A few days ago a female fighter from Florida posted a link to a recent blog post by American Muay Thai fighter Kevin Ross on my Facebook page, asking what my thoughts are. His blog post is titled “Respect” and reads to me like two separate thoughts that he stitched together, somewhat unsuccessfully, into one argument. He even opens the post by saying that everyone is going to think that this post is about his last fight against Canadian fighter Matt Embree, which resulted in a split decision in Ross’ favor, but that he started writing the post two weeks ago so that’s not the case. In reading the post I can see the parts he started two weeks ago, namely his criticism of deteriorating quality in fights in the UFC (as well as boxing and Muay Thai) and the accusation that there are dudes who half-ass it at the gym and, I guess, half-ass it in fights and yet still want to be called “Fighters,” which Ross believes is fraudulent.
I used to say that I had respect for anyone that had the balls to step foot in the ring but over the years that has changed. I’ve realized that there are plenty of cowards that get in there just so they can call themselves ‘fighters’. What I respect is the ones that go in there and give it there all. It has nothing to do with whether you are the best in the world or one of the worst, it’s all about your level of commitment, your passion and what you leave I that ring… Giving it your all, being true to yourself, leaving everything in there and inspiring others is what truly matters.
I don’t disagree with this sentiment. I’ve written quite recently about my training at WKO with Sakmongkol and Petchrungruang with Kru Nu and his stable of fighters and what I’ve learned repeatedly in this experience is that what my trainers want from me is effort. They don’t care if I win or lose, they don’t care if I’m tired that day or blasting the pads off their hands – what they want in any of those situations is the same and that’s that I give everything I have, every time, regardless of how full the tank is. This is what Ross is talking about, too. He’s not saying that a bad fighter is defined by his/her record bur rather by his/her sincerity toward self-improvement and leading by example in order to inspire others. While his wording is more antagonistic than how I might choose my own words, he’s basically refining what he respects about persons from simply walking through the gate to what it is you are carrying with you in your soul as you do so. He doesn’t respect the empty-handed, so to speak.
He goes on to talk about how a “fighter” is defined through the grueling hours spent at the gym. Fair enough on the outset; any fighter, whether amateur or professional, spends significantly more time in the gym than they ever will in the ring, so a lot of what makes a fighter is a construction outside of view of an audience. The real testing grounds are largely invisible. Muhammad Ali has a beautiful quote about this: ”
The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.
There’s so many “fighters” that just half ass it in the gym, maybe fight a handful of times never truly testing themselves, and then try and hold themselves as if they are doing the same thing the true warriors are. Just because you train, and even fight, does not make you a real fighter.
Ross seems to be referring to part-timers who want to identify themselves more strongly with the larger image of a fighter than what is perhaps accurate for their personal investment. I run, for example, but don’t identify as “a runner.” I write, extensively, but I don’t identify as “a writer,” despite that being a very highly accurate and reasonable title for something that I do. Compared to Paula Radcliffe, for example, I’m not a runner; I enjoy writing and am in no way making a stretch to refer to myself as a writer, but if compared to Nabokov I see vast disparities in scale. I think this does apply to training and fighting but the spectrum is immense. The scale between the US amateur scene and an average teenaged fighter in Thailand is just barely comparable. But both, to me, qualify as “fighters.” As another example of failing to discriminate between grand essential concepts, the woman who sent me the link to this post by Kevin articulate beautifully her issue with Ross’ choice of the word/concept “warrior” in defining what a real fighter is:
…as a fighter, my strategy is about practicing technique with control – not brawling. I don’t view it conceptually as war. War, to me, involves deployment and uniform and nationalism and loss. This is sport. I’m not a warrior per his standards. (-Kaitlyn)
Taking his own criticism to heart, drawing from the larger essentialist values and characteristics of a warrior, from Greek mythology to historical legends to modern day and very real men and women soldiers who are currently deployed as actors-of-war, i.e. “warriors,” does what you do in a ring with gloves, a mouthpiece, rules, judges, a ref and timed rounds really qualify?If you’re talking about essentialist ideals, which at times Ross is when he says that a “real fighter” (what he deems a warrior) is someone who “kills themselves [in the gym] day in and day out in preparation and then puts it all on the line, testing themselves each time, and letting the cards fall where they may, no excuses.” But then he tries to apply practical applications to these values in terms of tactical approaches to fighting, claiming that some fighters are “passing their bitchassness off as fighting smart” when really, according to Ross, they’re just stalling, holding, running, etc. It’s a criticism of ethics via the assumed connection between how one fights and what kind of heart one has. Basically “real” fighters try to knock each other out and go for broke through an entire fight and the sneaky half-ass “sissy” fighters use techniques which are absolutely legal and indeed part of a complete fighting art in order to fool judges, refs, and lay-fans into believing they’re being “tactical”.
I think one of the biggest issues is the fact that refs, judges and the every day fan can’t tell the difference between fighting with movement and running. The difference between clinching and stalling. The difference between working on the ground and lay and pray. The problem is to the untrained eye it all looks very similar so you have guys passing their bitchassness off as fighting smart. Unless you’ve been in there it can be pretty difficult to tell the difference and unfortunately most refs and judges never have been, or at least not at any high level.
I’m going to call it as I see it here and say that Ross is now talking about his most recent fight with Matt Embree for Lion Fight 13. Embree was doing very well in the clinch and Ross was having a difficult time avoiding it. Even in the last round when Ross became more active with his hands he was still stepping in to the clinch repeatedly rather than keeping a distance that would have given greater efficacy to his striking. I’ve heard (and ignored) enough “you should have fought like this” of unsolicited advice from unqualified sources on the internet in my time in Muay Thai, so I’m not offering Ross advice on how he “should have” fought, I’m just pointing out to my readers what I saw as a viewer. And ultimately Ross walked away with the split decision victory over Embree, but his quote above is pretty obviously referencing Embree’s clinching in the fight and his pre-fight interview in which he said he intended to be “tactical.”
Here’s what I find so frustrating about Ross’ response to the fight, in tandem with what I found so interesting about the fight itself as a viewer. There’s an old saying that “styles make fights,” and nowhere do they appreciate this concept more than in gambling and match-making circles in Thailand. Pitting a “clincher” against a “kicker” or a knee fighter against a puncher is pretty standard out here. Because they make good, exciting, usually close fights. That’s what the Ross vs. Embree fight was: Ross wants to be a striker and Embree wants to control in the clinch. The Van Soest vs. Reece fight was the same, the two women contending over spacing – Van Soest needs an outside fight to set up her combinations and Reece is dominant in the inside fight of clinching; the art within the art. That makes for a good fight. Fair enough, people who don’t understand the clinch and there are probably a lot of folks in that camp in the west, where we don’t clinch as well or as much, might find it boring. I know that Jiujitsu is an amazing art form and I appreciate it much more when Joe Rogan is explaining the technical aspects of it while I watch so I can “get it,” otherwise I absolutely hate when MMA goes to the ground. But in MMA you often see the wrestler/grappler vs. the striker and the question becomes who is going to get “their” fight – which element will overpower the other? I saw an interview with Cat Zingano from a seminar she did at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, Thailand last year where she was talking about what she loves about fighting and she gave such a beautiful answer, that it’s “intention versus intention.” That is what the clincher vs. the striker is; that’s what Ross vs. Embree and Van Soest vs. Reece was: “Intention versus intention.” The fact that most of both those fights was controlled in the clinch means that the intention of the clinchers was dominant. It doesn’t mean anyone was a “bitchass” passing off their cowardice as “tactical.” It means their intention was winning. If the strikers had been able to find a way to pull the fight to their court, it would be a different fight – but they’re not “right” for having the opposite intention from an inside gamer. The audience and the refs and the judges aren’t being fooled. And it’s not just esoteric fight aesthetic, in a “real” street fight or hand-to-hand combat in a non-sport situation, there will be clinching and there will be ground game. And the likelihood of the fight ending in those positions is much higher than a punch-in-the-jaw knockout.
On Changes in Sport
There’s a joke that I like a lot that goes like this:
How many Punks does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Two: one to screw it in and the other to bitch about how the old one was so much better.
I like this joke because every part of my life has included people complaining about how [insert whatever; seriously anything] used to be better. My middle school used to be so much cooler. Tool was so awesome before they sold out (go listen to “Hooker With a Penis”). The “coming out dance” at my college was so amazing before the new kids showed up and ruined it, etc. and so on and so forth forever. For the most part, I don’t believe any of this nonsense because waxing poetic about yesterday doesn’t help anything unless you’re actually trying to save something. Carrying on traditions, maintaining cultural heritage, remembering that you’re not the first person to ever think of or attempt something – those are good instances of continuing what was great. Complaining about how boxing or Muay Thai or UFC or America or cheese or whatever used to be so much better doesn’t mean a damn thing unless you consider two things: 1) better for whom?; and 2) what are you saving, honestly? There is complaining here in Thailand about how Muay Thai has changed since the Golden Age in the late 90’s. That’s true, fighters fight differently now than they did then, just as Mayweather and Pacquiao are no Mike Tyson, who was no Ali, who really wasn’t like Jack Johnson. Time progresses in a linear fashion, apparently. Ironically, not every great is appreciated in his own time, so while the old-timers are complaining about how the kids these days are nothing compared to the last batch those very same fighters or rappers or whatever might be considered game-changers 10 years down the road.
As far as the title of Ross’ blog post goes and his general sentiment, I have to take a moment to say that I like Kevin Ross. He’s one of very few “superstar” Muay Thai fighters in America and he’s done a lot to grow the sport in the US and to inspire and propel others as he works diligently to pursue his own path. All those things are admirable. I respect him for all those things. But I disagree with him in the tone of his blog post, which in one breath is saying the only important thing is to work on yourself and inspire others along the way and in the rest of the words is cutting down anyone who doesn’t fit his somewhat undefined standards. Living in Thailand as a full-time fighter for the past two years and fighting every 10 days on average, I’ve not come across anybody else that trains the way I do. That’s not my problem. I don’t care how hard my opponents are training because I know it’s not as hard as I train and my own training, apart from my opponents, apart from anyone else at my gym, is my only concern. I don’t care if you train twice and fight once and call yourself a fighter – it takes nothing away from me for you to do so. A few months ago a woman in Canada expressed to me her disappointment after winning her second ever fight in the second round with a TKO because she felt her opponent wasn’t very good; and that felt bad to her. I told her “it’s none of your business how good your opponent is, how hard they train or how well they fight; your only concern is how hard you train and how prepared you are for a fight.” And I believe this; I live this.
In Kevin Ross’ own words:
A real fighter is someone who gives it there all no matter what. A real fighter is someone who kills themselves day in and day out in preparation and then puts it all on the line, testing themselves each time, and letting the cards fall where they may, no excuses.
I agree. Put your time in, do your work and stop worrying about how “real” anyone else around you is. In a phrase: “leave it in the ring.”
Addendum: Thoughts added through some discussion on a link to this post on my Muay Thai Facebook page:
I think there’ something to the warrior ethic or spirit that makes the word an appropriate, essentialist ideal for persons who aren’t actually DOING war – like a fighter. For example there aren’t any Samurai anymore but the “Samurai Spirit” or ethic or ideal is still very much channeled and referenced culturally by modern fighters. That’s not misguided – but that said, nobody is claiming to be a “real” Samurai as opposed to the “fake” Samurai who are half-assing it in the gym, or whatever. I give credence to the power of metaphor in language and when using examples of animals, “he’s a tiger,” “he’s a snake,” “be a wolf!” nobody is arguing whether someone is practically BEING an animal, but rather channeling the essentialist spirit or power of that entity. Collectively, the “Warrior” is like that and so I do believe that fighters of all kinds – people battling cancer and illness and lost limbs, grief, depression… all of it – are fairly and accurately “warriors.” It’s the “more warrior than thou” approach to Ross’ article that pisses me off – the idea that the warrior spirit requires you to not be tactical, which is just silly.
Be sure to check out Kevin Ross’ original blog post link here “Respect”