When I was in grade school, the town bully took my very favorite hat right off my head. It was raining. He taunted me and pushed me around. He said all I had to do was punch him and he’d give me my hat back.
At 12 years old, I already had a strong conviction and I did not want to resort to violence. I wouldn’t punch him. I refused. I let him trip me and throw me into a puddle. I let him call me names. Tell me that I’d never get through life being as weak as I was. He told me he was doing me a favor: toughening me up. It took everything I had not to burst into tears. I just stood there and refused to retaliate. We were there, him taunting me, for what seemed like hours.
When he finally let me go (he kept my hat), I cried all the way home. I ran straight to my room without saying hello to my mom.
All I had to do was hit him, and it would’ve ended. But I didn’t. I convinced myself that it was because I was against violence, which I was and still am, but the truth is that he was right; I wasn’t tough enough. If I punched him, I wouldn’t have hurt him and he would’ve just had more fuel to bully me.
If I were confident enough to know that my punch would’ve gotten him off my back, I would’ve hit him as hard as I could. But I was skinny, lanky and probably would’ve sprained my wrist punching a pillow, let alone some bully’s stupid fat head.
I cannot tell you how many times I fantasized about going back to that moment and just knocking the kid out, grabbing my hat from his limp, unconscious, stupid hands and skipping home.
But I just wasn’t tough enough. And that’s how it went for most of my life. I quit a great hockey team in high school because of getting beaten up in the locker rooms and being constantly pushed around by the jerks of the team.
I dreamed of being tough.
When I was 8, I tried karate. It seemed dumb so I quit after I got my yellow belt. At 19, I joined a boxing gym. After a month, I quit because the trainer poked fun at me a little. I couldn’t get past him laughing when I threw a punch wrong.
I was weak. I was a pansy. I was never going to be tough. I accepted it.
In late October of 2009, I got dumped by a girl and kicked out of our house. I was lonely and did nothing but go to university classes and massage therapy classes. A friend from massage school called me and asked if I could help her give massages to a bunch of people. There were too many for her to do on her own.
“It’s at an MMA gym,” she said.
“MMA. Mixed Martial Arts? Like, a fighting gym? No thanks. I don’t want to go to a fighting gym.” By that point in my life, I was so insecure that I wouldn’t even go. I didn’t want to deal with the egotistical tough guys. I didn’t feel like getting made fun of for being skinny or not knowing how to punch. I didn’t want to get pushed around by any of those tough-guy fighters.
But my friend also exploited some of my weaknesses: She was a cute girl and I was itching for something to do. I just got dumped and a cute girl is giving me something to do. “I’ll be there in 10 minutes.”
The Ultimate Fight School.
I walked in and it smelled terrible. It was loud. There was cheesy power metal playing. I heard the banging of punches and kicks hitting the pads. It sounded like a machine gun. A really smelly machine gun. There were tons of sweaty guys working out and a few giant, tattooed, shirtless men walking around. I wished I wore closed toe shoes so I could’ve covered the dainty little elephant tattoo on my foot. It no longer seemed cool.
My friend introduced me to the owner of the gym, Chris. He was the loudest one of them all, but extremely kind and welcoming. He introduced me to a bunch of the other giant tattooed fellows. They shocked me with their kindness. There was none of the egotistical bravado that I was expecting. No one tried to act tough or intimidate me.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and my body has definitely taken a beating,” Chris boomed.
I was thinking, owning a gym is hard on your body? But it turned out he actually made his money by fighting professionally. I kind of laughed. Ok, pro-fighter, is that why you’re having an unlicensed massage student give you a massage?
After a massage and conversation, he asked if we could make this a regular thing because he had a fight coming up or something and he wanted to be in perfect shape. I was super excited at the idea but being all too honest, I told him that, as a student, I couldn’t get paid for massage.
He said, “Ok, what if I gave you a gym membership and you gave me massages.”
All of my hesitations temporarily faded away. My opportunity to learn to fight. I couldn’t pass it up. I agreed.
I told a friend about my new job. He asked what the fighter’s name was. I told him it was Chris something or other.
“Chris Leben?!?!?” He was immediately excited.
“Yeah, I think that’s his name. You know him?” I was a little confused.
It turns out that Chris Leben is a legitimate and super popular professional fighter. The fight coming up was in the UFC. I wasn’t entirely sure what that was, so my friend invited me to watch a UFC event at his house.
This is the gym I signed up for? Oh boy.
For the first few months, I gave Chris a massage and took a boxing class right after. I completely sucked at boxing, but was actually improving. I tried the kickboxing class. Sucked at that, too, but I was getting constant help from all the experienced guys.
My particular situation made training there incredible. I was introduced to the fighters and coaches by Chris, so I knew everyone and they all treated me like a little brother. I was really enjoying it. And I was almost able to get through the classes without having to skip half of the push-ups.
Chris won his fight, which was in early January of 2010 and called me afterwards to ask me to continue with our deal. I also started massaging a few other fighters in the gym and for payment, they gave me private kickboxing lessons.
At this point, I’d learned how to kick pretty hard with decent form. I could finally punch without looking like a pansy. I was feeling pretty fit.
In May of that year, I was asked by a fighter to give him a massage at the gym during a fight team practice. At Chris Leben’s Ultimate Fight School, they had a fight team that practiced every weekday. The team consisted of Chris training for his UFC fight and the other fighters training for local events. They would spar and work on advanced fighting techniques. I’d watched the team practice a few times. It looked pretty hardcore.
I showed up to the gym and the fighter I was supposed to massage was wrapping his hands, getting ready for practice.
“Sorry! I wanted to take the day off, but I got sucked into training,” he said.
Before I had a chance to be upset about wasting a trip, I heard Chris’ loud voice saying, “Wrap your hands, James. I want you to train with us today.”
Terror whipped down my spine. Over the past few months, I’d gotten comfortable hitting pads with mediocre technique but at team practices, they punched each other. They did takedowns, submission grappling. They practiced holding each other down and punching each other. I couldn’t possibly do any of it. I’d never even tried anything other than boxing and kickboxing.
I was in so far over my head. I had absolutely no business training with them. There were people so much better than me who asked multiple times to be on the fight team but weren’t allowed.
Some UFC fighter just said that he wants me to train with him. Ok. I just blinked a few times and wrapped my hands. What else can you do in that situation?
We ran through a warm-up and a bunch of drills. I was extremely slow to catch on. By the time I almost understood what we were supposed to do, we were already starting the next drill.
And then. The worst thing. Chris said, “Let’s do some sparring drills.”
I was horrified. I’d never sparred before. I was convinced I wasn’t ready. I was very right.
The drill we did had some name like “shark tank” or “bull pen” or “scorpion lair” but anytime someone told me what we were about to do, I just heard, “You’re about to get beaten up,” so I never actually caught the real name of the drill.
It went like this: About 6 people stood in a large circle. For a 3-minute round, one person would stand in the middle while the others, one at a time, would take turns fighting the one in the middle. I was terrified to be one of the guys in the perimeter, let alone the one in the middle.
I clearly didn’t volunteer to be in the middle. Luckily, for the perimeter guys, it was only about 30 seconds at a time and I went last for every round, so the guy in the middle was kind of tired by the time I got in. I tried to look like I was fighting, but not actually fight. I threw some punches way out of range, moved around and mostly held my breath.
But then it was my turn. 3 minutes. I had to fight for three minutes. I stepped into the middle and tried to not pee.
For the first five seconds, I feel like I did great. Then someone threw a punch at me. All but one of these people knew my horrific lack of experience, so they were not hitting me hard, but it hurt me really bad anyway. I didn’t know how to block. Every punch anyone threw got through my hands and landed right on my face. My head bounced all over.
The last person in was the guy that I didn’t know. He was there to fight and didn’t know (or didn’t care) how new I was. He immediately hit me really hard and I didn’t block it.
That punch knocked loose every bad experience I had in my life and they all played back in my head. “You’re not tough. You’re an idiot. How are you going to get through life being this weak? You’re pathetic, scrawny. You can’t even defend yourself. I’m just trying to toughen you up. I’m doing you a favor. Go home. You don’t belong here.”
And he kept hitting me. I didn’t even try to punch back. I just tried to cover my head and hide the fact that I was crying. At some point, I heard someone say, “Hey, hey, hey! Take it easy!!!”
I finally heard the BEEP of the 3-minute timer. I was alive. I was defeated. I was reminded of how weak I was. Team practice was over and I wanted nothing more than to leave and never come back.
My face was throbbing. I was hyperventilating. I was wiping my face with my boxing gloves still on my hands, trying to make it seem like I had something in my eyes.
One of the experienced fighters in the gym noticed that I was just humiliated and immediately came over to me.
“Here, let’s show you how to block those punches, eh? It’s a lot better than getting punched in the face so much,” he said as he smiled and hit my shoulder.
He took me through each punch and showed me how to block it. Definitely a crash course. It was about 15 minutes of, “If he does this, do this…but if he does this, do this.”
I realized how far I had to come in order to learn how to fight. But I made a decision right then: I would learn to fight. That was the last time I was going to be humiliated and convinced I was weak. Never again.
The universe heard my commitment. The school semester was about to end and I couldn’t go to summer school because my student loan application was denied. I was still lonely and broken-hearted. I was about to have some serious financial troubles and tons of free time.
I asked Chris for a job. I started immediately. He told me to come to team practice everyday at 3:30 and then run the front desk afterwards until the gym closed at 8pm. That lasted for about 3 weeks until the gym was understaffed and I volunteered to pick up more hours.
Running the front desk was an easy job and during the summer, there was not much to do. Every weekday, I was at the gym from 12-8. My job was to answer the phone, which didn’t ring, and help people when they needed help, which they never needed.
A typical weekday for that summer looked like this: get in at 12, do 45 minutes of intense conditioning followed by an hour of kickboxing. Did some cleaning, ate some food. Then I would train at team practice for an hour and a half followed by 1 to 2 hours of kickboxing and then 1 hour of submission grappling. Every single day until late August. Then school started again. I went straight from university to the gym at 3:30 and then trained until closing. Since then, with the exception of taking time off for injuries, I haven’t stopped training. It’s become a part of my daily life.
During all of that, I was beaten up hundreds of times. I’ve been kicked, punched, elbowed, kneed. I’ve been choked out, tapped out, knocked out. I’ve been black-eyed, bloody-nosed and cauliflower-eared. I was punched in my face by a guy who outweighs me by 100 pounds. I was beaten up by a girl who weighs 40 pounds less than me. I’ve been pinned down, body slammed, tripped, tossed, submitted, snapped, crackled, popped. I’ve broken bones. I’ve bled all over the mats. I’ve cried. And I’ve never considered quitting.
I learned how to fight. But I also learned something far more profound: Knowing how to fight and being tough are two entirely separate things. I so badly wanted to learn to be tough, so I learned how to fight.
I had it all wrong. Fighting is a skill, an ability. Being tough has little to do with ability.
The first time I sparred, I was not tough, nor could I fight. Every time I got hit, I panicked, I held my breath, I covered my face, hyperventilated, freaked out. I will tell you, I’ve since been beaten up so much worse than that first sparring session, but the difference is that these days, when I get punched in the face, it no longer symbolizes my weakness or defeat. Getting hit symbolizes an opportunity to improve, to learn, to grow. It gives me something to reach for.
In learning to fight I came to a realization: back in grade school when that kid took my hat, being tough would not have been knocking him out. Being tough would’ve been shaking my head and walking away.