From the outside, I might seem like a serial cultist, and my last 20 months immersion was in kick boxing. I was a devoted student, and the temple walls at which I worshiped were made of flesh. (Pigface’s ditty “Suck” which was coined by Trent Reznor was clearly about martial arts, so that’s why I paraphrase it here ).
Kick boxing gives the mixed-martial art cult short shrift, but I chose to call it kick-boxing, as it was under this guise that I took my pledge and did my first keg stand at the slap down frat. If you mention MMA, people think about men in speedos wrestling, and while it’s more heterosexual fun than I care to mention, kick boxing was the short hand I used. Kick boxing four or five times a week made me a kick boxer, and I’m not sure which I enjoyed more – the doing, or the being. I am a kick boxer. Watch me kick. Or at least I was.
Many of the cults I have been joyfully part of have included a certain air of hedonism and have been grounded in booze and unmentionables, and the unmentionables and black-out drinking are skimmed over and the finer points are thrust into focus. Kick boxing was different. Here I was, surrounded by some of the fittest people I’ve ever been associated with, doing something that made me a healthier person.
Healthier in so many different ways. If you hang out with alcoholics you learn about new cocktails and different brands of gin. If you hang out with heroically buff people you learn about nutrition, stretching and nebulous life-improvement topics like leadership and commitment. Or at least you did in this particular cult. Free cooking and money budgeting classes were part of the offering. I heartily recommend it. For reals. And they play 90s industrial music which I thoroughly enjoy pounding away to.
I remember going to a party with my new cult and trying to work out what to take. Normally showing up with some great tasting, organic, fruit-based cocktail mixer and some mid-range vodka is my standard opener, but this time I was insecure about what to bring. Baked tofu (too much impact on estrogen levels), dried fruit snacks (too much high impact carbs?), vegetable chips (ditch the chips and hit the baked oatmeal protein bars?). So this was me questioning my personal status quo. And inventing things like quinoa frittata just to fit in. Which suits me fine.
Healthier in that there was a community of jolly nice folk with which to blend. Enthusiastic, even zealous fitness and fighting fanatics. And community is something that is a big plus for me – a sense of belonging to a group with higher ideals than my own, which post-cult revolve around moving colorful blobs around a screen in Candy Crush and seething at the inequities of residential real estate.
Healthier in that I had an externally imposed schedule – a reason to get out of the house and see Shannon’s smiling face, and feel JJ’s awesome kicks (not that I don’t like JJ’s smile, or Shannon’s ass-kicking kicks). But I had somewhere to be. Maria would be there pushing harder than anyone. Javier would bring tales of the night club. Scott would generate enough sweat to send animals looking for higher ground two by two, and Anne’s thirst for knowledge would inform us all.
Not like a class at a gym where you show up anonymously and wait silently for the class to start, but a place where everyone knows your name, and you care about one-another’s well-being. Without people drinking and smoking themselves to death.
Healthier in the frequent generation and liberation of endorphins. Stress-relieving, feel-good chemicals that weren’t procured from an illicit dealer with much sycophancy, but ones that were in my own body. Endorphins and epinephrine marching to the beat of my own bass drumming, with a tip of the high hat to dopamine and serotonin on the way.
Healthier in that I finally had a release valve for the overarching anger which clouds my existence. Real estate negotiations too stressful? Beat 7 shades of tar out of a set of pads. Kids not sleeping? Kick a heavy bag 3 ways through Sunday. Not only was there a literally high impact form of exercise when things were hit, but also high impact cardio, and my favorite thing – sparring.
Sparring might be prancing around taking it in turn to strike, or wrestling around on the floor trying to keep my dinner somewhere south of my throat in my digestive tract. With huge guys, small guys, strong guys, and also all of the above in gal format. It never reached the unrestrained levels of nose-breaking, face-pounding that I experienced when I was a boxer – there was more finesse and control. And respectful holding back on everyone’s part. I may have inadvertently broken James’ tooth while we were wrestling, but he didn’t mention it until weeks later, and that’s when we were both novices.
I never got hurt sparring – the experienced were gentle with me. No one ever tried to prove anything using my face as a testing ground. Well almost never. I bent a toe of my own back hopping around. And my lack of balance came to haunt me.
At the back of my mind was something that my revered Aikido sensei once pointed out. As we age, the range we fight at becomes smaller. You see geriatric judo masters and aikidoki, but seldom a septuagenarian kick boxers. It strikes me that striking is not an old man’s sport.
Before the next part, I just want to explain that what happened to me wasn’t anyone else’s fault, and I’m not holding this against my instructors or the MMA cult. Just like a recovering alcoholic doesn’t blame Carlsberg Special Brew for their downfall (I imagine), it’s my own grubby hand in the fingerless glove that is to blame.
So how did I hurt myself? According to the three months and several thousand painful dollars of physical therapy (it’s own cult), and the latest referral to an orthopedic specialist, my hip is gammy, and so is my right shoulder. Technical terms indeed. But it means I probably shouldn’t be punching and kicking and wrestling for a while.
My addiction to the cult, the image of being a kick boxer, the schedule and the people made me overlook the pain. My shoulder has been blooty for over a year. Possibly since I did the 10,000 pushups (press-ups) in a month challenge. My hip has been gippy for a while too. But I really enjoyed sweating, kicking and punching so they got worse. This was the thing I got out of bed for (I mean the kids get me out of bed, but kick boxing stopped me going back to bed)
I went to a chiropractor. I had more massage than a man should be entitled to. I attempted convalescing therapies. I tried not hitting with my right hand, and not kicking with my left leg. I ignored my body, remained hunched in the car and over the keyboard. And kept on training.
If you’ve ever seen the Monty Python film about the Holy Grail, imagine me as the Black Knight. Down to two limbs and still yelling “It’s just a flesh wound”. Gradually losing abilities and resorting to biting ankles.
So it was with much sadness that I went to the gym one morning to break up with it, and the owner Larry. He has certainly invested much time, energy and compassion in getting my skills and fitness levels up. Many people there did – Shannon and Jamie in particular. While we were having our break-up talk, Larry said that I could still be a martial artist, that I could just focus on the things that I could do (probably more options than ankle biting even). But I was done. As the Black Knight said, “We’ll call it a draw”.
Leaving has left me mourning the loss of community, and in fear that I may never recover from the years of neglect of parts of my body that needed more attention and care and basic maintenance. Unlike the Black Knight, I don’t feel invincible. I miss the people. The release.
Certainly the more I learned, as well as being more confident that running the f*ck away from a fight is certainly the smartest option if possible, the more I realized that there are some scarily dangerous people out there. You can’t necessarily tell them by looking at them, but they’ll flip you over and choke the life out of you in seconds before you have time to slap a glove across their face and challenge them to a duel.
When I look back, I did it for the largely positive reasons I outlined above. I built strong bonds (for me) with the community there. I got high on good drugs that my own body made. And I got to kick things as hard as I possibly could. I met good people. In the end, it was my stubborn refusal to listen to the pains in my body that defeated me. Trent Reznor did popularize “Suck” on the Self Destruct tour. Very fitting.
So, onto the next cult. Something with stress relief, healthy people and a thriving community. Any suggestions?