Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Once Upon a Time in Mexico

“Squats don’t hurt your knees; what you are doing hurts your knees.”

-Dan John

By the writing of this article, there have been 1,789 homicides in Tijuana this year. That’s more than the previous year’s record-high of 1,781, with another three more months remaining in 2018. If you are planning a honeymoon or a quick getaway, perhaps cross Tijuana off your list. Back in 2004, it sounded like a fabulous place to attend an underground MMA event.

In case you’ve missed ESPN for the last twenty years, MMA stands for Mixed Martial Arts. You’re likely more familiar with the dominant brand: the UFC. In the early 2000’s, very few states legalized MMA. Events were confined to Indian Casinos, Bullrings, and back alleys. It didn’t help that most of the contests were held inside a cage. In 1996, the late Senator John McCain famously called it, “Human Cockfighting.” He later warmed-up to the sport.

I began mixed martial arts shortly after high school in Aliso Viejo, California. The instructor was a former UFC Champion, which meant he was a lethal, badass killer. In my eyes, he was the toughest guy in the world, and I was in his school. I remember observing my first class to see if I was interested in joining. I watched two guys “spar” with an intensity I’d never seen before. One kid got knocked out, and a different kid dragged him away by the feet. I almost wet myself. What had I gotten myself into? It wasn’t too late, I hadn’t signed anything, yet. All I needed to do was sneak out, and no one would be the wiser. But, I was sick and tired of getting pushed around. I figured it was a rite-of-passage in school and thought it would end during college. I was wrong. So, I stayed glued to my chair watching the carnage, and after class, and signed up. Since I was too scared to do group classes, I’d do private lessons. I knew I’d get my ass kicked, the last thing I wanted was to have an audience.

After getting pummeled once or twice, you get used to it, then you sort of like it. It keeps you humble, exposes flaws in your technique and you feel like you can handle anything. But, it hurts like hell. The punches don’t hurt right away, things just go dim for a millisecond, like a flickering lightbulb. The pain sets in a few hours later when your face blows up as if you got stung by a thousand wasps. Getting punched or kicked to the torso hurts immediately. It feels like you can’t breathe and your entire body radiates with an indescribable throbbing. Eventually, my Coach started making frequent trips to Japan and was less available for instruction, so I was off to look for a new school.

Through my work as a Personal Trainer, I met my new Coach. He was a good fighter, instructor, and he took a liking to me. He invited me over to his gym to train with his guys, to which I replied, “I only do privates.” I told him why and he laughed it off, but not in the, “you’re a chicken” sort of way, but in the “my guys will take care of you—don’t worry” sort of way. He rented out space in a racquetball gym called “CardioFit.” It had four or five racquetball courts downstairs and wrestling mats and heavy bags upstairs. The whole gym smelled like sweat and pee. I began doing group classes, built some friendships, and my skills as a fighter continued to improve.

One of the boys, Wesley, really wanted to fight. Like I said earlier, MMA wasn’t technically legal, so if we wanted to compete, we’d have to go to the ends of the Earth, and that meant Mexico. Word got around, and before I knew it, a group of us were ready for TOTAL COMBAT IV. The event was held July 24, 2004, at the Baby Rock Night Club in Tijuana, Mexico. The main event was an alleged Neo-Nazi against a guy with Native American blood. I’m not kidding. The former had the “SS” bolts tattooed on his arm, and the latter had “NATIVE” tattooed on his stomach. I can’t confirm whether the one was an actual Nazi or if the other was a legitimate Apache, but it sold tickets. Another man on the card went on to become a renowned fighter for the UFC. There was also a guy who is currently serving a life sentence for twenty-nine felony counts. And then there’s me.

We parked our car in this tiny parking lot and walked through a large turnstile with the sign “THIS WAY TO MEXICO” or something, above. I wasn’t in Kansas, anymore. I had never been offered gum so many times in my life. Did my breath smell THAT bad? One of my Mexican teammates told me to never purchase any because if I did, they’d never leave me alone. I did feel like a jerk for saying “no, gracias” to the kids. I was amazed at the stuff you could purchase there, although the fun items you could never take back across the border. I don’t mean pinatas and maracas, I’m talking brass knuckles and butterfly knives. If you’re unfamiliar with butterfly knives, they are essentially folding pocket knives, and super illegal. You also run the risk of cutting yourself wide open if you don’t know how to unfold it correctly. I cut myself chopping peppers, I think I’ll pass.

As we walked down Avenida Revolucion, I began to notice a few things. First, all the local men hated us. Second, the local women loved us. Third, there were a lot of stray dogs. We passed several bars, each one promising cheaper and cheaper drinks. I think one bar advertised lobsters, which I thought was strange. We made mental notes as to which ones we’d attend after the fights, assuming we weren’t killed in the nightclub. Finally, we made it to the Baby Rock. Smoke, lasers, and go-go dancers surrounded a ring planted in the center of the building. Not a cage, but a ring. I think the cage was too expensive. We had a large group, but only a few of us were “cornermen.” That meant we could go backstage, help our guys warm up and be with them at ringside. Coach would provide the bulk of the instructions and I was mostly there for moral support and hold the spit bucket. My mom wanted me to be a doctor, an engineer, or a lawyer. But, here I was, in Mexico, holding a spit bucket for my friend, trying to avoid eye contact with anyone who could be associated with the Cartel.

The fights were a blur. We were backstage most of the time and didn’t get to watch any of them. We’d only see them upon entry and exit. The call goes out, “Wes and Michael—you’re up!” That’s us. We enter the ring to the Steppenwolf song, “Magic Carpet Ride.” Maybe Wes would have picked Pantera, Motley Crue, or NWA. Still, it was a good song. During the fight, Coach shouted instructions and the drunk crowd called for blood. I felt like I was watching chess. I stood there, in awe of what I was seeing. Looking back, it was mostly unrefined, but at the time, it was incredible. It was all the moves and techniques we learned in training, being employed in an actual fight–and our guy was winning.

Two minutes into the second round, the referee saw that the other guy was not intelligently defending himself, and called an end to the fight. Fight one was over. Fight two: can we get out of Mexico alive? We exited the building with no problems, and it felt like smooth sailing from there. Wrong. Enter: Charles “Mask” Lewis. Mask was the founder of the original apparel line for MMA, Tapout. He and his partners sold shirts, shorts, and stickers outside MMA events from the back of their van. Today, the WWE holds a 50% stake in the brand. Incredible. Unfortunately, Mask was struck and killed by a drunk driver in 2009. He was posthumously inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame, and his name has a permanent place on the UFC Octagon. On the evening of July 24, 2004, he was alive, larger than life, and about to make my life more interesting.

“Stay sharp, I think those guys want to go.” Go didn’t mean “leave,” it meant they wanted to fight, like the Jets and the Sharks, without the tap dancing. And what guys? Why? It’s best not to ask any questions. Not only was I not in medical school, like my mom wanted, but I was also about to get killed in a gang fight. You may be thinking, “just run away” or “try and talk sense into everyone.” The History books would forever say: “Impromptu gang fight breaks out in Mexico, Amir Mofidi runs away.” Or, “in an attempt at diplomacy, Amir Mofidi stands between the two angry mobs, gets his head smashed with a bottle and spends the remainder of the fight on the ground, bleeding from the skull.” I can imagine, sitting on a rocking chair, talking to my grandkids, telling them to stand up for themselves, and one of the little smartasses asking, “But, Pop-Pop, didn’t you run like a chicken from a fight in Mexico?” No, thank you.

In America, when the Police arrive, things tend to settle down. I think Mexico plays by different rules. When the Federales show up, they shake you down for how much money you have on you, then they still throw you in jail. There’s a joke in the movie Airplane, “have you ever been in a Turkish prison?” I haven’t, but there was a real possibility I’d end up in a Mexican jail. Do you even get a phone call?

A funny thing happens when two groups of men stare each other down in the middle of the street, about to wage war. They either beat the crap out of each other or they become friends. We became friends. I still had no idea what the original beef was, but now I’m embracing total strangers and making amends, everyone taking turns and saying “my bad, bro.” They insisted that we join them in celebrating our new alliance at the closest bar, over some watered-down alcohol. Now, if you’re street-smart, you’ll smell something suspicious. It’s a trap. It happened to me once outside a Peppino’s in Anaheim, so I was hip to the scam. They lure you in under the premise of friendship, and the next thing you know, you’re surrounded by more of them, with no escape—fish in a barrel. I whispered to Coach and Mask that this could be a trick, and they nodded in approval. With a movement of the head, I had earned my street-cred, and unofficially became promoted within the group. Instead of following them in like lemmings, we approached cautiously, like ninjas. We walked upstairs to the bar-slash-dancefloor; it was too late to turn back. A last-minute change of heart may spark a fight right then and there. What was waiting for us at the top of the stairs? A lonely DJ, a couple of locals and a small group of Americans who headed over the border to party. We drank some crappy beer and shared some laughs. Nothing’s funnier than “oh man, we were about to kill each other. Isn’t that hilarious?” I really wanted to go home. Fight two: staying alive in Mexico was complete. That brings us to fight three: will they let me back into America?

Remember, it was 2004, three years removed from 2001. Believe me when I say: I never experienced any bigotry or prejudice following the tragedy of September, 11. But, that doesn’t mean getting back across the border would be a cinch. Airport security is obnoxious, but I don’t feel the same about border security. I wasn’t smuggling anything but a burning desire to get back to our car and kiss the concrete floor. I can’t say the same for everyone else. All it takes, is for one uninspected backpack gets over the border and San Diego goes bye-bye.

“ID please.” Great. This is going to be awkward. I would have killed to have been named Scott Johnson. At least my family didn’t have an affinity for syllables. Otherwise, my name could have read: Amir Mohammadpourkarkaragh. I’d be “randomly checked” for the rest of my life. Did I mention I had a shaved head and a mean-looking goatee?

“What brought you into Mexico?”

“Fighting.” Not a good start. “I mean MMA.”

“What’s MMA?”

“Boxing.”

“Boxing. You a boxer?”

“No, sir.”

“Have anything to drink tonight?”

“Yes, sir, two beers.” Two is usually my upper-limit.

“Any drugs?”

“No, sir.”

“Ok, step aside, we’re going to search you.”

I don’t do drugs, but when you’re about to be searched, you start getting paranoid that you’re actually carrying some. The officer conducting the search nods to the other officer holding my ID that I’m clean, but he won’t give my card back. He looks at the card, back to me, then back down, then reluctantly hands it back. “Go ahead.”

“Thank you, sir. Have a good evening.” I don’t get the “give the police a hard time” mentality. I wanted to go home. I don’t think I ever returned to Tijuana, but I can’t guarantee it’s the last time I did something dangerous.

What was dangerous about that night? Well, a lot. Ironically, MMA was the least dangerous. Compared to boxing, or football, the injury rate per hour of competition is remarkably low. That doesn’t mean invulnerable to injury, but far less than you’d think. Even in its inchoate days, fighters weren’t encouraged to beat each other to death. Organizations wanted MMA to become sanctioned in states like New York and California. They knew that having a list of dead bodies would derail their cause in an instant. Therefore, referees weren’t negligent and they frequently stopped fights early, to the dismay of the competitors and the bloodthirsty crowd. Sure, the techniques and strategies were less refined, sometimes thoughtless, but that’s evolved since then. Although the evening was “unsafe,” the Mixed Martial Arts were not.

No two exercises have the stigma of “unsafe” more than squats and deadlifts. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to dispel the myths that squatting or deadlifting is bad for this-or-that. They are not without risk, but they aren’t the perilous time-bombs that people think they are. MMA isn’t dangerous, the way we went about it that night, was dangerous. The same holds true for most people who squat and deadlift. Truthfully, it’s hard to call what they do “squatting” and “deadlifting.” They look more like seizures with weights. It’s no surprise that knee ligaments tear and discs get blown out. The way many people go about doing them—is dangerous.

Squats and Deadlifts are two of the most important and beneficial exercises you can do. For medical reasons, some need to avoid them, but that’s a minority of people. I’m still young, but there are a lot of miles on my body. I can’t exercise with the same intensity and volume I could when I was younger, nor do I want to. The same goes for MMA. I don’t want to get punched in the face, anymore. But, I still grapple often and go against stronger, younger, and faster guys. In the end, it’s the technique that either saves my butt or kicks theirs. Squatting and deadlifting properly requires technique and finesse. Leave the extreme one-rep-maxes to the young and the competitive powerlifters. Don’t get me wrong, you can go heavy–heavier than you think—but stay technical. It’s the technique that will save your back, your knees, and make you love those exercises as much as I do. Now, go do a proper set of squats before they get banned for being “unsafe,” and we have to go to Tijuana to do them.