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Understanding Losing as the Pruning of the Plant - The Gardening of the Fighter

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A View from 270+ Fights

Losing feels invariably bad and I do think there are some very profound reasons for this, but it also can be understood as so much more, especially in the service of growing as a fighter, or in support of the development of fighters. And, I do not mean this in the kinds of hyperpositive truisms that get passed around like "You win or your learn". I mean this in the sense of thinking of fighting as a personal path towards whole person nurture, the idea that fighting is an art, and fighters are in some very real and important sense artists, which is to say, creators. Their canvas is their bodies, their emotions, human instincts, the ring and the ropes, the opponents they face, the 1,000s of hours, but they are growing something, becoming something. They aren't just "winning" something. It's from seeing fighters as doing something with their Life Force, however you want to define it: anything from spiritual "woo" to just material energy.

Some of these reflections came out of Sylvie's last fight against a fighter that many who surrounded her felt she should have beat. There was 5 kg between then, sure, but there was this expectation. In my view, it was really just a small technical issue, that if solved would have produced a very different outcome, but it was a close enough fight and very easily could just go to "water under the bridge" for a fighter who has fought 260+ times. Fighting, we've always understood, is a process. It's part of training. But this time I had a different set of thoughts. Losing is like pruning.

We like to think of fighters on a very broad arc of development. They learn, they strengthen, they reach a period of peaking, then they decline. And because of this we try to create this peak middle level part of the arc and really extend and push for it. We imagine a period of extended growth that we just keep magnifying, improvement upon improvement, like a bush that just keeps flowering and flowering over and over again, every minute there is a flower, a state of constant bloom (much like how we see economic booms in the world)...until it suddenly doesn't. I'd like to invite a different conception, something that changes our ideas about losses.


Now, believe me I'm no gardener, but we bought this plant, some call a Desert Rose, sold on the side of the road when we were driving through Isaan after a fight. Karuhat was with us and he told us that the Thai name meant something like "show stopper" because its blossoms are so stunning they gather a crowd around them (if I get that right). We've since had a little trouble in its care, reading up on it quite a bit, never being gardeners ourselves (that's its first bloom coming in above). In any case, one of the things we've run into - and of course actual gardeners are very familiar with this - is that flowering plants need to be pruned (or sometimes pinched), in order to flower better, more completely. The cutting back on the growth of the plant at certain stages, in certain places, allows it to direct its life-forces towards the next blossoms. And cutting away a blossom after it has reached its peak ("deadheading") also will further its future flowers. You do not hang onto blossoms after they've bloomed, and a plant does not just blossom richly if you just let it grow however it wants. There is no natural state of blossom on blossom-ness. Flowering plants need to be cut back, if we are moving towards a particular aesthetic.

This is what losing it. It is an involuntary cutting back of the plant. It hurts. The plant suffers (it is injured). It is not "learning" so much as it is redirecting its energies, no longer in that direction. We picture things like undefeated records, or even winning streaks as a good thing, but one of the interesting things about Thailand's Muay Thai is that even legends of the sport experienced extensive losing (because fighters always were forced into matchups that gamblers wanted to bet on). Fighters would be forced up in weight, or be forced to face opponents that gave them trouble, if they had a winning streak. And any extended winning streak was a kind of artificial creation, something accomplished because fighters had excessive political control over who their opponents were. After a brief stretch those streaks often ended a career. The weave of fighting involves losses.

When you fight well over 260 fights you see deeper patterns. You see progress and valleys, you see aspects of a fighter or matchups strengthen or weaken over time, and training or promotions shift. But, in considering the nature of losing itself it seems much more apt to think of it as a pruning process, the cutting away of a plant to make way for the possibilities of flowers. Now, a plant can definitely be cut back too harshly. You might cut into a plant's capacity to grow and support itself, but, in a deeper way in order to flourish a flowering plant needs to be cut into. There isn't really a "natural" uninterrupted continuously amplified growth to flower. We need to think in terms of cycles, and energies, pathways to growth, even in fight careers that last 10 fights, or 20, and not 100.

We've always felt that if you are facing the right kinds of opponents you should be losing 20-30% of your fights, if your aim is to become the best fighter you could possibly be (and not just to be "top dog" of a pool of fighters in some way, which can also be important). This insight unto pruning gives greater sense to this instinct we've always had. Losing, in the right portion, at the right time, is productive. It's part of the redirection of the plant toward flowering. Its one reason we've also said that fighting a lot is really important too, because it taps you into these different deeper cycles. If you are fighting rarely this meaning, this use of pruning loses its context. It moves fighting into other processes, other meanings. As an artist in development, the plant moves through stages, and these stages cycle through. It isn't just flower after flower. And the plant likely lives and blooms through many more cycles than one might imagine, if you just think in terms of one defining arc of performance.

And, there is pruning in training. There is pruning in the work.


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  • Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu changed the title to Understanding Losing as the Pruning of the Plant - The Gardening of the Fighter

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