—James Gregory is the author of Paleo for Fighters, Heart of 8: What Is Muay Thai?, Primal Deliverance: How Paleo Saved My Life from Addiction, and Japan: Stories from the Inside

Once you hear the ripping, nails-across-the-chalkboard tear of the duct tape being wrapped around your gloves, there is no turning back. You have to walk out in front of hundreds of people, three-quarters-naked, and get into a fist fight—and not just any fist fight, but one that should be dancelike in its grace and fluidity. If you are performing the wai kru, then you actually have to dance on top of that. You must simultaneously be a dog in a fight and a link in an ancient artistic chain, a proverbial jasmine blossom in the phuang malai floral garland that adorn the fighters for good luck before the fight.

In my first few fights, all this made me incredibly nervous. I wasn’t scared of my opponent so much or even of getting hurt, or “scared” at all really. It was—and there is no more accurate descriptor for it—”performance anxiety.” “What if I get in here and totally freak out?” “Am I going to be able to throw the technique that we worked on?” “I hope I can represent my camp well.” More than anything, I would get nervous about being able to do the one thing that it is all about: showing good Muay Thai.

Part of how I began to escape from this anxiety was by getting out of my own head and into the moment. This is one of my biggest challenges in life, yet one that I have achieved gradual, albeit still incomplete release from by knowing when it’s time to analyze, and when it is time to simply “flow.” Once you are in a performance setting, it’s no longer time to think, but to do. Make no mistake about it, there is no harder performance than a ring fight.

You have to trust that the years and months and weeks and hours and countless repetitions and pushing-through that make up your training will simply glide from your subconscious, through your muscle memory, and into a good performance, a good fight. Once I got to the place where I realized, “all you have to do is fight,” my mind became clearer, and I could get in there and just do the thing. Better than before, at least.

Since moving to Jersey City this April and beginning to train with Ajahn Coban at Coban’s Muay Thai Camp in New York City, I’ve been fortunate to get a glimpse into what it means to have grown up as a Muay Thai fighter in Thailand. In the United States, Muay Thai seems to attract mostly educated, often artistic, and often otherwise professionally accomplished practitioners. Yet, from what I have glimpsed, in Thailand, many fighters begin fighting as small children to escape poverty. While many of us have to go out of our way to find something hard, a hard life is all they have ever known. Meditating on this has given me a lot of gratitude.

During the last few days of my training camp for my fight at Warriors Cup XVIII earlier this month, I had the pleasure of meeting a fighter I had long followed and admired, “Boom” Whattanaya, as he finished his training camp for his WBC championship fight with Rami Ibrahim. Just before meeting Boom, I had read an interview with him in which he describes his life of fighting as a child so his parents could eat, of 5am-to-11pm days split between factory work and training, a life he continued for years. And yet despite this—or perhaps because it— he was one of the kindest, brightest souls I have ever met.

There was one particular line in the interview which resonated with me: “All fighters are friends and everyone respects each other. Nobody trash talks and all fighters are treated equal and are grateful for their opponents.” While the idea of respect is indeed one of martial arts’ greatest gifts, this time, it was the last bit that really stuck with me: grateful for their opponents. Grateful for someone who has trained for weeks and is going to do everything in their power to physically hurt you as much as possible. At first counterintuitive, but to me now, resoundingly true.

Muay Thai has given me more than perhaps anything in this world: my sobriety, physical health, happiness, a real hobby, a social life not at a bar, friendship, a reason to get out of the house every day…and the gift of being able to compete in—to perform—something that both includes and transcends sport. Of all the other terrible places I could be or have been in my life, I’m on the mats with a fit body and a good mood, surrounded by real friends doing something fun and beautiful. When it’s time to fight, my opponent is the one person out of all the people in the whole entire world that is directly allowing me to realize my dream in its ultimate form. What more could I ask for? How much more grateful could I be?

I had heard plenty of times that “the fight is the fun part,” and for the first time, it truly was. Locked in with the shiny red tape around my gloves, the mongkol on my head and my campmates behind me, for the first time, I felt elation. I couldn’t wait to get in there and enjoy myself, to get to do something very few people ever get to do, and something that brings other people joy through its beauty, its martial art. The tape that had been plastic handcuffs imprisoning me in eight eternal minutes of anxiety and violence transformed into colorful ribbons that sealed the wrapping on a rare and beautiful gift, the gift of the fight.