If you’re going to fight, do it in the cage

I didn’t start out wanting to fight in a cage, I just wound up there. Read along and I’ll tell you how stepping into a cage fight was the best thing that I’ve ever done in my life.

Often people are surprised to learn that I’ve fought in the cage, from knowing me from my artistic or marketing design background. Other times, my fighter friends are completely surprised at what I do for a living. It goes both ways.

Straight up, I’m not a violent person, not by any stretch of the imagination. I even hate friendly punching to the shoulder (years of having bullies do that crafted that auto response).

You’ll never have a badminton emergency.

Let’s back up to just before I started down this path. I had sciatica nerve problems and debilitating pain that would have me bed ridden for days several days a month. I was taking massive painkillers to go to work when it acted up. And my doctor’s advice was to “take it easy”, “don’t strain yourself”, and “exercise with caution”. That and a desk job saw my activity level plummet to near non-existence all in an effort to stem the pain. It turns out that I was out of shape primarily due to my doctor’s advice!

One day I simply decided that living like this sucks and that I might as well try something, try and enjoy myself, while I could. If this was going to be a life long problem I had best enjoy what little fitness I had before it was gone. And to that end I thought that I should pick an exercise where I would learn a useful skill. Badminton didn’t cut it. I thought swimming (always useful), wall climbing (that was a stretch for usefulness, I’ll admit), or maybe some self-defense type “stuff”. The tipping choice was a friend who said she’d come with me to this self-defense class through the Winnipeg Leisure Guide.

When I made that decision life handed me a cherry. Life doesn’t do that often so pay attention when it does. Right at the moment when I had made the decision to stop being an incredibly out of shape desk jockey I met Alex Ferrer the instructor of the self-defense class at the time.

Profound humiliation

My first class was, to put it nicely, an absolute soul-crushing disaster. I couldn’t jog around the small gym – not once, without having to stop from pain. I tried to do pushups but even three pushups was excruciating in my hips. I tried to do some of the kicks he was showing us but couldn’t move my legs properly as it hurt too much. I tried to participate in the self-defense moves he was showing but that was less than useless. As one of the few guys there, and quite possible the worst in shape of the bunch, I didn’t really make a good showing for the male gender that night.

I was convinced that I had humiliated myself thoroughly that night and was finished getting into shape.

Alex asked if I liked the class, I lied and said yeah. He asked if I was coming to the next class, and I lied again. I said yeah. It was fun and all but it was stupid to be hurting that much for getting so little out of it.

Tired and sore I went to bed dreading the next day’s pain. I put the T3’s on my nightstand ready to take them first thing next morning.

The next morning I woke up, reached for the T3’s and realized I hadn’t taken any the night before (as was my growing habit to help me sleep through the pain). And then I realized I’d simply rolled over and reached for the medication. If you haven’t had recurring lower back pain problems you won’t know how big a deal that is. Trust me, it’s a BIG DEAL.

I won’t lie and say that I was pain free from that point on, but for most of the rest of the day, the day when I was expecting the worst, I was pain free for the first time in years.

Turns out, I wasn’t lying, I went back to Alex’s class.

Was the second class any better? HA! Hell no. I still sucked big time. One hour class isn’t going to get you much in life. I’m still the only student Alex has ever laughed at on their first attempt to skip rope. Yep, I have that honour of sucking so bad at skipping, that the most respectful man I know, was quietly giggling at me as I smashed my toes with his skipping rope. To make it worse, his brother, JonJon was also there helping out  with the class that night, and he wasn’t holding back his laughter at all.

But I went back. Week after week. By the end of eight weeks I could run around that gym (once) without cringing with the pain or sucking wind. Alex told me he was starting another class the following week at another gym. I followed him to that class. Slowly my body responded with increased strength and less and less pain. Yeah it hurt the more kicking I did but the first time I could do 10 pushups again felt pretty damn good. I sparred (gently, I wasn’t there yet) and grappled (not so gently) for the first time in my life and it was wonderful. I was hooked, moderately pain free and loving it.

And that’s the difference between hurting and harming. Even though a bad lower back will hurt like hell while exercising it is really, really hard to HARM your back while exercising.

Hurting while exercising is not the same as harming yourself while exercising. Hurting is to be expected during and after any strenuous exercise. Pain is your body’s way of telling you to slow down, don’t do this, take it easy, rest. Take it from me, your body can be an incredibly stupid barometer of what you should be doing. Obviously there’s a big difference between pain from injuries (and I’ve had my fair share of those) and sore muscles. I’m not going to get into it here, but just remember to not be afraid of hurt and if you do the techniques right in any sport you’ll avoid the harm.

But then the classes were over and we went our separate ways.

learning how to fight
Pad drills with Mario. As well as being a hell of a sparring partner he also brought knife fighting skills to the Den.

Months went by and I was looking into every martial arts club in the city to find a similar routine of mixed martial arts that Alex was teaching. Keep in mind, this was back in the day around UFC 15. Mixed martial arts was barely out of diapers as a sport and NO ONE was teaching MMA. The small gains I had made were disappearing fast and the techniques weren’t locked into my muscle memory (as I hope they still are now) and were also fading fast. I was missing my fix and sliding backwards.

Then Alex called and told me he was starting a club. Three classes a week. so much a month, location downtown, gear needed, blah, blah, blah, I told him to stop, he had me at “starting a club”, I was there.

“There” was a ratty, small gym, north of downtown owned by another club with three other people (that was the big classes, sometimes it was just me and Alex pounding away at each other). And it was glorious. Look it up, Dragon’s Den, it’s come a long way since that day. I learned so much about myself by pushing myself. I was finding out that the only physical limits I had were self-imposed. I could train hard, as hard as I wanted to. I was learning fighting techniques and the skills to hone my athleticism.

Ultimate fighting
A big Saturday class back in the day. L to R. Taka from Japan, me, Alex, my brother Ron, and Mario.

yeah, yeah, yeah, what about the cage fight?

Four years later I’m standing in a cage in Fargo, North Dakota (it was illegal in Manitoba back then) getting stared down by a guy who seriously wants to do me harm. My best friend is puking in the audience from nerves, my brother is screaming at me from my corner to breathe, an American is yelling next to my new wife “make the Canadian bleed”, Alex is reminding me about our battle plan and I’ve never been so calm in my life.

I was! Calm as I am now typing this up. First cage fight ever and my heart rate was at a resting level, about 80 beats per minute. Here’s my reasoning, and why, if you should ever decide to fight for real with someone, do it in a cage with 2000 people watching.

  • Medical personnel are standing by and have already checked you out to make sure you’re ready to fight (and they also check you out after the fight too).
  • No weapons.
  • One on one. He’s got no buddies waiting to crowd source a beating on you.
  • Your opponent’s weight is about the same as yours. Same cage fight experience too.
  • Want it to stop? It’s over. Tap out, walk out, and go get a beer.
  • People actually congratulate you for doing it.
  • Did I mention you get paid? Ever see someone get a cheque after a bar fight behind the Palamino? Me neither.
  • If you’re good at it, you could conceivably turn it into a job.
  • It’s legal. The cops won’t be taking your statement afterwards, they might even shake your hand.

I repeat, if you have to fight, and I’ll be the first person to say you don’t, do it in a cage.

Standing there, looking at my opponent, I knew I had done everything possible in the last year to get ready for what was about to happen (today’s fighter is in a different class though, they just know so much more, and Alex’s teachings have evolved with the sport whereas I haven’t, more on that later). I had exercised for a year like a mad possessed, my diet was spot on for months, and I had a coach who believed in me. If I were to doubt myself at that point I felt I would have been letting the club and Alex down. And the truth is, Alex’s belt test are/were gruelling. Unbelievably so. Even for the lowest ranks. He made you EARN your belts. No buying them. You had to know the techniques and did pushups for every mistakes. I did over 500 pushups my first belt test within an hour. I won’t tell you about them, that’s up for you to learn yourself how monstrous they are, but if someone tells you they have a belt from Alex’s club know that that truly means something. My green belt certificate hangs above my papers from university and college.

The last reason, and possible the least important, as to why I wanted to fight in a cage was to test myself in a real combat situation. Bar fights can quickly get out of hand so the cage is the only legal, safe (relatively speaking) place you can truly try out your fighting abilities. I had sparred lots but there was always the hold back factor, you don’t really want to hurt anyone you spar with, the more injuries in the club means less people to train with and that means less quality training.

So I did it. One cage fight in 10 years of martial arts training and I received the face beating of my life for my efforts. I earned my fight name, The Peach, for the amount of bruising I displayed the following day (you might get a fight name after your first fight, depends). Not the most intimidating fight name but no one can take it away from me. Lastly, my name is in the annals of professional mixed martial arts fighting. Not everyone can say that.

martial arts ji-jitsu
Alex and I hamming it up for the camera.

After 10 years I slowed down a bit. Then what followed by several surgeries, injuries, a few children, and ongoing eye problems, have all but eliminated me from training in anything more than just light exercise at the club. Alex is training more people than ever, his club’s grown considerably in the last few years (let’s give his new fiance, Regyn, credit here, she has definitely helped Alex take the club to new heights). I miss it lots but will never forget my lessons there. And the journey’s not over. Alex is now training two of my kids in his youth program and they have their first belt test next week. And I’m not calm at all. My heart races every time I start thinking about it. They’re just starting on what could be a life long journey for them and I can’t help but get excited for them.

Maybe that’s how people felt watching me fight. I hope my kids get as much out of that club as I did.


Oh yeah, the fight, there’s a youtube video below if you want to watch it, but it really doesn’t matter. I learned more outside of the cage than I did in it.

18 Comments Add yours

  1. Reg says:

    Really great article!!!
    It’s great hearing stories like this, of how people tried something out of their norm and have taken away so much from it; more than what they anticipated. Your ‘road to cagedom’ is inspiring to those who are skeptical in thinking outside the box. Kudos to you and your journey then, and I know you’re not going anywhere and will continue to train when you can. Your next few journeys now will be watching your kids’ grow at the Den. Awesome write-up Rod!

    1. RodSalm says:

      Thanks Regyn. Maybe someday we’ll hear yours. Hint. Hint.

  2. carol says:

    I had no idea you were a cage fighter with his name in the annals!! This explains a lot (just kidding!!)

    1. RodSalm says:

      I debated a long time on using “annals” and triple checked the spelling of it before I published. 🙂 Thanks for reading Carol.

  3. Ian White says:

    Very well written Rod! I couldn’t agree more.

    1. RodSalm says:

      Thanks Ian. You should tell your story of martial arts too.

  4. TamaraStoesz says:

    There is so much heart in your article, Rod, I hardly know where to begin. There’s this chain of people that started at the Den because you told them about it. Or they heard about it from others…It was at my workplace when I noticed a co-worker and friend wearing wrist bandages, carrying around protein shakes and once in a while sporting a new bruise or mark from the mats. Jennifer L TOLD me about Dragon’s Den, Panglaban, Alex Ferrer and I listened but it didn’t occur to me to ask to attend a class. It just didn’t happen. Then…the invite came. “You should try it. It’s awesome. I think this would be right up your alley” or something like that. I went. My first class went something like this. Everyone was skipping already and I was just trying to take it all in. This is no gym, I thought, this is the real deal.
    You know when you get this feeling that you’ve been starving for something….and now there it is, right in front of you? That’s how I felt the first time I picked up a skipping rope, put on the gloves, hit the pads, hit the bag. My skipping sucked pretty bad too. I sucked at pretty much everything, but I didn’t care. I had found IT. And the coolest thing of all…there was a teacher who would unveil all this knowledge to me. ME! I signed up for 3 months. Alex looked shocked. I’ll never forget his face. ” Are you sure?” You bet your ass I was sure.There was nothing…NOTHING that I wanted to do more. So stoked!
    And then came the pain. It was torture…and surreal. My body had been woken up from a deep slumber. I had been hibernating, abused and forgotten. It needed a wake up call.
    Three years in. First stripe. Ugh. Wow. Not pretty. My mind and body went through a fierce battle. There were moments I felt I was in Hell. “Don’t give up” a voice said. My body was literaly pushed to its limits. I had to tell myself that it didn’t matter how pathetic I looked…how scary it all was…I had to swallow my fear.
    Five years and 2 more stripes later. Health issues, sciatica, hernia, gone. Migraines are minimal. Foot pain is very present and real…but it doesn’t rule my life. My cardio is better, my fitness is better, my knowledge grows every day. And I would have never believed that my body could do all that.
    Panglaban, Alex’s instruction, the Den members, Regyn’s support, I am so thankful for it all. Now I show up at work with a shake in one hand, my bike lock keys in the other.
    What about the cage. What is all this sparring for? Not worried about it at all. I’m so happy the way my life is going. I have already won so many battles. A cage fight would be really fun. Putting all the skills to good use on someone’s face and all that.
    There’s so much more to learn, pounds to lose, skills to hone. And then there’s a kid of mine who started her journey 8 months ago. I think about the pain and humiliation and then I think…don’t give up, Suzie…Give ‘er.

    1. RodSalm says:

      Nice. After a lot research I found a back surgeon who confirmed what we both know now to be effective. He stated that he’d do half the surgeries he did if he could convince people to do pushups everyday. Weak backs are the cause of a lot if back pain and if you do pushups and kicks (core rotations) you can sometimes eliminate it entirely.

      Thanks for sharing. I’d live to hear your daughter’s take on it too.

      1. TamaraStoesz says:

        So true. Not to mention that my wrist issues disappeared. I haven’t worn a wrist brace in years. I can’t even remember what I had. My body is going through changes as I age too. It’s just a change…it hasn’t diminished my abilities to do the workouts or push myself. When the mind is strong…it can talk your body into doing what you have to do. I may have started MMA late in life, but what does age matter when you feel like a frickin’ 18 year old!
        Suzie, you’re up.

  5. Marisol says:

    Such a good times and memories… and remember, I introduced you to your wife 😉

    1. RodSalm says:

      Am I supposed to thank you or forgive you for that?

  6. Crystal says:

    “You’ll never have a badminton emergency.” <-Only 1 of a zillion fantastically worded phrases, Rod! What an incredible and inspirational story! This is the perfect example of trusting your gut & taking control of your health vs listening to the 'experts'. Amazing. 🙂

    1. RodSalm says:

      Aaw, thanks Crystal, don’t know if it hits the mark for that assignment thing but its a story I’ve wanted to tell so I took the opportunity to do so.

  7. Travis says:

    This is impressive, I used to train and after reading this I really want to get back into it!

    1. RodSalm says:

      Impressive? Ha, don’t know about that but sure, if it gets someone training again.

  8. Panglaban says:

    I love this blog. Reminds me of the old days. So many people have come and gone at the Den that I’ve forgotten most of them. But I will always remember Rod. Rod is one of the few nicest and toughest guys I know. He may not be the most athletic or strongest, but one of the most disciplined. He followed everything I taught him; nutrition, conditioning and strength training. You’re a true warrior! You just don’t know it. I’m proud to call you a student and friend but more like a brother. I remember one Saturday class, there were only two of us. We were sparring and going pretty hard. At the end of the class we were pretty tired and you were pretty beat up. Then just as luck would have it, you get into a street fight after leaving the Den. Lol. I’ll let you tell the story.

    1. RodSalm says:

      Yep, I remember that day well.

      My wife said “I thought you didn’t get hit?” referring to the two guys who tried to mug me and all the bruises I had on my face and body (big footprint one right on my chest, I remember that one especially well).

      “Um, that was from Alex at Panglaban.” I was so glad that they ran away after two quick punches cause I was exhausted from sparring with you. I think we went MMA hard for an hour that day! If those two had any notion about how to really fight I would’ve been in serious trouble.

      Good times, never to be forgotten.

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