James Gregory

Muay Thai is a Mountain

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

I didn’t fight my first Muay Thai fight until I was 31. I didn’t even wrap my hands, lace up a glove, or crack a Thai pad until I was 29. I’ll be 34 next month as I’m writing this, and I have a tiny fraction of the fights fighters in Thailand have when they retire—when they’re nine years younger than I am.

Conventional wisdom says eight fights at 33 doesn’t leave too many years for a pro career. Fighting Muay Thai is also not the only thing in my life. I could just as easily spend it on my writing, or my business, or traveling, or any number of other things. But how at all am I benefiting myself by limiting myself, by being realistic? As it’s tough to go wrong quoting Bruce Lee when writing about martial arts: “If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”

I’ve decided not to limit myself, and I’m planning on fighting again in a few months, and probably more after that. And, I know plenty of active fighters older than myself who have chosen similarly.

In life, and in Muay Thai, we have to craft our own meaning. I may not end up with 200 fights and know what it’s like to give my entire life to fighting. And that’s ok. I’m also not satisfied going to class a couple times a week and then ending up never having known the feeling of stepping into a ring—not that there’s a single thing wrong with that—it’s just not me.

What I get from Muay Thai first is my sobriety. It’s the finger that scratches the itch I almost scratched to death with cocaine and alcohol in the past . I’ve trained four to six days a week since I started four years ago with the exception of rest weeks every few months and a broken collarbone and dislocated shoulder, and I was still present at camp even when I was injured. I don’t say that to brag, because it’s not a chore. It’s what keeps me sane; what allows me to challenge things in my life outside of camp, to be a good person and to feel healthy and strong. As a writer and online business owner, it’s also what gets me out from in front of a computer screen and into “real life” every day. It’s what makes me happy.

Fighting is a lesson about myself. I battle with anxiety and the inability to step out of my head and into the present moment on a daily basis. If there is any place on this earth where you must overcome these things to be successful, it is in a fist fight.

It is also a lesson in perseverance and focus—you have to finish strong and with grace and skill in the very eight minutes after you have just completed an arduous training camp.

And, it’s a test of emotional control—for me, a test of whether I can turn on the tough-guy switch within me when it comes time. You can train hard, be fit, take care of your body and know technique, but when you step into the ring, as the saying goes, it’s a fight. You have to be ready to really want to hurt another human being—something that, for me at least, doesn’t come naturally.

There is the idea of the “path” in martial arts. I think you could liken one art to one mountain. I and most everyone reading this are on the Muay Thai mountain. Like an actual mountain, there are different paths to the top. My path is laden with anxiety, over-thinking and gentleness. Those mental obstacles are the streams, boulders and fallen trees I must cross, climb and hurdle on my way to the top of the mountain.

Maybe your goal is to get in shape and know how to handle yourself if you were faced with a fight. Then, fitness, courage and technique would be parts of your path. Maybe you found Muay Thai much later in life, and you want to have something new to learn. Your path involves maintaining an open mind. Maybe you came to Muay Thai young, are naturally tough and athletic, work hard, and are blessed with talent. Your path involves sticking with it until you find yourself fighting for a belt in a stadium on the television.

We can all meet at the top, but only if we understand and decide to walk our own path. You may be in competition with the person you are stepping into the ring with, and you and your camp mates may push each other to work harder and be better, but you are never in a race along the path, because each path is unique to the one walking it. Yet we all climb the same mountain.

Why am I doing this? How will it make me a better person? How does it make me happy? What do I want to look back on and take joy in? It’s perfectly fine not to know the answer to all of these—that search for answers, and even for the right questions, is part of the process. But, the one thing you must realize is that the path leads only inward.

The Gift of the Fight

—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.

Muay Thai Is an Island

Muay Thai is an Island 

James Gregory is the author of Paleo for Fighters and Heart of 8: What is Muay Thai?, from which this essay is taken.

I have a new ritual since moving to New York City and my new camp. After training, I walk a block down the street to the corner deli and buy a cup of fresh-squeezed orange juice and container of cut water melon.

The deli is well-lit and well-stocked with an ample hot and cold salad bar and tons of cold drinks that I like, like sparkling water, coconut water, and the fresh orange juice, which is nearly orgasmic after a long training session. The entire 35th Street side of the deli is made up of a fresh-cut flower stand, rows and rows of colorful, neatly wrapped flowers, the aroma of which mixes with the grunge of the city to form a mélange that is uniquely Manhattan.

Planter

The planter at 35th Street and 7th Avenue

The sensorial energy of the place is compounded by its intense busyness. This is a short walk from Madison Square Garden and the Empire State Building, a street corner swelling with cabs, tourists and people trying to make a buck to get through the day.

At times, people seem to be driven by the collective energy as much as they create it. And at times you see things that seem crazy, but probably commonplace to a long-time New Yorker.

The other day I saw a man run out in front of a taxi in the middle of the street; the cab driver cut him off and nearly hit him; the pedestrian kick the rear cab window and then spit in the cab driver’s face; the cab driver spit back in the pedestrian’s face, the pedestrian walk back to near where I was standing, exchange a pleasant smile with a woman who had seen the whole thing happen, laughingly tell her “I told him I would break his shit,” and then them both chuckle about it, like they had just seen a small child do something funny, or a puppy chasing its tail.

I watched this all from the place where I always eat my watermelon and drink my orange juice, leaning against a four-foot by four-foot planter that sits directly in front of the deli on the 7th avenue side, right next to two public phone booths, which, since nobody really uses public phones anymore, have transformed into cigarette-smoking and cell-phone-talking alcoves.

With the feel of the warm sun shining down, the taste of the fresh-cut watermelon and fresh-squeezed orange juice, and the smell of both the fresh-cut flowers and the seasonally planted tulips and dirt of the planter, it’s like a tiny, organic island I can get away to for a few brief minutes on my commute home through the concrete and steel cityscape.

I think it’s very easy to confuse activity with vitality, and Manhattan is one of the places in the world where this confusion is most pronounced. While it is indeed bustling and full of movement, sites, smells and sounds, it is at the very same time a 23-square-mile block of concrete, steel, and plastic through which life flows in and out of choked, dilapidated bridges and tunnels.  Cut off from these artificial lifelines, it would die very quickly.

And this is not to pick on Manhattan. Our entire modern world is like this, supported by energy dug from the ground thousands of miles away, shipped on trucks down stretches of asphalt highways, always just enough to keep us going for a couple days. We live a life removed—often far removed—from the source of what actually keeps us alive.

Muay Thai is an island in a very similar way for me, an organic and pure respite from a world that has become both very contrived and, under the surface, often very much lifeless.

The second that I walk into Coban’s Muay Thai Camp, everything suddenly becomes organic and alive. Before I even reach the door, the noise itself transforms, from the clashing, mechanical, metal scramble of Midtown to the primal grunting of human effort and the thud of living flesh against leather pads.

As I open the door, I transition from a world where politeness seems to be a thing long forgotten to one where it is still ritualized: I wai first to show respect for the space and the beautiful thing happening there, then to my teacher if I catch his eye, who I address as such, Ajahn. The students are equally as courteous to one another—soft-spoken, deferential, kind, and welcoming to newcomers. I feel that the people there are nurtured by how they treat each other as much as they are by the graceful physicality of Muay Thai.

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Ajahn Coban teaching me the Wai Kru

Graceful, and at the same time, simple. In our modern world the pureness of something that requires only your body, mind, desire, and a bare minimum of physical objects to devote yourself to, even to devote your life to, is very fulfilling. So much of our world is so contrived that we find great comfort in the primal and pure.

This is certainly the case for me. Much of my day outside of Muay Thai takes place in a very contrived world—one that I love, but one that is contrived nonetheless. Even the act of writing this—something I love very much—is one of sitting in a locked and unnatural position, tapping away at a hunk of molded plastic to make lighted symbols appear on a screen of more plastic, glass, and metal. It feels good to shake away and unlock my body, mind, and spirit into something freer.

For those few hours of the day I can wear nothing but my shorts and gloves, feel my body move powerfully and freely, be in the very moment with the technique, in a space that is simple and unadorned, with people who are there to feel the same thing I am—who know that feeling, and respect it— I am unattached, unbound, unfettered. And, for those few hours, I am happy.

 

The Paleo Diet for Fighters

– by James Gregory –

James is the author of Paleo for Fighters

I hesitated to use the word “diet” in the title. US society has bastardized it to the point that it conjures up nothing but the unpleasant: pain, struggle and impossibility. I hesitated even more because it represents a special kind of pain for fighters. “Dieting” is feeling constantly hungry, eating flavorless, fatless chicken breasts, microwaved broccoli and maybe some oatmeal for weeks on end and clawing your way through training camp until you’ve malnourished yourself enough to make weight, fight, and then go on a donuts-fried-chicken-greasy-Chinese-food-tacos-and-soda-and-MOARDONUTS!!! bender until it’s time to roust yourself from your food coma and get back into the gym before you’re 25 pounds over your fight weight—typically a week. So, not that. “Diet” in the sense of just the foods that we eat.

If you read my last article, “Why Fighting Solves Everything,” you’ll know that Muay Thai was part of a change to a healthy lifestyle that helped me overcome an alcohol and cocaine addiction, a change that was truly life-saving. Part of this change, in addition to not dumping poison in my body, was a mission to find exactly what I should put in it. After having nearly killed myself, I really wanted to know what it felt like to be truly healthy.

When I started training, I ate what I at the time, and I think most people in general, would consider healthy: mostly whole foods, a good amount of whole grains, not a lot of junk, but some amount of processed sugar, including sports drinks. I weighed around 180-185lbs at 5’7” and trained as much as I do now, 4–6 days a week. Obviously, I don’t have to tell anyone reading this that Muay Thai is good exercise, so it wasn’t like I wasn’t putting the time in at the gym.

I just felt like there was something missing, something I wasn’t doing right, something that could get me leaner. I’ll fully admit, in addition to wanting to feel and be healthy, I wanted to look better, wanted a six pack. I think vanity can be a natural motivator for anyone, and provided it does not become excessive, possibly a healthy one.

At the time, I trained with a doctoral candidate in paleontology at the University of Pennsylvania. She was the one who convinced me to give paleo eating a go. I was fortunate in the fact that she was a real-life paleontologist, but it wasn’t just that. Emma was (and is) a good example of the benefits of paleo eating: healthy, energetic and lean. This is also the exact combination of qualities you also want as a fighter—the whole idea is to be as lean as possible while maintaining enough energy to train and fight well, lean and strong.

After around three weeks to a month of paleo eating, I got what I had been looking for. I dropped 15-20 pounds, all fat. I kept all of my muscle, had more strength, more energy to train. I recovered faster, my moods were more even, and I started to just get more done and in a better way than before. I evened out at around 165lbs, pretty much what I walk around at now, and have fought at 147 and 155lbs. Read More

Why Fighting Solves Everything

– by James Gregory –

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. Read More

Muay Thai’s Song of Humility

James is the author of Paleo for Fighters

Muay Thai isn’t the first difficult thing I’ve learned, but it is the most difficult. I’ve worked with my mind before. I finished college and graduate school, learned a foreign language, and started a business.

And I’ve labored as well. One of the most wonderful and positively transformational times in my life was when I spent a summer working as a landscaper in the countryside of northern Delaware. The time allowed me to shake the cobwebs of a sophomore year of college lost to drugs and alcohol and learn what it meant to work with my hands for not a lot of money. Read More