Three Scary Stories from 2018
Instead of 2018’s highlight reel, I want to share three moments when I thought all was lost - Three challenges throwing serious fear and doubt at me, then what happened next. I hope this helps you recognize adversity as opportunity and struggle as opportunities to grow stronger. Story time! Here we go:
Our class of Brawlers had never been better. Two weeks out from Brawl for a Cause at Mercedes Benz Stadium, we had already broken our ticket sales record and more than doubled our philanthropic impact to date. Together, they had sold over 1,000 tickets and raised over $200,000 for their causes. The Brawl Team was more bought in and motivated than ever, and we were rapidly approaching the moment our vision would become a reality on the same field where the NCAA National Championship, Super Bowl, and countless top tier concerts all take place.
After a meeting with an AMBSE (management company for the Falcons, United and MBS) C-Level Exec, Sam and I sat in his car drafting a followup email. As soon as we sent it, we received a call from the exec. He directed us to the fourth page of our contract and explained how we had breached one line in the 24-page document. He said he would refund our deposit and cancel the event. I sat in shock. Sam switched on and saved the event by buying us a little more time. We had a sleepless weekend to figure out how to save the event.
Faces and moments flashed before my eyes. How could I tell the team it was over? How could I explain to the Brawlers they wouldn’t have their moment in the arena? How would we refund the tickets and donations? We refocussed. We spent the weekend pouring through every email, text, and meeting recording we had. We built a case to save the event.
On Monday, we had a call with the exec and made our case. I had the only panic attack of my life on the phone that day. Sam ran point while I couldn’t talk. When my time came, I gathered myself and made our pitch. We held our breath. When he agreed to keep the event, I muted the phone and ran around yelling and beating my chest in the lobby of Atlanta Tech Village. We weren’t dead yet.
Two weeks later, the Brawl at the Benz took Brawl for a Cause to a new level and laid the foundation for the future of the organization. We donated $222,000, hosted 1,600 dapper Brawl Nation guests, presented four-time champ Evander Holyfield with a USA Boxing lifetime achievement award, and showed a little bit more of the world how we’re planning on changing it for the better. As the Brawl Team continues our journey #BrawltoaBillion, we will proceed to fight for what we believe in, like our Brawlers do for their causes in each event.
Recovering from shoulder surgery, I sat stir-crazy in my recovery bed. Netflix and YouTube were my best friends. One day, YouTube served me a video about “ChessBoxing,” and I thought it was a joke. After watching, I researched everything about the sport, its history and how to compete. I reached out to the founder and expressed interest. He told me to reach back out when I was healthy.
Two years later, my shoulder was 100%. I dusted off my chess set and called Iepe. He told me that the ChessBoxing World Championship was in two months and no American had ever competed in it. He asked if I would consider flying to Kolkata, India to be the first. Never thinking I’d represent my country in anything, especially a sport I didn’t know existed, but felt I was tailor-made for, I accepted. On my 28th birthday, I announced to friends, family and the Brawl for a Cause community that I’d be training to fight for what I believe in through ChessBoxing. I did something that scares me more than taking a hook to the head, and I asked my friends for donations to help fund this dream. They supported more than expected.
On my first day of training, my chess coach Carlos sat me in the middle of his youth chess camp. He instructed me to play 20 children ages 8-12 in 5-minute timed blitz chess. It didn’t take long to realize that the children were bored with playing me. I didn’t even come close to winning a game. Checkmate after checkmate wore me down. I doubted myself. I retreated to my car and sobbed, telling myself I was going to quit. I went home that night, laid in bed and thought of how I’d explain my excuses to all those who have already expressed support, donated, and encouraged. I didn’t sleep.
The next morning, I got out of bed and looked in the mirror. I thought of the 300+ everyday heroes who have fought in Brawl for a Cause look back at me. I thought of all the conversations I’d had with guys who had wanted to drop out. I remembered the advice I gave to them; that I was afraid to take myself. I thought about all those who persevered through adversity, injury, and other setbacks. I realized that every Brawler feels the way I felt then. I realized that this is an integral part of the Brawler’s Journey - pushing past adversity, putting the cause before self, and persevering. I recommitted to my cause and myself. I trained harder than ever, putting 4-8 hours per day into chess in addition to my physical training.
With the help of my team (X3 Sports, Jon Kolowich, Rob French, Elena, GG, Lena, Chris and countless Brawlers), I dropped 18 pounds, improved my chess rating 400 points, and got into the best physical, mental and emotional shape of my life. I flew to India, trained with my #Cowboys teammate Kevin and the Russian National Team, then entered the tournament. I checkmated my opponents and won the final fight of the tournament to become the 90KG World Champion. I celebrated with my team and felt the magnitude of the moment. Eight weeks of training, fundraising, and competing for my cause was complete. What meant the most was the community of supporters that were in my corner, and the five great Americans who were in the ring with me that night. I knew I had friends for life and the empathy to lead my organization of Brawlers towards our goal.
I walked out of the monastery’s gates and felt bombarded by sights, sounds and scents. Five days of isolation in meditation halls and my little kuti hut left me unprepared for the constant stimuli we encounter everyday in the real world. On the other hand, I had never been more in touch with myself, my past, and my present. I had acknowledged my trauma, past relationships and other demons. I was confident in my identity and purpose in this life, and I was ready to take on the next chapter of my story.
When I returned to Chiang Mai in preparation for my flight back to Atlanta via Bangkok > Tokyo > LA, I decided to make the most of my final hours in Thailand. Having never tried driving a manual vehicle, I rented a moto, received a brief lesson from the auto-dealer, then embarked for the most amazing
temple I could find, floating in the mountain range 4.5 hours outside of the city. The excitement of facing my fear and trying something new through an adventure invigorated me.
I visited smaller temples and roadside markets along the way. When I got into the mountain range, the temperature dropped and rain made the roads slippery. When downshifting gears to climb an incline, I lost control of the moto and ran into the curb on the left side of the road. Then, the moto accelerated into the curb on the right side of the road and I was thrown from my seat. I busted up my elbow and my helmet hit the curbside while the moto lost its mirror and got a little scratched up. My heart started beating through my chest.
I considered turning around right then and there. The rain in combination with my lack of experience driving manual planted a seed of fearful doubt in my mind. Before turning around and heading back, I remembered a lesson from the previous five days in the monastery. I sat on the curb, crossed my legs, folded my hands together and focussed on the rise and fall of my stomach. I acknowledged the sensory inputs around me, then turned inward to search myself for the answer of what to do with my fear.
I put myself into a future version of myself, looking back on that moment. I asked myself whether I’d be content with playing it safe, or proud of persevering through fear and finishing what I started. I decided to mindfully continue my journey to the floating temple, and that’s what I did. The rest of the journey there was difficult, but fun. I hiked to the top of the mountain and took in the splendor that monks spent over a decade building block by block. It was one of the most amazing temples I’d ever visited, and I enjoyed it that much more because I overcame fear and adversity to be there.
When I set out to return, a storm was brewing. Feeling more confident, I picked up my pace to get back in time for my flight and to miss as much of the storm as possible. About halfway through my journey back, I found myself in a cloud. The road was slick, and my vision was obstructed, so I felt fear creeping up. I was shivering from the cold moisture, and I was worried about crashing again. If I had more time, I would have stopped, and perhaps even spent the night in a guesthouse, but I had a flight to catch.
As I pulled back into Chiang Mai around sunset, I felt an overwhelming sense of pride and achievement having completed the journey, not just to the temple and back, but five weeks of solo travel throughout Thailand. I explored a new part of the world, myself, and new ways to navigate life.
As I boarded the plane back home, I knew I was coming home a changed man. I had dedicated myself completely to a goal and accomplished it by winning the ChessBoxing World Championship. I had reflected on my Brawler’s Journey and applied its lessons to a new journey of travel and self-exploration. I had asserted my identity and what I want out of life in the silent halls of a Thai monastery, and I had immediately applied and tested its lessons on an epic adventure to the summit of self-discovery. I carry those lessons and that identity with me now.
As I look forward to 2019, I am full of gratitude and purpose. I am grateful for my journey, its adversity, and the lessons that accompany my challenges. I am grateful for the family, friends and angelic strangers that support and encourage me. I am grateful for my purpose of training, equipping, and inspiring others to be their best self and literally fight for what they believe in most. This year, I will further my purpose through storytelling, Brawl for a Cause, and gratitude above all else. Thank you for reading and being an important part of my life.