Fear of flying drives MMA fighter’s 12,000-mile journey to $1M bout

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NEW YORK — IT is minutes before midnight on Christmas, and David Michaud is standing in the middle of 42nd Street, taking pictures of the bustling neon cathedral that is Times Square. The “walk/don’t walk” sign is telling him he has another 12, 11, 10 seconds to remain planted there in the crosswalk, phone camera collecting memories. Then the waiting herd of yellow taxis, graffiti-decorated commercial trucks, and even a few night-owl family minivans carrying slumbering children will be unleashed.

Michaud continues to snap away, unhurried and undaunted, as the countdown reaches “4 … 3 … 2.” Then, as vehicle engines begin to rev, he calmly steps to the curb. Such poise in the line of fire will come in handy in a few days. In fact, the reason he has strolled over here on this night to check out The Crossroads of the World is that on Tuesday, when these streets are jammed with “Auld Lang Syne” merrymakers, Michaud will be otherwise occupied.

The 31-year-old MMA welterweight will be nine blocks south, inside the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, fighting Ray Cooper III for one of six $1 million prizes at the PFL Championship.

The walk to Times Square is a chance for Michaud to stretch his legs, minutes after arriving in the city. And what a welcome arrival it was. He pulled up in front of his hotel in a black 2012 Ford Fusion, climbed stiffly out of the driver’s seat and did a gentle back stretch before walking through the revolving lobby door. As he stood at the check-in desk waiting for his room key, he leaned his arms against the mahogany counter and pressed his legs into the marble floor, alternating subtle calf stretches between his left and right legs. It had been a long day of driving. Nearly 14 hours.

“I’m feeling fine, actually,” Michaud says as he steps across the lobby to the pile of bulging duffle bags, a shopping bag filled with supplement jars, more luggage and boxes, and a couple of gallon-sized water jugs, all of which had been stuffed into the trunk of his car. “I’ve done this before. I have the routine down.”

This day began for him in Knoxville, Tennessee, where Michaud had spent a week training with his friend Scott Holtzman, a UFC lightweight. The 700-mile drive to New York was just the final stretch of a nearly coast-to-coast journey. Michaud had started out from home in Phoenix with his training partner at The MMA Lab, grappler Frank Ramsey. They’d made it almost 1,000 miles in a day, got as far as Oklahoma City before an overnight break, and then drove another 900 miles the next day to reach Tennessee. By the time they resumed the trip and made their way to Manhattan, they had covered 2,500 miles of highway.

This is how Michaud rolls. He has fought 23 times as a professional, and he has driven to every one of those bouts. This year alone, he has undertaken cross-country road trips to Uniondale, New York, and Atlantic City, New Jersey — plus a shorter drive to Las Vegas — for PFL fights. That’s 12,000 miles in his car in 2019 on those trips alone.

He does not fly. Never has, and never will.

“Just the thought of being stuck in a little metal tube gets me kind of panicky,” Michaud says. “It’s not a fear of heights or anything like that. It’s claustrophobia, fear of losing control. I get bad anxiety.”

This anxiety prevents Michaud from feeling at ease in a plane, a train, a bus or any mode of transportation that does not allow for him to pull over whenever he wants and step out for a breath of air. Even on this night, as his car approached New York along the New Jersey Turnpike, he drove right past the exit for the Lincoln Tunnel, which would have spilled him out on city streets just a few blocks from his hotel. He opted instead to enter the city several miles farther north via the George Washington Bridge.

That was a significantly longer route — not something these tired travel partners needed in the closing stretch of an endless road trip. But Ramsey, who was on the longest car ride of his life, was happy to go the extra miles to make his friend comfortable, rationalizing, “We got a beautiful view of the New York skyline.”

BOTH LITERALLY AND figuratively, Michaud has had to cover a lot of ground to reach the doorstep of $1 million — far more than the other 11 fighters who will compete in the six weight-division finals Tuesday. In addition to all of the driving, Michaud had to fight back from dead last in the PFL standings among a dozen welterweights.

That’s what you get for being knocked out in 17 seconds. Michaud was done in by a liver kick in the very first stand-up exchange of his season-opening May 9 bout against Sadibou Sy, leaving him with sore ribs and a significant challenge ahead. And then he got to think about it all the way home.

“My confidence didn’t waver,” Michaud says. “The great thing about the PFL is, I already had another fight scheduled, so I couldn’t dwell on the loss. No one wants to lose in 17 seconds on ESPN. It sucked. But my first thought after the fight was: This will make a good story when I win the final.”

That optimism carried Michaud into his second bout, along with one adjustment to the travel itinerary. While his trip to Long Island for the Sy fight had included an extended layover in Tennessee, Michaud and his travel partner hadn’t broken up the first leg, instead choosing to drive straight through from Phoenix to Knoxville. Pulling an all-nighter to cover those 1,800 miles in one 32-hour ride, Michaud says now, “I felt like I tightened up my body more than what I should have.”

For the drive to his July 11 fight in New Jersey, Michaud added an overnight stop in Oklahoma City. He felt better after a good night’s sleep, making it well worth the extra travel day.

Once Michaud got to Atlantic City, his performance inside the cage rose to the necessary level of urgency. He had only that one bout left to amass the points needed to qualify for the playoffs, and merely winning might not be good enough. “We knew we needed a finish,” he says, “the sooner the better.” The PFL’s scoring system rewards maximum points for a fight ended in the first round.

Michaud got the TKO victory over Handesson Ferreira at 4:37 of Round 1, good for six points, and he was playoff-bound.

The drive home was not much shorter than his previous journey back to Phoenix, but it was a lot more enjoyable for Michaud, knowing he was still in the running for the $1 million prize. “We ate some good food along the way,” he says. “Actually, come to think of it, we ate pretty well on the way home from the 17-second loss. But it didn’t taste quite as good.”

For the PFL playoffs, Michaud’s travel was a piece of cake, the fights not so much. The quarterfinals and semifinals both took place on Oct. 11 in Las Vegas, just a four-and-a-half-hour drive from home. On fight night, he went the distance in defeating John Howard and Glaico Franca by decision, to earn his ticket to Tuesday’s finale and the big-money fight with Cooper.

As he envisions how Tuesday night will play out, Michaud figures that his fight will be over between 10 and 10:30 p.m. But he doesn’t have any plans for a return stroll up to Times Square to watch the ball drop.

“No, I don’t think I’ll be able to leave,” Michaud says with the quiet confidence of a man who has come too far to fall short now. “They want all of the champions to stick around until after the show for photos.”

MICHAUD ESTIMATES HE has covered hundreds of thousands of highway miles all over the country, even outside of fighting. “I enjoy driving. I love being on the road,” he says. “So I don’t dread it, not at all.”

There is one dreadful exception, actually. “The best thing about road trips is junk food, all the snacks and stuff,” Michaud says. “But right before a fight, obviously, that’s not going to happen.”

Setting out for Tennessee a full two weeks before his fight, before he’s in strict weight-cut mode, Michaud brings along beef jerky and almonds, salty snacks that he’ll have to avoid on the New York leg of the trip just a few days out from weigh-ins. He enjoys cooking, so he’ll also prepare and pack up a couple of days’ worth of meals. Shredded chicken with buffalo sauce is a favorite — or at least his most acceptable option.

“I can kind of convince myself that it’s pretty tasty,” he says, “especially if my buddy in the car is eating fried chicken and I can smell it and pretend that that’s what I’m eating.”

Michaud used to be an “if I can’t eat it, then you can’t either” killjoy on prefight road trips, but nowadays he’s more lenient with his travel companions. During the drive to Long Island in May, Michaud stopped at a Chick-fil-A off the highway so his teammate Mike Hamel could grab some fast food. During the New Jersey trip in July, Kyler Phillips was craving Nashville hot chicken and they drove all around Music City looking for a good spot. Ramsey eats a pretty clean diet all of the time, Michaud says, so this latest trip was low on temptation.

No matter what is on the menu, however, driving to a fight is a lot harder than flying to one. The body gets stiff and bloated. And of course the trip takes valuable days away from training. Michaud recalls Hamel, an LFA featherweight, saying during their trip to Uniondale that he was enjoying the experience so much that he might opt to drive to his own fights in distant locales.

“And I’m like, ‘No, that’s f—ing dumb,'” Michaud says. “Because driving makes everything harder. It makes the fight harder. It makes the weight cut harder. You’ve got to be mentally strong. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

Having a teammate along for the ride is a big help. The conversations make the miles fly by. Trading off time behind the wheel eases the physical and mental strain, as Michaud can stretch out in the back seat and get a little shut-eye. And when his travel partner is asleep in the back seat, Michaud has a long stretch of quiet time for creative visualization.

“The mental work keeps you productive,” he says. “If I’m gonna be sitting in the car for 14 hours to Oklahoma City, I can’t just be sitting there bouncing my head off the window.”

Michaud has enlisted a different teammate from The MMA Lab for each of this year’s cross-country drives. It’s not that he’s against establishing a routine with one travel partner. It’s a matter of respecting his teammates’ own lives. Flying in for fight week to corner someone entails taking five days away from home. These long round-trip drives and Tennessee layovers, on the other hand, end up consuming nearly three weeks.

“That’s a big ask,” Michaud says. “I try to steer clear of asking guys who have wives and kids. Especially at Christmas.”

Ramsey didn’t know what to expect when he agreed to be the co-pilot for Michaud’s final drive of the year. He liked it that way. Rather than asking his two teammates who had accompanied Michaud earlier in the season about their experiences, Ramsey decided to just go with the flow. So two weeks ago he came home from competing at the World IBJJF Jiu-Jitsu No-Gi Championship in California and jumped right into this new adventure.

“It’s exceeded my expectations,” Ramsey says.

Early on Christmas Day, Michaud and Ramsey had been sharing the highway with cars packed to the gills with colorful presents. Hours later, they were still churning along the roadway, but now alongside families packed to the gills with Grandma’s holiday dinner.

They stopped at many rest areas along the way, practically every hour. “That’s the problem with doing these long trips right before a fight,” Michaud says. “You’re preparing for the weight cut, so you’re drinking and drinking.” He estimates that over the course of the day he drank almost a gallon and a half of water.

There was no rush back onto the highway during these frequent breaks. Instead, they walked around the rest areas to stay limber. They did some light stretching. They even hit mitts at one point. “Sitting in the car for hour upon hour will get you stiff,” Ramsey says. “We want to make sure he stays loose, stays fresh.”

During one of their stops, at a rest area along I-81 in Virginia, the fighters encountered the man of the day.

“The most lifelike Santa Claus I’ve ever seen,” Ramsey says.

“Yeah, Santa at a highway gas station,” Michaud says, laughing. “Good times.”

Did Michaud put in any last-minute stocking-stuffer requests with the big, jolly fellow, maybe for a lucrative win on New Year’s Eve? “Nope, I’ve put in all the work,” he says. “I’m ready.”

MICHAUD IS A member of the Oglala Lakota who grew up in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, which is the tribal headquarters on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He began wrestling at a young age in a gym run by his father, Dave Sr., who will be in his corner on Tuesday along with head trainer John Crouch. Michaud went on to wrestle at South Dakota State but not before his dad had introduced him to what later would become his livelihood, putting the boy in an amateur MMA fight at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. He was 15.

“The guy I fought was in his 20s and a lot bigger than me,” Michaud recalls. “But I knew how to wrestle, so I won pretty quick. It was cool.”

Michaud also was 15 when he first experienced anxiety around flying. His family was scheduled to travel to Connecticut to visit Michaud’s great-grandmother. It was to be his first flight, and as the minutes counted down to boarding, he could feel in his body that this trip was going to be a no-go.

“Couldn’t do it,” he says. “Had a panic attack. Couldn’t get on the plane.”

When Michaud was in college, the wrestling team’s schedule one season included a tournament in Reno, Nevada. Michaud told his coach he would try to board the plane but might not be able to do it. Then, three to four weeks out, Michaud started having panic attacks every day. He couldn’t train, and even his school work was suffering. He told the coach no way.

“He was cool with it,” Michaud says. “But, really, he didn’t have a choice.”

Michaud enrolled in a fear-of-flying class a couple of years ago at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. It involved boarding a plane that was sitting on the tarmac and was staying put. Even that didn’t help. “Just sitting on the runway not going anywhere,” he says, “it didn’t feel comfortable.”

Others on that plane were trying to get over fears of being 30,000 feet in the sky, so the focus of the class was largely on how safe flying is, how planes are built to remain airborne. This reassurance did not speak to Michaud. “That’s not my fear,” he says. “I just can’t deal with being confined and out of control. I get panicky.”

And then there’s the question that’s most often asked of Michaud. He chuckles every time it comes up. People are always wondering how someone with his particular anxiety can be OK with being locked inside a cage with a trained killer. “It doesn’t bother me at all,” he says. “I’ve been fighting for a long time, and I’ve never really gotten nervous.”

Since Michaud began fighting professionally in 2009, his bookings have been all North America, all the time. That has limited his opportunities. He fought three times in the UFC, with one of those bouts requiring the greatest distance he has ever had to cover — 2,500 miles to Montreal. The promotion offered him a fight in Australia, and he turned it down, just as he has had to pass up on offers from overseas fight promotions such as Japan-based Rizin.

That’s why Tuesday’s opportunity at $1 million in the PFL is so significant. It could be the biggest prize Michaud will ever have a shot at winning, given his travel limitations, and it would make every mile he has driven along the way worth it. But win or lose, he’ll still be back on the highway once the fight is over, all the way home to Phoenix.

“This is my life,” Michaud says. “This is how it’s gonna be [for me] to get to fight.”

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