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

I have a recurring injury to my costal cartilage, the stuff in between my ribs; I keep separating and straining it. I knew I'd done it again. It first happened working construction at the South Pole Station, in Antarctica, when a wall fell on me. When you injure your ribs you're screwed for four to six weeks, maybe longer. Almost every motion involves flexing the rib cage in some way, and it hurts just to breathe. (I didn't get it X-rayed until months later, so I didn't realize it was actually broken.)

I took a few days off to rest and think. Fighting hurt was part of the deal; it's what the pros did. I would just have to stay off the ground at all costs.

I still had to make weight, and I was stuck at 193. Because of the rib injury I stopped training, as even shadowboxing seemed to make it worse. I went to the sauna with Tony, who was cutting weight for the biggest fight of his career, against the number one guy in the world, Matt Lindland. Tony dyed his hair blond and started calling everybody he sparred with "Lindland" while verbally abusing them. He was moving into the final stages of fight psychosis, preparing himself for the coming ordeal. With the approach of scheduled violence one's normal contract with society becomes slightly tenuous.

I started eating one meal a day and bought a "sauna suit," one of those garbage bag outfits you wear under your clothes to make you sweat, like a high school wrestler making weight. I worked out in my sauna suit every day, even the day of the fight. I was dehydrated, and was eating almost nothing, but at the weigh-in, two hours before the fight, I came in at 183.

Brandon Addamson, a 23-year-old with two kids who was turning pro, would be my corner at the Ohio fight. It was a struggle for Brandon to keep training, even with his wife working, but he loved it, and it defined him. I once asked him why he fights, a question I asked a lot of guys there. It's something that most fighters don't really talk about.

"It's about clout," Brandon said, and he kept hold of that word, repeating it as if there were some deeper significance that I was missing. I think he meant the respect of others and self-respect. I think that's why most of these fighters fight. It's not for the money, because only a few of the very top pros make enough to live on. They fight for themselves, for the visceral thrill of the action, and for clout. I was fighting more out of curiosity. And my final test was going to be inside a cage in Ohio with a total stranger.

Tori's Station in Fairfield, Ohio, is a typical small-town venue, a nondescript hall usually rented out for concerts and private parties. I think the last thing there was a wedding, since I found bowls of potpourri in the bathroom.

Walking through the hollering crowd in my borrowed shorts, I got my first look at my opponent. He was shorter than me and not bulging with muscles, which was something. I was in better shape than he was. But he still had that extra 20 pounds on me.

Once I was in the cage the ref asked me if I had a cup on, and without any more fanfare it was time to go. I came out and offered my opponent an outstretched glove. He blinked, we touched gloves, and it was on.

The first exchange was clear: We traded hard jabs, and I think I hit him a little harder than he hit me. I ate a lot of shots to the head, but they didn't hurt at all. It was exhilarating.

I hit him again, then we went into a clinch a couple of times and I landed a few knees. He landed a few too, but I barely felt them. When my knees went into his soft stomach, I thought, Go down, go down!

He was tough. I rocked him with a hook and blasted a kick into his side and he actually went down, but when I stepped forward to try to finish, he was back up. I realized two things then: He was tougher than I wanted him to be, and I was running out of gas already, in the first round. In just three minutes.

As the round ended I was bleeding from the nose. I walked over to the corner; Brandon was talking to me, but it didn't really matter. I was breathing too hard – I was already "gassed" (meaning no gasoline in the tank). He offered me some water, but I couldn't take it. He was telling me to punch my way in.

The fight started back up, and I went after my opponent again. He caught me with a few good shots and staggered me. I moved backward and managed to get him in a clinch, but I lost my mouth guard. He was rocking me, but I didn't feel as if I was in danger. I was still trying to get through to him, and I could hear my own grunts as I threw knees in the clinch. But they sounded as though they were coming from someone else.

Then the ref stopped the fight to look at me, the EMT came out, and I could hear them talking right in front of me as if I weren't there. I felt nothing. If they let the fight go on I'd keep fighting. If they stopped it I'd stop. After a brief discussion, they waved it over.