Sunday, April 28, 2013

MMA Misconceptions

I have a fight in four hours, so I'm a bit scatterbrained. I will leave you with a letter I wrote to a local paper several months ago.


There is a division in our culture on the topic cage fighting. When viewed from the outside it can be seen as senseless violence, barbarism and the hallmark of a society in decline.
               The legitimacy of this worldview is aided by spectators who scream for blood and broken bones. Surely these are the loudest voices and, because of them, I can forgive the outsider for believing this is where the heart of the sport lies. But for every screaming fool, there are several spectators sitting quietly, absorbed in the mechanics and art of the display.
                To those ignorant of martial arts, it's violence. To those who understand it, and at its best, MMA is a chess match played with body and soul.
               MMA fighters themselves are among the most giving, caring and egoless people I have met. Constantly challenging and remaking oneself tends to bring humility. These humans should be seen as role models for our children.
                Cage fighting is undoubtedly violent, but it's often a positive violence that I don't believe the English language has a word for. I am glad your publication has shed some light onto the sport and I hope it will continue to do so.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Managing pre-fight anxiety

I have a fight in one week. No matter what I do, I know there will be a certain amount of stress involved with getting into the cage. Stress and anxiety. One way I manage them is through training. I firmly believe that fights are won in the gym. That is a metaphor. It's not strictly true, but on another level, yes it is. This last week I had anxiety, once I got my sparring rounds in it melted away. I knew where I was, and what I was worth as a fighter. The day of my last MMA bout, I was a bundle of nerves until I got in the gym and worked my takedowns. After that, I knew what I needed to do.

The other way I manage it is by being selfish. Leading up to my fights, I won't go out on the town to make a friend happy. I won't help someone move. I won't go get coffee with someone unless I want to. I take care of my responsibilities, but I do the bare minimum. Right now I don't have a job. I'm a student. The bare minimum for me is still an A, but you won't see me in the classroom doing any more work than I need to.

Lastly, I try to see the world, the universe, as genuinely as I possibly can. This has an element of spirituality to it, though I don't focus on it. The reality of the situation is, I'm on a ball of rock and water, that is chasing a gigantic fireball through the inky blackness of space. The fireball itself is hurtling through the cosmos at 134 miles per second. That is actually happening. Unless it's not. I have no idea what I am, or if what I am is anything but chemical reactions. Maybe the thing that thinks and worries and loves behind my eyes, is the exact same thing that thinks and worries and loves behind my opponent's eyes. I don't know. I have no special knowledge in this regard. But the fact that I am such a small thing, and this moment so small, helps to remove the fear of my ego being damaged by a loss in the ring. Having these thoughts while listening to Sigur Ros helps. Watching Carl Sagan and Alan Watts video compilations on youtube helps.

So, to sum it up, to remove stress before a fight: train hard, be selfish if you can afford it (i.e. you're a bachelor without kids), get existential on your problems.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Martial Arts and the Destruction of the Ego

One of the more interesting human interactions I have had the pleasure of witnessing is the humbling of a martial arts student. This occurs when a person is forced to recognize that their martial proficiency is lower than they thought it was. Most often, the result is most dramatic in young men.

In American society, young men are taught that they must be strong, dominant and powerful. The way that young men initially attempt to embody these ideals is with a show of bravado. Their first proving grounds are usually on the street, and not in a gym. Outside of a gym, most altercations come down to posturing (talking shit), shoving, and sucker-punches. This form of aggression serves to build up young men's ego's, but does little to improve their actual martial proficiency. So when a young man enters a grappling gym for the first time, he enters with a false understanding of his own physical abilities.

The humbling comes when the student faces their first hard opponent. At my BJJ academy, the grappling rounds usually last five minutes. That doesn't seem like a long time, but when you are being mauled by a super strong man (or, god forbid, woman) it seems like an eternity. There is nowhere to hide, nowhere to run. You know you can't beat your opponent and that for the entire five minutes you are going to be shown how little you know. This is how easily you could be broken. This is how easily you could be killed.

This is a sobering encounter and leads to one of two reactions. The student either accepts that they are ineffectual and have years of hard work ahead of them, or the student attempts to preserve their ego. Preserving the ego usually means leaving the gym and seeking out a new path in martial arts, one where reality checks are less common. For those that stay, this humbling of the ego will happen many times. The only way to improve is by constant hard work, self evaluation, and remaining unattached to everything you think you know.

This mindset can be applied to all aspects of life. Success is built upon a bedrock of failure. In martial arts, I have failed countless times. I've been tapped out, beaten, and dominated. When you step into a ring, that is a test for what you are at that point in time. But when you leave the ring, what you are doesn't matter anymore. What matters, is what you can become. If you can forget your ego, failure will show you the paths that leads to success. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Fighting and the unconscious dream state

You're in a room. A giant koala says hello. You greet him. You turn your head and notice you're actually on a mountain top. A yeti charges you; you freeze. Your thoughts, the events, colors and characters blend, and when you wake from your dream, it is usually half remembered. Why didn't you just run from the yeti, instead of being captured and eaten?

The way that i remember dreams is how I remember my kickboxing and MMA bouts. It is the closest analogy I can make. In both states, my mind is unfocused and can't self reflect.

From my fights, there are moments caught in time, brief flashes, but it's hard to place them. Snippets of sound that could have been the first round, or the last. All I know is that something happened. What I remember of my fights is close to how I remember some dreams. Intense, but confusing. When I am in a dream, I don't question what is happening. I can't think clearly. I am operating with a diminished consciousness.

So it is when I'm fighting. Many times, when looking back on certain parts of a fight, I wonder why I didn't do something obvious to improve my position. It seems so clear now, a day later, reliving the fight. The answer, that I find, is that I was on a different level of consciousness, closer to the dream state than the waking state. When I dreamed of the yeti, why didn't I run? Because it didn't occur to me. I was operating on momentum.

There is a learned discipline called lucid dreaming. There are several ways of achieving a lucid dream, but the one I would like to focus on is the method wherein you prepare yourself for your dreams. During your day, you ask yourself, "Am I dreaming?" You constantly test and question your reality. Before you sleep, you visualize the kind of dream you would like to have. You keep journals of your dreams, so that you can recognize reoccurring dreams for what they are. Eventually you begin to become lucid inside your dreams, with your full cognitive ability. Not only will you be able to run from the yeti, but, with much work, you may be able to morph your arm into a plasma blaster and reduce the monster to a pile of ash.

So, what is the equivalent for fighting? How can a fighter become lucid while in a fight, instead of running on muscle memory and momentum? I believe the first step is recognition of the problem. I recognize that I am not myself when I step into the ring. Combinations I have practiced thousands of times and used in sparring, melt away. I fall back to punching once, twice, maybe kicking one side or the other. If I was able to objectively see what I was doing, I would be able to correct it easily. Throw more punches, watch out for that right hand, stop lowering your head. My lucidity during fights is improving every time I step into the ring and I believe preparing yourself through drills and sparring is important, but it isn't the whole story. I will be playing with ways of physiologically preparing myself. More to come.