—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
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.