For the past 3 months or so now I’ve been training for my debut amateur Muay Thai bout.
Muay Thai, which is a traditional martial art from Thailand, is one of the most utilized striking styles in combat sports today. The Art of the 8 Limbs as they call it is a martial art forged in extreme endurance and pain meant to break one’s will so that you are capable of breaking someone else’s once you get good enough at it to fight. If you’ve ever watched a UFC fight card you have more than likely seen a fighter use Muay Thai in their stand-up game and it’s violent to put it mildly.
For the past few months, my training has steadily increased in volume each week. What was once for the most part a hobby that I would train in three to four times each week, is now a lot closer to a military-esque regimen of waking up early in the morning to run for an hour then going to train immediately following work for additional two to three. Monday through Friday is now basically a non-stop marathon between training, work, then training again. Just a few weeks ago I weighed in at roughly 158 pounds.
This morning after my run I am at 148.
All this, mind you, isn’t just to sculp a cut beach body for myself though. It’s to harden it against the harm I’m going to put myself through come September 30th when I will willingly step into the ring to face another martial artist who is more than likely training just as hard, if not harder than me right now, for the chance to take my own head off.
What in the world compels me to put myself through such hell and pain just so I can be ready to put myself in exponentially more physical danger that might end with me kissing the canvas and waking up to the rounding applause and cheers of the crowd as I potentially become a part of my opponent’s career highlight reel? What drives me to do something so inherently dangerous when I have every reason to stop it now and just stay home? Why is it worth the risk for me?
This is a question asked in the early minutes of a frankly underappreciated 2013 film by director Ron Howard called “Rush.” The movie is an adaptation of the real-life events of Formula 1 racing legends Niki Lauda played by also underappreciated Daniel Bruhl and James Hunt played by Chris Hemsworth. The film centers around their famous rivalry but is largely narrated and told from the perspective of Bruhl’s Lauda who makes these remarks in the opening scene:
Formula 1 Racing and racing sports in general of course are extremely dangerous. It’s not totally abnormal for either drivers to barely escape gnarly crashes or not escape at all. Though the vast majority of fatalities occurred between the 50s and 70s, 52 drivers have met their end competing in this sport and though conditions are considerably safer now the risk still remains for these drivers. As Lauda mentions in the opening scene “What kind of person does a job like this?” Obviously, it takes a certain kind of person to willingly step into the driver seat of a Formula 1 car knowing that they can end up being a statistic and as Lauda puts it it’s “not a normal man for sure.”
I’ve had the same thoughts as a fan of combat sports for years, that to be able to willingly step into the ring or cage you gotta be at least a little nutty. A little abnormal. To find fun in fighting and getting hit potentially very hard in the face takes a certain kind of mentality that the vast majority of the human race will never have.
I happen to be one of these kinds of people though somehow despite growing up a pretty reserved and quiet person. When I first started sparring, first in a small MMA class at a UFC brand gym back in 2015, I was initially as spooked and tentative as anyone would be trying this out but as I kept doing it and got better and better I found myself getting an almost perverse joy from fighting. To get hit and keep going then deal some punishment of my own gave me a “Rush,” if you will, akin to what I imagine barbarian berserkers felt after taking a third arrow to their body while laying siege to Constantinople at the fall of the Byzantine Empire.
It was “fun,” even on days where I wasn’t my best and after I started training officially at a Muay Thai gym in 2018 I started to think about fighting for real finally and what that might be like.
It was like a virus in my brain that kept growing and growing, making me increasingly anxious as I kept asking myself “When? When are you going to fight?”
I kept putting it off though. Social and work responsibilities kept me from training as often as I wanted to and I kept telling myself I would try when conditions were more perfect and I was ready. I kept setting new deadlines for myself for years going “Okay, you have until age 26 to do this.” Then it became do it by age 28, 29, 30, 31 and now here I am at 32.
In truth, I don’t think I’m perfectly ready for this even now. I’m not as strong as I would like to be, I’ve only been training like a competing athlete for maybe two months now and there’s still holes to my fight style I feel can be exploited to my possible doom come September 30th.
So, what is compelling me to do this anyway? I’m exhausted pretty much all the time lately and come home with my muscles aching and my bones creaking every night. Though I’ve learned more in these two months about fighting than perhaps the previous three years combined, fighting doesn’t often feel very fun for me lately either. It’s become work because I do it now because I have to and not because I want to so much.
I also know that I can actually quit at any time. I could go into my gym later tonight and tell my coach “Actually, I got nothing left. I’m tired and I don’t want to do this anymore.” I’m sure he and my teammates would be disappointed, maybe even angry, but it wouldn’t be the first time for them that someone has done this and I’m a part of a sensible enough gym that I’m fairly certain they wouldn’t hold that against me or judge my character too harshly from it.
I also know that no matter how much physical and mental pain I’ve been experiencing lately, I cannot and will not run away from this. I know that the weeks leading up to my fight will be hell on Earth, especially during my weight cut, but I will never quit unless I’m actually dying. Why is that?
In that opening intro, Lauda answers that question pretty clearly by saying that the people who are willing to step into the cockpit of a Formula 1 race car and risk it all are “People who are desperate to make a mark and are prepared to die trying.”
In life we all set goals. A large percentage of them we will never see come to pass but when you’re good at something and you have a chance to prove it, it’s hard not to risk everything to make it happen. The chance to know success at something you’re truly passionate about will outweigh any desire to quit and run away.
What follows this scene is a story that explores both what success means to two vastly different people in Lauda and Hunt but also what each is willing to sacrifice to achieve their goals. We see scenes where the story reminds the viewer of the dangers of this kind of sport and how these drivers are very aware of it themselves despite their masculine bravado. Hemsworth’s Hunt even throws-up before one race after an accident occurs on the track as we understand that he’s been shaken back into the reality again of what he does for a living and the risks involved.
But he continues racing anyway.
I’ve had similar experiences lately imagining my upcoming fight and all the possibilities that may occur from it. There are moments where I genuinely feel excited, even completely at ease about the fight imagining my opponent to be easier than expected, handling my nerves in front of the crowd and scoring a victory be it by judges’ decision or perhaps even by knockout.
Then there are moments where I feel caged in, like I can’t escape this inevitable march toward my own destruction, that this fight will be sooo much harder than I could possibly imagine, and it could end in the worst way possible.
I’m actually acutely aware of what that worst possible outcome is in fact because I have been knocked out before.
Back in 2019, I was sparring with a dude at my previous Muay Thai gym I used to train at where things were going smoothly at first until it wasn’t. We were in control and I was even having quite a bit of fun sparring with him but for one reason or another the guy turned on the jets for one overhand right during a moment my left hand was lower than it should’ve been and the next thing I remember I was getting picked up off the matt dazed and confused.
It was scary to suddenly have 10 seconds of my life just disappear from memory. I don’t even remember if it was actually an overhand I ate on that collision too; I was only told that was what happened. I was sad, angry, scared and everything in between. I kept myself out of training for a couple weeks after that and experienced mood swings from hell and some bad migraines due to the concussion I sustained for at least a month. I didn’t return to sparring for an additional three months too, partly as a medical recommendation but truthfully because I was terrified of it happening again. The risk felt too great, and it made me gun shy in my fighting for at least a year after that.
Over the years I had moved on from this fear for the most part and started to get my confidence in my skills back but now with this fight looming and not simply some fantasy in the back of my mind I have found myself thinking about that moment three years ago quite a bit again and it scares me.
But again, I’ve made up my mind that I’m going to do this because I want to finally know what success feels like and this is the only chance right now I have at knowing that. More importantly though, it’s to prove that I am capable of doing this to everyone who watches me on this night.
I want to finally face my fears and come out victorious.
For most of my life I have lived my life largely on the safe side of things. My mom instilled in me at an early age a sense of paranoia about the world. She would make me wash my hands constantly to avoid even the smallest chance of getting sick. Tell me to not play with pointy objects because I could get hurt while other kids kept doing it. I was taught not to talk back to anyone or I’ll incur their wrath. Even when I got good at anything there was always these dissuasive words about what it would take to be successful at it and the pitfalls of failure and it made me tentative about doing anything if I could not do it perfectly from the start.
I’ve largely lived my life in some form of fear because of this and it has bled into everything. There have been times where I could have stood up for myself be it socially or professionally and chose not to out of fear and a flawed sense of self-preservation. I have avoided telling people my real feelings about certain things, people or themselves, again to keep a false sense of peace because I feared what would happen if I were honest.
I couldn’t tell someone I loved them fairly recently in fact, when an obvious opportunity to do so came up, because, again, I reverted back to staying safe and self-preservation. I just couldn’t risk it.
Fighting for me is about finally facing those fears in more ways than one. To prove that I have courage within in me to step into a dangerous situation where I can actually physically get hurt, just as it happened before, and come out on top.
For Lauda and Hunt there’s a similar drive to face their fears and more importantly prove it to their doubters along the way. For simplicity sake, I will only comment on what is told in the movie and not their real life counterparts but for Lauda it was showing his father that racing wasn’t some childish pipedream, that he could not only win it all but consistently win it year after year in the F1 Grand Prix. For Hunt it was about showing that he wasn’t some fuck up trust fund kid, and that a guy as immature as him could win the Grand Prix his way in contrast to Lauda’s more disciplined driving philosophy.
The movie reminds the viewers of the risks involved with this life’s pursuit though, not too unlike but certainly far scarier than the knockout I suffered years ago, as bad conditions on the day of the German Grand Prix in the film leads to a fateful accident that permanently scars Lauda with burns across his face and skull. A “normal man” would probably hang it up right there and no one would blame them; why risk it all again after barely cheating death once. But Lauda’s rivalry with Hunt compels him to keep going, perhaps to prove that this grievous injury was merely a setback in his own path back to greatness or to show up “that asshole” as Lauda puts it.
Though in the final race Lauda ultimately chooses to quit before its end, he reminds the viewer that sacrifice comes in more than one form in pursuit of one’s goals. In this case, he understood given his condition, the state of the track he was racing on, and the desire to see his beloved wife again that he didn’t need to win this one.
It’s because he already proved that he could come back and it wasn’t worth risking things any further than that.
In many ways, making the commitment for this fight despite my fears around what I experienced proves something to myself as well. Though the ultimate goal is to win, of course, just stepping into the ring after what happened will be a victory too in many ways for myself. I will have conquered my fear there in that way.
We get to see what success looks like on the other side of this rivalry, however. Hunt does end up finishing the race and finally becomes the champion shortly after and all the success and joys that come from that. He proved he could win the Grand Prix and from there settled into a life of simply enjoying himself. For Lauda he would keep racing because again success to him was consistency but for Hunt, as Lauda remarks “he had proved what he needed to prove to himself and anyone who doubted him.”
Success doesn’t have a concrete definition in this way because success is different for everyone because we all have different goals in our life, even within the same competitive and social fields. Fighting is simply one goal I have but it’s the most important goal I have for myself right now. This fight is a chance to check one thing off my bucket list so to speak.
In fact I think it will be the first item I’ve ever checked off the list.
I still have friends, family, and co-workers act surprised to know, after years of training in this, that I’m willing to do this considering what they know about me as a person and my temperament. But this fight is to prove to them all who I really am. To be able tell anyone who has ever doubted how tough I am and what I’m capable of that they were wrong. I imagine my opponent this night has his own aspirations and goals he’s looking to prove against me. Perhaps he wants to do this as his first steppingstone toward becoming a champion someday or maybe he’s like me and simply wants to say he did it and face his own fears.
Either way, on September 30th, we’re both going to try to prove something to each other and to those watching and only one of us will know victory ultimately on that night.
I see a bit of myself in both these characters in “Rush.” There’s a part of me that relates quite heavily to Nikki’s own sense of self preservation when he states he never takes a risk “higher than 20 percent” but nonetheless desires to win it all every single time he races. Then there’s Hunt who I feel a kindred spirit with in that all this training and whatever victory I may get out of this won’t mean much if I don’t get to enjoy it and more importantly “Have fun.”
Either way, “Rush” is a great film that illustrates what success means to two very different people and also what they are willing to risk and sacrifice for it. For Hunt, in the film’s final race, he was willing to die to achieve victory while Lauda was not but Hunt was also, as history shows, not willing to risk it again much further than that because again, he had proved what he needed to prove already.
Growing up I was never a successful athlete. I never once scored a goal in my youth soccer days. My grand total career highlight in the YMCA Boys Basketball league was going one for two at the free throw line in just one of the games I played. I never got to score a touchdown in football or experience the adrenaline of playing in front of a large high school crowd. And though I did kendo in my teens and even won a couple tourney matches, I was still lost the vast majority of them. In this way I have never truly experienced victory on this level or know what it’s like to achieve true success.
This fight is the culmination of roughly seven years of training and a chance to finally know that feeling. I have spent nearly seven years mostly doubting my abilities despite seeing actual exponential growth in these skills. I’ve always felt, again, that I could fight at this level, but doubt held me back for probably a year or three longer than I would have otherwise.
And now I’m here. Roughly a month out from destiny.
I don’t know yet how I’m going to feel after this fight on September 30th. If I lose, considering how much I’ve already sacrificed for this, will I want to do it again or will just being there be enough? Assuming I win, am I going to be content with just one? Retire undefeated from amateur fighting right then and there because I faced my fears once and that was enough? Or would I want to prove it again? Would I want to prove that I can become an even greater martial artist?
Whatever I decide to do, what I do know is that winning will mean the world to me either way and I imagine it would not be too different from what Lauda and Hunt felt back in the 1970s even if it’s a far smaller scale competition by comparison. It’s a chance for me to truly step out of my comfort zone, “cheat death” as Hunt mentions, and prove what I am capable of, and to have something no one can ever takeaway from me; success.
And that might be worth risking everything for…