The Lure of Living the Fighter’s Life

A gentleman who happens to be an MMA promoter stopped by my gym today and we had a pretty good conversation. He is an old-school martial artist who never actually fought in competition, but I am sure he is a capable 50-year old fighter nevertheless. I was wrapping up a session with one of my private lesson students, who is a loose-mouthed 20 year old–and MMA wannabe. The student kept injecting himself into our conversation, until I shut him up only after he suggested that the gentleman and I sparred a match.

Funny that he should do that, as I was hoping to try the man out–and we did exchange information to get together one day soon (without my silly student). But a student such as AS should know his place and keep his mouth shut before it gets him in trouble. Don’t worry readers, he got an earful when the visitor left.

In our short conversation, however, he shared with me his opinion of MMA and how MMA is missing a lot from traditional martial arts and how he had seen traditional martial artists he feels would defeat many of the fighters he employs. This was interesting to hear from a man who is involved in the MMA field for a living. In his words, “it is a hustle, just like any kind of ring fighting”.

How right he is.

But not so fast. The lure of living the fighter’s life IS a hustle for many fighter, but not for all of us. Some simply love the art so much, that he cannot focus on any traditional forms of work. Therefore, lacking the resources or knowledge or desire to open a school and teach–many of these martial artists turn to fighting. It is a way to make money, although many who do it for a living do not actually enjoy fighting, it pays the bills. And what other skills do many of these men have? If one has spent his whole life engrossed in the fighting arts–whether it was wrestling, boxing or martial arts–the only skills or desire he may have is in fighting. So fighting is the logical path. It’s honest work, although not respected by everyone (especially spouses and family members). It doesn’t pay much for 90% of those in the field. It’s dangerous and leads to many injuries. It doesn’t come with health insurance, vacation or retirement. And unfortunately for many fighters, it is not an esteemed position, except for in the daydreams of computer geeks and muscle-headed wannabes. The fighter, whether he is a pointfighter working the Karate tournament circuit for $500 prizes at a time, a Kickboxer or boxer selling tickets at barbershops for his take, a feederfish MMA fighter or boxer used to build up the win/loss records of the guys with the real potential for contendership, or the amateur fighter with a calculating trainer who is carefully building his career path… there is something about these men that many of you–even you martial artists–will never understand. It is what makes a fighter tick, to training daily for hours at a time, with no definite paydate planned.

Unlike many casual martial artists, there is a reason to stay in top shape all the time. They never know when they will get a chance to fight again, and one of the things my grandfather use to say–if you are alway in shape, you never have to train to *get* in shape. You never know when a challenge will walk through your door and you must always be ready to accept it. This is one of those traditions in the martial arts that is adopted by the prizefighter, yet lost of many of those today who consider themselves “traditional” or “modern-day/real world”. The casual martial artist is fooling himself with talk of “I’m training to fight for my life on the street, not for trophies on the mat”; the truth is, he is training casually with no sense of urgency, no stress of knowing that these skills will be used soon, and no way of truly testing whether his training is in vain or will be validated on some contesting opponent determined to test himself on you. Whether you call it “for trophies” or “for real”–the prizefighter has a frequent reality check several times a year, while the casual martial artist only has his skilled verified with friends and in his own imagination.

It is not, however, all about the money. There is a big section of the fighting world, regardless of their level of success, that is doing this for a more lofty reason. It is the sincere desire to be the best, and he wants to prove it to himself over and over that he is. Each loss is met with a period of self-reflection and calculus at the drawing board. He trains another level higher, with more intensity, and with more focus. He beats himself up about not remembering to stick to the fight plan, or dropping his hands, or not taking the shot to the jaw when he saw it open. He is constantly improving, and each year he gets stronger and stronger, faster and faster, wiser and wiser. While the casual martial artists may know the techniques and tactics, the fighter seeking to be the best knows the perfect counter to them, and he knows the nooks and crannies of each technique–every variation, every use, what it feels like to be hit with that technique, and what it feels like to hit a man with that technique. He knows his art so much more intimately than the one who bypasses a career of fighting. A thousand repetitions is a workout experience that few martial artists have experienced, but to the prizefighter it is a daily part of his routine. When we look at these men and women on the floor, it is so easy to discount what they do or fail to do–and most of us could never fathom what it would be like to duplicate it. We do are not in their minds when child support notices arrive threatening to cancel their drivers licenses are pushed aside in the effort to focus on getting faster in order to win the competition so that he can pay that outstanding bill. We are not in their sore muscles that would keep most people in the bed–this pain is ignored when that fighter gets up to do his morning run or calisthenics before the sun comes up. We do not hear the chastizing these men take from parents, spouses, siblings and friends–urging them to give up their dream and get a “real job”.

These warriors were born to fight, and they will endure until their bodies tell them it’s too late, it’s time to quit. They are not satisfied with training a few times a week and then going fishing or boating or wine-tasting on the weekends. They want to be the best in the business, to know, believe and prove to themselves and others that I am the best, and no man in the room can lick me. They may not meet your standard of being a “martial artist”, but they are every bit of a martial artist; they are today’s version of the warrior.

I even have respect for the “wannabe” MMA fighter. I am speaking of the guy who walks into a gym with almost no skills, but ends up under an unscrupulous coach who lacks the knowledge to train a champion or contender, but still encourages his fighters to climb in the ring prematurely and risk their lives for a few hundred dollars a fight. These men have the desire, but lack the training as well as lack a good advisor. They take the easy path to the ring, by skipping the path of paying one’s dues and learning the ins and outs of the fight game. They turn pro after a short amateur career–which is supposed to tell them whether they are ready to turn pro or not, and do so anyway. They lack the experience and technical skill to defeat the best fighters. They lack the experience and technical skill to BE the best fighter. But they are not under the tutelage of any master; they are customers of a business. A business whose product is to exploit the foolish desires of men and women who watched a little too much Pay Per View and thought, “I could take some lessons, and do that too!”  They take the misconceptions and charge them a fee, dress them up in a MMA fighter’s costume, sell him bumper stickers and T-shirts, teach him a few moves, camoflauge his lack of skill and knowledge with muscles gained from weight-lifting, and set up fighters, taking 10-33% of all the purses his fighters make in Indian Casinos and other events. Promoters don’t care if these fighters know what they are doing; people will buy tickets anyway just because it’s MMA.  Sponsors and advertisers don’t care either, as long as their product is sold. The real contenders really don’t care either; these tomato cans will pad their records so they can get their puncher’s chance to win a title.

Sure sounds like the path of the professional boxer to me. Sounds like how Samurai were manipulated by their lords in feudal Japan. Sounds like any army’s warriors, using their skills to serve the selfish purpose of his country’s politicians. The strong will always rule the weak, and the strong will always be ruled and manipulated by the rich. But you have to respect the ones who dedicate themselves to the life of being a fighter–regardless of why they chose that path, or whether they become rich, or champions, or loved and revered, or fall and ridiculed, or injured and forgotten, or killed. This is a path that few of us can understand, and even fewer can endure ourselves. It is something that many people dream about, but a dream that so few of us actually allow to manifest into a lifestyle.

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