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What It's Like to Have Your First Professional Fight at 39

After nearly dying as a rock star, my life took a dramatic turn.

by Robin Black; as told to Graham Isador
Jul 5 2019, 4:50pm

Robin Black. Photos by Graham Isador. 

A few weeks back I celebrated an anniversary. It was two years since I was let go from a dream job. My position at the Fight Network meant a stable living offering commentary and analysis of mixed martial arts. But due to situations beyond my control the company let me go. In retrospect that’s one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. It forced me to branch out on my own and has afforded me opportunities I never could have anticipated. But when it happened it felt like a huge blow. I had to make a choice: the practical route of moving on or doubling down and continuing to share my passion for fighting. In the end it all worked out—my career is healthier now than it’s ever been—but the decision to keep going meant betting on myself. Reflecting on that choice reminded me of another time I took a risk: making the decision to have my first mixed martial arts fight at 39 years old.

•••

I'm lying on the floor coming in and out of sleep. My vision is a blur and I can barely make out the bright lights above me. There is a high pitched buzz in my left ear but beyond that I can hear screaming. Everyone is screaming. I try and piece together where I am when something hits me hard in the nose.

I look to my left and there is blood all over the floor. That's weird. Floors don’t usually have blood on them. Why does this floor have blood on it? I consider the question for a moment and am hit in the face three more times. The fourth time I'm hit I start to piece together what's happening.

There is blood on the floor because I am bleeding. I am bleeding because a man is punching me. I'm in my first professional MMA fight.

•••

When another person hits you the natural reaction is to try and stop the pain. Run in the other direction. Curl into a ball. That’s not something to be ashamed of. Those instincts protected our ancestors from danger. They're rooted deep in our bones. Overcoming them takes intense mental fortitude. Before you've been in a fight you assume you have what it takes to beat the best, kicking ass and taking names. But when you're in there it’s different.

Suddenly I am on my feet. I am hit again and I'm spinning. I'm punched in the side and I'm hurt. Everything that doesn't ache is punctuated by a sharp pain. I don’t know how much longer I can take it. I just want it to end. Then I think...there is no fucking way I’m going out like this. I worked too hard. There is no fucking way.

Three short years before the fight I almost died. For nearly two decades I had been living hard as the frontman for a glam rock act. The band played constantly. Our breakneck pace was fueled by my unparalleled ambition and a healthy dose of amphetamines. Every night we’d get on stage and try our hardest to put on the best fucking party anyone had ever seen. It landed us some TV gigs. We played some big festivals. But going that fast can take its toll. While the band was in England I had a drug induced seizure. My body seized up and everything shook. Later a doctor assured me there was no permanent damage, but warned if I didn't change my lifestyle it would probably happen again. He suggested I find something safer than playing rock star. It was then and there that I made the decision to fight a man, half naked, in a cage.

Most people don’t decide to enter the fight game in their late 30s. But the decision was part of a larger goal. From a young age I had been obsessed with martial arts. My passion for music was matched only by my passion for fighting. For years I had meticulously followed the sport of mixed martial arts as it moved from a cult sensation to the mainstream. I knew that I had a lot to offer in terms of my fight analysis and commentary. I dreamed of offering those skills on a professional level. But I also know that a theoretical understanding of fighting wasn’t going to cut it. I needed to see, feel, and taste it. I needed to go all in. The doctor’s advice was a push in that direction.

Training to fight became the focus of my life. It required a complete overhaul of my routine. Late-night pizzas were traded for organic chicken breast. Jack Daniels was traded for jiu jitsu. Each day it was another chance to improve. Train and grow. Train and get ready to fight.

At times my progression felt isolating. When you’re trying to grow there are people in your life who want you to stay the same. Some friends and colleagues couldn’t grasp why I didn’t want to party like I used to. Beginning to fight at this age wasn’t real. It was a punchline on Friends. But the journey wasn’t theirs to understand. Even if everyone thought I was insane, this was something I needed to do for myself.

I took a lot of shit for my decision. People who had seen my band on TV knew I wore makeup. They had seen me mouth off in a feather boa and high-kick like David Lee Roth. For a lot of people in mixed martial arts that meant I didn’t belong in their world. They called me a pussy. They made fun of my band and said I'd never have the balls to actually fight.

But you can't fake training. You’re doing the work or you’re not. While people were talking about my music or my haircut, I was in the gym learning. While they were spewing negativity I was attempting to get better. It went on like that for months at a time. Once I trained so hard my entire digestive system shut down. I violently ejected everything from my body from both ends. I was in a grocery store when this happened.

Despite everything I knew if I just kept working I could make it happen. I would fight. Despite everyone telling me I shouldn’t. Despite old trainers beating me down in hopes I would quit. Despite sacrificing my old life in the pursuit of this new goal. I'd work until I knew what it was like to be in there. I would fight.

I remember that first round in the cage. I remember coming to my senses and pushing through the physical and mental blocks.

I dig in deep and land a few shots. It buys me a bit of time. I know if I can just get a hold of my opponent, if I can get him to the ground, things will slow. He jabs, I dodge. I grab his legs and we go barreling to the mat.

From there the pace becomes manageable. I can breathe for the first time in minutes. My lungs fill with cold air and it feels incredible. My heart rate slows. I get in a few good shots. This isn’t done. I’m not done. There is a loud noise and the round ends.

Just like that I’m back in my corner. I’m sitting on a stool drinking water. My coach puts ice on my swollen face. He adjusts my badly broken nose. Then he pats me hard on the back. “OK. Nice job bro. I think we won that round.

What the fuck? Did he just say we won that round? “Yeah. Sure. Wait...what? You think we won that round?”

“Hard fought. Close call. But yeah. Think so.”

From my perspective I was flash knocked out. I was dragged to the ground, bloodied, and beaten. I barely survived. But from an outside perspective I took a couple of hits, got back up, and took control. I remained in control for the rest of the round. I kept working despite my setbacks. That is what it is—for me—to fight.

The lessons I learned in training, the lessons I learned against my opponent, and the lessons I had learned while being tested are things I've applied to my whole life. Dedication and hard work, with time, can take you where you need to be. A little luck helps. But achieving any bigger goal is ultimately the accumulation of many smaller steps. Opportunities where you pushed yourself instead of quitting. Rounds you won.

Ultimately I’d go on to lose my first fight. But I fought another eight times after that. I won a few. I lost a few. But with the knowledge I gained from those experiences I achieved a different dream. Now, for a job, I analyze and commentate martial arts professionally, which is what I wanted in the first place. It would have never happened if I had quit.

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