In the latest edition of From Writing to Fighting, BloodyElbow.com’s Managing Editor Anton Tabuena details his experiences competing with his brother for the first time.
I wake up and slowly open my eyes, looking at my surroundings. It’s still not home, but it’s not surprising that this place is getting very familiar. After all, I’ve been staying here for much longer than I expected.
I walk out the room and gather my things in my buddy’s pretty bare living room. Apart from the essentials, the place doesn’t really have much furniture.
“Minimalist,” he jokingly calls it.
“Don’t you mean ‘kuripot’ or ‘cheap as f—k?’” I reply with a laugh, once again giving him trouble for not being very particular about the aesthetics of his place. I may not always show him gratitude in the traditional sense, but I am incredibly indebted to him for not yet kicking me out through this rough stretch.
I’ve been staying at his place since a busted electrical system has my house without power. A combination of bad luck, incompetence, and a lot of red tape have been extending what I thought would only take a day or two to fix. Moving out, along with stressing over living conditions and repairs have been taking a toll, adding even more distractions and taking time away from training.
There are only a few days left to the fights. I can’t believe I haven’t been home for 3 weeks.
I dress up and make my way down the building right as my younger brother Paolo arrives. We’re both competing this weekend, and it will be his first fight ever.
This place is further away from the gym, so I have been making due and finding ways to workout on days that I can’t make the trip. Yesterday, I did bodyweight exercises, and laps in the condo’s public pool. Today, my brother and I are looking for a place to train in the nearby playground.
“How about here?” Paolo asks. He points at a small gazebo and I see that it has just enough space to hit the pads and move a little.
We hold mitts for each other, and the noise immediately catches the attention of the moms and kids in the area. They all seem to look scared, intrigued, or weirded out that two guys are kicking things during afternoon playtime.
Sorry, moms. Please try to ignore us.
I go over the general game plan, run through specific drills, and give him tips on what to expect on his first experience competing. Midway through our workout, this little chubby kid comes close, pointing at my mitts.
“Left,” I say, motioning to him. The kid then slowly paws at the pad with his left hand.
“Right!” He paws with his right hand.
“Left, right!” He thrusts both arms to hit the pads at the same time. I chuckle, and he happily returns to his playmates.
I run over a few more rounds of drills before packing up. It’s not optimal, but we’ve done the best we could recently, and this makeshift “training camp” — in the loosest sense of the term — is pretty much done.
“Are you nervous?” I ask my brother as I drive to the venue for the fights.
I already know the answer. I just wanted to calm him down and give him assurances that everything will be okay.
“I was so nervous the night before my fight, I could barely sleep,” I retell him the story of my first bout last December, how afterwards I felt silly for stressing so much.
“Don’t worry about it. You’ve put in the work, and you already trained hard,” I tell him. “This will only be two rounds. You’re used to sparring longer, and against guys who are likely far better than your opponent.”
We arrive at the venue, and check in with the organizers. It’s only 8 a.m. and I see we’re lined up to be fighting at the 39th and 40th bout.
That means I will have to corner, worry, shout, and cheer on my younger brother, before stepping inside the ring to compete immediately afterwards. With zero turnaround, I’m not sure how I will focus and deal with all those emotions involved.
I quickly shrug off those thoughts, with there being a more pressing concern in my mind.
Focus on Pao. Don’t allow your younger brother to beat himself before he even steps inside the ring.
We grab a quick breakfast and go inside the ballroom to watch the first few fights with our coach. I figure once the three of us see a few bouts, breakdown their styles and technique, Paolo would relax and slowly gain confidence.
After seeing enough contests, I tell my brother we both need rest. We head back out to the car and recline the seats. I doze off shortly after.
“Did you get to nap?” I ask my brother as I wake up and check the time.
“No, I just kept thinking,” Paolo replies.
I tell him he really needs to relax, and I try to give a few more assurances. We go back up to see how many fights have passed, assuming we would compete around noon or so.
I listen to the announcer, and learn that only 10 fights have passed. They don’t seem to be following the bout order properly either. It’s a bit worrying, but I decide to just talk and hang out with friends who came to watch us compete.
After watching a few more fights with them, I check the time, and look for another spot to nap. I head to the corner of the venue, and use my backpack as a pillow.
1 p.m. Am I fighting yet?
Over under on how many naps I can take before fighting today?
— Anton Tabuena (@antontabuena) May 20, 2017
2:30 p.m. Should I eat lunch? But if I’m fighting soon like they told us, I shouldn’t have a full stomach.
They finally announce it’s the 31st fight already. I tell my brother we should dress up and warm up in the back.
We both try to get loose, and our coach starts to hold pads for my brother. I’m shadowboxing and I overhear someone say he’s on bout number 40. He must be my opponent, so I look over and size him up in my head. He doesn’t look intimidating at all, but I’m pretty sure he’d think the exact same way about me.
We go back inside and I try to stay warm, fully expecting to be asked to pick up the official gear and prepare soon.
The clock slowly crawls to 3 p.m., 3:30, and now 4. I’m trying my very best to stay patient and relaxed through all this, but all my sweat have dried up, and they still haven’t called us up.
I ask the organizers ringside what bout number they’re currently on now. He points me to a different staff member, who just shrugs when I ask him.
Are you serious?
We bug other officials over and over, and find out that apparently they couldn’t find Paolo’s opponent. For some reason, they’ve decided to skip us both completely because of this.
What is going on here?
They are now on bout 55. After a few more proddings, they decide to finally go back a few pages on the fight card, and call our names.
We all step up to the gear area. We’re not sure if this is the same opponent Paolo was supposed to face, but I see the uncertainty and possible last minute change is making him uneasy.
He’s now putting on shin guards, but it’s clear that his body language has completely changed. His eyes look glassy too. I look over to our coach and he notices it as well.
“My heart is pounding,” Coach whispers to me, making sure Paolo doesn’t hear it. “He’s really nervous.”
I know. Now I’m more nervous about this too.
An official hands Paolo the headgear, but he struggles and can’t fit his head in it. I quickly grab a bigger one from the pile of sweaty gear that 50 other fighters must have used today. It’s the same brand we use in training, only a slightly different model.
“This one doesn’t have protection on the chin,” Paolo nervously stutters as he puts it on.
“Don’t worry about that! You’re not getting hit today,” I tell Paolo loudly to try to snap him out of it and get him to focus.
He goes inside the ring, and starts to seal the ring as part of the traditional Wai Kru in Muay Thai matches. No one else did that today, so I jump up on the mat to call him back. I figure I can use the remaining time to give him instructions instead of risking his mind wandering off during the ceremonial walk.
“Forget about everything. Stick to the basics. Stick to what you know, and what we’ve worked on,” I tell him. “You’ve got this. Be loose.”
“This is just like sparring. Everything will come naturally.”
The referee calls them over.
“Basics, and footwork!” I scream a last reminder.
I was never this worried and anxious for my fights.
My brother faces off with his opponent, as the referee is giving final instructions. I can clearly see how much taller Paolo is now. His opponent is wider, but this is good news as we’ve been drilling a lot on how he can maximize his reach advantage.
Fight begins, and they touch gloves. His opponent bows.
Paolo misses as he throws a light lead kick as a range finder. His opponent comes in and tries to throw a kick, but before it even hits the target, my brother lands a leg kick of his own. It messes with his opponent’s balance and he falls to the floor.
They reset. Paolo lands a teep. He feints a jab, and throws a hard kick to his opponent’s thigh.
“NICE!” I shout. “Again!”
We need more of that. Just like what we drilled.
He lands another teep and maintains distance. The opponent rushes in, throwing wild punches as my brother circles out. One of them hits the mark, and they clinch.
Paolo lands a knee to the body. His opponent grabs double underhooks, and just lifts my brother up and reverses position in the ropes.
That wasn’t exactly technical, but wow, does he have a huge strength advantage.
“Pao, just hug him. Don’t battle in the clinch anymore,” I shout as the ref breaks them up. I figure if he stays defensive in the clinch, his opponent will continue to explode and waste energy.
Paolo pounds his gloves together as they separate. I think he really felt the raw strength of his opponent there.
He feints, and the opponent moves back.
“Just do that, then leg kick!” I shout. I noticed his opponent stepping away in a straight line, and with Paolo’s reach, I think he can still land a free leg kick every time that happens.
His opponent tries a lunging hook. Paolo easily blocks and they both reset. My brother then steps in, feints, and throws a hard leg kick. The opponent just eats it and rushes in. Paolo lands another leg kick as he closes in, then avoids a clinch by pivoting out.
That’s it. Keep doing that.
Paolo fakes a jab, and lands another leg kick. His opponent immediately rushes in again, and Paolo tries to stiff-arm and maintain distance. It doesn’t quite work as they’re in close now, but he does land a left hook.
His opponent keeps throwing wild punches while he’s within range, but not many of them connect. Paolo clinches briefly, and then scores with a hook and a cross. Another lead hook lands, and he finally pushes away and creates distance.
Pao is winning the exchanges, but he’s playing with fire boxing inside with this guy.
“Jab, straight, leg kick! Keep distance!” I shout, pounding the mat.
An official outside the ring scolds me for standing too close to the ropes, instead of staying at our corner. I don’t pay much attention, but I lower my stance a little and continue to shout the same instructions.
Paolo lands another teep as the bell rings.
We need more volume and more kicks, but we easily won that round.
Our coach gets in the ring, removes his mouthpiece and gives him a sip of water.
“Just punch at his gloves, or feint. He moves back every time, so fire a hard leg kick once he does,” I tell him. “Just continue with that, and you can land it over and over. You’ve got this.”
Coach gives him a few more instructions on how to maintain distance.
“Breathe. Recover, and continue what you’re doing,” I tell him after seeing signs of fatigue.
The round starts. Paolo immediately jabs from out of range to get a reaction, and then throws a hard leg kick.
“Nice!” I shout, and smile. He’s listening.
The opponent tries to bull-rush, but Paolo just stiff-arms, pivots and circles out of danger. He then alternately waves his arms up and down, taunting his opponent a little for failing at that wild attempt.
I smile as I see my brother finally relaxed and having fun in there.
“Fake teep, then do that one more time,” I shout, asking him to attack and set up another leg kick.
He feints a teep. Then fakes a jab, and lands a body kick this time. His opponent rushes in again after getting hit. Wild punches are thrown once more. He tries to dirty box as he traps one of Paolo’s arms in the clinch.
The opponent lands a good short shot while pushing my brother to the corner. He winds up for a bigger one to follow up, but Paolo ducks and slips it perfectly. He then steps his right foot across, and lands a huge spinning backfist counter.
His opponent drops to the floor.
“YESSSSSS!” I jump up and raise both my arms up to celebrate. I don’t even care if the official scolds me again. We drilled that over and over for that specific situation, and it landed perfectly.
Paolo raises his arms as well, as the referee starts the standing count.
I’m grinning from ear to ear seeing my younger brother celebrate the knockdown. I was nervous as hell, but seeing this come to fruition is an incredibly proud moment for me.
His opponent signals that he can continue. The referee starts them back, but he’s looking hesitant to charge in now.
“Go, Pao! Go!” I urge him to come after his opponent, seeing that he might still be out of it.
Feint, jab, and another leg kick. Paolo resets again, and takes a huge deep breath. He lands another hard leg kick, and his opponent desperately rushes in with wild punches again. He’s trying to go for broke, and technique seems to have been thrown out the window at this point.
Paolo easily circles out, and does his arm-waving taunt again. He’s taking deep breaths this time though. A part of me wonders if these antics are just to find time to rest a little. At least I know that’s what I did in the past.
My brother feints, and gets the desired reaction. But instead of following up with a kick, he just takes a deep breath again. Fake teep, deep breath. Weak body kick, and he’s now really gasping for air.
“Follow through!” our coach yells.
Push it and dig deep, Pao. You’ve got this in the bag.
He finally throws with power, a leg kick. He lands another one as his opponent tries to push forward. Paolo lands a hook, and they clinch by the ropes. They’re trying to outmuscle each other, and somehow my brother gets his back and puts his forearm across his opponent’s neck.
The referee immediately breaks it up and I’m chuckling in the corner.
That’s for a different sport. But next time, make sure to get your hooks in as well.
Paolo grimaces, and takes a long deep breath as the ref resets them.
“Just a few more seconds! Dig deep. Leg kick!” I shout.
He puts his fist up, doesn’t even fake a jab, but he still lands a good kick. He takes a big gasp of breath, and then steps back in with a 1-2 combination. His opponent clinches. He’s just pushing at Paolo’s neck, seemingly trying to put him over the ropes in frustration.
Referee says stop. He doesn’t. Referee says it again, but still no reaction.
“HOY, BREAK!” I shout, as a bit of my protective instincts are kicking in.
The final bell rings, and the referee finally decides to really grab and pull him off my younger brother. Paolo falls down to the ropes after, giving the referee a confused look. He shakes his head, and gets back up to walk to our corner.
Weird ending aside, the fight is done, and nothing can take this smile off my face.
Our coach removes Paolo’s gloves, and then gives him a slight push after to congratulate him.
“And your winner,” the announcer’s voice blares in the speakers. “From the red corner, Paolo Tabuena!”
He did it. He really f—ing did it!
There obviously are mistakes and things to improve on, but none of that matters to me right now. My younger brother just won his first ever fight, and words can’t describe how happy and proud I am.
He slowly heads out the ring to remove his shin guards. I pause from my jovial celebration, as I see my opponent across the ring. He’s already wearing all his fight gear, and for a second there, I almost forget that it’s my turn to fight now.
“Where’s my gear?” I ask the organizer.
F—k, I have to focus.
From Writing to Fighting: Opening Round | Second Round | Brothers in Arms