Fighting Spirit: my martial art journey

The Birth of a Martial Enthusiast

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From the youngest age I can remember, martial arts were my passion. This wasn’t a simple pastime for me, but rather an obsession. Whenever I watched a martial artist elegantly moving in their shadow boxing routine or performing powerful air kicks, I felt like I was peering into a world where ordinary people became extraordinary, almost like superheroes.

My idol among all superheroes was always Batman, the epitome of a human champion. Unlike Superman with his otherworldly abilities, Batman was an everyday guy who became powerful through the discipline of  learning The art of martial combat.  

When I was just seven years old, I dived into Denis Survival, a unique fusion of Japanese Jiu Jitsu, Judo, and Karate. If you’re curious to learn more about Denis, the mastermind behind this blend, check out his story [link to website].

I devoted two days a week for two and a half years to hone my skills. The memory that stands out most is the first time I took a punch square on my face during practice. My coach’s bare knuckle punch landed right on my chin.

I was in the process of graduating from a yellow to an orange belt. The test was structured with a Randory (sparring) session with the other practitioners, culminating in a three minute duel with my coach. While attempting a low kick, I was taken by surprise by his unintended uppercut to my chin.

It was quite the shock, and my coach was immediately remorseful. But for me, this was more than a punch; it was a lesson, an achievement. Here I was, just an eight year old kid, standing against a forty year old man who resembled a Viking to me.

This incident helped me realize that taking a punch wasn’t a big deal.

 These martial art classes, being part of an after school program, kept me engaged while allowing my parents to work without worrying about me.

Two years later , the after school program ended, and so did my routine at Denis Survival . However, I wasn’t ready to stop just because the program ended. At the tender age of ten, I decided to march into the advanced classes on my own. As soon as I entered the dojo, I sensed the change in vibes – I was the youngest there.

The advanced guys, probably in their late teens, seemed intimidating. I was the new face, a fresh challenge. When they started their warm ups, their prowess with the heavy bag was awe inspiring – side kicks, flying kicks, wheel kicks, all executed with remarkable skill.

This spectacle marked my last day with Denis Survival. The intimidating display of skill was enough to spook me, and I left before the class even began.

Trials and Triumphs: Learning to Fight Back

Two years had quietly slipped away since I’d hung up my martial arts gear. At the age of 12, like most kids, I was forcibly ushered into the universally accepted world of soccer – a game I’ve despised with a fiery passion to this day. In the grand scheme of things, I had become “civilized,” quietly aligning with societal norms and expectations. The martial arts enthusiast had been buried deep down, replaced with a common soccer player, much to my own resentment.

Every day started with a customary routine at my school. The sixth graders, the “elders,” were designated as guardians for us younger ones, escorting us across the busy city streets on our way to school. Among these,sixth graders there is my bully, always teasing and picking on me. I remember seeing him every day, and my, was he tall. It was as if I had to crane my neck just to catch a glimpse of his smug face. He thrived on my misery, making me the butt of his cruel jokes, mocking my weight and belittling me at every chance.

Then came a day when I decided to say ‘fuck it.’ The endless insults and humiliations had finally taken their toll. I attempted to stand up for myself, pushing him back in defiance. However, my bold move backfired spectacularly. The bully, quick as a snake, landed a brutal kick right on my face, with the tip of his shoe connecting squarely with my left eye. The world around me morphed into a disorienting void of black as I crumpled to the ground.

In mere moments, a trio of teachers swooped in, chiding the bully for his violent retaliation while helping me to my feet. In his audacity, the kid claimed self defense and ended up with a measly three day suspension.

Reeling from the impact, I was in total shock. My eye throbbed painfully, swelling and turning a ghastly shade of purple. The veins around the bruised area stood out, adding to the grotesque spectacle. Despite my attempts, I couldn’t hold back the tears. In that moment, I felt the crushing weight of being a total loser.

I arrived at my English class late, the brutal aftermath of the encounter visible for all to see – a swollen eye, tear streaked face, and a voice that trembled with humiliation. The teacher, taking in my dismal state, hugged me. But no amount of comfort could stem the tide of tears. I broke down in front of the whole class, my lowest point laid bare for all to witness.

Once home, I spilled the events of the day to my parents, the bitter taste of defeat still fresh in my mouth. Needing some alone time to process the traumatic event, I found myself staring at my reflection. I studied my swollen, purple eye and, in a strange twist, began to appreciate the hardened look it presented. Yet, as I observed my beaten face, a burning desire for vengeance sparked within me. I was determined to pay the bully back, in kind.

That very day, I convinced my dad to get me a high tech heavy bag for our roof (link to Amazon heavy bag). It was time to hone my punches and build up strength. However, a few sessions in, I was hit with a harsh truth – I didn’t know a fucking thing about how to fight. My martial arts background seemed to be a world away, offering little to no help. The realization stung, but it only fueled my determination to become stronger and ready for the next round.

Embracing Fitness and Exploring Muay Thai: A New Beginning

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My journey towards physical fitness kicked off quite early – at the tender age of a sixth grader. You see, my father, a fitness trainer, he’s the living embodiment of Hercules, even at 52. A dedicated sports enthusiast, his life revolved around running, weightlifting, swimming, cycling – you name it. Being his son, it wasn’t long before I too caught the fitness bug. The exhilaration of pushing my physical limits became a thrill I started to crave – an emotion that only a few can truly fathom.

My initial goal was quite straightforward – to lose the pesky belly fat that was plaguing me. The thought of muscle building hadn’t even crossed my mind yet at that point. I started with consistent treadmill runs and lifting sessions, not realizing that I was setting both physical and mental goals for myself. My efforts started bearing fruit after a few months as I began to shed weight.

It was during this time that I met Frank, a trainer at our gym. Frank was a physical marvel, a 24 year old , athletically built man boasting a six pack abs and a large but an aesthetic frame. His workout regime was unlike anything I’d ever seen – he would lift heavy weights, walk on his hands around the gym, perform bar calisthenics tricks like front levers, back levers, weighted muscle ups, L-sits, and much more. He was as much an acrobat as a trainer.

What stood out about Frank, however, was his extensive background in Muay Thai and kickboxing, honed over years of practice in a local dojo.at that time  I have searched and tried all kinds of martial art’s dojos, but ended up with nothing. Seeing my lack of connection with various martial arts, my father introduced me to Frank.   Up to that point, my understanding of martial arts was limited to Karate and Judo. Muay Thai was foreign to me. But as I watched videos of Muay Thai fighters, I was left in awe of their sheer power and unique fighting style.

First Contact: A Muay Thai Dojo

One day, Frank invited me to join his Muay Thai class. He told me upfront that the class consisted mainly of men aged 25-40, all seasoned fighters. At 13, this was a daunting prospect. Yet, that very evening, I found myself in Frank’s car, heading towards the dojo. His energy was infectious, just from his tone I heard the excitement  for the upcoming training. My emotions were a mixed bag of fear induced adrenaline and pure anticipation.

During the drive, Frank revealed he had begun training at the dojo when he was just 15 – merely two years older than me. He spoke of the dojo as one would of a family, a place where respect is earned and personal growth fostered. His words fell on my naive ears, but today, they ring true and I understand every sentiment of it.

We rolled up to the dojo. The vibes there were different, you know? Like a manly energy mixed with respect and honor. Maybe it was the smell of sweat and blood that did it. The dojo itself was big and had a chill look to it. A blue mat, some heavy bags hanging from the ceiling, and a cool Muay Thai poster with traditional moves were the main features.

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the poster at our dojo

We got there 15 minutes early. I was just a shy kid, and Frank introduced me to a few of the big guys who were already there. The thought of sparring with them messed with my head, but they were all pretty cool and welcoming.

Then the sensei walked in. Man, if I’d seen this guy on the street, I’d never have pegged him for a Muay Thai teacher. The sensei didn’t look scary. He was a pretty short dude, wore glasses, didn’t have any unique muscles or a ripped six pack. But his stomach was like a rock, and his shins were sharp as an ax. He was the perfect example of why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. By day, he was a lawyer, but by night, a Muay Thai master. To me, he was like Superman.

Facing Fear: My Intense First Day in the Muay Thai Dojo

When I arrived with Frank and met the sensei, I didn’t get any special treatment for being the “new guy”. Quite the opposite, actually. My first Muay Thai class was spent paired up with a ginger haired, bearded Goliath of a man named Juda. He was one of the most intimidating guys in the gym.

Our first drill was low kicks. He’d kick me, then I’d kick him. I was still using my karate stance, with my guard too low. Juda kept telling me to fix it. As a 13 year-old kid trading leg kicks with a 43 year-old man, I was too shocked to really listen. I was too busy trying not to freak out from fear. Juda started to kick harder, and each one felt like being hit by a tank. I didn’t know what to do, so I just smiled, thinking it would help. But it only made Juda more pissed off.

“What’s so funny?!” he barked, then BAM! Another kick. “Why are you smiling when I’m hitting you?!” BAM! Another kick. My leg went numb.

Finally, I stopped smiling and started to listen to Juda. I fixed my guard, improved my stance, and began giving him the strongest leg kicks I could (though he didn’t really feel them). As practice went on, I learned an important lesson on my first day at the dojo: Don’t let fear hold you back.

The training had finished. My body was aching all over. I’d spent the whole one and a half hours of the Muay Thai class with Juda, and it was grueling. Frank drove me home, saying it was a good thing that I’d spent my first day with Juda. It was good to get a taste of the physical pain these classes would bring, he said, and I should always aim to work with men like Juda.

Conquering Fear, Gaining Respect

When I got home, my leg was covered in fresh blue bruises and I was limping slightly. My dad asked me how the training went. I told him everything, and he was convinced that I would never go back to that dojo. In fact, I later found out that Frank had thought the same thing.

Three days later, it was time for my second Muay Thai class (we had classes twice a week, on Thursday and Friday). I called Frank to ask if he was going, and he said he was. I didn’t really want to go back for more training. I was scared, but I also knew I couldn’t let fear control me.

So, I got into Frank’s car. I was nervous, my stomach churning. My mind was searching for any excuse to not go, but I ignored those weak thoughts. We arrived at the dojo, and I was relieved to find out that Fridays were mainly for drills on the heavy bags. I wouldn’t have to face Juda again, and I ended up learning a lot that day.

Time passed, and for the next one and a half years, I kept showing up, even though I didn’t really want to. Fear was part of it, but it was also inconvenient to train at noon on Fridays. All my friends would go out to eat or go to the beach after school, but I was the only one who would go home early to get to my Muay Thai class.

The more I showed up at the dojo, the more respect I earned from the guys there. Most kids didn’t last long after facing Juda or any of the other big guys. The “normal” thing to do would be to find a more family-friendly martial arts gym with students their own age. But I didn’t even consider going to another dojo. I felt strong, facing my fears and going up against men twice my size and much older than me.

The Mentorship of Tomer: Pushing Boundaries and Leveling Up

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Three months after joining, all the big guys started wanting to mentor me, guiding me through my martial arts journey. I was given all sorts of tips and tricks, but one man, Tomer, took it a step further. Like Juda, he was a giant. He was leaner and taller than Juda, and I’d love to see who would win if they fought. Tomer, 40 years old with gray hair and a beard, He began looking out for me at the dojo.

Tomer took me under his wing. He would help me stretch before and after training, lifting my leg onto his shoulder to stretch it out. And he’d often choose me as his training partner. He never went easy on me, always delivering powerful blows that connected in a painful way. Sometimes, they were middle kicks. Often, it was his right cross. And there were times when he’d kick me straight in the neck, his leg shooting up then twisting down with full force like an ax.

I liked training with Tomer. I got used to getting beaten up by him, and I learned a lot from each session. I remember one particular training where he taught me how to escape from corners. He’d trap me in a corner, throwing combinations at me until my back was against the wall. Then, he’d yell at me to get out while continuing his barrage of blows. The trick was to throw my own combinations while trying to slip past him and get out of the corner – a terrifying strategy against a guy like Tomer, but it worked. Training with Tomer leveled up my skills in a tremendous way.

Rising Through the Ranks: Challenges, Dedication, and Leadership

Before I knew it, I was no longer the “new guy”. More and more practitioners joined the dojo, some older than me, some my age, but most didn’t return after their first training session. Suddenly, I found myself facing men who were 24 years old, and I could beat them, and beat them quite easily, at only 14 and a half.

At 15, I started taking Muay Thai seriously and built my home boxing/Muay Thai gym. I already had my heavy bag from sixth grade, and decided to add a double-end bag, speed bag, reflex bag, and my latest purchase – the slip ball, just like the one Mike Tyson used to train with. On the days when there weren’t any classes, I trained at home in the gym I had built. I spent countless hours there, sometimes training every single day, honing my skills and endurance.

At 15, I also got some of my personal friends to join the dojo. There were now four of us, and we trained a lot together – before training, after training, during training, and we even met up for sparring sessions on off days. We really enjoyed it. I was the “leader” of the pack, having been the first to join this dojo.

My sensei started taking me seriously too. Two years had passed since I had joined, and I was now 15, the same age Frank had been when he started training. The sensei chose me most of the time to demonstrate the drills for the rest of the guys. These demonstrations were the scariest part of training, because the sensei was so unpredictable. He could throw light punches and kicks while explaining the drills, and then, out of nowhere – bam! – a full-force combo and I’d be on the ground before I knew it.

Yet I took great pride in being chosen to demonstrate most of the drills. Each time, I would bow in honor, touch both my gloves together and say, “Oss!” I was learning discipline the hard way, but it was the best way to learn.

Embracing the Intensity of Sparring and Personal Growth

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my muay thai dojo

With each training session, I found myself learning a lot. The fear was always there when I faced Juda, Tomer, Eviater, sensei, and the others, but the beautiful thing was that I got used to the feeling of fear. In fact, all my power and energy came from fear.

By the time I was 16 and going against Juda or Tomer, I tried not to hold back against them because that’s how they liked to train, full force, unleashing powerful kicks and punches. The common approach when starting martial arts is to go easy on your partner in the hope that they’ll do the same for you. But it didn’t work that way in our dojo. If you went easy on the big guys, they would go strong on you to set the pace.

“Fighting shouldn’t be pretty,” my sensei would always say, “it’s supposed to be ugly and cruel.” Most of the training consisted of partner drills and heavy bag work, but as the year progressed, “sparring” became the primary focus. I use the term “sparring” lightly because it was more like a real fight, with barely any holding back on our shots.

I loved this time of the year. I thrived on the stress and the charged atmosphere of these sparring sessions. When I first joined, I was terrified and frequently got beaten up, but after a few years, I fell in love with the concept of sparring. It allowed me to put everything I had learned to the test. It was this confrontation with fear and the ensuing growth that had me so enamored with Muay Thai

In Pursuit of Zen: Unleashing the Power of Instinct in Martial Arts

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Martial arts gyms are like hidden universes, brimming with grit, resilience, and profound tranquility. When you step through their threshold, the din and discord of the outside world simply melt away. The weight of worries, pain, suffering, and regret vanishes. As your bare feet grace the mat and your fist meets the punching bag, you immerse yourself in a realm where only the present moment matters.

In this universe, you begin to evolve. From an uncertain novice, you morph into a determined practitioner, until one day, you find yourself standing at the precipice of an exquisite state of consciousness: Zen.

Zen is the pinnacle of concentration in martial arts. It’s not a place of strategic thought or calculated movements. It’s the realm of instinct, where Bruce Lee’s words from “Enter the Dragon” echo true, “When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And, when there is an opportunity, I do not hit – it hits all by itself.” That is Zen.

This state of heightened instinct and reflex is not easily attainable. It takes countless hours, years of repetition, and dedicated practice. But once you touch this state, a magnetic pull keeps you striving for it. Zen is where fear evaporates. You’re not strategizing, you’re not scared, you are simply prepared – ready for whatever may come.

My own dance with Zen began through my battle with fear. When confronted with a formidable opponent, my subconscious would shift into survival mode, honing my mind and body to a razor-sharp edge. With thousands of hours of practiced movements supporting me, I found myself slipping into Zen, a state where I responded to threats not with thought but instinct.

Finding Closure in My Martial Arts Journey

By the age of 18, my journey led me to the threshold of a new challenge: the military. With five years of diligent Muay Thai training under my belt, I had evolved from a timid child to a capable warrior, ready to serve. It was a poignant moment of closure.

In these transformative years, I learned to appreciate the very bully who had once tormented me. Initially, I thirsted for vengeance. However, as the years passed, I recognized his unwitting role in my journey. Without his torment, I might never have sought refuge in the Muay Thai dojo. I might never have found the fire within me that desired not just to be strong, but to be the strongest.

Three years after our confrontation, I ran into him randomly on the street. I shook his hand, looked him in the eyes, and allowed a genuine smile to reach my lips. There was no lingering resentment, no animosity. I had moved beyond those shackles. Instead, I felt gratitude. His actions, however misguided, had set me on a path I would never have chosen, yet it was a path that forged me into the man I had become.

By this time, my reputation as a Muay Thai fighter was well known in my city, a rare distinction in a place where the martial art is not common. Yet, despite the accolades and the recognition, the greatest victory was the battle I had won within myself, the fears and weaknesses I had overcome. Because in the dojo, in the universe of martial arts, that is the truest victory one can achieve.

From the Depths of the Dojo: Conquering the Ritual and Finding Closure with Sensei

Let me take you back to my last days before joining the military, an event that marked a rite of passage for every practitioner in our dojo. Frank, the guy who got me into boxing , had told me about this ritual when I was 13. He told me that anyone who joins the army from our dojo must face every single member, including the sensei himself, in a one on one sparring match. With no rest in between, you are pitted against each fighter in the dojo. The battle goes on until you can barely stand, and even then, you fight!

Five years passed quickly and soon it was my turn. As my days at the dojo waned, I constantly found my mind wandering towards this impending ritual. I had no clue when it would happen, yet the anticipation was always there.

On my last day, Sensei called me to the center of the dojo mat to demonstrate the next drill, as he often did. As you’ve come to know, Sensei was full of surprises. That day was no exception.

Sensei started slow, the drill was simple. I was supposed  to block his middle kick with my leg, a drill we performed without shin guards. We continued for a few minutes, then suddenly, Sensei stopped. I could see a different fire in his eyes, the hungry gaze of a predator ready to pounce on his prey . And pounce he did.

Without warning, he attacked, bombarding me with a flurry of punches and kicks. I was unprepared, disoriented. My first instinct was to guard, to protect myself, not to retaliate. But as his attacks connected, the others in the dojo began to yell, urging me to fight back. It dawned on me then; this was my ritual. My moment had come.

So, I fought back. Or at least, I tried to. Sensei was relentless, his punishing blows pushing me back, out of the dojo’s door. His kicks were brutal, his punches felt like explosions on my face and body, his front kicks robbed me of my breath. But I stood my ground. I hid my pain, endured, did my best.

After what felt like an eternity, Sensei ceased his assault and called upon Evyater, one of the strongest in our dojo, a former bodybuilder turned fearsome Muay Thai fighter. The pattern repeated, again and again, for the next thirty minutes, each combatant leaving their mark on me.

The ritual finally ended when Sensei called a halt. I was bruised and battered but standing. I bowed to everyone, lastly to my Sensei. He returned my bow, embraced me, and imparted his final lesson, “You are much stronger than you think you are. Look how much you’ve endured, and you still stand as though it was nothing. Remember this moment, remember your strength.”That marked the end of my chapter at the Muay Thai dojo.

From Fear to Strength: My Martial Arts Odyssey

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 It has been four years since then. I’ve returned to the dojo on occasion, and it always feels like home. Today, I’m training in boxing with an aspiration to go professional. The style is different, but the mentality, the spirit that Muay Thai instilled in me remains the same.

If you’re still considering whether to take up martial arts, I hope my journey inspires you to take that step. For me, martial arts wasn’t just a sport or a hobby, it was a transformative journey, the crucible that forged me. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Take the plunge, and who knows, it might just be the best thing for you too.

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