I wanted to write a follow-up blog after my fight to sort of give you guys more of an idea of what the whole experience of going to Russia, fighting for United Glory, etc. was like. At the end of the day, it was an incredibly difficult trip, getting there. But once there, it was pretty amazing.
Wednesday morning, the 25th of May, Shelby and I boarded our first of what was supposed to be three flights to Moscow. It was 9 a.m., we were fairly tired, but our first connecting flight was in Chicago, which was going to give us plenty of time to sleep on the plane. We saw Mighty Mo in line for security checks, so the American fighters were both on the same flight.
After landing in Chicago and rapidly boarding our second connecting flight to Helsinki, Finland, we grabbed our seats and settled in for the longest leg of our journey. Iʼll tell you one thing, FinnAir is an incredible airline. If you ever have the chance to fly it, do. The seats are first-class sized, the meals are pretty good, and the stewardesses are these incredibly sweet Amazonian blondes with adorable accents. By this time I had mowed through most of my snacks I had brought (I eat a lot) and was getting a little concerned about the food availability in Russia. I always like to bring some snacks with me wherever I go “just in case.”
Suddenly, a few hours into our flight the captain comes over the speaker and tells us that the navigational computer is glitching, and while it isnʼt dangerous, the crew is not comfortable crossing the Atlantic with it acting up. The plane was forced to then double back and land at JFK for a check up. We are offered the opportunity to deboard and go eat. All of this indicated to me that we were going to most likely miss our next connecting flight to Moscow, but I figured this would be resolved once I arrived in Finland. Once back on the plane, I settled in for a long nap.
We arrived in Finland four hours after our connecting flight had left. It was definitely going to get interesting. We approached the desk and asked this lovely woman what we were to do. Here is where my journey got crazy. The airline had re-routed myself, Mo, Shelby, and this other gentleman named Gordon who we had befriended and who had the same itinerary, to Frankfurt, then from Frankfurt we were to catch a connecting flight to Moscow. We originally were supposed to arrive in Moscow at noon. This would put us arriving at midnight.
Once in Frankfurt, we almost were not able to catch our connecting flight at all, due to language barriers and general exhaustion preventing most of us from being able to offer up reasonable communication, and thank God for Gordon and Shelby, between the two of them they were able to keep cool and calm, and get us on our plane.
By the time we arrived in Moscow, Mighty Mo, Shelby, and I had been traveling for 31 hours. We had not had a real meal, or real sleep in 21 hours. We were so tired, irritable, and hungry. Gordon helped us further communicate a little more calmly when our bags were “lost” upon arrival, and then bid us farewell saying, “Man, Mark, you better knock this guy out. After all youʼve been through getting here?! Good luck.”
That resonated with me all the way to the hotel. Here I had been stressed, tired, worried about how my body was going to adjust, but then I realized… Iʼd walked through worse fires to get here… And I had a great group of friends around me.
The day of the fights William Sriyapai, an amazing Muay Thai fighter and friend who was there to corner Mo, and who agreed to corner me as Rob Kaman couldnʼt make it, accompanied Shelby and I to Red Square for some sight seeing. We took a lot of pictures, grabbed a few souvenirs, and walked all over. Russia is strange and beautiful. The history of the struggle the country has been through is palpable even now.
There is this air of incredible wealth sort of covering over a faint feeling of sorrow. It is in some ways exactly what you would expect, and at the same time, had surprises you would not expect. Food is unbelievably expensive. We were lucky enough to be well taken care of by the promotion, but it is inconceivable to imagine how the people who live in Moscow can afford to eat.
There are couture stores everywhere, but everything is priced at three times what we would get it here for. Conversely, the architecture is amazing. The onion domes atop St. Basilʼs are so brilliantly colored they make the structure almost cartoonish. Itʼs the most interesting place I have ever been.
The night of the fights Shelby found a bunch of water bottles and began filling me full of water, and gave me my last B-vitamin supplement. She had been shoving B- vitamins, vitamin C, and minerals into me since we landed, afraid that the long travel would affect my nervous system, or potentially open me up to get sick. She had effectively regulated my sleep schedule almost immediately, and as it was, I felt pretty great (this is why she is my nutritionist).
Heading to the fight itself I had a million things running through my mind, but one thing kept coming over and over, and that was “this is the beginning, not the end.” I could feel all of the people back home tuning in, the excitement, the nerves. William began taping my hands, and I started to stretch my jaw. As I struck pads for the first time in five years with taped hands the reality of what was happening set in further. Mo sat close by talking to me quietly repeating what I had visualized for weeks “hit him with the jab, then lay that hook on him.” I wanted the right hook. I could feel it.
Standing backstage my opponent, Nikolaj, whose most recent fight was against Gokhan Saki, grasped shoulders with his coach and let out a few bellowing screams. I just bounced, quietly. I had absolutely no need to hype myself up. I had five years of anticipation. Mo just kept saying “you saw this man, you got this man.” William kept me focused, held my eye contact, Shelby stood by me, offering me water.
I had my team. Backstage Andre Manaart, Brice Guidonʼs coach and Rob Kamanʼs close friend, had been reading me text messages that Rob was sending him. Rob was with me in spirit, as were my three kids, Josh, Jacob, Jen, Gail, Tristan, Katie, Steve, Buddy, Shane, Laura, Amy, everyone who helped me to get here. I had an army of hope behind me.
I walked into the ring calmer than I have ever felt entering a ring. I wanted this so badly, how could I be nervous. This is always what every fighter lives for. The electricity of a fight, of an audience. Nikolaj walked in, big as ever, screaming. I smiled, I heard Joel Mills, Rob Kaman, Buddy McGirt, William Sriyapai, and Might Mo “put that jab in his face, then hit him with the hook.”
Itʼs pointless breaking down the fight moment by moment because it only lasted seconds. What I can say is it felt as though I was in a video game, and everything was in slow motion. My opening came and I took it. When the ref declared that the fight was over I was almost disappointed it was over so quickly. Shelby screamed, William picked me up, and once I was offstage, Andre ran over and said “Robbie told me to kiss you, but Iʼm not gonna do that,” then he laughed.
Nikolaj approached me with his coach and asked in broken English how long I had been out of fighting. I held up my hand to show him. His eyes widened, then he pointed to my chest, and then to my fist and said “you very strong.” He then asked for a photo with me and asked should the opportunity arise to rematch in America, if I would be interested. I told him of course.
I was hugged, mobbed by love and praise, photographed, patted on the back, but what felt better than anything was when Bas Boon looked me in the eye, and smiled a knowing smile. These were the men I dreamed of standing with, of being counted amongst.
Iʼm so glad I could do what I had wanted to do, what I had planned to do. Now I can put to bed this story, and continue being exactly what Iʼve wanted to be seen as more than anything… more than a survivor, I am a fighter. Now, on to the next…