Violence and the Redemption of the Soul

A warning is probably in order. I’m going to talk about the martial arts as a tool of redemption. Violence as soul work. A lot of people on this site and many who come out of religious backgrounds have dealt with many things I’ve never known: physical abuse and sexual abuse, among other things. I have no right to speak to anyone who’s been through that. Although I will mention people who came out of such experiences, and who used the martial arts to rebuild themselves, I cannot speak of such things in the first person. Nor can I claim to know what they know, or to advise anyone who’s been through similar trauma. If that is part of your makeup, then I recommend you read something else.

TW: Abuse, physical violence.

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I don't remember much about my first boxing match. Another fighter called it "white out." The crowd, the noise, the heat, the bright lights, the sweat. The adrenaline rush hits you like a flash. It’s like staring into a spotlight. My hands were sealed inside my gloves with duct tape, so I couldn't even scratch my nose. It was fight night at Cappy’s Gym in Seattle. They matched me with a guy named Jason. He was a little lighter than me, but more experienced. I met him for the first time when I swung my head under the ropes, and stepped into the ring. I remember tapping my gloves together as I walked up. Pump your jab, my cornerman told me. Establish your reach. Remember to breathe, he said.

That’s a joke with boxing trainers. When you fight, it’s easy to forget to breathe.

The scarcest resource in boxing is air. The hardest skill to master - harder than footwork, more difficult than timing, or knowing when to stick and when to move - is breathing. Every breath is a thimble full of water you throw on the fire in your lungs. When you're outside, you take long, deep gulps of delicious air. Your mouth is open. Use the diaphragm like an opera singer trying to hit that perfect note, and hold it. When you go to work inside the phone booth, you tighten up, and breathe through your nose. Breathe shallow in the chest so it's harder to knock out your wind.

Your air is the measure of your gas tank. When your tank is empty, you're done. I’ve seen a fighter stumble forward in the ring, and almost pass out in the middle of a fight because he forgot to breathe.

I discovered competitive combat sports in my 30s. I’d been raised to avoid fighting. Be peaceful. Aggression was wrong. Blessed are the peacemakers. When my faith crumbled, I was left with a dearth of tools to build the person I would become; the man I wanted to be. I accidentally discovered boxing, and I loved it. The bug bit me on the first day. It shaped the man I became.

I didn’t approach the sport for any reasons I could articulate. I needed exercise. But week after week, as I went back, I knew I found something I needed. It fed something more. Only looking backward can I understand what drove me. There was so much unresolved anger. There was an absence of spiritual structure, and I needed a wordless way to rebuild my soul devoid of pomposity. That’s what you get from a lifetime of submerging rage, frustration, and disappointment inside. When your only tools are pious catch-phrases and Bible verses, the anger has no place to flow. It builds up. All those constraints were gone. Fortunately, I found my training.

Like a red-hot wire, the anger seethed beneath the surface. As I fought, I could finally reach down and let it go. I could aim it and find a solid target I could reach. I threw punches until I was exhausted, or went into the bathroom and puked. Then I rested, drank some water, and kept throwing. Boxers have a phrase they call “heart.” It means many things, but it’s your inner drive, your spirit, and whatever motivates you. It’s what makes you get up when your body won’t. I lacked speed, and as a late starter, I lacked conditioning. But I had heart. And I was entirely fearless.

My trainers also taught me discipline. As I gained experience, they paired me with newcomers and put limitations on my actions: only defend, only use your jab, work on your movement, parry and slip, or let your opponent chase you while you counterpunch. It’s not enough to have heart and drive. You have to learn to control those things. They can’t control you. I learned to ride the anger and use it instead of pushing it downward. There are plenty of angry fighters, and some of them are dangerous. A good fighter uses her anger, if that is one of her tools, and channels it. Finding a proper outlet for my anger accomplished more than any therapy I’ve ever done.

After I moved to Brooklyn, I sparred with a guy named Facheti at Gleason’s Gym. We set up a Sunday afternoon fight club, and fighters were paired with whoever else showed up. It was his first time in our fight club. He wouldn’t shut up. He kept barking advice across the ropes as other people fought, like he was a coach. I got tired of his words, so I asked for the next match with him.

“Something on your mind?” one of the trainers asked.

“I’m going to kick his ass,” I said, putting on my gloves.

“All right, all right. I think he’s got it coming. Go tune him up.”

When the bell rang, I didn’t move in skillfully. I loaded my right hand at the shoulder, stomped across the ring, and threw everything I had behind that first punch. It hit dead center in his face.

He sputtered, and yelled, “What the fuck? I’m gonna …”

He kept talking. I didn’t listen. I ignored him, loaded my next cross, and fired off. What followed was a battle. Neither one of us could wait for the one-round rests to end. I bounced back and forth on my feet eager for the bell. I found out Facheti was no slouch, either. He talked a lot, but his left hook hit like a brick. I couldn’t completely close my mouth for three days after that fight. It made chewing my meals fun. After the fight, we hugged each other in the ring. The trainers whooped and slapped us on the back.

One of the trainers, named Earl, used to say you didn’t know a man until you fought him. Afterward, he said, “Okay, now you two know each other. You’ve met the man. Now you’ve met Facheti. Now he’s met you.”

Something about fighting revealed a measure of essential truth about yourself; something true about your opponent. You met the man. You met yourself.

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I know a lot of people who go into boxing or any other martial art for a lot of reasons. I’ve met women who came out of abusive relationships who wanted to rebuild themselves and learn how to defend themselves. There is something unnatural about training yourself to move into a fight, instead of away from it. A red-headed girl – I’ll call her Rachel – told me about getting away from her abusive husband. He broke her spirit with his physical abuse. A couple of times he choked her into unconsciousness before she finally managed to get away from him.

Both of us were new to boxing, so we laughed about what it felt like the first time we were savaged by another fighter.

“She just kept hitting me in the same spots,” Rachel said. “I couldn’t win, I couldn’t get away. I walked out of there that night, and told myself I’d never go back.”

“But you did go back,” I said.

“It was one of the hardest decisions I ever made,” she said. “But it made me stronger. After that, I knew I could survive. I knew I could keep fighting if I ever had to.

There was a young man, I’ll call him Charles.

"I was never good at sports," he said, twirling the wraps off his hands in the locker room. He said he was gay and told us about learning from boxing that he could participate in a fight sport. He’d always been told he wasn’t manly enough.

“But I’m a man, just like any other man,” he said. He was quick, and his strikes were much faster than mine. He had excellent reflexes, and fast combinations. You could see he was satisfied with his progress. His first fight happened the same day as mine. I cheered for him. I saw his face when the ref raised his hand, proud of his work.

From boxing, I moved into other martial arts. The footwork and hand strikes served me well as a base for studying other styles: Muay Thai, Aikido, Pekiti Tirsia Kali. Every art carries with it a little of the culture which produced it. Comparative study allows you to see similarities, differences, and new lessons, or old material seen from a different angle.  Everything you master is a building block for the next lesson you receive. I learned to fight with knives and sticks. I sparred with people trained in Wing Chun Kung-Fu, and Kyokushin Karate.

My training was essential for rebuilding myself. After learning discipline and an outlet for my anger, I put those accomplishments behind me, and journeyed further and picked up other skills and other tools. Often, I learned more from the students around me than I did from my instructors.

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It’s been my honor to train with all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds: men and women, newbies and amateurs and aspiring pros, desk jockeys looking to become fit, and athletes trying to hone their bodies to a new skill. All races, genders, backgrounds, levels of ability. When you step into the ring, you put all of that behind you. You’re a fighter, and nothing more. I read the stories of Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frasier, George Foreman. I watched tapes of old fights on YouTube, and I read about the Rumble in the Jungle, the Thrilla in Manilla, the Fight of the Century, Ali vs Sonny Liston.

I learned humility. “Boxing,” Joe Frazier wrote in his autobiography Smokin Joe, “is a world of harsh truths and inevitable consequences.” One of the best boxers I ever trained with, named Derek, weighed only 165 pounds. But he was a professional kickboxer with outrageous conditioning who could outlast five different opponents in a row. He once threw a punch at me so fast I could only watch it weave between my guard. At the last possible second, he pulled the punch and made it sting my nose instead of staggering me. When I asked him about it, he only shrugged. He was just that good. He had nothing to prove.

Once, I trained with Queen Underwood, at Cappy’s Gym in Seattle. I doubt she remembers me. Underwood eventually went on to compete in the Summer Olympics in 2012 at 132 pounds. She was blindingly fast, and hit like a brick bat. After schooling me for several rounds, I heard her tell her coach as she swung out of the ring, “Don’t put me with that guy again. He’s too slow.”

Compared to her, I was. There’s no shame in admitting that. Underwood helped correct a mistake lingering from my background. I'd always associated the warrior ethos with masculinity. I trained with, and was schooled by, a number of talented and amazing fighters who were women in both boxing and Muay Thai.

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As a student of theology who eventually walked away from it, I acquired an allergy for bullshit metaphysics. I love the physicality of the martial arts. It changed me without a lot of talking. My strength, my reflexes, my timing, my cardio. Training changed me without a lot of verbiage wrapped around why I wanted to change, or what I wanted to become. This is the first time I’ve tried to put it in words.

My jab was my weakest punch when I started. It turned into one of my favorite tools. Winning teaches you one lesson. Losing teaches you another. You learn to miss and recover from a miss without throwing off your balance.

Like Buddhism, there is a focus on breathing. After so many thousands of years of evolution, I think the lizard part of our brain knows exactly what we’re training for when we practice how to fight. Tens of thousands of years have drilled into the deepest parts of our psyche what punches and kicks are used for, and this is part of what creates the calming effect of shadowboxing, katas in Karate, Tai Chi, or sword forms in Iaido. Preparation for conflict adapts us to better face that conflict when it comes. It’s calming, like meditation, even though the business of fighting is anything but calm.