James is the author of Paleo for Fighters
There’s a popular t-shirt among Muay Thai fighters, black with “Fighting Solves Everything” embossed in big white block letters right across the chest. Of course, this is poking fun at the idea of using our words and not our fists, talking things out, walking away, and instead saying, “Screw that, just punch them in the face!” Obnoxious t-shirts are the best, and it is a guaranteed conversation starter.
But at the same time, there is a very resounding and likely unintentional truth in the meatheadish message of the t-shirt. Muay Thai tests your entire being—it is as much physical as it is emotional and intensely intellectual. You can have the athleticism but not the technique. You can have the technique but not the fitness. You can look like a Greek statue and still freeze like a deer in the headlights once you step in the ring.
Because of this, it makes other things in life comparatively easy. To do it competitively, even at an amateur level, you need self-discipline, physical and emotional awareness, a sense of life balance, and, determination. Fight training is grindingly intense, you push your body to give absolutely everything it has while your mind simultaneously deals with the inevitability of getting into a fist fight in front of hundreds of people.
You take all of the intensity of the training and funnel and filter it through the years that make up your training career, to the months ahead of the fight, to the six weeks you spend in training camp, to the six days a week you spend physically peaking before the fight, to the six hours you sit at the venue for the fight with your stomach in a knot and acid in your mouth, to the six fleeting minutes that make up an amateur fight, to the just six seconds it takes for the ring announcer to call out the winner’s corner and name. It is one of life’s ultimate experiences.
Two fights back, I took a straight knee to the body within the first three seconds of the first round. I knew I had to be aggressive, because I started the fight before that way too slow and never came back, so I went right after him and walked right into the knee.
We always learn in Muay Thai that a straight knee to the body is one of the most devastating weapons. The full force and power of the largest muscle group and heaviest limb in the body concentrated right into the point of the knee, right into the gut. He caught me with my core loose too. I had heard straight knees would take the fight out of you, make you want to go home.
Within the first three seconds of the round, I wanted to go home. Everything that I had given up to do this, my age—32 is not exactly young for Muay Thai—my natural ability—after all, I had trained so hard, is this the best I can do?—all of it flashed through my mind in that first round, but I fought through it.
As everyone who has taken a hard body shot knows, there is an intensely paralyzing nervous reaction your body uses to try to protect its vital organs. A lot of the time, you crumple due to this, and a lot of the time in ring fighting, you get counted out when you do. I kept going, but in those brief 120 seconds of the first round, I certainly wanted to go home. I just didn’t.
When I got back to the corner, I think the first thing I said to my trainer, Kru Rigel, was, “I don’t think I can do this,” to which he replied by slapping me in the face and yelling at me, “Yes you can!” After all, the man has “Tuff Love” tattooed right across his knuckles.
I came out hard in the second round. Jab to rear hook, teep, rear body kick as he stepped in. I was throwing—I thought at least—what we had worked on for the fight. And then, my opponent caught me again, another huge straight knee, right to the gut, and this one buckled me over. He followed up with strong hands, putting me down with a long, hard cross, right down the middle.
All during the ten or so seconds between the time I hit the canvas, got up, and was counted, there was this fantastic psychological battle in my head between my desire to quit and my will to keep going. Nobody wants to keep fighting after getting smashed with two straight knees and put down with a monster cross. But it’s a fight, and I represent a camp and other people, and more than anything, I wasn’t going to lose the fight for something I didn’t do.
So I got up for the eight count, and as the ref was counting, sure I didn’t want to continue. I could feel I was rocked. But at the same time, I had at least developed the discipline to make myself get up when I had to. The eight count finished, and the referee asked me to walk towards him. I did, but my legs weren’t really under me. I could feel them wobbling terribly. Then he asks the most amazing question: “Do you want to continue?” Hell no, I didn’t want to continue. I had the life knocked out of me twice with giant straight knees and got knocked down and rocked hard. But “Yes sir!” is what I said.
At that moment, I could see the referee look over in the direction of my corner and the doctor. Then he looked back at me in the eyes. And then he waved off the fight. The next thing I remember was the sharp sting of smelling salts in my nostrils. That was the first time I had ever had them, and man, do they work. I was a little more with it after that, but not much.
Rigel walked me under the ropes, and I told him I couldn’t go back to see our campmates yet and needed a minute. At that moment, I was really upset with myself. I remember saying thing like “I don’t want to waste people’s time” and “I don’t know if this makes sense at my age.” One thing about fighting is that your memories of the fight and what actually happened can be hugely different. Your body turns things off during fight or flight, and memories are imperfect at best. I really didn’t know how well I did.
One of the best things about Kru Rigel is that he is unfailingly honest with his fighters. This, combined with the fact that he is a world-class fighter and Kru, is why he produces so many competitive fighters. He had even gotten someone who started at 29 and never been in a street fight in myself to compete. If you did bad, you’ll know about it. If you did good, you’ll know about it.
The first thing he did was reassure me, which he would only have done if I had done at least some good things in my fight. This immediately made me feel better. “You were aggressive and did what we worked, you just got caught.” “Think about all the people sitting at home getting pissed (Rigel is Irish) and you’re out here doing this.” Ok, if Kru is saying this, it couldn’t have been that bad. So I went back over to where everyone was standing, said sorry and bowed to everyone. People didn’t seem too disappointed. Obviously it sucks to lose, but my friend and training partner Kate also said “What? You fought well.”
There were, of course, things I could have done better. There always are. You can always improve. But I didn’t beat myself. In going back and watching the videos, I felt better about it, and Kru and everyone else’s words made sense. I fought through the first knee, was aggressive, did what we had practiced, but just got caught by another knee. Had I just not taken the knee, I probably would have won. Well, then it wouldn’t be a fight now, would it?
I trained hard for that fight. Private lessons, fight training, training ten out of the twelve days leading up to the fight. This while working two jobs, volunteering, doing all the other stuff in my life.
I stepped into the ring with a fired-up kid about ten years younger than me from a good camp who fought good Muay Thai and was both tough and game. I was aggressive and worked the game plan as best as I could, but got caught. It happens, it’s a fight, you’re going to get hit. When I did, I kept going. When I got dropped, I got up. When I got counted, I said I wanted to go on.
Looking back, I didn’t lose the fight because of something I didn’t do. I lost because my opponent also did stuff, and some of his stuff just happened to get me good.
My next fight was six weeks later, at TakeOn’s Battle at Bally’s II, as I stepped in on five days notice to replace my campmate, who had broken his wrist. I knew my opponent was taller and bigger than me, and that he had knocked out his man in his previous fight. I had originally wanted to be on this card, and I always train, eat right and stay in shape, so I decided to go for it. “Fighters fight” as we like to say. I actually got pretty close to if not in 100% fight shape by the time of weigh-ins. I hit pads with Kru almost every day and ran, had no problem making weight, and felt fit and strong.
In the late morning before the fight, I lay in the solitude of my bedroom, cooled by the air conditioner and darkened by the shades. My mind drifted to a similar late summer morning around five years ago, when I lay in a similar room. The room was the same in that it was cool, dark and solitary. But the me there was very different. The me was a me that was strung out on eight balls of cocaine and bottles of whiskey, wracked equally by drug-induced paranoid delusions and deep sadness at what my life had become. I let my mind stay there for a bit, imagining the room as being that dark, cold hole that had trapped me for almost too long. Then I opened my eyes, as if relieved to awaken from a bad dream. I was safe. I was healthy and fit. I was about to get a chance to be a part of a televised sporting event, to entertain, and to inspire. That is a beautiful and rare chance, and it filled me with happiness and hope.
At no point in life will you feel more alive than in a ring fight. You walk out from backstage with an entourage and music blasting, through a sea of hundreds of people who paid good money just to see you. As you step into the ring, what first gets hit is your senses. It’s fantastically bright. The lights are also amazingly hot. When the ring announcer calls your corner, camp, and name, there’s a huge swell of adrenaline as hundreds of people scream. You look across the ring and you’re trapped, locked into a fight with another human being that is now going to happen, no matter what. And then the bell rings, and you become the moment. Everything is much faster than training and sparring, a flurry of blood, sweat and muscle, and flashing blue and red gloves. It’s indescribably tiring; your corner has to scream at and slap you in between rounds just to get you to hear them; things hurt, but in a different, more out-of-body way, the pain masked by the dump of adrenaline. And then it’s all over.
I ended up losing that fight as well. I did a few good things, landing some good leg kicks, a handful of hard punches, throwing a solid teep and at least one good knee. My opponent fought his fight exceptionally well. He stayed outside and used his length well. I had a tough time tracking him down to get in front of him and swing. He ended up finding me with a big right hand as he was falling away. What I remember was a giant light switch flipping the lights off throughout the entire room, then flipping them back on, me realizing I was still standing, and then seeing Coban look into my eyes and wave off the fight.
There was again plenty of stuff I could have done better. I have to be able to start following my corner’s instructions. I have real anxiety and am just getting to the point now where I can physically hear them at all and not completely freak out in the ring, which happened in my first and only WKA tournament. I also need to be able to follow the game plan better. I needed to work his legs with my cut kick even more than I did, and punch to his body rather than his head. Experience, experience, experience. Sure it’s more fun to win than to lose, but every fight builds you.
This is where the carryover is to life in general. The only thing we are sure of in this life is that it is going to end. We’re only guaranteed one shot at anything. If you give everything you have, even if you don’t win in the sense of being the victor or gaining a tangible or monetary result, you win knowledge and self-discovery—knowledge and self-discovery that others who don’t try don’t have.
There is something profound in the self-knowledge gained from putting your entire being into something, regardless of the outcome. For me, it is the realization that I can be aggressive, can want to hurt somebody if I have to. That I can get out of my own head enough at least to get through a fight. And that I can fight back from substance abuse to finally compete in a serious sport, even at 32.
From fighting, I have realized even more than ever, “Why wait?” I used to think the absolute worst thing that could happen was that you tried something and you died. That’s stupid—you die no matter what. The worst thing that can happen is that you learn something about yourself.
When you grow old and sit on the beach and look out over the sea to think back on your life, will you be happier having known what it felt like to go for it, however well or poorly, or do you think you’ll take comfort in the fact that you listened to other people’s excuses and never opened your mind to something new?
I’m not sure where exactly Muay Thai will take me. I’ll be 33 this year. I think I’m probably a younger 33 than most, because, after ruining my body for so long, I now take pristine care of every aspect of my health. I eat meticulously, always get a full night’s sleep, rest and relax, train regularly even when I don’t have a fight, go to the chiropractor, and will have been clean and sober for five years next January. Maybe I’ll end up with 20 amateur fights and then dedicate myself to teaching, something I really enjoy and which, truthfully, feels a lot more “me” than fighting. Maybe in my next couple fights I’ll have a breakthrough, win a bunch, and get a pro fight when I’m like 36. I don’t really know. What I do know is that the process, the lifestyle, the commitment, the “path,” if you will, is one that is nurturing for me, and that is what I find to be truly important.
Training is something that has brought so much good to every part of my life, and something I look forward to almost every day. Our afternoon training session at Cool Hearts often starts with a run through the less-than-pristine streets of Philly. It takes us right past the train station entrance on Spring Garden Street, almost invariably littered with empty drug baggies, tiny red and blue pieces of evil flashing up at me. These little bags used to hold such an evil grip on my life. But now I just watch my sneakers glide happily over them, because, for me, fighting has solved everything.
—James Gregory is an amateur fighter and assistant instructor at Cool Hearts Muay Thai in Philadelphia, published author and professional translator, and Owner-Operator of the paleo recipe sharing site, FastPaleo.com.