History is a valuable tool. World history, recent history, personal history…all history can and should be used to learn and grow. Lately this year, I've been more introspective and thinking about everything a great deal more. It’s because this year, 2012, has marked the ten year anniversary of my high school graduation. I never thought of it as such a benchmark, but I can’t help but reflect on not only this year’s achievements and goals I set out to accomplish as I do every year, but also the ones I laid out several years ago, even dating way back to my aspiring dreams as a young kid. I've found myself asking questions like, “What have I done in the past ten years? Have I done everything I possibly could? Did I do everything I set out to? How can I do more?”
Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still.” I've gone forward in many different ways and I definitely have not stood still. In fact, I've done just the opposite. I remember feeling like a horse in the gates, I couldn't wait to burst out into the wide open world beyond my small town in Kansas, and like being shot out of a cannon, I did just that. I have done a great deal in the past decade, and it is nice to look back and be proud about accomplishments and life achievements, but at the same time I am never satisfied. I stay hungry. I want more. I can do more, do better. It’s a never ending battle, finding that balance between the past, present and future.
“There is no power in reliving the past or being too anxious for the future. Live in the now.” I saw this note the other day from a friend, and I couldn't help but be reminded of some of the greatest advice I have ever been given. It was about eight years ago, and all I talked about, all my focus at the time, was ahead in the future, on my goals, forward, wishing to be done, “I can’t wait until this or that, or I wish this or that” I would say. Unknowingly, I was missing everything that was directly in front of me, losing sight of what was most important; the present. The man listening just sat quietly with me there in his office. Just as he always did, very slowly and directly in his unmistakable voice, he said to me, “Kid, don’t wish your whole life away.” It was a very subtle response, but it struck a chord and had a profound effect on me that I will always remember. The man giving that advice was none other than my wrestling coach and mentor of the time, Harley Race.
January 2001/December 2012
A legendary, heavily respected, 8x Worlds Heavyweight Champion with a long lifetime of unmatched knowledge and experience, he had a simple way of talking that just made you want to always lean in and listen intently, hanging onto his every word. It seemed the man didn’t waste a breath, and that every time he spoke, it was important. I had the great pleasure and honor of being around Harley and learning from him for years as an impressionable young kid. Recently, last weekend, after it having been several years, I revisited him at his condo and spent the better part of a day with him…I was enamored all over again. Sitting at the restaurant towards the end of that Sunday evening, I was completely transported, flashing back to that day I first met Harley, being sixteen years old, sharing a table with just him and my Dad after taking off school to make the 150 mile trip. Sitting there, skinny, depleted, clothes hanging off me, only eating cottage cheese and peaches cutting weight for an upcoming wrestling tournament, Harley casually explained and bragged about me to all his fellow townsfolk we encountered that day. “This is Travis from Kansas…” he would start. Harley was well established, very influential in that same small lake community and I was blown away to be his special guest, shown like a prized trophy! That was over twelve years ago, but here I was again, sitting with “The Greatest Wrestler on God’s Green Earth”, talking, sharing stories…captivated. I had come back, full circle. Harley Race, along with my other great coaches are largely responsible for who I am today, helping to teach, influence and steer me along in this past decade.
There are more ways this year in which I have come back full circle with marks of my past and with my coaches. In May of this year I was invited back to my high school to compete in the first ever Alumni Wrestling Dual. A reunion of sorts that gathered past champion wrestlers and state placers from all different years, young and old to form “dream match-ups” and feelings of nostalgia for the crowd and everyone involved. It was a special day, sharing memories, laughs, and inspiring upcoming generations. I’ve always taken great pride in giving back to my roots of wrestling, where I got my start and foundation of discipline and hard work. Every year, no matter how busy or booked up I am, I make it a point to visit the high school kids practice, wrestle with them, share techniques and encouragement. Naturally, I was naïve and more stubborn at their age, made mistakes and didn’t fully appreciate or take advantage of my coach, his efforts and teaching. I feel sharing my experience and knowledge can help these kids be better wrestlers and overall better people at that impressionable age.
May 2012 - SHHS Wrestling Greats and Me: (Bottom right moving clockwise) Tom Carbajo, Head Coach 1979-2005. Cory Bloodgood, State runner-up and 2x Div. II All-American. Me. Tim Keffer, 1987 State Champion. Tucker Wofter, current Head Coach. Brandon Powell, 1994 State Champion. Dan Stults 1993 and 1994 State Champion. David Seamons (not pictured) 1991 State Champion.
I’ve apologized to my coach a couple times now for how I was back then, admitted that I should have listened more. He just laughed, with over 25yrs as a successful head coach at the high school and middle school, Tom Carbajo had practically seen it all, dealt with much worse, and said he always remembered my work ethic. Tom was a 3x National Qualifier at William Penn University where he graduated in 1979, led the team in escapes and reversals twice and even was inducted into the Hall of Fame there in 2009. I’ve always had a good relationship with Tom, glad to be able to talk to him from time to time over the past ten years and voice my delayed appreciation and thanks to him. Even as I was exiting high school and headed into the much frowned upon world of professional wrestling, something he despised, he still wished me well, telling the Kansas City Star newspaper, “I thought he should have gone out for wrestling at Central Missouri, but I would never tell him not to do what he dreamed.” Today, I can’t thank Tom enough for being my coach, sticking with me, and giving a positive influence to remember.
My current coaches, Jason Bircher, Ethan Day and Renato Tavares I can’t thank enough either. I have gained so much value from learning under them, I can’t even begin to fully explain how much. In short, Ethan has showed me how to travel, how to live, showing me it can be done, and always empowering me, making me feel unstoppable by voicing the confidence he has in me. He has become one of my very best friends. Jason has always been the rock at KCBJJ, my jiu-jitsu gym. An admirable example of unwavering selflessness and giving, for several years he continually helped and propelled me and others with absolutely no expectation or want of anything in return, sacrificing his own competitive career and growth. Renato Tavares has nearly forty years of mat time, having started when he was a very young boy. He is the epitome of living the lifestyle, one of perseverance and dedication, a lifetime of hard work and learning, and compassion for helping others. Renato has been not only a great mentor and leader, but a great friend as well. They all live respectable, honorable lives worth looking up to, and I cannot thank them enough.
IBJJF Miami International Open 2011. Left to Right: Jason Bircher, Charles Hiersche, Renato Tavares, Me, Ethan Day, Garrett Hodes
If you've read this far, you'll probably want to read on a little further to take a short ride with me on this personal ten year recap, a mini-autobiography of accomplishments and memorable life moments:
2002 – Professional Wrestling Debut. I sat 3rd row at Memorial Hall when I was five years old and witnessed a real-life giant, Andre The Giant, go on a rampage. I watched The Rockers and other larger-than-life men and superheroes performing superhuman feats and spectacular moves that captivated the huge arena. I was inspired. I was hooked, and I knew from that day forward what I needed to do. Earning a scholarship to the world famous Harley Race Wrestling Academy, only mere days after graduation I drove the three hour drive and started my training. I worked hard, sometimes spending days in the ring for over nine grueling hours at a time, taking bumps, slams, hits, chops. While even holding two jobs back in Kansas City I learned the ropes quick, and still became the fastest ever to complete the course training. In about two months’ time that boyhood dream came true with a pinfall victory in Osage Beach, MO, marking my debut into professional wrestling.
2003 – TV Debut. That first full year of wrestling I put over 50,000 miles on my truck driving to cities on the weekends all over to wrestle and also driving to wrestling training 2-3x a week (This was on top of attending college full-time and working as a bouncer). In June Harley and WLW signed a deal with a local television company, “Squared Circle”, and just shy of a year in the business I made my TV debut in St. Louis, MO in one of my best matches to date in front of a sold-out crowd.
2004 – WWE. I set out to make it to the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) or make a tour wrestling and training in the dojo over in Japan (wrestling in Japan is a big deal), but since first beginning in wrestling I put a tough timeframe on that goal: I had to do it before turning twenty years old! I wanted to be able to say I wrestled for WWE or in Japan as a teenager. A very lofty goal, I only missed it by just about a month. I turned twenty in January, but did a couple dark matches in WWE that next month, and even worked a skit with Eddie Guerrero and Kurt Angle in Kansas City that was featured in the build-up of WrestleMania XX.
2004 – World Tag Team Champion. Holding the belt, being the champion used to mean something. You represented and carried the company or territory, you had all the skills and were legit…it meant you were "It". Harley was the epitome of old school, so highly regarded, so being a champion of his carried great weight, a great honor and by all means it was a huge goal of mine. In June I was thrown into a “Lethal Lottery” which meant tag partners were picked at random. I was paired with “Dangerous” Derek McQuinn, and in a night of battles we found chemistry and dominance, prevailed through the finals to unexpectedly capture the World League Wrestling Tag Team Titles. In less than two years in the business I had virtually climbed to the top of the local independent wrestling scene, the belt was my testament.
2004 – Under the Knife. I remember responding emphatically to an incomprehensible girlfriend at the time as she voiced concern about my life’s pace and my goals: “I will keep going at 120% until I am physically stopped, until my body gives out.” It wasn’t long after, that is exactly what happened. We were forced to drop the tag titles and I underwent a very serious reconstructive operation. Young and naïve, I had been wrestling on an injured, extremely painful, sublexing shoulder for almost two years at that point, shredding and continually tearing the joint apart. Although the operation was a success, it was a much longer, difficult three and half hour surgery that challenged the accomplished surgeon. “You made me really work today. You need to understand, at barely twenty years of age you have the shoulder equivalent of a seventy five year old man.” This was a major setback, an unexpected roadblock. I had to form new goals, new deadlines, with the first priority, getting full function of my arm back. After a month of having my shoulder strapped to my body in a straitjacket, completely immobile for the first stage of the recovery and healing process, severe atrophy had set in, and I never could have imagined just how trying that first priority would be. I will always remember lying on that physical therapy table for the first time with the brace finally off, face down, arm dangling off the edge, and as the physical therapist cued me to start moving my arm she walked away to deal with another patient. I was eager and ready to attack the rehabilitation and get going once again, but lying there, alone… I couldn’t do it. My arm didn’t move. I tried, and tried, and tried again, willed it to move, wished it moved, but nothing. My anxiousness was bulldozed over by uncertainty and fear, and lying there…a young, broken man, I was scared and overwhelmed. It was a defining moment, those few minutes, and the following one when I remember thinking, “Ok, this is where most people cave and give in. Not me.” I would go on through a full year of brutal rehab, relentless, and made a complete recovery. Unforeseen, unrewarded, I still consider it one of my greatest achieved goals.
2005 – Certified. In the year following my surgery during rehabilitation I couldn’t physically do much that I wanted, so instead of standing still I set out to become a certified personal trainer. Even before college and wrestling I had always been in the gym working out; I had to be to get the edge, and I loved it because I knew it was absolutely necessary for me in order to achieve my goals. It wasn’t until working out at the college, and fellow students and strangers approaching me for tips or advice that I realized I could and should be doing just that for a living. In the few years leading up to this, before deciding to become certified, I started reading everything I could possibly get my hands on involving the human body, kinesiology, nutrition, muscles, etc. I believed, “knowledge is power” and simply submerged myself. Along with my already full-time courses and study in a completely different major, I completed the course and by April I was officially certified. I started working immediately and found success.
2005 – The Jiu-Jitsu Journey. December that year, with my shoulder nearly 100%, and always curious after watching Ken Shamrock as a teenager, I tagged along with a friend to “go do submissions” on some tiny mats in the college baseball facility. Little did I know that was the start of my Jiu-Jitsu Journey and would change my life forever.
2006 – College Degree. Even with everything else going on I graduated college on time with a 3.6 GPA and virtually no student loans. This was a major goal and achievement for me, but not for traditional reasons. Under the circumstances, so unhappy and uncomfortable at the university, and never fitting the college mold, every day it was a fight, but I stuck it out. None of my family, mom, dad, brothers, ever went to college, let alone obtained a degree. I was the first. How proud my grandparents were of that little piece of paper, I’ll never forget.
2007 – Arnold Classic Champion. With just a little over a year of jiu-jitsu training of only 1-3x a week, and after losing disappointedly the year before, I again traveled to Columbus, OH, this time entering into the expert, advanced divisions and won my first Arnold Schwarzenegger Grappling Classic title. Possibly my biggest idol and influence, carrying that title, that name, meant so much to me, and I would go on later to repeat as champion two more years.
2007 – Home & Business. With hard work and years of labor I had great proof of income and credit, took it to the bank to get a loan and at the age of 23 I owned a house. This was a very proud achievement, as my dad had done the same at that exact same age! He borrowed some and got a bank loan for the rest, and a Master carpenter that he was, literally built his own house for his wife to start a family, the house I grew up in. (As of writing this, even with the financial crisis and economic disaster, I am on course to have my house paid off in my original goal of 10-15yrs, on a 30yr mortgage.) As soon as I moved into my house, within days I began building my gym and business, a big part of my overall plan all along. I spent many sleepless nights and countless hours hanging drywall, sanding, painting, tiling, welding, etc., etc., doing everything myself, with help from my brothers and a few friends, to create my dream. Underground Gym, LLC was that dream come true, a life’s work. It opened late that year.
2008 – Survival in Colorado. Throughout the year I continued my efforts to continually build the business. I was out on a trip to Colorado Springs to purchase some equipment when my truck broke down in the middle of nowhere and I found myself and my friend, fellow traveling partner in quite a predicament, from completing the trip objectives, to financing it all, to even just staying alive. We ended up surviving the harsh ozone layer deficient Eastern Colorado plains and below freezing temperatures at night for several days in an epic adventure.
2009 – The Ocean. Everything I had done up until this point, I still hadn’t seen the ocean. If I was a “see it to believe it” type, the ocean didn’t even exist. I was twenty five years old, ridiculous. So I hopped into a rental car and drove non-stop twenty hours through the night to the South Carolina coast with a good friend…coming over the final stretch of land, the horizon line filling only with an infinite expansive blue mass, I’ll always remember the moment. Surreal. Simple things, the simple goals in life are important too.
2009 – Website. After so many failed attempts with unreliable web developers I had all but given up hope. I finally connected with a professional and with their help I built and populated my first website for Underground. A major business goal, after years, it finally launched late that year.
2010 – The Gi. I hadn’t competed since the NAGA Midwest Championships at the end of 2008. I reluctantly, but wisely stepped back to run Underground and build it for those two years, to facilitate further training and future goals. I did what was necessary, but I also continued to train consistently and hard, almost like red shirt years, and even started dabbling in the gi during that time. October came and I was given my purple belt, two weeks later I traveled down to Miami and competed in my first gi tournament ever, first IBJJF tournament (big leagues) ever to take a silver in my division and fight back through a tough absolute division to avenge the finals loss and take gold. Huge satisfaction and accomplishment, not only for me as a person, competitor and now martial artist, but a feeling for my team back home, which helped foster in a new competitive team drive that carries through today. Immediately following the tournament I earned the opportunity, through one of my business accounts, to cruise out to the Bahamas, my first time leaving the country; another huge milestone achievement to me.
2011 – Kansas Athlete of the Year. An almost last minute decision, I threw my hand into the local Kansas State Sunflower Games Inaugural BJJ tournament. I took two gold medals and then months later I found out I was selected out of over 8,500 athletes in all the different sports and events as Male Athlete of the Year for the entire Games. This was a tremendous, unexpected, and humbling honor and great point of pride to represent my roots and the great state of Kansas. The state motto, written in Latin on the flag, “Ad astra per aspera” means, “To the Stars through Difficulties.” I can’t think of a greater, more fitting line.
2011 – Team USA Athlete. On a whim, and a curious hunch I wanted to try my hand in the FILA organization and see what it was all about. I flew out to Las Vegas and ended up winning the World Team Trials, qualifying as a member of Team USA. A month later I traveled over to Europe, upset the returning World Champion first round, and although in the finals I was victimized with classic corruption, coming away short with the Silver medal at the FILA Grappling World Championships, representing my country, having that experience and the lead up to, and the outpouring of support from all over forever changed me. A time and experience I will cherish and now forever be more prideful, respectful and patriotic.
2012 – Coach. In early February when I was out of town training in Denver, I got a call from veteran Professional Mixed Martial Artist Fighter LC Davis. He had just lost another fight, this being three in a row after two loses in WEC, a knee surgery and year and half lay off. He was 32 years old, getting pressure to retire, frustrated, desperate, and lost. He was at rock bottom career-wise and had no one to help him, but for some reason he turned to me. We met one day and talked about his goals and our expectations, laid out a plan and schedule, and small goals to reach the eventual goal of landing in the UFC. "I want you to take over every aspect of my training and coaching you can, strength & conditioning, brazilian jiu-jitsu, nutrition...be my main coach" My reputation for laying out solid nutrition plans intrigued LC, and dropping him to a lower weight class was the first step. Although I was honored and taken back that he reached out to me, this was a huge undertaking and I knew with my personality, all or nothing, I couldn't dedicate 100% and I was hesitant to commit to him. Still we did it all off a handshake and on May 25th LC returned to his home town Kansas City to fight after seven years and made a dominating debut performance for Titan Fighting Championships, finishing his opponent in the 2nd round. With his great record and new position at bantamweight it was disappointing the rest of this year, having several fighters back out and fights fall through for various reasons. Even with that, this year of training LC and working with him has been an extremely rewarding experience and ride, something I never expected or wanted.
2012 - World Championships. In June I competed in my very first IBJJF World Championships. My childhood dream has always been to be a World Champion, and making it to Long Beach, CA at the famous Walter Pyramid on June 1st was a huge step in that direction. I was on the biggest stage, where all the greats had cemented their names in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu history. Although I disappointingly lost first round, this was huge, and very memorable.
2012 – Superstorm Sandy. At the end of October after competing in Miami I flew up to New York for another round of the Abu Dhabi Pro Trials. Having been gone for a couple weeks already, an ensuing hurricane combined with a nor'easter created "Superstorm Sandy" and slammed into the coast, stranding me even longer. The first of it's kind, the upper Northeast, New York and America was in uncharted territory. It devastated the country, soaring into records as one of the worst natural disasters ever. Bridges closed, all exits blocked, the city was on lock-down, pure chaos and I was staying with a buddy in the heart of it all, mid-lower Manhattan. It was surreal, from feeling the apartment sway, to dodging a falling building facade, the rising flood waters and flying glass, to the devastating days after with no power, no operations or phone service, towers down, seeing and scouring the crippled giant that is New York...I will never forget that experience as long as I live. "The Center of the Universe" as it's called, this powerful machine was taken down to it's knees, a very scary sight to see, but also very uplifting as well, as I saw these historically resilient New Yorkers find ways to continue on, immediately and effectively with daily operations. Truly remarkable to see and be a part of it.
So that's it, ten years. In recently reading one of my idols, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s popular tell-all autobiography he talks about how hard it was to look back on his life, how he continually looks forward, never back. With his next goal, next accomplishment always in the forefront of his mind, there was no room for his past, a mere afterthought. He has an interesting point, and although I probably agree with 95% of whatever the man says, I disagree on this particular point. It’s important not to get caught up living in the past, revering the “the good ole days” over and over, never moving forward. It’s equally important not to live in the future, constantly consumed with what you will be doing, where you’ll be at, and what you will have done years from now, which is what I did too much of ten years ago. Living for each day, presently, is what is most important, with a harmonious balance of attention to the valuable past as well as future goals and aspirations. I've had this very conversation with clients, friends and mentors many times over the past couple years between enjoying achievements and the present, while always staying hungry and striving for more. I'm no expert at it by any means, but finding the right answers requires asking the right questions. Are you asking the right questions? Let's dominate another decade and I hope to meet you back here!