Sunday, February 25, 2007

He Likes You, He Wants to Fight You!


I'd be surprised if you recognized that the title of this piece comes from the original Rocky movie. A fight promoter utters the line while convincing Rocky that the world heavyweight boxing champion, Apollo Creed, wants the "Italian Stallion" to enter the ring against him. The quote came to my mind when I was remembering how much I used to enjoy mixing it up in 3-minute sparring rounds.


It started when my son was about six and we stopped into a local martial arts center. I thought karate might help him with his confidence, poise, discipline, all that thing. Plus, truth be told, I think I also secretly hoped it might prove useful some day, perhaps preventing him from ever being picked on. Why I thought this was important is a mystery to me now. He’s always been a big guy compared to most kids his age, and not likely to have anyone bully him.

Anyway, the next thing I know we were both in a class together, learning the rigors and intricacies of a traditional Okinawan style of “empty hand” (the Japanese translation for karate). I figured it would be a good opportunity for me to lose some weight and get into shape, as well as provide a nice venue for father and son to learn something together. I had taken judo for a couple of years as an early adolescent, and I don't think my father ever even saw me in uniform.

Although it was pitched as a parent-child class, during the time I was there it remained primarily a bunch of kids of varying age.....and me. Every now and then another adult would sign up for the class, but none of them ever seemed to continue long enough to gain the necessary skill level where we could spar. So I learned 'katas', traditional forms of ritualized movements designed to teach the skills at a very deep level of muscle memory. I got so I could perform a series of highly complex and impressive-looking movements blind-folded, moving around a mat quickly and gracefully to end up in the precise spot I started from.

Only every blue moon would I get the chance to spar an instructor. Those were the moments I learned to live for. It was very safe, given that everybody wore head protection as well as gloves and protective footgear. I enjoyed it so much I engaged one of the instructors in private sparring lessons. I turned my basement into a makeshift training area, with heavy hanging bag, kicking dummy and speedbag.

After I had been training a little less than a year I entered the Battle of Atlanta, a regional martial arts tournament. Since there are not many beginning martial artists in thier 40's, I had virtually no competition in my age and skill class, so even though I won my division it was disappointing to me. I remember riding home on the MARTA train lugging two trophies almost as tall as me. (The psychologically savvy part of me has always assumed there is some sort of compensatory mechanism going on that requires so many martial arts trophies to be very big.)

After a period of time it became apparent to me that I was not going to be satisfied taking a class with so few other adults, so I left the dojo and began training at a gym that specialized in Muay Thai kickboxing and mixed martial arts. Goodbye to rituals such as bowing to the sensei and performing endless katas; hello to endless jump-rope drills for stamina and footwork and hours of heavy bag work for kicks. The culture at this gym was that if you didn’t throw up from exhaustion the first day of practice you might gain some grudging respect from the other fighters. I made it, but just barely.

I learned many practical sides to combat that took my prowess to a new level. I also got my butt kicked more times than not. These guys were very good, and most were 15 to 25 years younger than me. But my traditional Okinawan style had trained me well in the limited skills it taught me, and I was able to show those pups a thing or two.....but not three.

I remember when I first sparred one of the advanced students and executed a tight spin that landed the side of my fist solidly and surprisingly just above his ear. I apologized almost instinctively but he smiled and paid me a compliment for the skillful sting. And another time I was able to effectively use a technique known as shuto knife hand to gain a momentary advantage against another formidable opponent. For the most part, however, I usually found myself pinned to the ground within a minute or two, and was often forced to “tap out” (admit defeat) before passing out from a choke hold.

I loved it, whether victory or defeat. I rarely felt so alive as when I was in the ring for a three minute spar. Nothing else mattered, everything else faded away except for that moment and that opponent. I tried to get my mind out of the way, to be both fierce and wily, to mix styles in a varied pattern of attack and defense. And afterwards, everybody shook hands, complimented each other, helped each other out. It was camaraderie of the first degree.

However, it was also a hobby that caused me to injure myself on more than one occasion, and I eventually hung up my gloves after a year and a half. Looking back to this time from the vantage point of just a few years I can see the water line of my "young man" days, the demarcation point when I fully and somewhat gracefully accepted myself as a middle-aged man. I may have literally fought my way to the point where I came to appreciate my essential human frailty, but in doing so I grew to know, honor and accept a valuable part of myself that I had never before acknowledged, much less harnessed. Some of my friends questioned how I could be a Quaker and a fighter, but I saw no incompatibility. I may even return to some form of martial arts some day, although it will probably be a more fluid and non-aggressive form such as aikido. Whether I do or not I will carry the gains I learned in the ring with me forever.

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