We’ve covered a lot of topics in WWAC Warriors: the basics of bodybuilding and running, how to get back on your feet after time away from the gym, and how to take care of your equipment. We’ve discussed all kinds of goals from building muscle to losing weight to improving endurance to learning a new skill.
I’m here today to talk about something a little different. See, for the past year, I’ve been training in Muay Thai. At the end of the month, I’ll have my first ever fight, and that means fight training.
Have you ever been hit really, really hard?
Wait, let me rephrase to something a little less unsettling: have you ever wanted to hit something really, really hard? As hard as you can?
Have you ever done it?
Not everyone who trains Muay Thai becomes a fighter. It’s great exercise, and some people might enjoy just blowing off steam by whaling on a heavy bag for an hour a week, but I wanted to fight almost from the moment I took my first class. From a traditional standpoint, having even one fight legitimizes you as a nak muay, a student of the discipline. Even if all you do is get in the ring once, you’re a fighter, and no one can take that away from you.
I never thought of myself as a fighter. Up until this year, the thought never crossed my mind. I never took a martial art before. There’s nothing about me that screams I’m gonna kick your ass!!! In fact, I would generally describe myself as “non-threatening.” The words “harmless puppy” have been bandied about. The most violent sport I ever played was volleyball, where, to be fair, I took more than the usual amount of enjoyment in spiking the ball as hard as I could.
But you don’t have to be big, or mean, or love violence to be a fighter. You need something else. Something harder to define. My kru calls it “the fighter’s heart.” When I first walked into his gym, he asked me why I wanted to train. I told him: “I want to be a superhero. I want to be Batgirl.”
He’s called me Batgirl ever since, and when he tells me I can fight, I believe him. I’m the first girl on our team to fight, and I plan to do the gym proud.
The nuts and bolts
First, a quick overview of some terms that may be unfamiliar to you:
- smoker: an unsanctioned fight; most amateurs start out with smokers before moving on to “real” fights
- teep: a push-kick
- switch-knee: think “running man” against a heavy bag
- Kru: teacher; coach
- Sparring: For this purpose, when I say sparring, I mean 3-6 minute rounds of fighting at low power levels (touch to 30%). Sparring is like fighting, without hitting hard enough to do damage (most of the time: more on that later).
My smoker was originally supposed to take place at the end of February.
Essentially, it would be three two-minute rounds with a referee. All strikes except elbows would be allowed, and shin guards and head gear would be worn, along with 14 oz. gloves.
Unfortunately, that fight was canceled at the eleventh hour, but all that means is that, after a weekend of binging on junk food and lying on the couch, I’m jumping straight back into training for a smoker on March 21st and a sanctioned fight on April 24th.
Here’s what I learned from my first six weeks of fight training:
It’s all about repetition.
Having a fight to prepare for gives me a specific goal to meet within a specific amount of time. First, there’s the weight I have to make. Second, there’s the strategy I need to develop. Third and most important, the training itself. Let me break it down for you:
- 3 mile run
- 100 pushups
- 150 crunches
- 50 squats
- 100 kicks on each leg (high, mid, low)
- 50 teeps
- 50 switch-knees
- 6 minutes punching the heavy bag
When my kru told me at New Year’s that I’d have a fight at the end of February, he assigned me this routine three days a week (four weeks out, it’s four days a week). This does not include my regular private class and Saturday afternoon group class/fighter’s class, or any extra work I choose to put in (another three miles of intervals on a treadmill, weights, yoga).
Reps are boring. Mind-numbingly. I hate running, because I get so bored within the first ten minutes (and it is cold and snowy in MA right now. Running in fifteen below weather isn’t exactly what I call a rousing good time), and the rest of the reps aren’t much better. It’s just the same motions, over and over again.
But here’s the thing: within the first week, I got noticeably faster and stronger.
You drill the basics, over and over again, because doing something a thousand times in a row is the way you perfect it. Doing something a thousand times, and then ten thousand times, and then a hundred thousand times, is the only way to make an action as natural as breathing. All that mind-numbing, exhausting repetition is the foundation of your strategy: it’s what allows strategy to happen.
The other effect is one I didn’t notice until a few weeks in, but it blew my mind when it became clear: it speeds up recovery time.
This is probably immediately obvious to most of you. I mean, with all the cardio I was doing, it was bound to have an effect, right? And yet it still surprises me. I still get exhausted. You can really work yourself to a thin, ragged remnant in two minutes, especially if you’re hitting as hard as you can and taking a fair amount of punishment back, but after a minute or thirty seconds of rest, I felt ready to do it all over again. Which is good, because…
You need to take a lot of hits.
You know what happened the first time I got clocked right in the face?
I cried. Right in the middle of my class, surrounded by the guys I spar with, in plain view of everyone. I couldn’t stop myself.
It didn’t actually hurt. One of the side effects of fighting is that your system gets so pumped full of adrenaline that it’s hard to feel even a fracture at the second it hits, and this wasn’t painful (though the bridge of my nose was sore for a while after). No–my eyes teared up, and I freaked out because goddamn, I just got punched in the face and getting punched in the face sucks. There’s really no way around it: it just fucking sucks. Panic attacks aren’t uncommon in fight training, and neither is frustration and both can lead to tears. I’m not the first one to fall apart, and I won’t be the last.
Most people react in approximately the same way when they get hit really, really hard: they tear up, freak out, and get mad. But you can’t fight mad. Fighting mad makes you sloppy: you forget precision and technique in favor of swinging real hard because fuck them, they just hurt you, and now you want to hurt them back.
The way my kru trains that reaction out of us? Shark Tank.
Shark Tank is just what it sounds like: the fighter in training gets in the middle of the ring, and everyone else lines up around the edges to take their turn sparring with them. Every thirty seconds, your opponent gets replaced by a new, fresh one.
For at least six minutes.
Now, six minutes doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but believe me, it is beyond exhausting when you don’t get a break, but everyone you’re fighting does. The first two opponents aren’t too bad, but it’s the last minute or so that really makes or breaks a fighter: either you push through and keep going, or you give up and get pummeled. The ability to keep throwing punches even after you’re exhausted, and black and blue; the choice to get back up after getting knocked down–that’s what they call the fighter’s heart.
We have Shark Tank every Saturday during our group/fighter’s class. It’s usually the last thing we do, after an hour and a half of conditioning workouts and light-to-heavy sparring. The whole point is to wear us down until all we have left is what we’ve conditioned into ourselves, and that’s really where all the running and lifting and reps come into play. In the middle of a fight, you need to be able to dig deep, and still come up with something, even if it’s only the ability to keep your damn hands up, so you don’t get cracked in the head.
Remember how I said we don’t spar hard enough to do damage?
That’s not necessarily true of fighter’s training. The first week in, I cracked my shin so badly on one guy’s knee that I couldn’t put my weight down on that leg for almost half an hour. I won’t sugarcoat it: sparring is dangerous. Muay Thai is dangerous. (Sorry, Mum. Don’t read this!) This isn’t point-based fighting: you don’t tap someone with a kick or punch and then stand back to bow and re-set. You keep going, until someone’s on the ground, out cold, or the bell rings. Just because we’re not hitting full force in sparring practice doesn’t mean we don’t hit hard enough to hurt like hell. For that reason, even ignoring all the rest…
It ain’t easy…
…if it were, it’d be called grappling and everyone would do it.
(My apologies to grapplers: it’s something my kru says and it always makes me laugh, because we also do Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, despite his dislike of it.)
I’ve been exhausted for two months. I’m sore almost every day. I have bruises on top of bruises. I crave anything sweet or salty, after eating mostly bland chicken and vegetables, plain oatmeal, and unseasoned eggs. Yesterday, I got home at 4:30 PM after work, changed into my running clothes, and came back from training at 10 PM. There have been times I’ve cried from sheer exhaustion and frustration. I lie awake for hours thinking over the day’s sparring, trying to pinpoint my own weaknesses, and strategizing ways to get past my opponent’s strengths. And I haven’t gotten to have ice cream or a beer in weeks.
…but it’s worth it.
A year ago, I barely recognized myself. I spent most of my free time on my couch, escaping into movies, Netflix binges, comfort food. I’d gained a significant amount of weight. I was struggling to find reasons to get up in the morning. My self-confidence had hit rock-bottom. I was full of anger with no place to aim it except at myself.
Now, I have a team that supports and encourages me. After the last Shark Tank, my kru was so happy his hug picked me up and carried me across the room. My sparring partners are my buddies, my friends. We’re family. We take care of each other. My anger is replaced by determination. The dangers of training and fighting? They’re well worth it to me. My fight team calls me Batgirl. I think of Barbara Gordon’s focus and intelligence, Cassie Cain’s skill, Stephanie Brown’s unshakeable optimism, and I keep pushing.
If I get knocked down, I get back up. Muay Thai isn’t just a sport: it’s a way of life. It teaches me to be humble. It teaches me that I’m stronger than I think I am. You learn who you really are, in the middle of a fight. If you want to take your own measure, I’ve found few better ways than testing yourself against someone trying to do you real harm. (In a controlled environment, of course. I do not condone street fighting.)
Now, I can run almost six miles a day for five days in a row. I’ve dropped almost twenty pounds (making weight? That’s a whole other topic). It turns out I have some real strengths in a fight (I won’t say what, in case an opposing gym member is reading this–you’ll just have to find out the hard way). I can take a hit and keep coming. I spar with guys eight inches taller and sixty pounds heavier than me, and I put them in the corner.
There’s no denying it’s vicious, and it takes a certain kind of person who both doesn’t mind getting hit and wants to hit right back, but tough, exhausting, and outright painful as it’s been, it’s branded on me now. After all: there’s always another round.