By Antonio Graceffo
I came back to my apartment in Malaysia, bleeding, exhausted and disheartened. During a long hot shower, I blew the blood clots of my nose and stuffed my nostrils with toilet paper so the bleeding wouldn’t start again.
Laying on the bed, I guzzled several liters of water, trying to rehydrate, while holding an ice pack on my eye. The first paid gig I’d had in weeks was starting in two days time, when I would be hosting a video series about Silat Tomoi. I was praying the director wouldn’t cut me from the shoot because my eye looked like hamburger.
The first time I remember coming home beat and bleeding like that was when I was twelve years old, when I first took up boxing. Much of my teen-years and nearly all of my early twenties were spent recuperating from fighting injuries. Now, in my forties, the injuries are more frequent, and it gets harder to recuperate. The schedule I had been keeping since arriving in Malaysia was also not helping matters. I was training twice a day and filming several times a week. Two weeks previously, I had injured my left foot sparring in a pro Muay Thai gym. So, I switched to only kicking with my right leg. A few days later, I injured the right shin doing Kyokushin karate. So, I switched to only throwing straight kicks and back kicks which impact on my feet rather than my shins. And of course, throwing any kicks at all was risking my knee which was already permanently injured.
Much of my life, since age twelve, has revolved around fighting and training for fighting. And at the end of all of the hard work, discipline and pain, there are still people, professional fighters, who can absolutely play with me, without risking injury at all.
How does one become a master? And what does that mean? And, can you still call yourself a master if there are large numbers of people in the world who can beat you?
A few weeks ago, back in Cambodia, I was awarded a black belt in Khmer boxing. It was my third black belt to date. My friend Robert Stark, who is just a few years younger than me, was promoted to brown belt in the same test. It made us feel good, but at the same time, we questioned whether or not we deserved it. In our gym in Cambodia, Paddy’s Fight Club, we have a core of about five or six guys who are like me. They have had some pro-fights or amateur fights, they train as pros, five days per week, religiously, but don’t intend on making fighting a career. We also have five or six resident pros, and we spar with them regularly. And, the Cambodian version of the TV show, “The Contender” called “Kuhn Khmer Champion” is shot in our gym. The contestants are fourteen extremely tough Khmer boxers with ten or less professional fights behind them. We, the guys in my category, are expected to be able to spar with those guys, but not be able to beat them in a pro bout.
We also have a group of about 12 “regular people” who attend what I call “Civilian Khmer Boxing Class.” These are normal people, with jobs who just train Khmer boxing for fun and fitness. Obviously they are never asked to spar with us.
So, basically, in my gym in Cambodia, I feel like I am somewhere in the middle. I’m not as good as the pros but better than the civilians and hang in there, training and sparring with the other guys in my same category.
But any time I would feel good about myself and my ability, I would glance across the training floor to where the TV show was being filmed and realize any of those pros could knock my block off. So, how good am I?
I spend most of my year training in Cambodia and Thailand, two countries where Khmer Boxing and Muay Thai are the national sport, and where I train in professional gyms, full of Lumpini fighters. Last year, I left Cambodia and Thailand, and headed to Taiwan, Malaysia, and Vietnam. I realized right away that being in Cambodia and Thailand surrounded by professional fighters and training on a professional schedule five days per week wasn’t the norm. The vast majority of people training elsewhere were training two or three times per week and some gyms only had one or two pros. Sparring with those kinds of people I was doing pretty well. Vietnam was the most extreme of my experiences. Apart from the K-1 Fight Factory in Ho Chi Minh City I couldn’t even find martial artists who could fight.
Back in Cambodia, Robert asked me about our belts. I told him about how easy it was sparring in other countries, where people don’t get the training we had in Cambodia.
“So, what you are saying is, if you spar with people who don’t know how to fight, you can win?” asked Robert.
He was right. It’s not a fair comparison. But the flip side is, should the standard for ability be whether or not you can hang with professional fighters and win?
Now, I am back in Malaysia, training at three gyms regularly and filming at several others. At my Silat training, I would assume that I could beat most of the Silat guys because they don’t have the experience of ring fighting. In my main Muay Thai gym, I am one of the better fighters and I teach classes to help the other students improve their fighting skills. It is a humbling and joyful experience to be recognized as an expert, but at the same time, I know that in another gym, I am just average. And in another, I am sub-average. Sometimes I feel like an impersonator when I am teaching.
In the pro Muay Thai gym where I train in Malaysia, I am at a good level for the “regular people” but the pros just play with me and laugh when we are sparring. For my web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey” I have to constantly go to new gyms, doing different martial arts, and fight. When I visited the kyokushin dojo for the first time, a female black belt beat me up. In fact, I didn’t spar any of the children, but I am sure they could have beat me too.
Doing kyokushin is different from Muay Thai. You can’t punch in the face, so I couldn’t do combinations or capitalize on my boxing. Kicking them in the body or legs was useless because they were so thoroughly conditioned. And, every time I hit them, I hurt myself. Not hitting them was also not a good strategy, because then they hit me.
I went home after the first kyokushin class and asked how I could call myself a fighter if I was so easily beaten by so many people.
Doing “Martial Arts Odyssey” I frequently get my butt handed to me. I am always fighting in someone else’s club, their rules, their art… and I frequently lose big. The show we did on Muay Chiaya was one of the most painful losses I had. And the one I did on Savate made me look like a sickly girl.
I could make excuses, but the bottom line is, shouldn’t you be able to fight with anyone, no matter what the style?
Yesterday was the worst humiliation to date. I went to shoot a show about boxing at a gym run by a former Russian amateur fighter. The former Soviet Union and Cuba are known for producing the best amateur boxers in the world. The guy I got in the ring with was a 20 year-old Malay, 6 foot 2 and 95 kgs. He had only had one pro fight, but it was a six rounder, and he won. Because this was training, we did one round, hitting only with the left hand and one round hitting only with the right. By the end of it, my nose was bleeding, my eye was black and I was defeated internally. The coach, Alex actually asked me if I had ever boxed before because everything about my style was wrong. My stance was wrong, my foot placement, my body wind up, my punches, defense, head movement… It was all wrong. So wrong that the pro said to me afterwards, “I didn’t mean to hit you, but you were open the whole time and you moved right into my punch before I could stop it.”
The pro had that style and movement, the body mechanics that I absolutely admire in well-trained boxers. Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson both had it because they trained for years as amateurs before turning pro. For me, I skipped all of that stuff and just became a brawler. My strength in Muay Thai or Khmer Boxing is my boxing. But against a real boxer, I was easily made to look like a fool.
So, what is a master? How do you get there? Do other people who call themselves masters or black belts have the ability to walk into Muay Thai, Kyokushin, Silat, and pro boxing all in the same week and win?
And if you are constantly getting your butt handed to you, can you still call yourself good?
Forget the black belt tests. How do you grade yourself? After all, the only grading that matters is the one you give yourself.
Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the book, “The Monk from Brooklyn” and the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.
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