Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is a rapidly growing sport that is attracting athletes from all walks of life to gyms across the country. There are a number of reasons why someone would enter an MMA gym for the first time: to get in shape, to learn self-defense, for stress relief, or because they have a burning desire to fight. Training in a gym and actually committing to an MMA fight are vastly different. There are few things every first-time fighter should expect and embrace on fight night.

You will be nervous

Reality will start setting as soon as you wake up on the morning of your fight (if you could get any sleep.) You are going to be locked into a cage with another human being, and you both have the same objective: use the skills you’ve developed in training to defeat your opponent. That’s essentially a fancy way of saying you’re trying to kill each other within a certain rule set. You’re going to be nervous. You’re going to visualize the fight over and over and over again in your head. It is important to embrace that feeling and use it to your advantage. There is nothing wrong with feeling nervous. Some of the most seasoned veterans in the UFC get nervous for every fight. It’s part of the process. The way you handle those nerves are going to be a big part of your success in the cage.

You may not be happy with how you warm up

Seasoned MMA fighters have a routine on fight night. They will know exactly when they want to start hitting pads, drilling takedowns, drilling escapes, and drilling submissions. Every fighter is different. Some people barely warm up, and other people warm up for over an hour. It is all personal preference. For your first fight, and even your first few fights, you will not have the luxury of knowing what works best for you. Your coaches will have a standard warm up for you based on what they’ve seen work for most fighters. It may or may not work for you. Don’t overthink your warm up while it is happening. Your focus should be on the fight. Let your coaches handle everything else. Go back and evaluate your warm up once the fight is over and apply tweaks for the next fight. Your pre-fight rituals will change and evolve with you as a figther. Fighting is an ongoing mental and physical experiment, and it will take some time to find out what the best recipe is for you.

The adrenaline dump is real

No matter how much you try to simulate the fight in the gym, there is are always a few unknowns on the night of your first fight. The crowd, the lights, and the actual walk to the cage can’t be replicated in the gym. You often hear of fighters talk about an “adrenaline dump” from their first few fights. When you are in the gym you’re comfortable and you can control your emotions, to an extent. On fight night, these emotions often cause your heart to race a little faster than it normally would. You may find yourself unable to control your breathing between rounds like you would in the gym. Your arms may feel like cinder blocks when you’re on the stool. This is all normal and will take some experience in the cage to get used to. Do not panic when you’re between rounds. Focus on lowering your heart rate and staying relaxed while your coaches are giving you instructions. Your opponent is most likely feeling the same way.

As soon as the fight ends, you’re going to have one of two reactions: “I’m never doing that again,” or, “When is the next fight?” Most fighters choose the latter. There’s not much that you can compare to your first MMA fight, even though many people describe theirs as a whirlwind that they have to piece together through pictures and videos. It’s a once in a lifetime experience that will have a lasting impact on your future in and out of the cage.