“Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.” ― Neal Stephenson
Earlier in my life, when I had fewer commitments and a much larger collection of Batman comics, I went through a phase of spending my biggest yearly holiday – usually a month or so, because I was a freelancer – going somewhere far-flung and learning to fight there. Back in Blighty, I’d put it all to use at my local boxing/Muay Thai/BJJ gyms, and then I’d realise I was rubbish at something and head out elsewhere to fix it. Some of the styles I learned were practical, others less so, and (spoilers!) I never reached the martial heights of a young Bruce Wayne. But still, those were experiences I’ll never regret, because of what I learned on top of all the teep kicks and armlocks. Because fighting is a tough thing to do, and it will teach you about the right way to do other tough things. Here’s some of what it taught me.
1. I am not so tough
Once you can hold your own in the soft, warming cocoon of your local gym, it’s easy to think you’re pretty badass. In the wider world of fighting, this goes away quickly. For me, the holy-shit-I’m-weak moment came when I watched my first practice at Taguo, China’s toughest san da school and home to more than 13,000 students. At Taguo, which is a major recruiting ground for the Chinese police and military, students train twice a day, in forms, sparring and weapons. Every day. For three years. It’s probably fair to say that most of them would smash you to bits in a fight. Being humble is good, and sometimes it’s a good idea to good somewhere where it’s basically impossible to be otherwise.
2. Overtraining is less likely than you think
Recently, it’s become fashionable to worry about ‘overtraining’ – like your three-day-a-week workout schedule is going to smash you into the ground if you don’t foam roll and douse yourself in magnesium every night. I don’t entirely disagree with this – I’m pretty sure I’ve dabbled with overtraining myself – but it’s certainly overexaggerated. In Shaolin, the monks train for about four hours a day. Ditto in many Muay Thai camps. In Brazil, guys will happily turn up in the morning, train MMA, then turn up again at night for two hours of rolling. Most of them have side-jobs, or at least other responsibilities. Very few of them have access to magnesium.
3. Fighters are friendly
Fighting is one of the best ways to see the world – providing you approach it in the right way. In Brazil, where BJJ is a fairly middle-class sport practised by the cool kids, I spent more than one night getting blitzed in some terrifying club that I’d never have normally gone in…with a gang of black belts at my side. In Shaolin, I played basketball with the monks, who consistently dunked on me despite having an average height of about 5’3″. In Japan, where I had a sling on my arm from a Thai-clinch accident, I ended up drinking with a local who’d spent six months practising Muay Boran after he watched Ong Bak (it later emerged that he managed to get shot in Afghanistan after watching Apocalypse Now). He even offered to spar with me. By getting on the mat or in the ring, you’re (hopefully) showing that you have a respect for the traditions of the country you’re visiting, and are willing to work hard and get beaten up. Money can’t buy that kind of connection.
4. …And mostly nice people
It’s rare that you’ll meet someone who’s good at Brazilian jiu-jitsu and also a total dick. This is a Darwinian thing: you will spend a lot of time ‘losing’ throughout your BJJ career, and if you haven’t got the ego to put up with that, you’re going to leave. Similar things are true of many fight sports, which means that most of the people you meet on a fight vacation will be excellent.
5. Basics are crucial
If you go to the right places, you will meet people who are incredible at fighting. And the best of them will mostly do the same thing: the basics. I met Brazilian black belts who could tap almost anyone with the same cross-collar chokes I learned as a white belt, and Shaolin monks who could make lian huan quan, one of the most basic forms, look more impressive than any acrobatic routine. The best guys elevate the simplest things to a level beginners can barely comprehend. This is a good thing to aspire to.
6. Bruce Lee was right
In Rawai Muay Thai, every day finished with 100 teeps, 100 knees, and 100 hard roundhouse kicks on the bag. That’s the most basic moves possible, for a total of roughly 2,000 kicks each in under a month. When I went back home, my instructor remarked on how much harder my kicks were. Flashy stuff is nice, but kicking really hard is better. Or, in the words of the little Dragon: ‘I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.’
7. You don’t need to go abroad to learn any of this
Travelling is fantastic for what it will teach you, and the experiences and fun you’ll have, but you don’t need it. I’ve trained in enough boxing, MMA and BJJ gyms in the UK to know that the instruction is just as good over here – and so are the lessons you’ll learn. The most important thing is to start: pick the thing you want to do, and start doing it. Do it as hard as you can. And see where it takes you.
HOMEWORK: Practice something basic every day this week. Improve.