Watch a fighter's face when he's won and the story is all there — the relief, the elation, the euphoria. And yet, what of the other half to that equation? What of those who've been forced to swallow the bitter pill of defeat? It's an inescapable truth that, for someone to be the victor, someone else must lose, and that karmic flipside is what makes the sport a cruel and harsh mistress to all who dare strap on four-ounce gloves and step into the cage. To compete is to flirt with a very particular, very exacting kind of agony. For the sake of examining further what it means to be on the losing side of things, Cagewriter tracked down a trio of accomplished fighters to get their perspective. The three all share two common denominators: they're very, very good at what they do, and they've all dealt with defeat.
Tom DeBlass, UFC Fighter
In 2003, New Jersey native Tom DeBlass fought his first amateur bout. He'd been a track star in college, and had only three months of martial arts training, but hey, what the heck, right? Unfortunately, his opponent was veteran kickboxer and experienced mixed martial arts fighter, and things didn't go so well. So DeBlass went back to the drawing board and sought to gain the skills necessary to succeed. By the time he made his return to the cage, he was now a black belt under Ricardo Almeida, with successful runs as a competitor in everything from the Jiu-Jitsu Worlds to the Pan-Ams to the Abu Dhabi Submission Wrestling World Championship Trials. He was, quite literally, a completely different person.
"I lost my first fight as a youngster because I really just — I didn't even train jiu-jitsu, I didn't even know anything," says the 30-year-old DeBlass. "With that skill set, I would've lost a hundred out of a hundred times, because I didn't know any better."
It took only seven pro fights in New Jersey's Ring of Combat promotion for DeBlass to earn his shot in the UFC's Octagon — seven fights in a little over a year and a half, each one flawless and won by quick submission or knockout or protracted war. But when that shot came, it was for a UFC on Fuel TV held in Sweden, and it was on short notice against a vastly more-experienced Cyrille Diabate. No one says no when the UFC comes calling, so DeBlass took the fight; he lost via majority decision — his first defeat as a pro and his first loss in nine years.
"This one with Cyrille, it hit me pretty hard," says DeBlass. "I was pretty upset. Just because I know, with all respect to him, I'd finish him probably fairly quickly if I was in a full training camp. This was one fight where I was really, really out of shape. Usually in between fights I stay in shape, but I'd hurt my ankle. I'd pulled out of a Ring of Combat fight, and I was letting my ankle heal. I was on vacation with my fiancée the week before, and I got fat and I got out of shape. I knew that, so it was kind of a terrible feeling going into a fight knowing you're not prepared for it. But I still thought I could win. And you know, the fight was going my way. Not even just going my way, it was an easy fight. I was dominating. Then I just had nothing left. I was so exhausted. And when I lost, I was just very disappointed — I'm still very disappointed."
What did DeBlass do to cope? "Right away, as soon as possible, I tried to find the positive," he says. "I changed my whole training. As much as I was doing before, I'm doing things differently now, working on different aspects. And everything happens for a reason, man. In this sport, you've got to be ready for anything."
The UFC already had DeBlass scheduled to fight on another UFC on Fuel TV, but the bout was cancelled when his opponent got injured. Regardless, DeBlass — who's moving down to middleweight for the first time — fully anticipates being ready for anything when the UFC calls again. Just as he did after losing that first amateur bout all those years ago, he's making the adjustments necessary to assure future success.
James Jenkins, Ring of Combat Fighter
Things were going great for James Jenkins until he walked face-first into a nose-breaking right hand. Up to that point, the 26-year-old Matt Serra/Ray Longo product was beating all comers in Ring of Combat — so much so that, to give Jenkins someone to fight for the promotion's featherweight belt, an opponent was flown in from Chicago. Still, Jenkins was the heavy favorite going into the bout. But all it takes is one mistake in this game. One mistake.
"I felt absolutely horrible," says the Long Island, N.Y. native. "I felt like I had a great shot in front of me and I had worked hard to get this far. I didn't have any regrets as far as training hard, I didn't take him lightly — I could be fighting a 13-year old and I wouldn't take him lightly."
Says Jenkins: "I'm a prideful guy. I don't take losing… I couldn't lose at a game of Monopoly. So this was pretty rough. It was hard. A lot of bad feelings. I don't want to have to feel it again for — well, if I could have my way, never."
What was it like for Jenkins after the fight? "I get down to the locker room, and I was just trying to wash the blood off my face and everything," he says. "I think for a few days I did nothing but think about it. I'd be sitting in a car with my girlfriend and I was just start zoning out thinking about it. For a while, I had this feeling like I could just go back in time. Like if I could just think about it hard enough, I could go back in time and I could fix it and I could make it all better. I had to sit there and really tell myself, 'You can't go backwards. What's done is done. The only thing I can do is work for the future.' That's the only thing you can do when [expletive] goes wrong, you just have to work to make sure it doesn't happen again."
What's next for the still-rising featherweight star? "I took a little time off to be with my friends and family, but now I want to be back in the gym and fighting at the next Ring of Combat. I want to come out with a strong showing. I really think that's the only thing that will take away some of the bad feelings. You know, to get a win."
When Cagewriter interviewed Jenkins, it was outside of former UFC champ Matt Serra's gym, right before a training session; clearly, Jenkins is already on his way back to the cage.
Dan Miller, UFC Fighter
There are few fighters in the UFC — or even the world — who can impress in defeat like the veteran middleweight-turned-welterweight Dan Miller. In eleven fights in the Octagon, Miller has amassed a 6-5 record, and those five losses were after hard-fought scraps against the likes of Chael Sonnen, Demian Maia, Michael Bisping, Nate Marquardt and Rousimar Palhares — tough guys, one and all. Still, the New Jersey native knows of the sting a fresh "L" on your record can leave.
"It is tough," he says. "I going into every fight believing that I can win, and wanting to win, but it's part of the sport and somebody has to lose." He adds: "The way I feel is, as long as I put everything I had into it and got beaten by a better fighter that night, it makes it a little easier."
"For me it was never okay. I never walked out of the ring not disappointed in myself. But again, it's something that sucks, but it's not the end of the world. I go into the gym and it makes me work harder. Every time I lost I just tried to get better and improve myself."
Miller's advice to any young bucks out there who find themselves on the inevitable losing end? "Keep your head up and learn from it, basically. Pretty much everyone is going to lose at some point in their career, and it's one of those things where you're going to have to learn from it. If you didn't learn from it, then it's bad."
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That's it for me, folks. It's been a blast writing for Cagewriter, and hopefully you'll see me again. Follow me here on Twitter; this is where I blog about local fights shows of both the sanctioned and unsanctioned variety; this is the book I wrote on underground fighting. I've been writing about MMA since 2001, and I sure as hell ain't stopping now!