A New Holiday Tradition: Fighting on Thanksgiving Eve

Mixed Martial Arts in its embryonic form didn’t arrive in the United States until 1993 and didn’t begin its assault towards the mainstream until 2005 with the debut of The Ultimate Fighter. With such a young sport, you wouldn’t expect a defining tradition during its early growth period but it appears we could have a new holiday tradition in pro sports: MMA on Thanksgiving Eve.

When I was young, I was a big fan of pro wrestling. I remember watching the NWA and later WCW on SuperStation TBS and seeing promos for Thanksgiving and Christmas shows at the Omni in Atlanta. As much as I loved pro wrestling, I used to wonder “Who has time to go see pro wrestling on Thanksgiving or Christmas?” But if my memory serves me correct, there was a time when those shows were well-attended.

Later, as I became a football fan, watching the NFL with my cousins and grandfather on Thanksgiving was the big tradition, as it is for most families in America. I still remember watching Barry Sanders and seeing him greeted by 3-4 defenders behind the line of scrimmage and running around and over them, turning what initially appeared to be a 2-yard loss into a brilliant long-distance touchdown run.

And as MMA continues to grow and forges on towards being universally recognized as one of the U.S.’s major sports, it is looking to jump into the fray and get its own holiday tradition. When I was a much younger man, the thing to do on Thanksgiving Eve was to go to a bar or club with your friends and drink for as long as you possibly could. Then you’d sleep in and wake up, watch football and then eat Thanksgiving dinner.

But the times are definitely “a changin’” because many people between the ages of 18-34 won’t be at the club this year and instead will be watching men and women fight each other in a sanctioned environment. I live in Philadelphia and I know many people that will be going to a big pro show in Atlantic City this coming Wednesday. And a quick glance on MixedMartialArts.com shows that there will be fights in Illinois, Minnesota, and Ohio. In fact, in Ohio alone there will be three separate shows. I don’t envy the Ohio State Athletic Commission.

As a married man with an 11-year old son, my days of going to the bar the night before Thanksgiving are long gone. And for the first-time ever, I will be attending an MMA event the night before one of the biggest holidays in this country. Despite living in Philadelphia, I will be traveling seven hours by car (one way) this Tuesday to see one of those three Thanksgiving Eve shows in Ohio.

To be honest, after matchmaking 25 shows this year and having seen many more on basic cable television and pay-per-view, going to an MMA show and spending 14 hours in commute time during one of the busiest travel days of the year is not my ideal way to enjoy my holiday. But I really don’t have a choice, as my wife, Andria, will be fighting for the NAAFS on November 24 in Liverpool, Ohio.

I spent 22 weeks on the road this year and all throughout my wife couldn’t have been more supportive. So just as she has supported me, I have to make sure I support her. Nov. 24 will be the third sanctioned MMA fight of her career and the second this year, following a first round TKO this past Sept. 18 on an all-female show called “Eve of Destruction” that was also promoted by the NAAFS.

Every time my wife fights it is a nerve-racking experience for me. My days of competing in smokers are long over and while I still train, my opportunities to train are few and far between. But for my wife, she’s committed to going as far as she can as an active competitor in MMA. And as the person who convinced her to try it, I am not really in a position to dissuade her at this point.

Her Sept. 18 fight was especially stressful. I had to fly from Milwaukee on a Friday after matchmaking a Bellator show the night before and meet her in Canton, Ohio for her Saturday fight. Complicating matters was the fact that because there was a smoker event being held at her gym that same day as her fight, no one was available to corner her. So as if seeing my wife fighting wasn’t tough enough, I was going to have to do so from her corner.

I really don’t consider myself qualified to corner someone. I can do the basics: help the person cut weight; give them their pre-fight pep talk; the pre-fight rub down; holding pads backstage and handling all logistical issues. But there are three really important things a corner needs to know how to do and I can really only do one of them. Those things are: tape a fighter’s hands; stop a cut from bleeding; and give out strategic and tactical insight during a fight.

Surprisingly, I’ve actually learned the basics of how to treat a cut during a fight. After picking the brain of Dean Lassiter and some other cut men, I can do an adequate job of applying pressure to a wound and trying to clot it from the exterior portion of the cut with Vaseline. But when it comes to wrapping hands and coaching from the corner, I feel I am woefully under-qualified.

For Andria’s first Ohio fight, we lucked out. Former Shine Fights matchmaker Ron Foster hooked us up with his coaches from the Strongstyle gym and they taped Andria’s hands and served as her lead corner.

For most fighters, getting your hands wrapped and taped properly is essential. Personally, I don’t understand it. When I train now, I never wrap my hands and if I was a fighter and the commission didn’t mandate it, I wouldn’t have my hands taped. I have been lectured about hand wrapping time and time again but I’ve trained for awhile now in different striking disciplines and have yet to break my hand or wrist. I want my hands — specifically my knuckles — to be calloused and feel like rocks. Having velocity behind your punches is important but what if the impact zone is as soft as a pillow? I think it is far more damaging if there is a little less velocity on someone’s punch yet every time their first greets your face it feels like you’ve just been pelted at point blank range by a rock. I’ve always preferred to wear the smallest glove size possible without any wrapping so I could get my knuckles as far out in front of the heaviest padded part of the glove as possible.

But I am in the vast minority when it comes to my crazy philosophy on protective hand wrapping. Some fighters are downright obsessive about it. I’ve seen fighters show up to fights without someone to wrap their hands and have a stranger do it and mentally take themselves out of a fight because they were freaking out about the wrap job they just received.

And despite having seen more fights than I can remember and having trained in martial arts since 2001, I still don’t like yelling out instructions to a fighter during a fight. That’s why when the guys from Strongstyle said they’d take that responsibility from me it was a tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders. The guys at Strongstyle were awesome but in an ideal world, you want your training partners and your trainers to be in your corner because they know your strengths and weaknesses better than anyone.

As of until a few days ago, it looked like I would be flying completely solo as Andria’s corner. Convincing someone to drive out to Liverpool, Ohio and spend their Thanksgiving at a Red Roof Inn was not an easy sell. And this time, there would be no opportunity to recruit a local gym to help us as after a quick look at the card, I didn’t recognize any of the fighters or their listed gym affiliations. I was going to have to do everything on my own this time. I was okay with handling giving the corner instructions because with Bellator having concluded its third season, I am not on the road right now and I’ve been able to get into the gym 3-4 times a week and train with Andria. At this point, I feel I have a good enough feel for her game to get by. But my biggest concern was having to have to wrap Andria’s hands despite never having done it. My plan was to watch some YouTube tutorials and then practice taping her hands over the weekend. It wasn’t a plan either of us were too excited about.

But my anxiety was completely alleviated a few days ago when one of Andria’s trainers, Robert Peach, texted her and said he could make it. Hearing about that text was like a gift from G-d. Even if I was qualified to corner fighters, I really don’t want to be that involved with Andria’s fight. It’s hard enough just watching it from the stands.

Bob, or “Peach,” as he is known around the gym, has competed countless times in Muay Thai, sport grappling, and MMA contests. He is an assistant manager at the gym where Andria trains, Daddis Fight Camps, and is one of the primary trainers under the school’s owner and head instructor, Brad Daddis. Brad is a world class trainer in my eyes but he’s built a training staff with a ton of depth and Peach is one of his brightest stars. He’s done amazing work with Andria in recent months and I am in a completely different state of mind knowing that he’s going to be in charge.

In addition to Peach, joining us on the journey to Ohio will be Andria’s brother Ben, his girlfriend, possibly another teammate, and our son, John. With Andria having previously competed in Kansas City in 2009 and then Canton this past September, John had to miss out on those fights because we didn’t want him missing out on school. But since this fight will be taking place during his Thanksgiving holiday, he will be able to see his mother compete in person for the first-time ever.

I have mixed emotions about having John there. A lot of things can happen during a fight and some of those things can be very negative. I don’t know if subjecting a child to that is the best thing. That being said, fighting is a big part of his mother’s life and being able to be at her fight is something that he said is important to him. At age 11, I feel he is mature enough to handle it. If Andria gets hurt and or loses, it could create of a very traumatizing memory for him. But if Andria wins, he’ll have one helluva story to tell his classmates when he goes back to school.

It should be fun to have some people with us this time around but it adds to our costs. Every time Andria fights, I would estimate that we have to spend between $1,000-$1,500 because finding local opponents is hard and thus far we’ve had to travel. With 6-7 people traveling with us, our cars simply aren’t big enough for everyone and all the gear we have to bring so we’re renting an SUV. The NAAFS is being gracious enough to cover the cost of Andria’s room but we’re going to need two additional rooms. There are also additional small costs like corner licenses, medicals, gas, and food. And of course, our biggest expense: kenneling our three dogs. Thus far Andria’s fights have pretty much been under pro rules but have been conducted under amateur status so she isn’t getting paid yet. Hopefully she’ll be in a position to turn pro soon and or she’ll be able to start fighting closer to home.

Andria will be the eighth fight on the show that night. If all goes according to plan, we’re going to pack up our gear throw it into our rented SUV and drive all night so that we all get home in time for Thanksgiving. Usually, I feel it is disrespectful to the other fighters competing to leave a show before it’s over but most of them are local and don’t have to worry about a seven-hour commute home. As such, I hope no one judges us for getting out of there as quick as we can.

In order to make it back in time for two separate holiday dinners, we’re going have to hope for no injuries because a side to the sport of MMA that a lot of fans don’t get to see is the aftermath of a fight. It’s not uncommon for a fighter and their corner to spend all night at the local emergency room waiting to be treated for an injury that requires immediate medical attention. Even in victory I’ve seen fighters have to rush off to the hospital after their fight for treatment. We’re expecting the best but also prepared for the worse. For those interested, starting Tuesday, I will be giving updates about our trip via Twitter (@SCaplan8).

The whole experience stands to be stressful but exciting at the same time. Thanksgiving Eve appears as if it could be the new big holiday tradition in MMA and this year my family, friends, and I will get to be a small part of it. If you happen to live in an area where a show is being promoted on Nov. 24, instead of going to the bar or the club, why not try out something new and watch some fights the night before Thanksgiving? Regardless of how you decide to spend your time off next week, I wanted to wish everyone a happy and safe holiday.

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