Martial Arts and Fighting

By James Gregory –

My amateur Muay Thai record is now 2-7-2, well 2-8-2 after I began this draft and lost another decision this past weekend. While I have had some extremely close ones, from a competitive standpoint, in no way is that a “good” record. While neither is it a good feeling to come up on the losing side of a decision, or to be knocked out three times, I feel that I have gradually become a better fighter, and I am having fun. I enjoy training and fighting Muay Thai. It makes me feel human.  

And over the course of the now almost six years since I first stepped into a gym, my life outside of the gym has also improved dramatically. I have regained my health after ten years of struggling with alcoholism and substance abuse. I’ve become strong enough to have a real relationship with the person I love rather than stringing together superficiality and shying away when it was time to stop pretending there wasn’t a person on the other end. I was diligent enough to stick with a new idea long enough for it to become a successful business despite not beginning with any knowledge or experience in the field. I have, I hope, developed a healthy concept of confidence, a belief in myself, not cockiness, a belief one is better than others. 

That said, I’m sure I’m also trying to justify a jealousy of those more competitively successful than I am. I’ve always heard that “fighting’s not for everyone,” and I’ve always wanted to convince myself—am still trying to convince myself—that I’m one of the select few who it is for. Everyone wants to be one of the cool kids, at some level. 

And to be honest, I am frustrated. I’ve learned from some of the very best teachers; I feel like I do my work, actively work to absorb new techniques and get better, take the matches that are given to me—some against better fighters, some on short notice—and I would like to think I fight with heart. I’m developing a complex of sorts. I wonder why everyone else is able to win and not me; what is wrong with me; what do all the “winners” have that I’m missing. Where is the line between pushing yourself and being kind to yourself, between working to become better and self-abuse, between a healthy desire to win and an obsession to be better than others. A lot of the time, I just don’t feel like I have the qualities it takes to be a fighter, and it’s a heartbreaking feeling, especially when contrasted with how much I love Muay Thai. 

And then I step back and take the long view: realizing everything Muay Thai has done for my health, happiness and sobriety, the positive human relationships it’s allowed me to form, the challenges its helped me face outside of the ring, the possibility of teaching others later in life, and again, the simple fact that I enjoy doing it. Every day of my life, it’s where I most want to be. It’s a constantly deeper descent, or ascent, into profound self-reflection which is simultaneously terrifying and gratifying. 

When you step onto the mats of a Muay Thai camp, even as a first-time student taking an intro class, you are immediately placed into a situation of confrontation. You find yourself surrounded by other people, being asked to do something very difficult with your body in front of those people and have your efforts critiqued. You will need to do things incorrectly, to fail, hundreds and thousands of times to have a taste of proficiency and the feeling of having learned, and earned, something. And for that process to continue, it must remain unchanging. You must simply be open to failing at higher and higher levels, and be open to critique in more and more minute detail, being put in a brighter and brighter, and in the case of fighting, a literal spotlight.

This is where martial arts become a microcosm of life, and where the pixelated mysticism surrounding the “magic” of the martial artist resolves itself into clearer focus. If you repeatedly place yourself into situations where you must perform; are repeatedly willing to fail and to see your failures only as opportunities for improvement, and come to view the process not as a “30 Day Challenge,” but as an essential and eternal philosophical state of being that applies not only to your art, but to your entire life, on top of the physical benefit of fun, regular exercise, it is near impossible not to see holistic improvement throughout your whole being.

I believe this process is very much possible whether or not you fight. While the scale of intensity may be magnified, fighting is still a similar process to martial arts practice. Both require the same type of vulnerability and humility, if at different levels. What level you pick is relative to yourself, to your goals, and to your own happiness.

But what is the essential difference between the act of fighting and martial arts? I think one oversimplified answer is to say that if you’re not fighting, you’re not “really” doing martial arts. After all, it’s not a mit punching, bag kicking or board breaking art, it’s a martial art, right? People will point to arts and practitioners that don’t spar, or don’t get into the ring, and say they aren’t doing what it’s “really” all about.

I can see both sides of this. If you never fight, never even spar with contact, but are confident in your ability to fight based solely on theoretical study, I suppose my question would be, “How do you know?”

At the same time, it’s also a very strange idea to me that the “practicality” of martial arts is defined solely in their value as a form of hand-to-hand combat. In the six years I’ve studied Muay Thai, outside of the twelve match fights and five smokers I’ve competed in, I’ve never once been forced to test its “practicality” in a street fight. So, if I judge the practicality of something I’ve put thousands of hours into by the yardstick of something I’ve had to do zero times in the “real world,” how much sense does that definition make?

Even those who fight for a living, or for their family’s living, and even those who are unfortunately forced to do so, ultimately fight under a somewhat contrived premise. Instead of using force for sheer survival such as the defense of their country, or homes, or family, or their own person, it is for others’ entertainment, spectating, and even wagering. It’s called a “show” for a reason, because it’s spectacle. And the added irony is that I don’t believe anyone who fights does so at all for the people watching. It’s much too difficult a thing to do for reasons as extrinsic as people you’ve never met looking for a place to drink beers on a Friday night. Be it the desire for personal challenge, or economic need in the form of the “prize” that the prizefighter fights for to put food on his or her table, I don’t believe any of the reasons the folks who step into the ring do so really have to do with the crowd.

I in no way mean to trivialize the fact that many do make their living, and many a very meager living, by fighting—only to say that they are not fighting their opponent directly for their next meal, but rather to receive payment from a promoter, and ultimately from the spectators who come for fun. Everything is one step removed from itself. This is also why in many martial arts circles, particularly in my experience in Muay Thai, there is little animosity between fighters, rather a highly refined craftsmanlike sense of mutual artistry and respect. How else could you fight your friends?

But to return to the question of the difference between martial arts and fighting, I think the real answer is most likely “same same, but different.” I believe the goal of martial arts in our age is for many is the betterment of self. One may never be a great fighter, but if they are able to take the sharp extremity of fighting and direct it toward other areas of their personality or life to better them, the fight is very much practical, and very much beneficial to them. It is the highest level of practice leveraged toward the highest level of life.

One can be a great fighter yet never see that greatness wash through the rest of their life. You can have a great fight career and then end up a broken person because that’s all you allow  your greatness to become, and without it, you have nothing left to hold onto when your body can’t fight another round.

At the same time, I’ve seen people start Muay Thai much later in life, come to class diligently, and grow and become happier as a person, family member, and businessperson, without ever stepping into the ring. A person just like this, who I draw continual inspiration from at the gym, told me, “I don’t see myself ever actually fighting, but I do Muay Thai because during class and learning sparring everything is completely real. I want to learn how to be right there and give everything I can—mind, body and heart. I think the practice has already changed me quite a lot for the better—especially as a parent.”

The truly legendary people, those for whom the arts are their entire lives, and a big part of the lives of others, are those who have the talent and dedication to become accomplished fighters, but who also channel their greatness toward teaching others, building and maintaining gyms, and positively impacting their students and the people around them—the greatness they have developed in the gym and the ring transforms into a greatness that shines throughout their entire lives. Or perhaps better put, the two have always been the same.

Even after fighting for three years, I feel extremely conflicted, and often entirely clueless, about what I’m fighting for. I don’t believe I have many of the qualities it takes to be great: youth, natural talent, a certain selfishness that puts one’s own training always first, and perhaps most ironically, I have no desire to hurt people or even really to win. Simultaneously, I know that if I want to help people by passing on the ring and life knowledge Muay Thai has given me, I want that knowledge to be as authentic as it can be.

Despite, or perhaps because of this internal conflict, I still feel that the way out is through. And I can at least take peace in the fact that I challenged myself and had an honest experience, albeit a difficult and humble one. I think a lot of this thing is a figuring out as you go along, the meaning becomes apparent only through the process.

I also must remind myself that, by most measures, three years is an incredibly short amount of time. I was speaking to a good friend and fellow fighter with a similar amount of experience who told me, “I feel like I am only beginning to understand Muay Thai.” You look at the standout folks that go from amateur to pro quickly in the US and it can be quite humbling, but for most, I believe myself included, the road is long, and you have to trust and enjoy the process. I’m only just beginning, and there’s no real carrot at the end of the stick. You have to just take every day and every fight and take joy in the process and the learning.

“People say that what we’re all seeking a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”—Joseph Campbell

About the Author
My name is James Gregory. I study under Ajahn Coban Lookchaomaesaithong at Coban's Muay Thai Camp in Manhattan. My Muay Thai story is one of recovery. I didn’t find Muay Thai until I was 29, ironically after returning from Asia to the United States. I spent the close to seven years before that living and working in Tokyo in journalism and marketing until I burned out from an alcohol and drug addiction, which forced me to return home and restart my life. My discovery of Muay Thai filled a gap in me which substances had before—the intensity, completeness, passion and people of Muay Thai have been integral in my continued sobriety. Every time I practice Muay Thai is a new moment of thanks for me. Practicing any art is a privilege, and being given one as beautiful and demanding as Muay Thai after so much self-destruction is a blessing I cherish. Nutrition has been another key piece of my sobriety and return to health, as well as my ability to train, recover and make weight. In addition to my “day job” as a freelance writer and translator, I run, a recipe sharing site for the paleo diet, which emphasizes whole, unprocessed foods for optimal health. Paleo has been something which has helped my overall health and training tremendously, and the site began from a personal desire to help others find similar happiness through a useful, free resource. I hope that my writing will be a way for me to give back to an art which has given me so much.

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