In the search for the “Strongest” FMA, you must not pass over the loser. Let me tell you a story.
I arrived in California in January 1999 from Washington, DC. I was very fit, aggressive, and new. As always, I was eager to build my reputation here. Those of you who are Philippine-based know that the Filipino way to build one’s reputation is on the backs of your opponents. So I immediately did a combination of fighting in tournaments as well as dojo-hopped, looking for “sparring partners”. I found three homes for my sparring away from the tournament circuit: A park in North Sacramento, a school called Tae Kuk Mu Sul (Suk Ku Kim), and a kickboxing gym called “East Wind Martial Arts” (Thomas Gibbs). My opponents from the tournament circuit made up most of the sparring partners, and some I am good friends with to this day. Many of these men were great fighters, and I dare not lie and say I beat all of them. But fight them I did, and when you live the life of a fighter, you get used to winning some and losing some. The great thing about coming back week after week to fight again means that you know eventually, you will one day defeat the man you cannot beat today. When I dojo-hopped in the Philippines, I did not have this luxury, as many masters would not allow you to fight their boys over and over because you will figure them out, befriend them (making it difficult for them to fight you 100% in competition)–especially if they know you will never join their gym. (Side note: Dojo-hopping is dangerous in the Philippines. I was once taken by some friends to another location to spar because they told me later, that they had classmates who wanted to hurt me since I was a member of a rival gym. Martial arts is taken very seriously back home and although I am a province boy, I spent too much time in America for me to realize how naive I was being)
The two men I will tell you about are old friends I cannot recall their names. One White man and his childhood friend was a Mexican man I can’t remember either first name. Anyway, I met them prior to my division. I was a middleweight, they were both heavyweights. Curious that I was a Philippine martial artist fighting in a Karate tournament, they were ringside for my first two matches. I did a good job intimidating the gym, with my red Gi, my standoffish attitude, and the occasional combination I would throw while warming up. Looking at the physiques of the two men and knowing they were in another weight class, I didn’t mind being friendly because I knew I would not have to face them later. I didn’t even bother asking for a card to see if they wanted to join one of my sparring groups. I won my division and then ran over to see the heavyweights fight. Both men were defeated by opponents just as heavy, and just as (excuse my bluntness) poorly skilled. I was embarrassed for them and their students.
I couldn’t resist. I offered to spar with them.
This story does not end with me telling you how I taught them the secrets of fighting and they became champions. Truth is that I lived too far from them to really connect with them often, I believe that perhaps I was too heavy-handed in sparring, and that I felt they had too much to develop for me to teach them. They did not want to attend my sparring sessions. Pride, perhaps, kept them from reaching outside their gym for more learning and help with their fighting. What they did do, was train together and push each other, and they frequented almost every tournament I attended in our part of the state. They did lose a lot, and still brought students. I would offer tips where I could, but I realized that they wanted to find their way through the maze; and I respected that. Guess what? Over three short years, they improved greatly and slowly. In 2002, when I found myself a heavyweight, I entered a division with both of them and defeated one–but only narrowly. These men taught me something very important by losing: That experience teaches, even when that experience is what most would consider a negative one. They never appeared depressed or insecure about “throwing away” $45 a weekend. These two gentlemen kept at it, developed a seasoned fighter’s timing, lost the fear of getting hit, learned to use good evasive tactics despite their weight, and became old sages at a game that supposedly only the athletic excelled at.
When I was a young man, I called my grandfather from the Philippines and told him that I had yet to meet an undefeated Master to learn from. His suggestion to me was that I had indeed found great men to learn from, because the worst fighters never admit to losing, and the best embrace loss and are graceful losers. I didn’t fully understand, but I have become one of these men myself. I had no problem admitting my losses even to potential students because the fighters who beat me were superior fighters. And since I was one who crossed sticks or touched gloves with them, some of that superior skill seeped into my own roster of experiences.
The Strongest fighters become the strongest fighters in three steps:
- They seek out and face stronger fighters
- They find out why they were successful and/or why they failed
- The outcome of those fights guides the direction of their martial journey
If you have never lost against another fighter, you either avoided facing fighters altogether or you chose inferior men to exchange with. Contrary to popular belief, you cannot have the “strongest” FMA, you can only be among the strongest. And that place alone is the only place from where you can claim to be one of them. It is irrelevant whether or not you won every fight; the only fact that matters is that you attempted to be one of them.
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