My arms are burning and I’m thirsty. The soft, pudgy flesh of my clinching partner pillows under my forearms as I snake and move and turn him, the insides of my legs slapping the sides of his body and occasionally his elbows, where he drops his arms down to try to protect his body. I feel his resistance, which is manifold: he’s resisting my movements, but he’s also pouting. He’s expressing his dislike of this experience with every cell in his body, but he cycles through going limp to show fatigue and then hurling all his weight into a movement to try to get me off of him, back and forth. And I have to fight against both attitudes – I can’t give in to pity, as it’s useless to both of us, and I can’t let him overpower me. So I’m in a constant state of adjustment and flux and we’re both struggling against each other under the uniting factor of being “good students.” Kru Nu said 40 minutes, so we’ll clinch for 40 minutes. Other than that, we have no shared goal.
Recently, I was spiraling into a bit of a crisis that was really difficult to carry, mainly because it was a point of contention between my husband Kevin and I, rather than a point of connection. In the process of talking it out, kind of like a revelation in therapy that your issue isn’t really about whatever you’re complaining about but is actually a problem deeply rooted in your personal history, Kevin and I discovered that the crux of my crisis was a point of pride. My pride, or dignity – which are not always the same and so are not interchangeable, but are similar enough to be used in tandem for this piece – were suffering. Kevin said something like, “I didn’t realize it’s a ‘pride project,'” and that’s how we’ve come up with this concept for my training now. Training is, and perhaps always unconsciously been, a pride project.
Every fighter I admire has a strong performance of pride: Karuhat, Dieselnoi, Yodkhunpon, my own trainer Kru Nu, even when he’s just holding pads or messing around in the ring. With all of them, it never stops. Even when they’re losing, there’s a dignity that isn’t touched and the melody of their pride carries out over whatever wonky, out-of-tune orchestration is going on around it. So, Kevin prescribed the “pride project” to my training. That everything I do – every single thing – is not really about the technique or the strength or conditioning, it’s really about building my pride. Anything that damages it has to change in some way. Not dodging, not avoidance, but if it’s not building pride, then it’s out.
This is all very motivational. You can watch one of those videos on Youtube, or get hyped by blasting the soundtrack to a movie (as my brother John would do on the way to workouts in his Jeep), but how do you work on this when the adversity hits? That’s the real question. I get stoked on ideas all the time, but actually putting in the work is incredibly difficult. In the case of “pride projects,” there’s a direct adversary and it’s the “shame ditch,” which calls out to you and twists your ankle on your way in to make sure you wallow in its bowels for a bit before even mustering the will to try to climb out.
At the 35 minute mark of my clinching with the butterball that is my current partner, Kru Nu comes into the ring and stands against the ropes. He’s chastising my partner for not going hard enough; Kru Nu tells my partner that he’s 14 kg bigger than I am, why is he backing up so much? My partner is exhausted. He’s been struggling through the whole time, pouting for anybody to see and yet nobody is watching, and with the last few minutes ticking away on the clock he decides to throw himself entirely into it. Something in him rises out of his frustration; his attempts to throw me become more sincere, rather than only timed efforts toward a break – his knees come with power and, more importantly, with serious intention. He wants to hurt me, for real; to stop me. I fight back. I’ve had this clinching partner for probably a year now and I’ve had to learn how to control his outbursts with my own escalations. If he knees too hard for training, I’ll knee back hard – once – and then follow with a lighter knee to let him pick which version he’s going to answer with. If it’s hard, I go hard again. If he calms down, we take it down together. In this last 5 minutes, as he starts trying to hurt me, I go up as well. We escalate and, while he started it, there’s no pulling it down now because it’s like an echo-chamber of intensity. We’re like a kennel of dogs that are riling each other up; I’m not using escalation to control him, I’m using it to punish him. I’m escalating out of lack of control in my own fatigue and emotion. We are both base at this point.
So here’s where this gets complicated. This is a pride project, sure. If you go harder, I go harder. I’m not going to back down against someone trying to hurt me, I’m a fighter. But my response was not under my control and, while it was both “fair” and probably instinctual, it made me feel terrible. It wasn’t fun. We both climbed out of the ring feeling like “that sucked,” even though really only the last 5 minutes were so intense. I mean, it sucked for him the whole time because he was pouting and I was being slowly relentless, but I wasn’t being mean and I wasn’t hurting him. But that last 5 minutes, the feeling of it, that’s how I found myself in the “shame ditch.”
Kevin and I don’t agree on this. Kevin thinks that escalation was justified and is, in fact, a necessary part of the process I’m aiming for. I’m protecting my pride and, indeed, I’ve been under conditions of fatigue and struggle over the past few days. I see that my fatigue and struggle over the past few days are what made me not in control of my emotions at the point of escalation, and so I feel like I failed. I’m ashamed of having “lashed out,” more or less, and my proof being that I felt so terrible both during the escalation and after (both immediately and a good 24 hours later). My shame is also reflected in a Fun House Mirror of two other westerners at my gym, who are both assholes and lack control, as well as self-awareness. One gets in a real altercation with ever person he clinches or spars with, because he’s a dick and can’t figure out that he’s the common denominator – and so nobody wants to work with him and he has to trick newbies into working with him. The other doesn’t have arguments with his partners, but none of them come out of working with him feeling like it was worthwhile or enjoyable at all, for either of them. These guys are on the far end of the spectrum, but I saw myself in it. And, to me, the whole “I’m not as bad as they are,” isn’t really a get-out-of-jail-free-card for your own faults. But there are a million ways in which my stain regarding these weaknesses is significantly different from both of those men: I’m smaller than my training partner, for one, so he can hurt me simply by using his size with a lack of control, whereas I’d have to make a pretty concerted effort to hurt him; these guys are both bigger than everyone they train with, so they’re using size and being assholes. But more complicated is that I’m a woman. My clinching partner is a teenager, so if he gets out of control there’s a lot of wiggle room for his relative inexperience, immaturity, or whatever else that allows him to be out of control to a much larger degree before being corrected than someone my age and experience. But because he’s going to grow into a man, they let him be a bully because it pushes against the weakness he is chastised for all the time, when he’s pouting. A lot of the boys at my gym, when they were much, much younger, got slapped in the face or hit on the butt with a switch if they got too emotional during training. Neither I nor my current clinch partner will ever experience that. As a woman, I’m not encouraged to “become a man” in my ability to overwhelm someone, or even to grow out of the pouting that took up the first 35 minutes of our work, if I indulge in that. For the record, while I see myself in those two asshole westerners, I also am guilty of my clinching partner’s sulking – again to a much lesser degree. But degrees of sin aren’t interesting to me; you either have a disease or you don’t, so you either treat it or you get worse.
What bothers me so much about this, and why I’m still moping in my shame ditch 24 hours later, is that I find it very hard to believe I’m succeeding in a “pride project” when it feels so shitty. I’m ashamed at my lack of control, and yet I’m not faulting my clinch partner’s lack of control. A few years ago I had a different clinch partner, one who escalated on me in an attempt to punish me or shut me down or succeed in his own pride project. He went too hard, so I went hard back and knocked him out with a knee to the guts. Kru Nu had looked over and asked what happened. “He goes hard, I go hard,” I said, flatly. Kru Nu nodded, I suspected at the time with a little bit of pride. That moment, that was a pride moment for me. I wasn’t proud of stopping my clinching partner, but I was protecting my own pride by not letting him escalate and dominate me, hurt me. Rewind even a few more years and I had a real asshole of a clinching partner, whose immaturity and personal pride project broke my nose, twice, in training, once with a knee to the face. I didn’t defend myself then. I didn’t escalate back then. I did not protect my pride then. So having met my clinching partner’s aggression with my own, and stopping him, was an important development for me. But yesterday… it didn’t feel like that.
So, actually, my pride project is now dealing with that feeling. It’s not even about the events. It’s not about the facts or the training or any of it. It’s about my feelings about the feelings I had in the process of all that other mess. In other words, it’s not the clinching that’s the pride project. It’s not the escalation that’s the pride project. It’s not even the not-taking-shit that’s the pride project. It’s how I feel during any and all of that, that’s what makes it a pride project. And that’s how I ended up in the shame ditch, even after doing all the things I’m “supposed” to be doing for growth.