It was difficult to breathe Wednesday at the hot and humid CCK Martial Arts in Westminster, where Stephen Speck and his team gathered to go through final preparations for his mixed martial arts debut with Shogun Fights.
Speck is 39 years old, married with two young sons, and motivated to complete his mission of proving that one MMA win two years ago wasn't a fluke. He competed in Manassas, Va., under a promotion called "The Danger Zone," and took down his opponent by submission in less than one round.
But that was in the fall of 2012, and since then Speck has tried in vain to get a second fight on his resume. Two opponents backed out of bouts on separate occasions last year, the most recent coming in September.
Speck kept his goals intact, however, and said the MMA spark rekindled when he was contacted via Twitter by John Rallo, owner of Shogun Fights, who asked if he had any interest in fighting.
"And then it became legitimate again," said Speck, a Liberty High School graduate. "I made the decision that I would do that, I would take a fight with Shogun with the mentality that it would also be the last of my competitive career."
Speck's steamy walk-through Wednesday closed a 12-week training regimen (six days a week, two hours a day, he said) that included a handful of helpers who followed him.
There's Mike Guercio, owner of CCK and Speck's main corner man for Saturday's fight. And Josh Trainor, a former high school wrestler at North Carroll and an amateur MMA fighter who trains with Speck. And Stan Jones, Speck's strength and conditioning coach, who coached track and field at Winters Mill High School, where Speck is the athletic director. (Speck is transferring to Francis Scott Key effective July 1).
Trainor and Jones were with Speck Wednesday, sweating alongside the fighter while he worked on technique and fine-tuned his strategy for Saturday night's fight.
It's set to take place at the Baltimore Arena, one of 10 bouts on the Shogun Fights X card. Speck faces Timothy Wade, who hails from Pennsylvania and trains out of Roanoke, Va. They'll be fighting at 148 pounds.
"From the strength and conditioning side, his physical fitness is, bar none, the best I've ever seen it," Jones said while Speck sparred with Trainor. "We've gone through this a couple times, because he's already had another fight and we've trained. He has a game plan, he's going to stick to the game plan. He needs to do his job, make sure he takes care of his business."
Speck said the Shogun card was originally set for April, but when UFC president Dana White brought his MMA show to Baltimore the schedule changed. That was a positive in Speck's eyes, he said, given he had more time to train and allow his body to recover from the grueling workouts.
"If there's any benefit to being an older fighter in a young man's game, it's maturity," Speck said. "I've been able to examine this entire journey from a perspective different from what I believe a 20-couple-year-old would."
That means being on the same plane physically and mentally, Speck said, and knowing how to approach the fight in a variety of ways. Speck said he has increased his strength and conditioning, enhanced his repertoire, and put in more time to research his opponent.
And he has taken some time to appreciate the journey.
The air flow inside CCK was minimal at best Wednesday, but Team Speck didn't seem to mind. Going through hand and foot drills, before taking to the mat for body work, is enough to work up a sweat no matter the temperature.
Speck and Trainor did just that, with only a few fans to circulate the air.
"I could not be more grateful for the core of this entire training camp that the Carroll County Kenpo Academy has provided ... this is my home base," Speck said.
In order to beat Wade, who has more than 10 fights of MMA experience, Speck said he'll need to be the aggressor. But he doesn't want to fall into a "comfort zone" that could lead to the opponent taking command of the bout.
"Without being reckless, I have to initiate," Speck said. "I have to dictate the complexion of the fight."
Trainor said Speck's guile should serve him well if the fight drags on.
"He's very calm and relaxed," Trainor said. "If he doesn't get something right away, he'll ask a million questions and analyze that specific thing ... until he gets it almost perfect."
Speck said he's content with not fighting again after Saturday, no matter the result. He'll be focusing on his new school, and hopes to get into training MMA fighters in the future.
But being a part of Shogun Fights, heralded as Maryland's premier MMA organization, has Speck amped for his bout.
"I couldn't be more ecstatic with the way my body has responded to this camp," Speck said. "Again, it's cliche, but I feel that I am in the absolute best shape of my life."