Empty arenas? A private island with a cage in the sand? No big deal, many MMA veterans say.
We asked fighters about the strangest circumstances they’ve ever encountered at a fight, and most had a tale that tops anything we’re going to see in the strange new world of fights in coming weeks. Their incredible first-person stories include a future superstar locked in her dressing room, a fight against someone named Bunny at a gentleman’s club, line dancing before a bout and a stomach-churning mistake at Olive Garden.
My pro debut was in Colorado in 2007. I fought on the undercard of a Donald Cerrone fight. Donald actually cornered me and then went and wound himself up for his fight. I remember being so nervous. I was still working for Hooters at the time.
I’m a nervous eater. Two hours before the fight, we went to Olive Garden. I smashed some fettuccine Alfredo. I was so full and I was so nervous. I even drank two Monster Energy drinks.
During the fight, I went to take the girl down — and she kneed me as I landed on top of her. I remember throwing up in my mouth and feeling like I had to let it go. But the 10-second bell rang, so I just held it in. My mouth was filled with all the throw-up. I went to the corner and just threw up the rest of the fettuccine. We cleaned up … and I went back out and won the fight.
In New Hampshire, they do this big motorcycle event annually — Laconia Motorcycle Week. I used to go to it every year as a kid. There would be a million bikes; we used to try to count them. It was crazy. A few years ago, my buddy Dave George, who promoted Combat Zone MMA, wanted to hold an outside event around motorcycle week.
It was a pretty cool experience: fighting outside, breathing in fresh air while throwing down. There’s something about getting that fresh oxygen in your lungs when you’re about to go. It was almost like I was about to get into a street fight but against a legitimate opponent. It was very raw — just a wild, kick-ass event with bikers screaming crazy s—. I got a first-round finish.
I fought once in a country and western bar in San Antonio. We took the bus and got there early, so we had a lot of time to wait. I don’t even know if the people at the bar knew there were going to be fights there. Before the fight, I did some line dancing on a little stage. I’m a good line dancer. I line-danced a lot with my grandma when I was young. I had the moves down.
The space where we had to warm up was next to an arcade. It had a pinball machine and a basketball machine. I’m trying to shadowbox and do light warm-ups before the fight, and people are walking by and playing all these machines around me. I shot some hoops as a warm-up — my arms were looser, my wrists were on point. I won the fight.
I’ll never forget one of my fights from 2003, when I was 15. It was at the Muay Thai world championships. My whole family traveled from Kyrgyzstan to Europe for the semifinals and finals, and I went into the changing room to get ready to fight. It was me, my sister Antonina and one more girl. Right before we were supposed to go in and fight, I tried to open the door — and realized it was locked.
They were announcing our names to fight, and we couldn’t get the door open. We tried breaking it, but it wouldn’t open. I started thinking, “How can I go back to my country and say that I lost because I got locked in a changing room?” But then the other girl started to scream very loud — so loud that security heard her in the arena. They eventually came and unlocked the door, and I made it to the ring … barely. I don’t remember the fight very well. I just remember that I fought on pure adrenaline and won it — and then I won the tournament.
I dated Aaron Brewer from the Arizona Cardinals for six years, and I decided to drive to one of his games in San Diego once in 2013 or 2014. I’d started training MMA but only had a few amateur fights so far. While I was in Arizona, I went to train with an MMA fighter friend of mine who was also a stripper. She asked if I wanted to go watch some MMA fights that night at a strip club, and I said sure.
When we got there, they were looking for someone to fight one of the strippers, “Bunny.” I called my coach to see what he thought about me taking an amateur fight while I was there. He said to go for it, so I wrapped my hands, put on headgear and we fought. I was in a tank top and Spanx, and she was in a bikini. I won, but she f—ing hit hard. It was hilarious.
I once fought in a smoky, dingy little club in Spokane, Washington, with the smallest ring ever. The place would often go over capacity. It was the first fight I ever got my parents to come to. My dad was 6-5 and kind of a polarizing guy — and he didn’t really know how the whole thing worked.
My opponent was a way better wrestler and was just manhandling me, beating me up. Any time I went into the ropes, my dad — who was in my corner — would come up and yell at me.
Next thing I know I get into my opponent’s corner. His corner is his dad too. My dad runs into my opponent’s corner and starts yelling at me. Then all of a sudden my opponent’s dad swings a punch at my dad, and this huge thing breaks out. I didn’t even know it was happening. My coach didn’t tell me until the next day. So two dads were fighting at the same time their sons were fighting.
This promotion, Raging Wolf, called me up. They offered me $500 if I came in on short notice at 136 pounds for an amateur fight on a Native American reservation about six hours from where I lived in Long Island. It was an amateur fight, but they were gonna pay me. Back then, I used to walk around at about 153 pounds, so I had to do a drastic weight cut.
I thought the ref was gonna stop the fight because he saw me throw up between Rounds 4 and 5. I told my brother, who was in my corner, to give me the bucket, but he couldn’t throw it over the cage. So he put it near the holes of the cage and I just put my lips through and started puking. I thought, I hope I don’t get pressed against the cage over here, because that was gross. I ended up winning. It was actually one of my best fights as an amateur.
I was 6-0 and the champ of XFC when it folded in 2014. UFC matchmaker Joe Silva said, “We’d like you to have another fight, and maybe we’ll send you a contract.” So I tried to find fights wherever I could.
I was like, Man, I need a fight, I need the best opponent possible and I need it on this specific date. I don’t care where it is. We ended up in Abingdon, Virginia, at the fairgrounds. The event was in a rodeo barn — anything to do with sheep, cattle or other animals, they did it in this little barn. They put a little cage in there. All my friends and family came.
We were warming up on a dirt floor. It stunk like cow s—, horse manure, everything. It was wild. It smelled like the animals had been there the whole time and they took them out that day. There might have still been horse s— laying around. Then I went out and fought and won. And I ended up getting into the UFC for my next fight.
For my first amateur MMA fight, we drove up to Tennessee. They had a cage set up in the middle of a rodeo. I was warming up in a little shack in the back. It started drizzling. I had to walk through mud to get to the cage to fight — it felt like “Gladiator.” I was like, Is this what fighting is like? I thought that was the way it was supposed to be. I had no idea.
I was soaked. We were slipping while we were fighting. When the second round started, it was pouring rain. Mud got in the cage from my feet. I had it in between my toes, on my ankles. It was pretty savage. But in the second round, I got him with a triangle. I was so pumped, and the crowd was going crazy.
I fought my first amateur fight in my hometown of Las Cruces, New Mexico. It ended up being against a kid I went to high school with. He was younger than me, so it felt weird that I was going to fight an underclassman. I knew he did karate and wrestled as a kid, but I didn’t think he was very tough.
I beat him up really bad, finished him in two minutes. The cool part of the story is that, probably five years later, he delivered a UPS package to my house. We took a picture together and reminisced. He said, “Dude, it’s so cool seeing what you’re doing now.” I shared the photo online because I was like, “This is crazy. The first person I ever fought just delivered me a package.” But I was pissed because people were like, “Oh, funny … he lost, you won, now look where he is.” I was in the WEC at the time, and they thought I had it so much better. I was like, “Dude, UPS drivers actually make bank and have benefits.”
My first loss was against Tyson Griffin in 2005. We were fighting outside, and the mat was super hot — two fighters had already blistered their feet on the mat earlier in the night. The people who set the ring up rushed and didn’t put the bottom level of padding on, so it was just exposed metal on the bottom level. Fourteen seconds into the fight, I threw an overhand, hit an inside trip and did a head dive into the steel pole. I needed seven staples in my head after the first round. The doctor came in, but it turned out that he was a veterinarian and he let the fight go on. We had an awesome fight, but I lost in the third round. I went on a 13-fight win streak after that.
Carla Esparza, former UFC strawweight champ
One of the strangest places I fought was Clovis, New Mexico. It was a small town, in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t stay at a hotel. We stayed at an old haunted nursing home. Kind of more like a hospital. They converted one floor into a hotel. It was super scary. There was a lot of wind, a lot of tumbleweeds outside. Everyone was messing around in other people’s rooms, scaring each other and stuff.
It was crazy. I fought this girl — “Yaya” Anzaldua — who had short hair that was dyed red, white and green. She came out to this crazy crowd, with a mariachi band, and it was like a parade walking out to her fight. People were throwing confetti. I won that fight in a matter of seconds.
I was scheduled to fight in Mexico in 2013. When we got to the airport, my then-teammate John Dodson had his flight, but it turned out they forgot to book mine. It was ridiculous. John scrounged up $1,000 to buy me a last-minute ticket on the same plane to jump down to Mexico.
I went down there, did a weight cut. I’m the first guy to weigh in. I ask the promoter, “Am I the first fight tomorrow?” He’s like, “No, bro. You’re the main event. This is USA vs. Mexico.” I thought: What the f—? This is my second pro fight, I’m down in Mexico at a resort in Puerto Vallarta and I’m apparently headlining a U.S. vs. Mexico card.
The venue was at a Hard Rock Hotel & Casino resort. It was outdoors, on a grass field, and the cage was probably 100 feet from the beach. It was at night too. It was cooled down and not too hot. It was dope. Everything was all-inclusive. Free food all week, and then we just got wasted after the fight.
TJ Dillashaw, former UFC bantamweight champ
For my last fight before “The Ultimate Fighter,” we fought in Urijah Faber’s gym in downtown Sacramento, California. We probably had no business throwing fights there. It’s not very big. It’s just a boxing ring. But it was pretty cool.
It was so “Fight Club”-esque. There was no security. Urijah’s buddy was announcing the fight. We warmed up on the mats that we practiced on every day. The only thing that separated me and my opponent during warm-ups was a thin fabric curtain. It wasn’t like we were in separate rooms. You could hear every word people were saying.
It was crazy, because my friends and family could come right up to the ring and pretty much touch me. People were almost in the ring while we were fighting. Some were standing on lockers on the side of the wall. I remember seeing two of my high school buddies up in the rafters of the gym yelling my name.
It was definitely a different vibe. After I won, I ran around the ring and slapped everyone’s hand.
Additional reporting by Brett Okamoto.