I didn’t start training MMA for the fitness. I wanted to learn to fight, to be tough. From the start, my intention was to get into the ring and go at it.
After my first 9 months of intense training, my coach had a fight lined up for himself and suggested we find a fight for me so we could train together and compete around the same time. I was extremely inexperienced, but totally driven. I agreed. Two weeks into our training camp, I sprained the crap out of my ankle.
The busted up ankle didn’t keep me from training, but it limited me to training submission grappling from my back for about 2 months. I competed in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) tournament with a not-fully-recovered ankle instead of the originally planned MMA fight.
In BJJ, there are no strikes allowed. No hitting of any kind. It ends up not being much of a fight. More like a chess match. It’s super fun and takes extreme athleticism to be good at BJJ, but it’s nothing compared to two guys trying to knock each other out. My coach even said, “Well James, you can almost call yourself a fighter now.” It didn’t fulfill my goal of fighting.
A few months after my ankle completely healed up, there was a kickboxing event in the near future. I was set up with an opponent. I was already training like crazy. The event was 6 weeks away.
I Googled my opponents name. At my skill level, when you Google your opponent, you don’t want them popping up on your screen unless it’s a profile in Asthma Weekly or a picture with him and his fellow Mathletes at their regional arithmetic competition. This kid was all over the place. He competed in multiple kickboxing events scattered around the entire country. And he won most of them. My coaches pulled me out of the bout. He would’ve killed me.
At this point, I was nearing my graduation from the University of Hawai’i, so I put together a long-term plan. There were two BJJ competitions in two consecutive months, I was going to graduate the following month and then I was going to compete at the next available MMA event. I was going to make it happen.
Six days after that first BJJ competition, I was in an accident and injured my knee pretty badly. After 10 months of recovery, I tried BJJ and my knee couldn’t handle it. My MMA days are probably over forever. I started training with a new coach at a Muay Thai kickboxing gym. I had no drive to compete. I was just happy that I could train at all.
I trained in Muay Thai regularly for the next 8 months. My knee was holding up and I was back in top-notch shape. I woke up one day and realized that I still needed to fight. I had to. I needed to prove that I could do it. And my time was running out. I’m starting school soon and this would really be my last chance to compete for a very long time.
I told my coach. He supported me. I was set to compete in an exhibition Muay Thai fight in 6 weeks. So it begins. The next day, I started making the necessary changes to get in shape.
I gave up coffee. I have a cup of coffee every morning. I quit cold turkey. Two days later, after nightmares, headaches and general crankiness, I started questioning my decision. The beautiful thing about coffee and caffeine is the conflicting data. So instead of eliminating my morning coffee ritual, all I had to do was ever so slightly alter my search terms while looking up research articles. My former vice was now assisting in my cardiovascular endurance. Problem solved.
I started drinking close to a gallon of water every day. It helped my workouts. Actually, the more water I drank throughout the day, the better my endurance at the evening Muay Thai training sessions. And the more I peed.
I gave up alcohol. It was far more difficult than I expected. I couldn’t believe it. I was never much of a drinker. I would have one or two beers between three and five nights a week. Not very much. I didn’t think it would take any effort at all to quit. I was wrong.
Every time I went to the grocery store, I would stand at the edge of the alcohol aisle and have an argument with myself. One time I had a six-pack in my hands, walking towards the checkout. I stopped. “What the hell am I doing?” I put it back.
It makes me sound like an alcoholic, but it’s the truth. It was surprising how much I thought about it. It was easy to not drink, but deciding to not drink was really tough. After about two weeks of constantly almost broken will power, it just went away. I forgot alcohol existed. I totally stopped thinking about it.
My next goal was to clean up my diet. I gave up desserts and made sure my meals were nutritious. I learned very quickly that the number one most important factor in keeping with any diet is planning. When it came to mealtime, if I was hungry without a plan, frozen pizza or chicken katsu from Gina’s Korean BBQ sounded like healthy enough options. After having one of those for dinner, I would snap back to reality and say “DAMMIT!”
I made sure that I always had plenty of mixed greens, potatoes and stupid boneless, skinless chicken breast on hand. But even when I did have a plan, it still took tons of willpower to follow through with it. When I get hungry, I become an idiot incapable of making good health decisions. And I wasn’t even concerned with calories. Just nutrition. Dieting is really hard.
And finally, of course, exercise. Although I was already training hard on a regular basis, there is a considerable difference between being in shape and being in fighter shape. I turned it up. Significantly.
I already ran 2-3 times a week, except now I would add sprints once or twice a week. After the first time I tried the sprints, I couldn’t walk right for the next week. Sprints are the worst exercise ever invented. I wouldn’t wish them upon anyone but they definitely whipped me into shape.
Also, I already went to my Muay Thai classes 3-4 times a week, except now I would not stop or slow down no matter how tired I was. I gave all of my effort to every single movement I made. Every kick was as perfect and as hard as I could possibly manage. I tried to squeeze more and more movements into every round.
My key to training as hard as I could was simply allowing my ego and confidence off the leash a little. When I felt like I needed to quit, I would look up and picture someone doing one more exercise than me. Whether it was push-ups, sit-ups, kicks, punches, whatever, I would see him doing just one more and my ego would not allow that. If he can do it, I can do it. I became totally confident that I could always do one more. Of anything. Always. Just one more.
Another simple trick that I found in maximizing my training was refusing to admit that I was tired, ever. The more exhausted I was, the more composed I would try to appear. My goal was to make everyone around me think that whatever I was doing was easy. It’s dumb, but it works. The more I thought, “This is easy” the more possible it became to get through it.
I continued all of this for the next five weeks. With the fight one week away, the heavy training was supposed to taper off so my body could recover. But that day, my coach told me that they pushed the event back by two weeks. I was a little disappointed, because keeping up with that training schedule and a full-time job is exhausting, but I decided to use the extra two weeks to get even stronger. And I did. I pushed myself harder and harder.
It was easy to say that I wanted to fight. It was really hard to prepare for it. There were days when I would wake up and feel like I couldn’t move a muscle. I didn’t think there was a chance I could possibly workout. Then I would put my shoes on and run 4 miles. It was always possible. Those are the days that I’m most proud of. They made me really appreciate what it means to set a goal and do what it takes to achieve it.
My last hard workout was 6 days before the fight. I felt great. Sore and exhausted, but great. I was excited to start recovering.
I showed up the following day for my first light workout and my coach said, “James, I have some bad news. They cancelled the fight. I’m sorry.”
My heart sank. I was immediately devastated. I responded, “No! So many sprints!”
That night’s workout was awful. With no fight coming up, I didn’t have to focus on recovery, so it became just another workout. I could barely get through it. I felt like I’d never worked out before.
I left the gym thinking that I was upset because I’d trained so hard for nothing. I love training and working out but suddenly I was trying to convince myself that I was upset because I was in great shape for no reason. That couldn’t be why I was upset.
I continued training as usual (minus the horrible sprints). My coach suggested that we all go out to eat Thai food on the would-be fight night. I met my coach and training partners at the restaurant even though it felt like we were celebrating the reason I was so depressed.
Right before our food arrived at the table, my coach was talking about training and fighting and said, “Ahhh, James, this sucks. I really wanted to see you go at it.”
I suddenly realized why I was so upset: Because that’s all I really wanted, too. I wanted everyone to see me fight. I spent a lot of my life with an insecurity about being weak.
I had a vision of me fighting. I knee my opponent and he collapses in front of me. He is done. Knockout victory. His coaches climb into the ring and kneel down beside him, making sure he’s ok. I look out past the ropes. The faces in the crowd morph into all the people that have ever given me a hard time or made me feel weak. They all see me standing over my fallen opponent. And that’s it.
I still have this ridiculous need to prove that I’m tough. Of course, in my fantasy I win by knockout, but really, I didn’t even need to win the fight. I just needed to fight. I needed to get hit hard and fight back. And I needed to be seen doing it.
I feel like I went through college, finished all my classes, took all my tests but the graduation was cancelled and I didn’t get my diploma. I did everything I possibly could have done to prove to myself that I am tough, that I earned this. But I don’t have that tiny piece of evidence that proves it to everyone else.
I hate that I am so confident of something, but so desperate to show it. I have always hated this insecurity of mine but I’m starting to realize that maybe it’s not the problem I thought it was.
Winning a fight might actually get rid of my insecurity, but really, it would only highlight the fact that I’m not insecure at all and haven’t been for years. I spent a lot of my life worrying about being weak, but that faded away the moment I stepped into the gym for the first time and faced my fear. It was gone the moment I decided to confront it. I was weak, but I’m not anymore. I never needed to fight to prove it. I just never realized it.