Trying UFC for the first time.
Credit: Photograph by Ben Lowy

The wait is over. I'm backstage, listening to the crowd cheer an invisible fight, and I'm next. My hands are taped and strapped into tiny fingerless gloves, just enough protection so that I won't shatter my knuckles on somebody's head. I'm warmed up and ready, but my lower left rib is twinging slightly. I don't know it yet – I won't find out till after my fight – but I actually broke a rib during one of my training sessions. I'm going to be fighting another man in a cage, and somehow all of this seems perfectly ordinary,

I hear my name over the loudspeakers, and an ugly rush of adrenaline floods my system. My opponent is announced, "Jason Kenneman, at 205 pounds...," but I don't hear the rest. Two hundred and five? This can't be my fight. I've been cutting weight for almost two weeks to make 185. The promoter said 185. But now, entering the hall, I see there's no mistake. I have been starving and dehydrating myself to make weight, but instead of gaining an advantage I have dug myself into a deep 20-pound hole.

The promoter is in front of me as I'm about to go into the cage, trying to make excuses for the weight mix-up, but I just brush past. I'll fight anybody right now. This is what we do.

I'm not a tough guy, but like everybody, I've always wanted to be one. In high school I was a nerd who idolized Bruce Lee. I fell in love with the physical when I started boxing at Harvard, and a few years after graduation I went to Thailand to study muay Thai kickboxing.

After Thailand I tried other things – I worked as a sailor and did construction and was a wilderness firefighter – but somewhere in the back of my mind I was still curious about fighting. I wanted to feel that extreme passion again, the excitement of desperate struggle. In my secret heart I knew I wasn't a real fighter. I still wondered if I could take a big punch. I was still afraid; so I wasn't quite through with fighting yet.

I always thought the scariest professional fighters in the world were the Ultimate Fighters, who compete in what is known as MMA, or mixed martial arts. You've seen them on pay-per-view: those indestructible, muscle-bound monsters with shaved heads, tattoos, and eyes popping with fury. Could I find that rage, and what would happen if I did?