I’m a second-year medical student. And a fighter. Some would say I lead a dual life. I don’t see it that way, but there is definitely a giant gap between these two aspects of my life. I end up feeling a bit misunderstood. The people I train with mostly assume that I take a part-time online course on herbal medicine and the people I study with mostly assume that I occasionally do cardio kickboxing at the local 24-Hour Fitness.
The reactions of people who come to understand what I actually do is often a form of shock. Some ask why I do it. Some ask how I do it. And some (these are my least favorite) laugh at me and tell me I’m crazy.
I get it. During the day, my goal is to pack as much important information as I can into my brain and in the evening, I let people try to punch me in the head. It sounds like a terrible idea. It really does. I’ve been asked how I can possibly do so well in school despite this giant distraction in my life.
But I’m not crazy, it’s not a terrible idea and it’s not a distraction. The fact is that I do so well in school because of this perceived distraction, not in spite of it. I consider my martial arts training as daily lessons on how to succeed and be a better person with the convenient side effects of getting in shape and learning to fight. Nearly all of the habits that contribute to any success I have were cultivated by my martial arts training.
The element of competition distills these life lessons into a super concentrated dose with instant and immediate feedback. I haven’t found anything in life that comes close to providing as much self-awareness as competing in martial arts. Maybe it can be compared to taking exams in school, but exams only test my specific preparation for that particular subject. And the feedback is far from instantaneous. By the time I find out how I did, I’ve already moved on to something else. While it shows me if I’ve properly prepared for the exam, I generally don’t find it to be very enlightening.
In a fight, however, every mistake is immediately exposed. Move the wrong way, get hit. Simple and uncomplicated. But the wisdom gained goes far deeper. It can be analyzed and broken down. Why was that the wrong movement? What made me move that way? How can I avoid making that mistake in the future?
The answers to these questions usually involve some specific martial arts techniques, but it really comes down to attitude, confidence, strategy, thought-process. Essentially, what happens in a fight is a direct result of who I am. And the answers to those questions can reveal profound insights that infiltrate every aspect of my life. This is why what I do isn’t crazy. As absurd as it sounds, med school and fighting are entirely complementary. Both help me to reach the same goal: Becoming better, stronger and more effective as a person.
I recently competed in my first Muay Thai fight. While I’ve competed plenty of times in jiu jitsu and submission grappling, this was a totally different experience. It felt infinitely more serious. In jiu jitsu, you can tap out anytime you want and you don’t get punched in the face. In Muay Thai, you get punched and kicked and kneed until you collapse or the referee decides that you’re sincerely in danger of permanent injury or time runs out. Whichever comes first.
The pressure was increased by the fact that I was fighting in the main event of the night. I was not chosen for the main event based on any of my own accomplishments. I was fighting in the main event because of my gym’s reputation. I train with champions. With winners. My coach is a winner. My training partners are winners. And I was expected to be a winner.
I was supposed to win. I don’t say this out of arrogance or ego. I simply had more training experience than my opponent. I was faster. I knew more techniques. I’d been doing it longer. I was better.
The only way he could ever beat me would be if I made an impossible amount of cascading mistakes. Lucky for him. That’s exactly what I did. He knocked me out near the end of the second round.
I lost. And I lost in the worst way possible. It hurt. I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. It was such a massive failure. I let myself down. I felt like I let everyone down. The moments after the fight were among the most emotionally raw moments of my life. I walked from the ring back into the warm-up room and cried as my coach took off my gloves and cut off my hand wraps. I felt awful. It was terrible.
But this embarrassing loss is one of the best things that could’ve happened. While winning would’ve been quite a bit more fun, I gained much more from losing this fight than I ever could have from winning it. I’m definitely not happy I was knocked out, but it gave me that instant feedback and showed me exactly what I needed to see in order to become a better fighter and a better person.
I made an endless amount of technical Thai boxing mistakes, of course, but my loss and his victory had little to do with that. My loss stemmed from his ability to capitalize on my mental and emotional mistakes. Mistakes that don’t really have anything to do with fighting.
In thinking about my fight and the mistakes I made, I realized that it conveniently boils down to 5 simple and insanely important life-lessons. I’ve written them down to help solidify them in my own mind, but my hope is that you might be able to get something out of them too. And if not, you can skip down to the bottom and check out some video highlights from the fight.
In no particular order of importance, here they are:
I was originally slated to fight five weeks before this fight. I planned it very strategically. The timing would’ve been perfect. It coincided with my school’s spring break, a rare occasion where I wasn’t swamped with exams, assignments and incessant studying.
The night before the fight, my opponent pulled out and it never happened. There was no fight. It was frustrating. I’d been training really hard for that moment. I was in great shape. I was ready. I wanted it. A few days later, I was told about another opportunity to fight. I hastily agreed without even asking the date or looking at a calendar.
It turned out that I agreed to fight on the weekend before my midterm exams. A weekend where I would usually consider it irresponsible to take time away from studying to watch fights, let alone actually fight. The timing of it was as bad as it could’ve been, but it was something I simply had to do.
I studied all the way up until the moment I had to pack up my gear and drive to the fight. I even considered bringing my notes along so I could study if there was any downtime before I had to start warming up, but ultimately decided not to.
During the fight, I got hit really hard twice. While the second one was the knockout punch, the first one only briefly knocked me off balance. At some point towards the end of the first round, I was almost against the ropes with my feet firmly planted on the canvas of the ring, right in front of my opponent (a huge mistake). He wildly swung his right hand at me as hard as he could and it landed on the side of my head.
After he hit me, I lost my balance and fell backwards. I climbed back up to my feet as quickly as I could while the referee was counting (with a knockdown, they give you 8 seconds to regain your composure and make sure you’re not injured before they restart the fight). During the 8-count, I wondered if that punch to the head would have an effect on my studying. I suddenly and briefly started thinking about my upcoming exams. I even went as far as thinking about the order of the subjects I was going to study the next day. I pushed those thoughts out of my head after just a second or two, but the damage was done.
The fight went on a while longer, but I’d say that was the moment I truly lost. The mistake wasn’t fighting the weekend before midterms. It wasn’t that I had too much to do the next day. It wasn’t that I’d spent the morning studying. My mistake was letting my mind wander to those thoughts at all. My mistake was thinking about anything other than the fight during the fight.
This isn’t an isolated mistake that I made only during that moment of the fight. It happened during the fight because it happens all the time. And every time it happens, regardless of the setting, it limits my potential. A guaranteed route to not doing my best is to think of something else while doing it. Presence is an essential part of getting the most out of anything.
During classes or conversations, I often fall victim to being reminded about something that sends me off on a mental tangent or prompts me to check my phone only to realize a minute later that I’ve missed something potentially important. I constantly allow this to happen. And it’s so easy to let it happen during everyday life because I don’t have to worry about getting punched in the face if I allow myself to get distracted (usually). But in a fight, if my mind wanders, I get knocked out.
I wasn’t completely present during my fight because I’m always allowing my mind to wander. The only way I can avoid this mistake in my next fight is to make sure that I work to avoid this mistake in every conversation, every class and every moment of my life.
Always be present.
It’s always for the world title.
Fighting is an extremely vulnerable act. I think most would agree. In addition to the inherent vulnerability that comes along with standing on something of a stage wearing nothing but tiny shorts in front of a mostly drunk and entirely judgmental crowd, I’m expected to let go of all of my inhibitions and react solely from my instincts and reflexes. Show everyone my primitive brain, the animal in me.
I have to allow myself to react and respond without thinking while in the face of the immediate scrutiny of everyone watching. Without letting go of all of my inhibitions, it would be nearly impossible to perform at my best.
My fight was in a small town, at a tiny venue, on a card filled with inexperienced amateurs. None of us knew what we were doing. I am thankful and honored by the opportunity to compete for this promotion (and I’m sure I’ll fight for them again) but in the back of my mind, I was convincing myself that it didn’t really matter and it wasn’t a real fight. It was just this silly little thing I was doing to gain some experience.
Before the fight, when people would wish me luck, or ask about the upcoming event, I would have this self-deprecating kind of attitude. “I’m not good enough to fight at a real event yet. Maybe after this, I can really compete.”
When fighters walk out to the ring for their fight, a song that they choose booms through the loudspeakers and fills the venue. The walkout song. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’ve spent way too much time thinking about what song I should walk out to when I fight. Over the years, I’ve picked out a few songs that would be perfect. They are songs that hold a deep meaning to me, for whatever reason. They are songs that remind me of the reasons I fight. They sound like the way I feel about myself. It’s kind of dumb, I know.
For my fight, I chose to walk out to “Good Vibrations” by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. While I’m not doubting the absolute greatness of that song, it’s definitely not one of the songs that I feel represents who I am. I decided my songs were maybe a little too serious for this setting. I thought I should walk out to something more light-hearted and save my songs for a real fight.
These seemingly insignificant pre-fight decisions and conversations led to an inability to let go of my inhibitions. My attitude prevented me from allowing myself to be completely vulnerable. This isn’t to say that I didn’t try my hardest. I definitely did. I trained as hard as I possibly could. I gave every second of that fight absolutely everything I had.
A while ago, I heard an interview with a top-tier MMA fighter, Conor McGregor. He is now considered one of the best fighters in the world, but he only recently made the incredible rise to his current fame and success. Before his first championship fight, he was asked if he felt prepared to fight in the main event at such a huge venue for the world title. He answered by saying that, in his head, every fight he’s ever had since the moment he began fighting was the main event at a huge venue for the world title. This fight would be no different.
When I first heard that interview, I didn’t think much of it, but after my fight experience, it suddenly holds profound meaning for me. I wouldn’t allow myself to admit how important this little fight at the tiny venue in the small town was for me. It meant everything to me and, for some reason, I didn’t embrace that excitement. Instead, I was embarrassed about it and did everything I could to convince myself that it wasn’t a real fight.
I didn’t want to appear desperate to win a fight that I decided was ultimately meaningless. That was a mistake. And, again, it’s not an isolated mistake.
I’m always making decisions as to what is important or what isn’t. No matter the circumstances, I always try my best. I really do. But there’s a clear difference when I decide something is extremely important. I’m able to give something extra. I can’t explain it and I don’t even understand what the difference actually is, but something happens.
It’s like I develop a deeper, stronger focus. The thoughts, opinions and feelings of those around me fall into the background and I do whatever I need to do in order to make it happen. It doesn’t matter if I appear desperate or look stupid because the only thing I think about, the only thing that matters, is how to make it happen, how to achieve, how to accomplish, how to succeed.
I need to treat everything I do like it’s the most crucial thing in my life. It’s so easy to make careless mistakes or fall short when I’ve already decided that it’s not important. When I decide that it matters, I allow myself to appear desperate or look stupid. I accept the vulnerability of it. And that’s always when the magic happens. When I decide that something I’m doing doesn’t matter, it does nothing but limit what I’m able to achieve. I’m going to stop allowing myself to make that decision from now on. There is no more question. If I’m doing it, it matters.
If I want to win my next fight, if I want to succeed in anything, I can’t forget that it’s always for the world title.
Be the authority.
About 3 years ago, I was training with a coach whom I greatly admire and respect. I was still developing myself as a fighter and finding my style. In the process of explaining what he thought were my greatest Thai boxing assets (knees and kicks), he nonchalantly added, “You’re never going to have knockout power with your punches.”
In the first round of my fight, my opponent threw a big front kick at my chest. I took a subtle step to my left and as his kick barely slid past me, I threw a right uppercut into a left straight. Both punches connected with his head and knocked him clear off of his feet and onto his back.
He stood up, the referee finished his 8-count and the fight continued. In retrospect, I see that this would’ve been a great time to pressure him and attack like my life depended on it. But I didn’t. I continued with my slow and methodical pace.
I spent a lot of time wondering why I reacted like that after the knockdown and realized that it’s because I didn’t think I had hurt him or even slowed him down. I kind of assumed that he slipped as I was punching him. I reacted as though my punches had no effect on him at all.
At first, I blamed the conversation with my former coach, but that’s not the whole story. It can’t be. During the fight, I kicked my opponent in the ribs, kneed him in the abdomen, kicked his legs, punched him in the face. If I believed my coach telling me I didn’t have knockout power with my punches, then I should’ve also believed him telling me that my knees and kicks did have knockout power. But that didn’t seem to be the case.
There was not a single second of the fight where I convinced myself I was close to winning. As the fight went on and I was getting exhausted, I assumed I was more exhausted than my opponent. Every time he hit me, I assumed it hurt more than when I hit him.
It’s not as though I went into this fight with a lack of confidence. It was not that I didn’t think I had the skills or power to win. It was that I had somehow convinced myself that my opponent was invincible, that I was fighting RoboCop or something.
This obviously wasn’t the result of one coach I had 3 years ago telling me I couldn’t punch hard. This was something much bigger.
As it turns out, it was the unintended byproduct of a very conscious and deliberate effort of mine. It was the hidden dark side of something that I viewed as a tremendous strength, a philosophy that’s helped to shape who I am. I even have an unpublished article I wrote about it called, “Why I strive to be the dumbest in the room”.
When I was younger, I had a hyper-inflated ego. It got nasty. I always tried to be right, attempted to justify my blatant mistakes, refused to lose an argument. I desperately tried to be the authority. It was mostly based on insecurity and an extreme lack of confidence and self-esteem, but regardless, I could be a jerk.
This attitude cost me plenty of relationships and stifled me in many ways, but I was still somehow lucky enough to have an incredible group of friends around me. These friends were so extremely smart, talented, athletic and generally amazing that even with my hyper-inflated ego, I couldn’t convince myself I was the authority with them.
When we were together, I was often the dumbest one in the room and I was able to learn a ton and grow tremendously from spending time with them. I started to realize that being the dumbest one in the room was doing way more for me than trying to be the authority.
My puffed-up ego slowly started to turn into humility as I looked to learn from those around me. When I was younger, in a conversation or argument, I would desperately search for how I could be the authority, how I could assert my knowledge, prove that I’m better. But now, I do the opposite. I look for the strengths of the people I’m interacting with. I assume they are the authority.
I quickly came to the realization that absolutely everyone in the world knows something I don’t. There is a way to grow and something to learn in every human interaction, without exception.
Since that realization, I have learned incredible things from totally unexpected places and my hyper-inflated ego has deflated to a more normal level of inflation. In viewing everyone around me as an authority, I automatically treat people with genuine reverence and respect. I’ve been able to connect with people in new and amazing ways.
But I’ve reached a point in my life where, at times, I really need to be the authority. Like, for example, when I’m in a Thai boxing ring with a guy who’s trying to punch my face off. That would be a great time for me to exploit my own strengths and not think about his. And more importantly, as a future doctor, I need to figure out how to confidently share my knowledge with the patients who expect me to be the authority.
I’ve been a student for a long time now and my method of viewing everyone around me as being smarter and having better answers has served me well and taught me a lot. But with my graduation inching closer, I’m reaching the end of my road as a medical student. I can no longer view every conversation as another opportunity to passively learn from those around me. I need to contribute. I need to offer ideas. I need to start coming up with the answers.
Recently, I’ve begun trying to voice my opinions and ideas with classmates and in group discussions. And well, I’m wrong, like, all the time. But usually I’m partially right or my thinking is at least headed in the right direction. I’ve already seen my incomplete or wrong answers lead me or even other students to right answers. I’m still learning as much as before but now I’m actually contributing to the education of others as well. I’m hoping I will only grow and improve from here.
For a long time, I worked very hard to beat the ego and authority out of my personality, but I’m finding that being an authority is an excellent quality as long as it’s paired with a humble, modest knowledge instead of a nasty, relentless ego. If I’m wrong or totally unsure then I will definitely listen and learn from those around me, but in those moments when I have a valid idea or I think I know an answer, it could benefit everyone if I trust my own authority and speak up.
All of my education and all of my random life experiences have led to my own unique perspective, my own unique wisdom. And maybe I actually do have something to offer. Maybe my thoughts and ideas could actually mean something to someone, make a difference. Maybe I actually am an authority on something. Or maybe not. I don’t know. But the only way I’ll ever find out is by having a certain faith in my own ideas and humbly sharing them with those around me.
And I might even be able to win my next fight if I can avoid convincing myself that I’m fighting RoboCop. The next time I step into the ring, I will not be the student. I will share what I know. I will trust the skills and knowledge I’ve built over my years of training. I will attempt to be the authority.
Set Simple Goals.
I had multiple opportunities in the fight where my opponent was in a bad spot. It seemed like after every exchange, he would lose his balance and nearly fall on his face. On more than one occasion, I found myself patiently standing over him while he was struggling to recover from a terrible position.
My coach thinks I could’ve won the fight pretty quickly if I didn’t hesitate in those moments. He told me afterwards that I’m too nice, that I’m too much of a gentleman. This is one of those rare occasions where being called a gentleman is not exactly a good thing. But I think I finally earned a coveted fighter nickname: “The Gentleman” James Munro. I like the sound of that.
And while maybe it looked like I was being a gentleman, I was only trying to accomplish my goals, which were deep, complicated and idealistic. I wanted to honor the sport of Muay Thai. I wanted to honor my coaches, my training partners, my gym. I wanted to be respectful of my heroes, the fighters that have dedicated their lives to this art. I wanted to respect my opponent, everyone that came to see me fight. I wanted to use crisp, clean, perfect techniques. I wanted to do everything right. These goals were not readily apparent to those watching.
My opponent’s goals, however, were obvious to anyone who saw us fight. His goal was to hit me as hard and as often as he could. His goal was to win. And while he very much accomplished his goals, I definitely did not accomplish mine.
My goals were noble and great and whatever. They led me straight into defeat. These goals forced me to run each of my ideas through multiple mental filters before I turned them into actions, which resulted in hesitation as my opportunities to win came and went.
My opponent did not hesitate. He didn’t think. He acted. And I can say with some confidence that his way is definitely better.
What I didn’t realize at first is that I’d already accomplished all of my deep and complicated goals before the fight even started. I honor the sport every time I step into the gym and give everything I have to training. I honor my heroes by dragging myself to the gym on days when I feel like I have nothing left to give. I respect my coaches by accepting their critiques and constantly working to improve. But when it comes time to fight, to perform, focusing on these goals produced the exact opposite result.
At one point, my opponent tried to kick me. I blocked it, he lost his footing and buckled forward, dropping his guard in an attempt to keep himself from falling over. My coach roared from the corner, “Go! Go go go!!” I had a giant opportunity. One kick and I probably could’ve won the fight right there. My coach saw this immediately and tried desperately to get me to take advantage of it.
While my coach was screaming at me to attack, I was having a silent argument with him in my head. I was thinking, “Well, coach, I’m not sure. It looks like his hand might be touching the canvas which would mean that he is considered a ‘downed opponent’. It’s against the rules to strike a downed opponent. That wouldn’t be honorable or respectful.” And by the time my silent, self-righteous speech was over, my opponent had recovered and started hitting me again.
The referee never stepped in, which officially means my attacking in that moment would not have been against the rules. It would not have been dishonorable or disrespectful. In fact, I’ve seen just about all of my Thai boxing heroes in the exact same situation. And when my heroes are standing over an off-balance opponent, they viciously attack without any hesitation. Then they win, they bow and they pay their respects to their opponents and coaches. They honor and respect the sport. They are champions.
My well-intentioned efforts led me to the complete opposite of that. I disrespected my coach’s advice and I embarrassed myself.
The solution to this problem comes with the simple realization that there is a clear and significant difference between preparing and performing. In preparation, it is important to set many specific goals. Leave no stone unturned. Think about every aspect of what is happening and what could happen. In preparation, my deep and complicated goals are totally appropriate. In performance, however, I cannot think about these details. In performance, I need to trust that knowledge, proper technique, respect and honor have already been permanently embedded into every move I make through my painstaking and thoughtful preparation. I cannot question my actions.
A few days after the loss, my coach said, “I’m looking forward to seeing you fight again. I have a feeling the gentleman in you isn’t going to show up to the next one.” I think he’s right. I will not hesitate. I will not think. I will act. And it’s because I will set simple goals: Hit hard. Win.
I don’t quit.
I’ve spent my entire life trying to convince myself that I’m enough. That I’m strong. That I’m tough. That I have endless potential. That I’m not a quitter. I’ve never been able to successfully convince myself of any of these things and going into my first fight, these questions were relentlessly repeating in my head.
I was afraid. I was worried that I’d step into the ring and regret my decision to fight. I was scared that I’d be intimidated, that I wasn’t tough enough for this. I was afraid that after getting hit the first time I’d want to quit, go home, never attempt this again. I was afraid of embarrassing myself.
These themes are constant in my life but I can often ignore them or at least hide them enough to get by. But in a fight, I can’t hide from these fears. I can’t ignore them. Either I have enough resilience in me to get hit and keep moving forward or I don’t. Either I’ll push through the pain of getting punched in the face or I won’t. And I’ll admit that I seriously doubted my resilience and ability to push through the pain.
During my warmup with my coaches in the back room, I was calm. The wave of terror I was expecting never came. As I was walking out to the ring, I was definitely not the picture of a confident, winning fighter, but I wasn’t afraid. As I stepped into the ring, I had no thoughts of regret. If anything, I was feeling impatient. As they were going through the introductions and all of the pre-fight announcements, I was hopping up and down thinking, “Let’s go already!”
After the long wait, the referee said, “Fight!” and the bell rang to signal the start of the first round. I anticipated my opponent aggressively running at me right away and was a little surprised that he didn’t. I walked towards him and he backed away and circled around the ring.
It felt like this was going on for far too long and I simply couldn’t wait any longer so I threw a kick at him. I was way out of range. It was an ugly, sloppy, terrible kick but, finally, the fight was starting. In watching the video afterwards, I realized this all happened so much faster than I originally thought. It felt like a significant portion of the first round but it actually took only a few seconds for me to get impatient and start throwing wild strikes. We’ll chalk that up to inexperience.
After a few ridiculous and pathetic attempts by both of us, we eventually started actually making contact and he punched me right in the face. My worst fear leading up to the fight was how I’d react in this exact moment. And nothing happened. It didn’t hurt. I didn’t panic. I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to quit. I just hit him back. The fight went on.
He hit me plenty of times. He slowed me down and threw me off my game but he never made me want to quit. After getting punched in the head a few times, it became really difficult to think about all things I was supposed to do. My hands started to drop, I planted my feet, I stopped moving my head. The simple, technical mistakes that I’d never make while training started to really add up.
And in one perfect moment, I simultaneously made all of these mistakes while he was swinging his right hand at me as hard as he could. I never saw it coming and the instant it hit me, everything went black.
My years of preparation, the incessant battle with my demons, my relentless attempt to move past my fears of being too weak and inadequate culminated here, with me lying face-down, unconscious and bloodied at the feet of my opponent.
I regained consciousness and slowly started to realize that I was on the ground. I was confused. I didn’t know how I got there. I looked around and spotted my opponent standing on the other side of the ring. What came next was the proudest moment of my entire life.
At that moment, in the face of this massive failure, after making every mistake I possibly could, after backing myself into a worst-case scenario, after completely embarrassing myself, I put my hands under my shoulders, pulled my knees under me and tried to get up.
I was dizzy and in pain. I was bleeding and confused. And before I even fully understood what happened, my first thought, my only thought, was, “I have to get up. I have to keep fighting.”
While I struggled to get up, the referee pushed me back down and said, “You’re not going anywhere.” It was already over. I’d lost.
As humiliating as it was to lose by knockout, I’m grateful it ended like that. Because after a lifetime of questioning myself, I finally forced myself into a position to face all of those fears and doubts. In that one moment, I was exposed to just about every insecurity I’ve ever felt. And I didn’t flinch. I didn’t question myself. I tried to keep going.
For the first time, I absolutely convinced myself that I am tough. I am resilient. I am enough. I don’t quit.
Check out the video below for some clips from the fight, that’s me in the yellow shorts. As a gentle warning to those unfamiliar with Muay Thai or those who know me from a more peaceful setting: This video may be a bit more violent than you might expect. And someone from the audience definitely drops some well-timed profanity at the end. Enjoy!
2 thoughts on “5 profound life lessons I learned from losing a Muay Thai fight.”
Wow bro, that was a crazy K.O., I just did my first MT class and I’m not even sure I want to go back. I think it’s just because I’m so out of shape, but I really want/need to learn to fight. I really liked that I read about your fight and THEN got to see it happen. Really great. Thanks for Sharing
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Don’t give up! The first few classes are definitely the hardest. Be consistent and you’ll get into shape and you will absolutely learn how to fight. It takes a long time and requires a lot of discipline but in my experience it’s completely worth the effort. Keep it up, you can do it.