I couldn’t sleep last night. My mind was all over the place, but I got stuck thinking about the repetitive “life stories” of guys on the numerous seasons of The Ultimate Fighter that I’ve seen. It’s always the same sentiment: a rough childhood, fighting on the streets or leading a wayward life until they sum it all up by saying that MMA has probably saved their life because without it they’d “either be in prison or dead.” It’s almost a catch-phrase.
I’m not claiming that these stories are inaccurate or that their sentiment is insincere. It’s the packaging of it that gets me, not the stories themselves. Lots of top boxers came from really rough backgrounds, walked bad roads and spent significant time in prison before finding solace in boxing: Tyson was a punk and Liston and Hopkins both spent time in prison before rising to fame. Difficult upbringing, violent past, criminal history, abuse, poverty – all of these things can be factors in putting the fight in the fighter, but it’s not why he fights. It’s not even necessarily where he fights from.
I gave it a lot of thought. I’ve experienced violence in my past and it’s absolutely part of who I am, but I don’t fight because of it any more than I graduated from college because of all the positive aspects of my past. I love fighting and it’s a medium in which I can express myself, and indeed aspects of myself, which are otherwise muted in everyday life. And as much as I love fighting in the ring, I truly hate fighting outside of the ring – I dislike everything to do with the “fight game” that takes place outside of the training or the exchange of blows between two fighters in the ring. I’m certain that the fights I’ve had outside of the ring, the fights one has in life, for life, for the soul or for pride or for protection, have a lot to do with how or why I fight in the ring. But it isn’t simple. Being able to love the fight in the ring has a lot to do with the fact that I don’t have to fight; I choose to. The pleasure of fighting is tied to its difference from other fights, the fight for power or freedom or protection or the fights we have within ourselves.
So while I began the thought being irritated by the cliche of the “in prison or dead” background story I ended up realizing that it’s the story the fighter tells himself in order to bring narrative to his becoming. He frames it this way in order to find coherence in his past struggle and his current drive. And that’s beautiful in a way.
A week ago I saw a preview on YouTube for a documentary film on little Burmese boys training and fighting Muay Thai in Thailand, “Fists of Pride”. The boys are poor and can make a small living by crossing the border to Thailand in order to fight. There are broad differences between Thai fighters and westerners, like me, who choose to come fight in Thailand – we have different motives and truly different realities. These kids have it pretty rough and the little boy who carries the narrative for the short preview is proud to be able to help his mother by earning even nominal fighter’s fees. Near the end of the clip there is a striking shot of the boy’s back as he stands watching a fight in the ring, waiting for his turn to enter it. (Image at the top.) His voice over explains how he is afraid until he enters the ring. Then he’s not scared anymore because “we get injured together.”
And here’s where I think the disparity emerges between the fights we have in our lives which shape us and the fights we choose in order to develop ourselves: outside of the ring there are very few fights in which “we get injured together.” Struggles for power, pride, freedom, against abuse or uncontrolled violence are not experiences of injuring one another, hurting together. The accumulation of scars from one’s past can become a map on the body; the lines we draw through them with the experiences and challenges we choose connect them and they becomes constellations by which we can navigate through the dark. The fight in the ring gives meaning to all the fights outside of it. And this is why you leave the ring as brothers, as sisters, why the fight is bigger than either actor in it. Because without fighting each one of us could have followed a different path that led somewhere else but we push every day to steady ourselves in order to bring focus and coherence to the person we’ve chosen to become at the expense of who we refuse to be.