I’m a smart guy. I read books. I move in intellectual circles. I also get punched in the face on a daily basis. Sometimes people ask me why I do things like boxing and MMA, suggesting by their tone that I am somehow too smart for combat sports. Perhaps influenced by the monosyllabic, mush-mouthed mumblings of Rocky Balboa, the popular image of the fighter is that an inarticulate oaf. Some people think of fighters as brutes who are just too dumb for anything else. This is miles away from the truth. There isn’t any aspect of fighting that doesn’t demand concentration, cunning, and strategy.
Shows like the Ultimate Fighter on Spike both help and hurt the case for intelligent fighters. For every well-thought out aside, they show a scene where some rage-fueled beast of a man bellows like a wounded animal and starts kicking garbage cans because he doesn’t like a diagnosis. There’s a difference between passion and stupidity. The UFC post fight interviews are no help either. You can’t just stick a microphone in someone’s face after they have just gone five rounds and expect a good reply. Even the most articulate of fighters stumble over a few clichés and babble when the adrenaline is still pumping and they’re try to catch their breath in time for Joe Rogan to ask his inane questions.
So why do I do it? Why risk harm to my body for no obvious reason? If I just wanted to stay in shape, there are a hundred safer sports and activities. So I’m definitely making a conscious choice by deciding to box rather than play tennis or wrestle instead of Pilates. I have to admit, I do enjoy the atavistic simplicity of combat sports. They allow you to vent your frustration tangibly by imposing your will over another in the most primal way possible: by hitting him until he stops moving or holding him down so that he can’t get up no matter how hard he tries. There is a certain joy to the raw physicality of asserting my dominance.
But at the same time, these are sporting events not blood sports. Whether you’re talking about boxing, MMA, or wrestling there is a structure of rules in place and you have to operate in those rules. Doing so requires discipline and intelligence. A good wrestling match is like whole-body chess game. You have to outthink your opponent, and take advantage of things like leverage, anatomy, and physics. And that’s not even touching on the psychology of fighting – things like getting into your opponent’s head and reading his actions.
It applies to all sports, but I think it really comes through when its one on one combat. They don’t call boxing the sweet science for nothing. There are at least a dozen things a fighter has to mentally keep track of the bout progress, things like timing, posture, combinations, counters, body mechanics, etc. And they have to do all this with a huge surge of adrenaline coursing through their body and the fatigue that increases as the fight goes on. Mumbling aside, Rocky ain’t dumb. No (good) fighter is. They can’t be.
So those are the two sides of fighting that draw me in. But what really keeps me coming back to activities that involve kidney punches and bloody noses is the interplay of the two. There is a dichotomy between the physicality of the fighter and the intellect that you need to fight. It’s hard to think in the hurly-burly. The way to do it is to practice, practice, practice until calculating your opponent’s reach becomes as instinctive as drawing breath. You learn to think fast and adjust on the fly if your combinations aren’t working.
For me this almost leads to a kind of Zen state, a mode of thinking without thinking where cerebral contemplation finds its ultimate expression in a well-thrown straight right. It’s like concentrated mindfulness that I haven’t been able to recreate with any other activity. So for now, I’ll stay in the ring with the other smart guys.