The Illusion of the Old Warrior Past His Prime, pt II
My grandfather had told me to look for old warriors along my martial arts journey, and to learn from them where I could. I discovered that many of these old men still possessed their fighting skills, and were very happy to oblige when I would ask for a match. Anyone who knew me in my youth knows that one of the first things I would do when meeting a good fighter was ask for a match. I was raised this way, and I learned a lot from doing this. I learned more about their habits and techniques than an observer because I was up close and seeing in real time how those techniques work. If I could offer you any advice today, I strongly encourage you to adopt this for yourself. Often we do not ask out of “respect”–but those masters know you aren’t disrespectful. On the contrary, many of the old masters enjoy going a round or two! It’s like watching an aging dancer hear his favorite song and getting up and shaking the dust off. Trust me, nothing can bond you to an old fighter like giving him a chance to move around and start his motor like he did back in the day.
I made the mistake a few times of underestimating the old warrior too. I’ve started a match thinking that I should “take it easy”, just to discover that the old man doesn’t just “still got it”–he never lost it! There is a warning my Lolo often gave, which was to keep an eye out for an old man who is in an occupation where many are destroyed young. It’s sort of the difference between an old military officer, versus an old military NCO. Both were warriors. But one has most likely seen more battles, suffered more injury and risked life and limb for his occupation. You get old two way in the field of martial arts and sciences:
- Becoming unbeatable and dominant
- Avoiding fights altogether
We all have seen those boxers who were known warriors in the ring. They took on all challengers, including the ones others avoided. They’ve been beaten a few times, been on the canvas even more times. To the true fight fan, those men had careers and wars that would bring tears to your eyes. This is my aging warrior; he fought until his body told him that he could no longer do it. But little do we know, he is only declining to the point that he can no longer compete with the best of the best. Beware this old man–against the average man, he will destroy you, even at his age.
There are still a few old champions we know and love, but they did not take the warrior path. They were among the best as well, but avoided the fighters who frightened them. They made it through tough fights and refused rematches. They didn’t fight dirty; they sought to win matches and avoid wars. We still loved them for their accomplishments, but you know deep down in your heart that if he fought So-n-So, he’d never make it out alive.
In my grandfather’s day, a 40 year old man wasn’t considered “old” yet. Those men still fought, and they sat in a place where they still had good use of their bodies yet possessed the wisdom that came with age. I knew a few men in this age group who were dangerous, and these are the men I looked to pattern myself after. Too often, martial artists will experience the signs of old age: arthritis, weight problems, internal problems, injuries that limited their movement. Rather than make like the warrior and *fight* those problems like a dangerous opponent, many will give up, consider himself “old” and allow his youth to slip away. What I love so much about the aging warrior is that he will experience those problems and endeavor through them to try and regain his youth. He returns to the gym, he hits the street to do roadwork, he enters competition as a “Senior/Master”, he will attend Round Robins to give it one more shot. We all fear for him–but he won’t listen. He was born to do this, and has not accepted defeat yet. This is a great place to be. Older, but not yet old. Still has his fire, still has what it takes to return to his prime and will do it.
If you can find such a man to learn from, do it. You will find that the learning experience is one of a kind. Not quite the calm disposition of the sagely old Master; not quite the cranky old former fighter (see my “Mean and Nasty Master” series. I wrote three of them). You get the enthusiasm and energy of a young teacher, and the wisdom and experience of an old one. And most of all, you might get to fight him or see him fight as well. If you’re really lucky–you will get to see him return to his youth, as all old fighters go through this stage at least once or twice in his middle age. Very few of us maintain our youth all the way into our older ages.
And if you are a teacher, and looking to build your reputation–avoid the aging warrior who is returning to his prime. It is very easy to underestimate such a man. He is greying or balding. He might be overweight. But even if he can’t move like he used to, he is young enough to hurt you. Old warriors didn’t get here by accident. They got here by being wise, attaining knowledge, and by being tough. Never–NEVER–underestimate an older fighter who cut his teeth in a rough environment, even if you are amused by his pot belly. He may be looking to rebuild his reputation by making you an example. They are tough, their minds are tough, they have the knowledge as well as the skill and the ability to do it. They may not be worried about offending the community, and they certainly aren’t willing to get their bodies banged up even more in order to prove they can beat you. That rotator cuff injury or bad knee might force him to use a few tricks you’ve never seen to take you out earlier, because he doesn’t have time to play with you. A younger fighter might beat you–but an older warrior will hurt you. I’m not exaggerating; heed or bleed. 🙂 I’m not trying to discourage you from taking advantage of a match, just make sure you follow the rules when you take one on.
I know what I am talking about. I have been lucky/unlucky enough to encounter these men and learn this (while ignoring advice I had been given already) firsthand.
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