Even in my happy indifference to athletics, I can understand the competitor who seeks to challenge himself. The Olympian urges his body on to the moment that will redeem the years and pleasures and normalcy he had laid on the altar of glory. He bests himself in going up against the unrivaled among the nations. But men who attack one another – invite the blows and blood – and go on to fist-five or hug after beating the brains out of each other? (Right, it is women who make no sense.) Baffling brutes, I’ve thought.
A year or so after my boy had started in Mixed Martial Arts and I too had learned some moves in self-defense, I was strolling past the octagon at the gym when the sparring in there took on a startling light. Suddenly, what I’d always dismissed as irrational violence made every bit of sense and the fluid logic of the moves blew me away with its beauty. So this was the art of war.
I became intrigued by men who put themselves in harm’s way not in noble cause for their country but to test themselves under the most raw, visceral conditions they could fashion. Fascinated with these creatures of discipline – so many of them who I discovered are really nice guys – I went around the last two months asking fighters of all caliber in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, “Why do you fight?” But it was the questions under the question that pressed me. Aren’t you afraid? What do you do with that fear? What makes you spurn the bed of ease and slog through the path of greatest resistance? Are you born different from the rest of us? What is the stuff of warriors, are they born or made, and what inner battles are you fighting?
These questions played in my head during a mesmerizing rerun of the epic fight between Dan Henderson and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in the summer.
A minute and a half into the first round, and blood rains on Shogun’s face. He stays bloody to the end. By the third round, both he and Hendo have drained their reserve. Round Four, they pummel. And Hendo looks at the clock. An eloquent moment: two hundred pounds of muscle and he wonders when he can stop.
The men hang by a thread through the distance, the longest 25 minutes of their lives. As a fighter later said to me, it’s not muscle in the last round. Shogun and Hendo find themselves in the mental corner. They have given up their all and for one of them, it wouldn’t be good enough. What follows will ride on mind and will. Shogun gives Hendo a run for his money, but Hendo had done too much damage too fast from the first round not to win in the judges’ eyes. The call remains a technicality for many, fans the world over moved by the warrior spirit of both men.
Soon after, I caught some words from The Korean Zombie on the gym screen, a crash introduction to the relatively new but popular mixed martial artist who earned the nickname from his singular ability to plow through injuries and blows. Thrilled to his wildest dreams that he was slated to fight UFC Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo, Chan Jung said, “I’m willing to put everything on the line…I would give my life to be champion.” How stupid. How marvelous. Beautiful. I was enthralled. Three years he had chased the chance to take the title from the eight-year undefeated champion. I asked The Zombie in my head: What makes you define years of your life by a moment you hold in your dreams? Where does the confidence even come from, to disagree with the masses that your opponent is superior?
Aldo: “I don’t even see a chance of losing.”
Jung: “I push my opponent to his breaking point.”
I scribbled away the rest of summer, lit by the high voltage narrative.
I had the recent privilege of reaching The Zombie in Seoul, Korea. His agent Brian Rhee took the time to translate the interview and grant me a more personal acquaintance with the star. Chan, like some of the other fighters I spoke with, ended up in martial arts because he was bullied as a kid. His aunt enrolled him in Hapkido. As to the qualms, he echoed the others, “There is always the fear, but mostly of losing.” Fear of injury becomes a minor concern. After the first blow they feel, they’re good (something I don’t quite get as a woman) – the anticipation over and the adrenaline on. Beyond any anxiety over a black eye, they’re afraid of letting the coaches and themselves down. The competitor works to free himself from the fear of fear. A Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructor at our gym said he competes to face his fear of vulnerability and stay ahead of his insecurities.
Former UFC champion Vitor Belfort said it simply on TV, “Nothing can distract.” The Korean Zombie doesn’t just dream. He labors in the vanguard of those who breathe, beat, sweat that dream into reality with this laser beam devotion. These guys seem to live on a different plane altogether. I remain mystified. Because the art of the octagon happens out of the months and years and daily dogged minutes of self-denial. Though C.S. Lewis was speaking of spiritual appetite when he pointed out that we are far too easily pleased, his commentary captures the human spirit. We worship comfort, especially as postmoderners. I am blown away by the single-minded who take no excuses for themselves, repudiate mediocrity, forgive nothing substandard. In this case, fighters put themselves at a place that exposes what they’ve got, what they’ve worked for: they ran the extra mile or they didn’t. The cage door closes and you have two guys hell bent on winning. No one trains to lose. They force each other to their best. The contenders risk it all before a watching a world. And the months of toil can all go down in seconds. It hit me (pun intended) that this death grip on commitment resonates with me for the crazy work ethic Koreans have branded themselves by.
I had to puzzle out the deepest answer I sought from the interviews. The men told me, “I fight because it’s what I love. What I’m good at. The thrill of victory, the arm going up.” But why do you have to punch someone in the face to feel so good?
If man ever did evolve he stopped over 2,000 years ago. I realized MMA is not so new. I am watching the Spartan warrior and the Roman gladiator in the most primal fight for self-preservation. History is battle, the fiercest of physical arguments over land and power. My son has been learning, “Assyria falls to Babylon, Babylon to Persia, Persia falls to Alexander the Great.” The Conquerer has been redefining boundaries – of space and within himself – since ancient times and on he goes. Man’s quest for greatness.
LIVING THE DREAM
The current of the past carries these fighters on to their future. Competitor Phillip Brown is not only chasing his dream but living it. He stays present so that the training is not only a movement toward possibility but joy: “You wake up and realize it’s already tomorrow. You feel really alive. It’s a presence. All your hard work has paid off. All those minutes on the bag, all those tap-outs in practice. Tap-out means I need to get better. Martial arts is the art of bettering oneself. When that cage door shuts, I’m exactly where I wanna be: win, lose, or draw.” How many of us know exactly where we want to be?
THE ROAD AHEAD
Part of my fascination with these contenders stems from the mystery of the Other. They are as talented with their body as they look and talk so differently from me. After a year’s sorry attempt in Self-Defense, I discovered I have as much survival instinct as I do coordination. But I’m drawn to the sport for the resonance; I fill with hope and pride in people who seek excellence in their craft, partly for this very pursuit in the roles I have played as mother, as writer. Whether or not I have been successful remains a different matter. But what I asked the competitors were really parenting questions that continue to replay themselves. How much do I push my son in freeing him (to borrow from Gloria Vanderbilt) to follow his bliss? How do I encourage him to refuse distractions from his purpose? How to reconcile the wisdom of balance with the virtues I prize: stamina, discipline, passion? You lose, sometimes excise, a part of yourself for the greater gain on the hot trail of dreams.
Fighting doesn’t make you great. Even winning does not necessarily, and indeed it is the heart of gold that marks the knight. Obviously greatness begs definition, but to offer one isn’t my goal in this series so much as to examine its different faces through the lives of achievers in their element.
“The tragedy in life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream.” Benjamin Mays (1894-1984), American minister and educator
Enjoy the Wayfarer in MMA action here – most notably not in her element.