One evening in late 2010 I was traveling through the Indian state of Uttarakhand and found myself in the city of Rishikesh, waiting for a bus to take me east to Varanasi. Like most buses I had taken over the last 4 months this one was inevitably late, so to pass the time I ended up chatting with another delayed traveler.
Since it looked like it was going to be a while, we walked down by The River Ganges and sat on this massive concert slab that overhung the muddy water. The man, a tall Brit with shaved head, told me he had just come from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand where he had spent the last few months training in Muay Thai kickboxing in order to have a professional fight.
The more he spoke about his experiences, the more fascinated with his story I became. I had been in a couple of scraps in my life but the thought of getting in a ring and fighting someone else when it’s just you vs. them was both terrifying and wonderful at the same time. I listened attentively as he went on.
He told me all about the training process, how he went from not knowing how to even throw a decent kick to “transcending” pain, and the psychological experience of finally being in the ring with the crowd cheering when he knocked his opponent out. His story really got my heart beating. Having an experience like this was the exact kind of thing I was looking to do on my yearlong adventure around the world.
As the Brit got up to catch his bus I found myself filled with longing to prove that I too could have a fight and win. I really had no good reason why I couldn’t do this. I was young, willing to work hard, and had always been reasonably athletic and well coordinated. I stared out over the brown water thinking to myself, and an hour later when my bus came my mind was made up. I was going to Thailand to have a fight.
From India I made my way to Bangkok and took a bus up to Chiang Mai. I showed up to the gym the Brit had recommended right as one of the 8am morning training sessions was beginning.
The “Gym” if you can call it that, was not at all the modern facility that I had anticipated. It was all outdoors and consisted of a large tin roof, which covered an old ring. A few punching bags were hanging from the roof beams and there was a large space between the bags and the ring where a few old Thai men were currently sleeping.
The gym apparently doubled as a cock-fighting arena on Sundays, and being Monday, there were still cages of yelping roosters piled up against one of the walls. When I travel I work hard to seek out authenticity. The realness of this place – the roosters, the minimalism, the passed our Thai guys – it was all wonderful to me. I paid the owner and got right into learning the basic techniques of Muay Thai.
The first week was the hardest. My soft feet were not used to running over bare concrete and I soon developed some serious blisters. Stamina too, was an issue. After spending the last 4 months in India, reading, meditating, and not working out, my endurance was at an all time low.
Every day for the first week I cursed the waking hours, but around day 10 things became slightly easier. I learned to tape my feet up so that blisters weren’t an issue. I became accustomed to the shin splints and constant soreness all over my body. Tiger Balm was something I used a lot of. Best of all I found a little massage parlor close to my apartment and befriended the owner. I got an hour-long massage every day after training for 8 dollars (including a 2 dollar tip).
Training was twice a day, from 8 am until 11:30 and then again from 3pm until 6, and consisted of a 5k ‘warm-up’ run, bag drills, sparring, jump rope, and plenty of the other exercises that you would find in a your typical Rocky training montage scene.
The months passed, though time didn’t seem to, since at the height of the brilliant Thai summer each day was exactly like the last. I woke up, went to training, ate, trained again, ate, read, and slept. I read 18 classic novels during that time and began work on a screenplay about Japanese internment in WWII.
The date of my fight was fast approaching and one Tuesday afternoon I was ‘Clinching’ with one of the trainers. Clinching is a big part of every Muay Thai fight, and is when you and you opponent get too close to one another and end up grappling while you’re standing up. The goal when this happens is to throw the other person off balance so you can strike them with a knee or some other debilitating blow.
I went to throw the trainer to the ground, miss-stepped and immediately felt that oh-shit-something-is-wrong feeling you get when you injure yourself in a serious way. Moments later I dropped to the ground with a pain that, “forced me to be in the moment” as my Indian meditation teacher would say. Later that day I found out that I had torn my obelisk muscle on my right side and that I would not be recovered for two months.
The next few days were hard to say the least. I read The Stand by Steven King, got drunk with one of the Irish guys that I trained with at the afternoon class, and avoided the gym. I felt like it had all been for nothing now that the fight was not going to happen.
But then that weekend as I was sulking about in the park near my apartment, I realized something that might come off as stupid and new-agey since it will sound like I’m just trying to justify getting something out of a failed experience by finding the silver lining, but I’ll say it anyways because I actually believe it. I realized that I had gotten what I had come for and that having the fight actually had very little to do with what I wanted to do in Thailand.
More than having a fight, to me this whole experience was about achieving a certain state of mind, one where you have accepted that you were going to have a fight. Achieving that state of mind was about finding the courage to challenge yourself, to push yourself both physically and mentally past any pain and fear into a place of confidence, one where you have a rock solid belief in yourself and your abilities as a fighter.
As I was walking around the field I realized that I was there; I had accepted that I was going to have a fight and I was even confident that I could win. I knew this from the hours I spent sweating onto the floor as I did sit-ups and worked my technique on the bags and pads. I knew it from the miles I’d run, the pull-ups I’d done, the fights I had seen — it culminated in a calmness I felt when I was sparing someone. In short, I knew that I would win.
As Muhammad Ali once said, “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.” In my mind, the real fight was won. Even if nobody besides me would ever witness my victory, I took satisfaction in knowing that I had gotten what I had come for and that this state of mind was now part of me.
My wish for all of you Utrippers is that you challenge yourselves to get deep enough into your experiences so that you can see them for what they really are, not just for what they seem to be on the surface. Even if things are looking grim, there is always a lesson to be learned from those times when you really push your limits to see how far your body and mind can take you.