This must be what waiting for the call to the electric chair feels like. Well, at least thatís what Iíve been told by more than a few mixed martial artists who likened their UFC debuts to the worst possible torture you could imagine. And these werenít some MMA neophytes competing for the first time. In some cases, the fighters going through those feelings you get on the first day of kindergarten were seasoned pros, guys with 15-20 fights.
But thereís something about those bright lights, about the hype and excitement of a UFC event that adds a gravity to the proceedings, a feeling that all the work of the previous years comes down to one moment. And if you fail, you may just wind up back on the local circuit, fighting in a converted barn or high school gym for pennies. Thatís a lot to deal with in a small room at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
That room has beaten more fighters than Anderson Silva and BJ Penn combined, so what was going on in the head of unbeaten heavyweight prospect Shane Carwin before his UFC debut in May against Christian Wellisch? How did he deal with the inevitable anxiety and pressure?
ďWe were back there just laughing and joking,Ē said Carwin, the ďweĒ being trainers and cornermen Trevor Wittman, Nate Marquardt, and Christian Allen. ďWe were actually talking about the Revolutionary War and how people had to walk in line. You didnít want to be on the front lines, seeing that guy in front of you go down.Ē
ďI donít know how we got on that subject,Ē he laughed, ďbut it was pretty relaxed and thatís usually how we like to keep it. We make sure weíre always having fun but working hard.Ē
44 seconds after the bell rang for his UFC 84 fight later that evening against Wellisch, Carwin was on his way back to the locker room, 1-0 in the UFC and 9-0 overall. There was nothing left to say about the knockout victory except that he made it look easy.
ďI just want to go in there and perform, have fun, and I absolutely love the sport and I love to compete,Ē he said. ďFor me to be able to step into the Octagon, itís a real dream come true and I absorb every second of that. I donít necessarily expect some spectacular knockout or submission, but thatís obviously what Iím going in there to accomplish just because Iím overly competitive, and things have just turned out that way. I feel like if you work hard and train hard, things are gonna work out for the best in the end.Ē
Or you could just call it another stereotype-busting performance for the former NCAA Division II National Wrestling Champion and two-time football All-American, who not only killed the first-time UFC jitters theory, but who has also showed that itís possible to compete at the highest levels of the game while still working a day job as an engineer. Yet while his eight-hour days are spent working on a hydraulic model and doing infrastructure reviews for the local water district, donít think heís skimping on time in the gym, even though heís heard people wonder how much better he could be if he trained full-time.
ďI hear people say that, but sometimes I donít know how much more I could train,Ē said Carwin. ďIím training full-time on my lunch hour Ė thatís my strength and conditioning time Ė and then after work I do a couple of classes, usually some one on one with Trevor (Wittman), and then I go live in grappling or wrestling.Ē
Heís also taken on a job twice as week as the assistant wrestling coach at the University of Northern Colorado. But what about those fighters who say you have to train all-day to compete at the UFC level?
ďI donít know how you could train eight or nine hours a day Ė that seems like an awful lot to me,Ē he said. ďI know my one-on-oneís with Trevor, by the end of them, heís basically put me through hell in an hour and a halfís time. If I had to go through nine hours of hell with T every day, there just wouldnít be an end of the week for me.Ē
So far, itís hard to argue with the results Carwin has put up. Heís won all nine of his fights, with each bout ending in the first round. In fact, he hasnít even fought half a round yet, with his pro debut win over Carlton Jones in a WEC bout being the longest heís ever been pushed Ė 2:11. Thatís great for him and the growing mythology around him, but whatís going to happen when he runs into that stubborn opponent who just wonít go away? How will he cope when the bell rings for round two or three?
ďI guess thatís a territory that when I get there, weíll see,Ē said Carwin. ďBut Iíll tell you what, when Iím in the training room, Iím training to go well beyond those three five minute rounds. Itís something Iím comfortable with in the training room, and I feel like Iíd be comfortable with it in the ring as well. In fact, I feel that as matches go on, I get stronger.Ē
Thatís a frightening thought for opponents, considering how dominant the 6-3, 262 pound Carwin has looked already. Next on his hit list will be unbeaten British banger Neil Wain, a fighter who will be competing on home soil as UFC 89 touches down in Birmingham, England. It will be new territory for the Greeley, Colorado native.
ďItís gonna be his backyard and I know that the fans are gonna be behind him,Ē said Carwin. ďIíve been in college situations before where I walked in and got booed, so thatíll probably be nothing any different for me. Sometimes that makes you a little bit more hyped up.Ē
The fans should be equally excited, considering that Wain has made a habit of fighting like heís double parked as well, ending all of his fights via KO or TKO. If youíre watching this one, donít get up to visit the refreshment
stand Ė it might not last long. And while itís great to look forward to a fight that might be so explosive that it could end at any moment, itís not so great in training for Carwin, because he has precious little tape on Wain to study. Heís not stressing out over it though, especially considering that heís in the stage of his career where most of the pre-fight work in the gym is based on his own development as a fighter.
ďI still have so much room to grow and improve in all aspects of my game, wrestling included, so when Iím preparing for a fight, Iím still learning new techniques and Iím working on stuff to even prepare me for the next fight after this, just to make sure Iím advancing as a fighter myself,Ē he said. ďSo most of my time is spent on improving myself. Itís hard when Neil doesnít have a lot of tape out there, plus he hasnít had a fight in a while, so heís gonna have improved immensely as well. But from the little tape Iíve seen of him, Neil is an aggressive fighter and it looks like itís gonna be two aggressive fighters going at it.Ē
Carwinís keeping it simple, and that may be the best approach for him, especially when his bandwagon is taking on new passengers daily. It would be easy to get caught up in the hype of being the heavyweight divisionís Ďnext big thingí and lose focus, but by keeping his eye on family, work, and getting better in the gym, heís removing all distractions. Being 33 doesnít hurt either.
ďWhen I look back at when I was in college, and youíre in between the ages of 18 and 22, I think your outlook on lifeís a lot different than when youíre in your 30ís,Ē he agrees. ďI have a career going, I have a family, and Iím focused on where my life and my familyís life need to be. When youíre in your 20ís, youíre still trying to find out who you are, and a lot of those guys still want to have a lot of fun.Ē
Donít get him wrong, Carwinís still having fun Ė itís just that his fun these days takes place in an arena with thousands of people cheering. And for him, nothingís more fun than locking horns with an opponent who is going to meet him in the middle of the Octagon and throw down. So far, no oneís been able to do that with Carwin and leave with a victory. Does getting this good this fast surprise the three year MMA vet?
ďYouíve just got to go out there to perform,Ē he said. ďAnything can happen in any fight, and I truly believe that. All it takes is a split second mistake in this game, and anybody can go down. As long as you realize that and have an open mind for it, youíll be fine. I donít know if Iíve surprised myself - Iím an aggressive fighter and I like to get in there and get after it. To me itís a fight. Itís not a three round decision. That guyís in there to rip my head off, heís trained for it, and Iím in there to take him apart and Iíve trained for it, so itís just about getting after each other, and all of that excites me.Ē
That, and talking about the Revolutionary War just before he leaves the locker room to go fight.