get sorted.
A dull day on Monday. We spent the morning sitting around, filling in forms, and everyone had to weigh in within a percentage of their fight weight. The formal weigh in is on Tuesday morning where Nathan has to make scratch, 65.8kgs, but today he could be 1.5% heavier. Normally a bantamweight 61kgs, it’s still going to be slightly difficult for Nathan to remain on weight for the week. We’d been told that over the course of the week, some weight allowances will be allowed on an upward scale. He’ll need to make scratch on day 1, but on day 2 he’ll get 1%, more the next day and so on right up until a final day 4% allowance on the final day should he get that far. At the rules meeting in the evening however, we were told that it’ll be scratch on day 1, and 4% of that every day after that. There was a collective sigh of relief. It wouldn’t have been an issue for us but you could tell that some people were close to weight. In any case it was a weight off our mind (pun intended). We went to the pool just before the draw. All I can tell you is that 41 celsius is not good for book bindings. After a little read on the sunbeds, I went for a swim and came back to find my Cormac McCarthy fluttering around the deck after the glue holding it to the spine had melted in the heat.
The draw is made later that evening. Nathan gets a South African in the first round. It’s nice to have a name. After all the training and the travel and forms and chasing book pages around pool decks, he was happy to have a fight in mind.
Tuesday- Fight Day 1
It’s an early start. I got up and got down to the weigh ins for 6.15am to give the Irish team their medical forms for the weigh ins at 6am. But most of them have beaten me to it since they just want to get their breakfast. There were 3 teams represented, SBG with 6 fighters, Ryano with 6 fighters, and Kyuzo, us, with 1. The Ryano guys are in a big bunch with Paul Redmond as head Irish coach heading them up. Redser’s fought in the UFC, Cage Warriors and he’s just signed to BAMMA, so he’ll be in the dressing room and corner for the guys all week. He’s also a good laugh, and often steals submissions I show him and passes them off as his own. Well, he did that once. They had 2 members of the same family on the team, the Sheehans, and their father and younger brother travelled too, so there was a bit of craic at breakfasts and we all fell in very easily with each other. It was a nice group and a good bit of fun for the week.
It was busy for the whole week in the venue. Gathering team gear, warming up, making sure hands were wrapped, schedules correct, then the actual business of cornering fighters.
Sometimes people pass you compliments when you do a good job as a coach. But they compliment the wrong bits. They see your fighter win, and they congratulate you on that. What they should say is “nice bucket holding. Great work making sure he was there on time. Excellent scheduling. Nice work blagging the last two bottles of water” and so on. As a coach, you hold the bucket and the stopwatch and create the environment. There’s maybe 5 times a year you do something special. And they’re usually not that special. You don’t fight anymore. Fade into the background, make sure they’re up to training on time, they follow the curriculum when you teach, and eat right, and stay away from booze. Then you give lifts when they’re needed, and sign forms, and keep the rent on the gym up to date. “Nice job coach” means I did that. I didn’t throw a punch and I didn’t offer any moments of genius. Nathan wins on day 1 by triangle choke after a tough first round where he escaped a really deep arm bar.
I manage to escape the hotel that night to go training while the others go off to explore the strip. It’s nice to see Robert (Drysdale) and his guys again, and I got some good rolls in with some nice people. The heat is crazy, even with their air conditioning on, but it’s not so bad after the heat of my gym which is blessed with many things, but not windows.
Competition Day 2- Wednesday
We’re already used to the process now of getting up, weighing in, getting medicals, go to the venue, fill the ice bags, get the towels, start the warm ups. I had cornered more fights the day before than I had in the previous 6 months and my voice was already feeling scratchy. Redser’s sounds worse. A couple of the Irish guys who fought yesterday are carrying knocks and luckily one of them gets a day off by sheer luck of the draw. The others just have to trust in the adrenaline of the fight to carry them through, which it does. Nathan TKOs his opponent in the 2nd round with the referee really slow to stop it. In the first round it was the same thing. I really think the guy takes too many shots and we were screaming for a stoppage for a good 10 seconds out of genuine concern for the other guy, but the ref seems reticent to step in because she’s heard the 10 second clapper go. She steps in at 2.59 of the 3 minutes, and I’m really surprised to see the other corner asking why she stopped it and didn’t give him a chance to get to the end of the round. But she got in there anyway, and at least we can say that she didn’t pay too much heed to the clapper.
And at last we got some real R&R by the pool. A good couple of hours this time. There’s a spa pool and some of the lads use that to ease the tired bodies. Me and Redser mounted up and headed to training in Drysdale’s again. Robert was training for his title fight in Legacy (which he won last weekend) so his Nogi class was taken by Marcello Nunes, a big unit of a guy with superb Jiu Jitsu. The class was strangely empty, and everyone I rolled with seemed to be from out of town and just visiting, including UFC star Neil Magny. It turns out that one of the guy’s weddings was on that day, and almost everyone was at that. It was still a great class and nice to get some training in, at this stage I was going stir crazy from going from the hotel to the venue and back.
Competition Day 3- Thursday
Win today and you were in the medals. That was the message. The whole competition felt like old hat already. The deal was simple now. Get up, weigh in, walk to the venue, get you gear, warm up and fight. If the medals thing was bothering anyone they didn’t show it. Nathan faced a Swede in his bout. The guy was tricky on bottom but Nathan controlled him easily for most of the bout, securing takedowns when he could, and despite a brief rally in the final round, it was a comfortable decision win.
That night we got to head to the UFC in the MGM, and watched Joseph Duffy put in a tremendous performance to finish his opponent in the first. We still didn’t know if we were going to get tickets to UFC 200 in the new T-Mobile Arena on Saturday. The news about Jon Jones failing yet another drug test had broken by this stage, and the gloss had really been taken off the event. Not just because we’d be missing a really great fighter in Jones, but the whole notion of one of the best the world has ever seen throwing his career to the wind like this really blemishes the sport. For some reason or other, despite drug failure being common across all sports, it just jades you to hear about them in your own. That’s the only word I can use to describe revelations of drug cheating- jading. No one is surprised to hear the stories any more, whether it’s in sprinting, or football, or MMA. You just say “for fuck’s sake” and then go about your day. The positive is that if we do go, we’d get to see Anderson, who is staying at our hotel, fight in the replacement bout.
Competition Day 5- Friday
After a bronze performance on Thursday, anyone left involved was itching for silver. You could see that no one wanted to stop. But the draw was cocked up- no other word for it- and Nathan was drawn against Eoghan Drumgoole of Ireland in the semis. To compound matters, the other semi final was an all- British affair, and team UK were just as unhappy as us. Despite efforts at the committee level, the IMMAF were not for turning. The semis would go ahead with the ridiculous situation of two Irish and two UK fighters facing each other. For me, it was simple, get a pen and cross out some names and you’ll have 2 great semis. The idea seemed to be that it would set a precedent. I could see their point in a way but they also seemed to accept that it was a mistake. If so, then why not fix it? In any case, all that is academic now. The fights happened. Nathan beat Eoghan by side choke in the second round. It was a strange fight. We’d all been great mates all week, and the Ryano guys had invited Nathan down to spar a couple of times before the tournament. It was like watching a spar. It was emotional afterwards too.
The shorter day meant that we were done earlier, and Saturday was a day off, so the coaches and eliminated fighters got to have a few drinks by the pool, and everyone got to go to Fatburger on The Strip, which is a must if you’re in Vegas.
Rest Day- Saturday
It seemed strange to have a day off, but we spent it lying by the pool, shooting automatic weapons, and eating burgers. Then we were all in bed by 11pm. Yep, that’s a real Vegas Saturday. We had wondered whether to go to the UFC, but we settled for eating at a place that were showing the prelims, and then watching the main card on a big screen set up at the UFC fan expo. I was glad I didn’t get tickets. The main card wasn’t fitting of a landmark event like this, even though it featured some huge names. I suppose once McGregor went, then Jones, it didn’t matter how stacked they made it, it would always have those two shadows looming large over it.
Competition Day 5- Sunday, the final
For the finals, we were moved to a new cage in the middle of the UFC fan expo among regular UFC fans who had come to get autographs and watch the hall of fame inductions. Not that it mattered. UFC fans aren’t really interested in amateur fights it turns out. The odd one or two people stopped by for a few minutes, but most barely stayed for a fight it seemed. Nate Diaz and other UFC luminaries were signing autographs beside the stands, and those guys were the real draw. Still, this was the UFC octagon and this was the big stage. Nathan had injured his shoulder in Friday’s bout, and it had a big impact on his performance in the final. If you’ve fought in pain before, you’ll know how much it tires you, and for the first time all week in between rounds Nathan looked worn. The guy was taller and had a significant reach advantage which he used to good effect. It was nip and tuck and probably one round each going into the third, but his opponent used the range well and landed some good knees in the final stanza, and while Nathan might have nicked it with a final takedown, it wasn’t to be and he’d make the journey home with a silver around his neck.
But what a week. In the space of 6 days, Nathan had 5 fights, winning 4 and losing one. To accumulate a similar record in Ireland took 2 years of competition. An incredible experience for him, and for me too. The experience of preparing not just him in the run up, but in cornering his team mates as a second and occasional first cornerman was invaluable. These were fighters I didn’t know well for the most part, so I had to adapt to corner in a way that took into account their games, and I had to do it on the fly for the most part, as a lot of the time I wouldn’t know I was cornering until they were walking out, such was the way fights were coming thick and fast across the 3 cages. It was a real learning experience.
And for all of the young guys, these new amateur rules gave them great experience. I mentioned to a few of them before the tournament some words of (quickly forgotten no doubt) wisdom from a guy who really never stopped to smell the roses. This might be the stepping stone to something greater, or it might be the greatest thing you ever do. So drink it in, enjoy every minute of it.
A quick visit to the blackjack tables that night, some shopping the next day, and then on to the flight home for a brief few days in Dublin was next for me. Then it was off to Kerry with my family for a week to the Beara peninsula, which, I can say without doubt, it considerably more beautiful than Las Vegas. If you get the chance, take the Healy Pass from Kenmare to Adrigole, and then drive the coast road to Glengarrif. It’s incredible. Gleninchaquin is another incredibly beautiful place, although I got bitten so badly by something or other at the base of the waterfall there that I’m still itching. Drink pints, eat fish, and do almost nothing. It’s great, and speaking of drinking it in, this was my first holiday with my daughter, stuff like her first time putting her toes in the ocean.
And like that, it’s back to business. I’m coaching tonight, kids, beginners, and advanced classes. I’m looking forward to it more than I probably should, considering it’s work. Might see you there!