Greatness: 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, the irrational violence I’d dismissed 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. 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 became 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 succeeded 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.

“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.

Greatness: Till Death Do You Part

Forty-two days after burning in a horrible fatal crash, Lauda jumped back on the Formula 1 track to defend his championship title against Hunt. Single-mindedness. Insane resolve.

I wasn’t into racing, but this was my kind of story. Lauda,_Niki_1973-07-06

The film Rush opens with a portrait of Hunt as a handsome, charismatic, successful racer, the world at his feet. Popularity and raw talent smile upon him. The pursuit of dreams for Lauda, on the other hand, is a fight from the get-go. Unable to lean on his illustrious family name, he risks everything to raise support and to bargain no-holds-barred for his first contract. Lauda becomes an expert on auto parts and aerodynamics, and exacts the fastest race car possible out of his engineers. It is the hospital where he will find himself in his fiercest battle. Both men embody greatness, but Lauda has my attention in the life-altering crash that almost claims his dreams and the way he handles the tragedy.

What do daredevils do with the fear? Bury it under the adrenaline? Just swallow it? Hunt, who seems to laugh at danger, throws up before every race. His eyes also betray the gnawing anxiety every time he comes across cars incinerated off the track. At the eleventh hour of the famous 1976 Grand Prix in Germany, Lauda calls a meeting to boycott the race in the face of the torrential rain. He has no peace about the circuit’s safety arrangements. Going through with the event is obviously asking for it. Hunt turns the room full of men who are scared alike, flouting Lauda as a self-serving coward unwilling to allow others a chance at the win. Classically high school, afraid of looking chicken as terrified as they are for their life, the guys put it to vote and the race goes on.

Lauda punctures his fuel tank, crashes at 170 mph, and the Ferrari erupts into flames. With the rescuers having trouble getting him out, he is trapped for over a minute in the inferno.

That he lives is a miracle. Lauda resists death by sheer force of will. The graphic hospital scenes, not for the faint-hearted, depict the human spirit at some of its most astonishing heights. On Day 28, the doctor comes to vacuum his lungs and warns it’s not going to be nice. He slips what looks like a very long thick metal rod down his throat to hose grey water and blood back up through a tube. Lauda grips the bed for life. And through roasted eyes that barely open, he watches Hunt on TV shaking his trophy. “Do it again,” Lauda orders through bruised lungs. He remains captive in bed as Hunt takes race after race on the screen, gaining upon Lauda’s lead in the world championship. You cringe with him the day he attempts to put his helmet on over the raw skin that is his head and face.

Ready for another victory on the tracks of the Italian Grand Prix with his rival out of the way, Hunt is stunned to learn Lauda has showed up six weeks after the accident. The movie doesn’t show him peeling off the blood-soaked bandages he undid in reality on site. Hunt approaches his arch nemesis in one of several poignant exchanges. He admits responsibility for swaying the vote that fateful day. “Yes, I watched you win those races while I was fighting for my life. You were equally responsible for getting me back in the car,” answers Lauda.

Lauda pushes himself to higher ground off the best of his opponent. No excuses. Not the ear he’s lost along with almost half his face and head. No matter that charred lungs protest every breath and his skin screams to the touch. He concentrates on what’s louder, the vow to remain equal to none. Rest? Heal? He might as well hand the years of his sweat and showdown with death over to his enemy. Lauda has fought many times over and there remains nothing but to preserve all he has built and achieved from scratch, the record of his undying determination. To be ruthless with his foe is to be so with himself.

The roar and smell of engines come at Lauda – trauma and inspiration. I wonder about the things that assaulted his mind as he waited to spring forward once again on that impossible road. The real racer off screen admitted to having been absolutely petrified, as credible heroes go. As some of us know, it is extremely difficult getting behind the wheel again after any auto accident.

The cars take off – and one after another pass Lauda. Sluggish, he weaves onto grass. Then drivers collide in front of him and he manages to clear through the alarming confusion. He surges forward. I won’t say how he places in the race but the crowd that rallies to this champion afterward reveals something of our longing to look up to, even worship, those who conquer themselves and light our hope.

Every race that follows the crash revisits the question of wisdom and foolhardiness, of fear and courage – and offers the men the chance to choose security over risk. The finals for the world title in Fuji finds Lauda at 68 points to Hunt’s 65. And it’s pouring. This time it’s Hunt who tries to call if off but the forces that be push the event forward. Drivers gun their engines at the starting line and you see Hunt and Lauda, grim inside cars that look like sleek coffins.

I rein in the eagerness to comment on the climax of this saga. But some beautiful moments that speak of relationships and character redemption sparkle throughout the edgy drama. They explore what competition does for us. In speaking of the final match where Hunt risks all to burst through the ranks, he later says to Lauda, “Yes, I was prepared to die to beat you, and that’s what made it so great.” In a high-stake sport like racing, victory seems a triple glory: you’ve subdued your will, vanquished your adversary, and evaded death. Hunt lets us in on the thrill of live-wire living: “the closer to death you are the more alive you feel.”

The photo above moves me to see Lauda looking upon it from the other side of time. There he sits three years before the accident after which doctors would give him up for lost, three years before he would find himself permanently disfigured. The picture tells of dreams, talent, hope, fortitude – a destiny. Though Rush gives us glimpses of the answers, I am left to wonder. What lessons did he take away from the years battling Hunt? Did he gain what he desired? Did loss redeem triumph? Has he ever let himself down in racing? Did victory bring joy?

 

Well, What If You’re Not Good Enough?

The TV clip at the gym caught my eye even though I knew nothing of Sara. It was a replay of her win in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. McMann stood on the podium, the first American woman to earn a silver in Olympic wrestling. And she was crushed. She hung her head because it was nothing less than gold she’d wanted.

The snapshot was in part a preview of the highly anticipated Mixed Martial Arts match between her and undefeated female MMA world champion Ronda Rousey. When Sara became pregnant she realized she was not done competing. After having her daughter, she took up Mixed Martial Arts. Here she was, gearing up to face the most talented, feared fighter in women’s MMA. I never cared to watch Ronda. It was enough and somewhat reasonable that I came to appreciate men in their fighting glory. I couldn’t wrap my head around women’s flexing biceps and bashing each other in the face. But Sara’s journey was so intriguing I was sold on the match to come. Many of you know achievement is a pet topic of mine. The women rekindled my fascination with people who “repudiate mediocrity, forgive nothing substandard,” as I’ve said in Part One of my series on greatness. Now I’d like to explore in a more personal way the question of being good enough.

See, I saw myself, I saw culture when I contemplated Sara’s face on that Olympic stage. She didn’t look Korean, but she was. Second place is not something Koreans are proud of. The “as long as you did your best” is a delusional American dream. McMann said, “I fight to win.” No one does this to lose. She and Ronda attacked the gym, beat their body because only one would walk away with the championship.

Few of us live for a tangible trophy but these stars play out on the global radar what the rest of us do in our own little world. We all want to win. What do you like to win at? I mean, do you get up and clock in at the office for the distinction of Mediocre Employee of the Month or the reputation as the weakest link on your team? Do you set out in the morning to be a bad mom? You don’t play Monopoly to go bankrupt. We don’t always vie for the farthest we can go but our pride keeps us from sinking beyond a certain point. We want to be good enough. I can’t count how many feel-good posts I run into that assure me I am beautiful enough, strong, smart, talented enough and gosh darn it, don’t let anyone tell me otherwise. What does this mean? That we’re all attractive? How can you tell me I measure up when you don’t even know me? I’m bad at so many things. I couldn’t resist leaving this comment once on a blog: “I am not a troll. I’d just like to share another perspective. What if you really are not good enough?” If we’re all so hunky dory, why bother with certificates, honors, congratulations? Obviously we reward those among us who stand out.

Talk about standing out.

The first American to win an Olympic medal in women’s judo, Ronda Rousey has transformed women’s MMA on the international field of sports. The fight with Sara I did go on to watch was the main event of the night, the other matches all men. Unheard of. Can you imagine men flocking to watch women’s basketball or soccer? But flock they did to catch the Olympiads, “two elite athletes in their prime.” The commentator said of Ronda, “She’s beautiful, she’s bad. Her skill is unparalleled. With no losses, she’s the perfect face of MMA.” Sara was the greatest challenge Ronda had faced in her career up ’til then and she had no plans to give away her title. “Have you ever lost in the Olympics? My mom was the world champion in Judo and she was the first American to ever do it and I had my shot to be like my mom [at] the world championships in Judo and I lost. It feels like dying to me. I’d rather die,” she said on Showtime recently. It isn’t just her drive and record that set Ronda apart. She’s Drama Queen. Known as a polarizing figure, you love this villain or hate her. And people don’t want you staying at the top, not when the world is your footstool.

So what happened with her and Sara?

It was vicious from the get-go. No feeling each other out, as I’ve seen with 170 pounds of male muscle. Sara gave Ronda a run for her money but in a sudden turn of events went down in the fastest knockout in history. After throwing a series of ground strikes, Ronda kneed her in the liver. Sara just went limp and the referee called it out to keep her from further injury. The glare Ronda had painted on broke into a sweet smile of exultation and Sara looked to be holding back tears. Female tears. The fighting wasn’t over; she had to stonewall the tenderness that makes her a woman, in a cage (we call the octagon) no less. Sara managed to compose herself and answered into the mike with clear answers and a smile. It was her own fault: “I should’ve gotten off the cage [wall] faster. I wouldn’t have gotten kneed.” Excuses are lame and owning up is noble but — an apology? I’ve not watched that many men fight but have yet to hear them apologize for losing.

It was an interesting, puzzling end to a cliff-hanger of a fight. How we handle defeat and aching disappointment. While my own sense of fulfillment grows from the things I labor over successfully, my sense of worth is not tied up in what I can and cannot achieve. At the same time, what’s hair-raising about a high-profile competition is you win all or lose all. Whether you miss by a hairsbreadth or a freefall, you staked everything and that is what you feel you’ve lost. Where does our fear of not measuring up come from? Did your upbringing feed your need to prove yourself? The commentator said, “There’s a big difference between wanting and needing to win.” Your thoughts?