Greatness, Part 1: The Art of War

DAWNING
Even in my happy indifference to athletics, I could understand something of the competitor. The Olympian urges his body on toward the moment that will redeem the years and pleasures and normalcy he had laid on the altar of glory. He pursues the unrivaled to best himself. But men who attack one another – invite the blows and blood – and go on to 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 dismissed as irrational violence made every bit of sense and the fluid logic of the moves blew me away in its beauty. So this was the art of war.

WONDER
I became intrigued by men who put themselves in harm’s way not in some noble cause for the greater good but to test themselves under the most raw, visceral of conditions. 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 that bed of ease and climb the path of great 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 over 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. 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 won’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 moniker from his singular ability to plow through all 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 fly1champion.” 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.”

FEAR
I had the recent privilege of reaching The Zombie in Seoul, Korea. His agent took the time to translate the interview and afford me a more personal acquaintance with the star. Chan, like some of the other fighters I’ve spoken with, ended up in martial arts after being bullied as a kid. His aunt enrolled him in Hapkido. As to the qualms, he echoes the others, “There is always the fear, but mostly of losing.” Fear of injury becomes a minor concern. After the first blow, they’re good (something I don’t quite get as a woman) – the anticipation over, the adrenaline on. Beyond any anxiety over a black eye, they’re afraid of letting the coaches and themselves down. The goal is to free themselves from the fear of fear. A Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructor at our gym says 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 sweat, breathe, beat that dream into reality with this laser beam devotion. These guys seem to live on a different plane altogether. I remain mystified. All those months and years and daily dogged minutes of self-denial! Though C.S. Lewis was speaking of spiritual appetite in his observation 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 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.

cameronTHE GLADIATOR
I had to puzzle out the deepest answer I was seeking in 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 their 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 talented with their body as I can never hope to be. 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 and as writer. Whether or not I have been successful remains a different matter. But what I’ve asked the competitors were really parenting questions that continue to replay themselves. How much do I push my son to free 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, for 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.

90 Seconds on the Round

90 seconds on the round
      Jab-Cross-Hook
            Slip Slip
                  Cross-Hook-Cross
to the Double Leg Slam.

He's chasing his dream
he's chasing my dream, but I - -
       mount 
               arm bar
       A snap. I catch the wince
he stacks down on me, pulls out

- - I pursue myself. 

We lock eyes, warrior 
spirit to spirit. Limbs pinwheel 

     This guy's here to go all out on me
     he goes - all - out - on - me.

He's trained to fight me, 
sculpted moves to fight me 

and now eats my blood. Brothers,
we leave it all in the octagon

all the muscle memory - 
all the hours run,
all the minutes on the bag, 
the tap-outs, the sparring
  - all the stories -  
our bread, our limit, the dreams

No hard feelings, but I want that belt.

Throw my head kick, he checks it to a 
takedown and triangle.

Forgive no excuse
     just one more round
           just one more round
second best is last

I  look  up  shake out

Time skips.

I watch myself, jump
parallel his back over his neck 
sink in the back choke, my feet
already 'round his thighs.

The last minute I marshal every 
scrap of my soul
                           Do or die 

I leave the cage a different man every time.

Fighting1

Thanks to the coaches at the UFC Gym in Corona, 
California for the precious glimpse into your history. 
Heartfelt appreciation to Phillip Brown and Cameron 
Underhill: it is my privileged pleasure to give voice
to your story. You inspire me to push the pace and 
sweat it.

The Boy Who Never Had Ice Cream

Correct, he’s never had it. Even here, it’s pseudo cream – really just cold, sweetened coconut milk. But I can live with his record broken at six years, four months. Tennyson has never been given candy, chocolate, jelly beans. You get the picture. Sugar weakens the immune system and feeds pathogens. Food so cold not only shocks the stomach but dampens the body, making it a lovely greenhouse for microbes.

Here is something you don’t come across everyday. From Food is Your Best Medicine by Henry Bieler, M.D. who practiced in California and treated patients only with food:

“One of the common sources of the diffusible toxin is ice cream – which is a highly putrefactive protein mixture, whether it be the best “homemade” or the crude commercial type, rich in emulsifiers….The freezing process gives to the cream its last and finishing touch of physiological corruption. Quickly fermenting substances like milk, cream, fruit, etc. break down structurally at the first touch of frost. And, as the arrest of bacterial activities caused by the frost is only temporary while the molecular derangement of the frozen substance remains a permanent menace, it follows that a renewal and increase of the destructive work of the invading microbes immediately takes place when the ice cream reaches its melting point in the stomach….the ice cream, melting in the body, sets free the carcasses of the ice cream and milk cells, to lay them open to the resistless attacks of swarming and festering bacteria – though the evidence of the ghostly carnival of putrefaction escapes the taste by being masked into unrecognizability by the great deceiver – sugar….the putrefactive acids from ice cream indigestion when not eliminated entirely by the liver and kidneys, emerge vicariously through the mucous membranes of the nose and sinuses….the polio virus feeds upon this excretion.”

He goes on to explain a connection between the polio epidemic of the 50s in the U.S. and excess ice cream consumption. He is not the first health care practitioner to name the study where a doctor in Virginia had kids abstain from such sweets. There was practically no outbreak of polio in the VA town. The point was not to conclude that ice cream causes polio per se but that restricting the former predisposes the body to defenses even against something as frightful as polio.

So Tennyson mentioned around his sixth birthday that it would be nice to try some ice cream. Mom had planned on holding out until he was eight or nine. But even she couldn’t say no this time, when the little guy’s been so good about eating differently from other kids. Am not preaching. This is just the path I’ve chosen for my boy until he can exercise discretion. Not to mention that it’s been 100 degrees all summer. This was the coldest food he’s had. Yes, I would warm it in the oven if I could. As it is, I left it out to melt a little.

He asked for it on a cone – next time.

CoconutBliss

INGREDIENTS: Organic Coconut Milk (Organic Coconut,
Water, Organic Guar Gum), Organic Agave Syrup, Organic Fair
Trade Cocoa (processed with alkali), Organic Vanilla Extract