Anyone can look like a badass on the mitts or bag. Sparring is the real test to see where your confidence level is at; testing yourself against another person is what martial arts training is all about.
“It’s a procedure. Like rebuilding a carburetor has a procedure. You know, when you rebuild a carburetor, the first thing you do is you take the carburetor off the manifold? Supposing you skip the first step, and while you’re replacing one of the jets, you accidentally drop the jet, it goes down the carburetor, rolls along the manifold, and goes into the head. You’re fucked. You just learned the hard way that you gotta remove the carburetor first, right? So that’s all that happened to me today. I learned the hard way. Actually, it was a good learning experience for me. “
-Joe Pesci, My Cousin Vinny
One thing that I have come to learn is that you can know something intellectually by research, by reading and by observation but when you experience it; when you feel what it’s like, then and only then do you truly KNOW something.
For example, you can offer sincere and heartfelt condolences to a friend who has lost a loved one but unless you have experienced that pain and sadness you truly do not KNOW what that is like. Now that’s not your fault and it does not in any way take away from your kind words of comfort to your grieving friend; it’s just the way shit works in life.
The story I want to share with you is about how all of my experiences in martial arts culminated to bring about a transformative experience in my own Wing Chun and self-defense training, and that’s what life is all about: evolution and transformation of one’s consciousness. I hope you find it useful. Here goes:
Like so many folks who begin their martial arts training, sparring was without doubt the biggest hurdle I had to overcome. Sparring is the most applicable aspect of training. Now by “sparring” I don’t just mean boxing or kickboxing but any type of non-cooperative fighting scenario in training where the aim is to hit the other person and minimize damage to yourself.
Sparring is perhaps the one aspect of your training that has the greatest effect on all others. If you are timid in sparring, you will be timid and non-assertive in chi sau (which, if you have read any of my other posts on chi sau you will know that chi sau is NOT sparring; it is its’ own animal entirely and requires to be treated as such). If you are hesitant towards taking, and more importantly, giving shots this will reflect in a sense of hesitation towards even the most basic drills of Wing Chun such as your pak/lop/gum sau entries, assertively projecting your bong sau as a form of aggressive defense or even how firm and penetrative your stepping drill is. In fact, I will go so far as to say that if you aren’t sparring, you are not really training realistically.
So much of sparring is based on developing confidence, specifically self-confidence in your abilities-be it in performing a form at a demo or in front of your class, chi sau, drill work and most importantly, the ability to call on these skills should you ever need them for the protection of your life and well-being from the many sick, twisted dirtbags out there who want to take it from you.
Initially hesitant to even try, once I had gotten past the feelings of fear of injury-almost immediately followed by inadequacy and not being good enough-I allowed myself to begin to have the “experience” of sparring. Mind you, at this point the mental image of myself was not strong enough to picture myself actually winning a sparring match, so in true “baby steps” fashion I was content to merely “have the experience,” to get hit so as to know how it feels.
For a long time this was satisfying enough; I would enter tournaments with no expectation of winning, merely to have the experience of sparring with another opponent. My rationale was that if I had enough of these “experiences” eventually I would grow confident and I would win. I know now this thinking is not only foolish but also dangerous. Nothing breeds success like success, and success starts in the mind first with a sense of expectation of success.
The technique of building on my small successes was unknown to me at the time, so this “no expectations” mentality satisfied my growth for a while-until one day it didn’t. Rather than flipping the switch towards belief in myself, I found myself having negative feelings about sparring in tournaments coming up as the day grew closer. This structural tension was due to the fact that my self-image was being programmed to repeat negative experiences but at the same time my self- image was growing, and had gotten to a point where nearly having the experience was not satisfying enough. I wanted to win.
How this whole process unfolded was a rather long and frustrating but invaluable one. I realize my journey most likely took longer than most people to gain such confidence, but I gotta be honest and lay it all out there, so take it for what it’s worth.
Growing up I was a normal enough kid, I guess-until about 7th grade or so. It seemed like almost overnight I ballooned up and by the time I was in the 8th grade I was 4’11” and 171 lbs (eek!) Always entranced by martial arts and the confidence I saw it give Daniel LaRusso after the repeated ass-beatings suffered at the hands of the Cobra Kai, I first began my serious training in 1994 at a local kung-fu school, the Shaolin Kung Fu Academy. I had gotten a job as a busboy at a local pizza restaurant with the sole intention of being able to pay for lessons myself since, at that time, things were tight with finances at home and lessons were a luxury my folks could ill afford.
While the name, “Kung Fu Academy” may sound fancy, in reality it just consisted of about six to eight guys in their early twenties, all of which had grown up in the 80’s karate boom and were hardcore training dudes, and me-a shy, uncoordinated clod who soon assumed the role of their pudgy, adopted little brother. I had never sparred before – hell, at that point aside from getting slapped by my mom on occasion for misbehaving as a kid I had never even been hit before, let alone fighting another person – so every time we had to spar in class (which was done without pads except when training for tournaments) I was petrified.
My first instructor, Master Chuck Williams, testing for his black sash in the early or mid 1980’s. This pic was on the wall at the school and I often saw that scowl when we were training, often before a beating.
Master Chuck Williams, age 17 or 18, executes an axe kick. He had this photo on the wall at the old school too and although I knew I’d take a beating I couldn’t help but crack a joke about his high school gym outfit one day during class, as the shorts and retro high socks are just asking for it. It actually went over quite well; Chuck laughed and the rest of the older guys thought it was hilarious. Chuck then gave me a beating.
Looking back, a bare-bones school like this was exactly what I needed at the time, since if I had started in a padded-gear diploma mill “McDojo” I might not ever have left those cozy confines, opting to stay in my comfort zone. I guess God had other plans and placed me there, so that’s where I started.
I remember the first time I sparred I was so scared that I didn’t even move out of the way. This led to several hard shots being absorbed and several tears on my end. Thank God these guys understood where I was coming from and didn’t make fun of me since that would have probably driven my chubby, insecure ass out the door for good.
They took the time to work with me, although at times I could sense how frustrating they would get that I simply could not be assertive and aggressive while fighting. Let me put it this way: the first time someone threw a sidekick and I actually sidestepped, everybody stopped what they were doing and clapped – no shit.
Slowly-and I do mean slowly -my walls of hesitation began to come down and I began to exert the tiniest amount of self-confidence when we would spar in class. Nowhere near the amount needed to actually win or even score in a match, mind you, but enough to prove I wasn’t a mannequin.
Participants and officials from one of the many Midwest Circuit open tournaments of the early to mid-1990’s.
One day my Sifu said were going to a tournament the next month down in the city. This tournament, the Windy City Kung-Fu Championships, was being promoted by one of my Sifu’s former classmates and close friends. I was terrified of actually fighting with folks I did not train with normally; here there would be other competitiors who wanted to win, who wouldn’t take it easy on me or coddle my delicate ego.
In Chicago martial arts scene, the longstanding king of the open, all-styles tournaments was the Midwest Circuit. In its’ heyday there were tournaments every month, a sophisticated “top 10” points system for each division and an end of year banquet and awards ceremony. Needless to say, competition was fierce. We went down to the tournament before the Windy City one we were to attend to get a feel for what it would be like. I felt better about this – until I got there.
A sparring competition at an old Midwest Circuit tournament in the mid 1990’s. For a “point-style” tournament, there sure were a lot of injuries and a suspiciously low number of disqualifications.
After watching 2 yellow belts carry their sparring match into the crowd and almost get decked by the center judge (who had gotten nailed while trying to break them apart), I saw a black belt competitor be carted off on a stretcher after being knocked out cold during a match in which both he and his opponent were each warned more than once for excessive contact (actually it wasn’t really a stretcher but one of those old-timey planks of wood with hand grips which added to the creepy factor quite a bit). I left almost in daze; I had never seen anything like this before. I had the first of many “oh, shit” moments right then and there.
Come the next month I was petrified of getting it to the ring. I’m not proud of it but I remember distinctly only being three of us in the ring and although I was technically in the 13 to 15 age group I was an inch over maximum height so I remember slouching so as to appear shorter. My ruse worked and I was in the younger age group. Once I realized I would place no matter what, I had no expectations. I gave up all will to try. I was content to “have the experience.” Out of the three of us, guess what place I finished? I have always held on to that 3rd place trophy as a reminder of a mentality I told myself I would never have again.
My first trophy. I keep it as a reminder of the mindset I never want to allow into my head again.
To this day, trying to stay into the lower age group bothers me but I am quick to remind myself it is all part of the process and nothing that aids in your growth is a bad experience so I don’t beat myself up about it too much but I also never want to forget what it feels like.
The sad fact is that in the tournament circuit-especially all-styles, open tournaments- such less-than-honorable behavior is quite regular and I have personally witnessed several instructors telling their students to do the same thing as well as other cheats and tricks such as feigning being popped in the groin to try and beat the system and pull out an easier win. I have seen black belts in another style put on a white belt and represent another art just to tune up some unsuspecting beginner in an easier bracket to win a 6 foot trophy. Such behavior is sad and downright pathetic.
Even with all my fears and insecurities and my desire to seek the easiest path where I didn’t have to confront my demons and where things would be smooth, I realized way back then that training this way for tournament competition was not the path I wanted to go down nor the behavior I wanted to be around.
Looking back through the corrective lenses of 20/20 hindsight, I can see that there was a part of me that recognized I was going to have to at some point come face to face with my fears. I was becoming awakened to and in touch with the essence of why I wanted to train in martial arts; I just could not put my finger on it yet. That day would be years and years away. And so, for the remainder of the time I attended the Midwest Circuit tournaments I stuck with forms.
Looking back on it now I realize I had mentally programmed myself that third place was good enough to get a trophy was satisfying enough. And so like clockwork I always placed third maybe second my division but did not spar much and when I did, rarely if ever scored a point. It was as if I refused to allow myself to try because I was scared of not being good enough.
Board breaking portion of my 1st degree black belt testing, July 6, 1996. The structured, progressive curriculum of the ATA allowed me a platform to grow into my abilities and develop the beginnings of self-confidence in sparring.
After my kung fu school closed I began training in Taekwondo under the American Taekwondo Association (ATA). A much more progressive and secure environment, it was exactly what I needed at the time. I began to gain much more confidence in my sparring ability and when I competed in Taekwondo tournaments my record began to improve. I would regularly place second or first in the forms divisions and third place in sparring. My self-image was growing little by little but was not yet at the place I knew it could be or needed to be for me to be truly confident and carry myself as such.
Performing in a demo on a hot July afternoon. Ironically, self-confidence in sparring is the best cure for performance jitters when doing demos; if you know you can handle yourself in a fight, doing a form in front of a crowd seems a bit less freaky by comparison.
One of my favorite memories from this time was the day that, as a newly minted 1st degree black belt, I made it to the final match in my division. My opponent was a skinny, wiry kid with near-vertical sidekicks who gave me a hell of a time. After a back-and-forth match that consisted of him scoring with kicks and me scoring almost exclusively with my hands, we went through two overtime periods with neither one scoring. In the third, he blocked my backfist and drilled me with a side kick to the ribs, winning the match. After all the progress I had made up to that point, to reach the final match and make it through a double overtime only to lose by such a small margin, I was not very happy.
As I walked away to the changing area I heard someone call my name (black belts in the ATA have their last name on the back of their uniforms), “Hey Bartkowski! I was watching you out there. You did good. You fought hard and didn’t give up. Good job.”
“Thanks,” I said as turned away muttering to myself, “f*** you man, what the hell do you know?”
It was not until years later that I found out the person who said those words to me was none other than Dan Gable, 1972 Olympic wrestling gold medalist, legendary coach for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes and most famous amateur /Olympic wrestler in history.
Dan Gable after winning the gold medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He won all 6 matches without giving up a single point. How can a compliment from someone of his level not be encouraging?
I cannot help but laugh at this story every time I think of it because it’s like getting a compliment from Babe Ruth after a high school a baseball game and shrugging it off because you didn’t know who he is! Haha! Looking back all these years later, that compliment meant ten times more to me than if I had won that first place trophy.
For many people, a compliment like that would be enough for them and for while it was for me-until just like before, one day it wasn’t. As humbling and honored as I felt that someone of Gable’s status would pay me a compliment like that, I wanted to be congratulated for winning; for accomplishing what I set out do accomplish. I wanted to know what that felt like.
B y the time I finished college I was seeking something different and found Goytia’s Martial Arts, a tough school on Chicago’s south side that specialized in Jeet Kune Do (Bruce Lee’s martial art) as well as kickboxing and MMA. The instructor Joe Goytia is a tough, no-nonsense former Marine who is also the founder and promoter of the Total Fight Challenge, the Midwest’s largest most respected and longest-running MMA promotion. Fighters such as Miguel Torres, Jason Chambers of the Human Weapon television show and former 2-time UFC Welterweight Champion Matt Hughes got their start in Joe’s events and several of his students were successful MMA fighters.
Talk about trial by fire. My sparring ability began to rapidly improve while training with Joe since I was thrown into a much more realistic style of fighting and had no choice but to adapt: leg kicks, punches to the face, throws -everything that is banned in a point karate tournament competition. I definitely came a long way training with Joe and gained much more confidence in sparring, but after a few years that feeling came creeping up again; the knowing that I was not yet at the point mentally to truly be confident in my ability to fight and win.
It was in February 2002 That I quite literally stumbled upon the school and the style that I have affiliated myself with ever since: Ving Tsun (Wing Chun) kung fu through the Ng Family Chinese Martial Arts Association. There was plenty of sparring to be had at that place, since combat effectiveness is stressed as the ultimate aim for any martial art training.
Nailing my opponent with a solid shot en route to a victory. I am proud to have represented my school and style successfully. 1st place win in mens’ black belt heavyweight sparring bracket. I guess things worked out for me that day.
After training in Chinatown for a couple of years I entered my first tournament, the 2004 Chicago International Wushu-Gongfu Tournament. As a heavyweight, there was only one other opponent in my division. Despite the jitters, I won my match and another block was stacked in the confidence column.
My confidence grows: After winning a gold medal in the mens’ heavyweight black belt sparring division at the 2004 Chicago International Wushu-Gongfu Tournament.
After the tournament. I am in the second row, 2nd from right. We ate like kings after this in Chinatown.
During the next tournament I entered, the 2005 Golden Eagle Kung Fu Championships, an interesting thing happened. I placed first in the heavyweight black belt men’s sparring division as well as first in the open division chi sau but only third place in forms.
I had begun mentally to shift my focus from forms to sparring when entering a tournament, since I now got an inkling of what it felt like to win in sparring. At this point many folks would have been satisfied that their fear and ambivalence towards sparring had been conquered, I know I thought so. Obviously it was not the case.
Later that year several of us travelled to Ohio for the Great Lakes Kung Fu Championships to compete in Sanshou, Chinese full-contact kickboxing. This was unlike any tournament I could ever been to before: there were no forms divisions, no weapons and no “point-style” sparring; this was a full contact kickboxing event. I was beaten before I ever stepped into the ring.
Eric Brooks ( being thrown) training with another member of the United States Shuai Chiao team, international best-selling author and internet entrepreneur Matt Furey. Ironically, Eric used this very same maneuver on me more than once in our match.
My opponent was Eric Brooks, a tall, muscular and lanky guy who had actually been on the first United States Shuai Jiao (a style of Chinese wrestling similar to judo) team to compete in mainland China. While he did not hit me all that hard (one thing I have learned how to do is take a shot) his superior knowledge of throws was more than enough to completely spook me into not engaging him and trying to stay away from him as much as possible.
He beat me quite easily and soon I was on the sidelines watching my instructor Keith beat the shit out of 2 guys and score a TKO en route to winning gold in his division. As happy as I was for Keith I felt twice as pissed at myself for coming all this way and performing so poorly. This tournament is why I became so fascinated with the mental aspect of training and the role that mindset and mentality play in one’s training. I could not help but replay that match in my head the entire 6 hour drive home.
After the 2005 Great Lakes Sanshou National Tournament. My opponent Eric Brooks receiving his gold medal (left). I am second from right, and looking none too happy with myself – ’cause I wasn’t.
I placed third out of four since one competitor had to pull out there to injury. Unlike my past “victories” part of me felt almost ashamed to accept that particular bronze medal, not because I had lost but because I had beaten myself. In the past I would have proudly displayed it on my shelf but honestly I could not bear to look at it and put it in an old Superman lunch box that I had in my closet, where it sits to this day. Now, when I watch the video of my sparring in that tournament I do so through a partially covered face like I’m watching the Garbage Pail Kids movie or Howard the Duck.
Every time I replay that match I see all the areas I needed to improve and everything I did wrong: I see all the times I could have moved in and hit him, I see all the ways I could have pressed the action and pulled out a win had I been more confident.
I cherish the footage of that match is it has taught me so much-I just don’t like watching it. What frustrates me the most is that every time I watch the footage of this match I remember feeling frustrated and not being able to let my hands go, to kick more, to punch more and be more aggressive. This is why they’re such a valuable study to this day for me.
Chinese martial arts tournaments only come around once a year or so, and the following year we entered another tournament, the 2006 Chicago International Wushu Gongfu Tournament. A 2-day event, I placed first in the open division chi sau bracket on the first day of competition.
Sparring was held on the second day, and I fought two opponents from a school who had gained a reputation at the tournament for excessive contact and referee warnings. Once again the same old feelings of fear and not being confident my abilities begin to creep in but this time I was able to pull out two wins and place first in my heavyweight division.
After the final match I went to congratulate my opponent. “Good fight, buddy,” I said. Instead of offering the same mutual respect, the arrogant prick looked me dead in the face and said “I’ll fight you in the parking lot for the medal.” I could not believe that reaction and was pissed off for the rest of the day-mostly at myself for not fully unloading and labeling this prick during our fight after he hit me with a few illegal elbows in the face.
The following year we went back to Ohio for the 2007 Great Lakes Kung Fu Championships. At 195, my weight put me in the heavyweight division and I’ll be damned if I did not fight Eric Brooks again!
Watching this footage I can see the strides I had made to that point in confidence and the ability to move forward & apply pressure. During the match I started tentative but began to warm to throwing punches and kicks. In the 2nd round I caught him with a hook that stunned him and stopped him momentarily but still held back and did not pursue him, which allowed him to gain his faculties back and come at me again. Just like our first go-round, I soon felt myself frustrated and overcome with feelings of doubt, hesitation and fear especially when his legitimately world-class throwing skills dumped me on my ass a few more times.
Unlike the first time, I engaged much more and actually played the role of pursuer, stalking him down and pressing the action. While that showed clear improvement on my end, I still lacked the aggressiveness and “killer instinct” to engage and fully attack and it paid off with another loss.
After the match Eric told me that we had had a hell of a fight and that if he did not have the knowledge of Shuai Jiao throwing that he did things could have gone differently. As I have said so many times before in this post, for most people that would have been enough to hear to satisfy their ego. I must admit it felt good at the time but it wasn’t long before the same damn feelings kept popping up after reflecting on the experience. As the old saying goes, “if ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts…”
My instructor Keith, a former National Sanshou kickboxing champion, watched my fight and without missing a beat pinpointed what I knew deep down: that I did not perform to my potential. Not exactly what I wanted to hear especially so close after the tournament, but exactly what I needed to hear.
Keith looming over a downed opponent en route to winning one of his national sanshou championships. Never one to sugar-coat or mince words, he told me exactly what I needed to hear after watching my performance at the 2007 Great Lakes Sanshou National Tournament. Thank you, buddy.
Right about this time my sisters roped me into running the 2008 Chicago marathon. I HATE running but had always wanted to run in a marathon, mostly to prove to myself that I could since, just like I said in the first paragraph, you can know you can do something intellectually, but once you actually do it, then you really KNOW you can. By now I had known enough about training to know that a challenge like this is exactly what I needed on many levels.
By the time I agreed to run, all registration openings were filled, so I had to pick a charity cause to run for. Motivation to any endeavor like this is key. I chose the Spinal Cord Injury Association of Illinois, since being so physically active an injury like this would be devastating to me. We had to raise $500.00 to be able run, so I rented out a movie theatre on my 30th birthday and sold tickets for an exclusive, one-night showing of The Karate Kid (my favorite movie of all time). Donning skeleton face paint like the Cobra Kai, the event was a success and my full donation amount plus was raised in 3 hours.
We began a 16-week training program called the Hal Higdon Marathon program. Doing all that running forced me to confront aspects of my personality that let’s just say are less than ideal. In marathon training you cannot get around putting the miles in: walk, run or crawl-it doesn’t matter. If you get the miles in and stick to the training program, you will be fine. This is a cumulative process and there are no shortcuts. The same holds true for sparring: my earlier thinking of “having the experience” would never bring me success-I had to train to succeed, physically and mentally.
We completed the program together and in October of that year found ourselves in the starting corral with tens of thousands of other runners of all levels ready to take place and parked in an event that very few people will do. Having watched my aunt pass away from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) a few years prior, I wore the T shirt we had made for her ALS Fundraiser Walk as my uniform of the day for added motivation.
Running the marathon was one of the most valuable training experiences for sparring and fighting I have ever done.
The average temperature on the day of the marathon usually hovers between 40 and 50 degrees; that year it was 83. There had been talk of cancelling the event if it gotten any hotter, which really freaked me out since I had no intention to go through all that running shit again.
Fortunately the weather held and we completed the course. I did not break any records but I proved something to myself that turned out to be the most valuable piece of training in martial arts that I had ever gotten, and which ties into the title of this article: you can know something intellectually, but until you actually do it you do not know you can do it in your heart.
Ironically it was running the marathon that had boosted my confidence and sparring more than any other sparring tournament I had ever entered to that point. Funny how things work out sometimes…
Unlike the medal I received from the Sanshou tournament, I am not ashamed to have this one on my shelf-it taught me so much.
One day I got a call from Keith asking me if I would like to come with him to train at the Chicago Boxing Club, a gym he had been going to for some time. I had always wanted to train at a real boxing gym, not a surburban cardio-kickboxing haven that calls itself a “boxing gym,” so I jumped at the chance and met him down there that weekend to sign up.
This place was any ROCKY fan’s dream. Located on the second floor of a building on Halsted just off 35th st. in the heart of Chicago’s gritty Bridgeport neighborhood and blocks away from both Chinatown and my beloved White Sox, I walked in the door and immediately had to dodge boxers donning sweatsuits running up and down the staircase as they trained for the upcoming Golden Gloves tournament. I remember the smell of sweat and Icy Hot hanging in the air as I made my way up the stairs. Dance music, the sound of leather hitting leather and the ever-present bell sounding off 3 minute rounds greeted me as I walked in.
The old Chicago Boxing Club, 3508 S. Halsted. A no-bullshit place for sure, lots of work got done here.
A bit of a backstory on this place: The Chicago Boxing Club was the successor to the now legendary Windy City Boxing Club that stood for decades on Chicago’s west side. The Cuba Gooding Jr. movie Gladiator was set at Windy City and for years this club had a reputation for being one of the toughest boxing gyms in the country. It’s co-owner and head trainer was Sam Colonna, one of the most respected and highly regarded boxing trainers in the sport. Sam trained several world champion fighters including Rita “La Guerra” Figueroa, former WIBA boxing champion and Andrew “The Foul Pole” Golota, famous for repeatedly punching former undisputed heavyweight champ Riddick Bowe’s balls into his throat, earning disqualifications on two consecutive occasions.
As an aside, I had been there on several occasions where Golota was training, sometimes right next to him as he hit the bag and was awestruck at the man’s size, strength and speed – this guy look like a shaved grizzly bear, plus he’s just a scary looking dude with a Michael Myers stare who gives off the vibe of being able to punch your ribs through your lungs and then go home and have a sandwich.
Andrew Golota working the bag under Sam Colonna’s direction. I remember that bag-it weighed probably 150lbs. Golota tossed it around like an inflatable pool toy.
Just to give you an idea what this place was like and the caliber of fighters that trained here, Sam and the CBC have been churning out pro fighters and Golden Gloves champions for years. There was nothing fancy or pretentious about this place. I loved every minute of going there.
I met Keith there regularly on Saturdays and Sundays for about 5-6 months early in the morning before heading to Chinatown for my Wing Chun training. We would run through our circuit of stations and suit up for some sparring in the boxing ring. Things were good, and I felt like I was really improving to the point where one day I might like to try an amateur bout. By now you can see where this is heading…
Soon after the new year in 2009 Rick Ramos, one of the owners, made mention that there would be a “Fight Night” held at the gym for staff members of the Chicago Board of Trade where he worked. Catered food, 80 bucks a ticket, the whole she-bang. He was looking for fighters to fill the card and asked us if we would be interested, so me and Keith signed up.
I honestly signed up because Keith said it would be a good idea even though once again I was more than a bit nervous. At that point I had done more than my share of tournaments and amassed quite a few trophies and medals and, while a large part of my mind was satisfied with that, deep down I could not shake the feeling that this was something I should do, so I told Rick I would be down with fighting on the card.
“Great,” he said. “We’ll find someone for you no problem.”
By the time I started training at the Chicago Boxing Club I honestly thought I was done with the whole tournament/competition thing. Aside from the easy excuses of time and work, it’s easy to look at your shelf full of medals and trophies and build them up in your head as more than they are. The fact is (and I’m not taking away anything from anyone who competes in any tournament, since they quite frankly have the balls to do what so many people are too scared to even attempt) to have a shelf with trophies and medals too often provides a wall to hide behind in your head.
While I’m proud as hell for my medals and trophies, saying you are a “Heavyweight Sparring Tournament Champion” sounds good on paper but really doesn’t mean a whole lot in and of itself; your growth as a martial artist is the only litmus test that matters. Sadly there are way too many Walter Mittys out there in the martial arts world who never fully confront their fears and instead hide behind the shine of the plastic and metal of a trophy or the color of their belt.
I remember a line from an article in a martial arts magazine whose author I have long forgotten that stated something to the effect that martial arts is the only sport where you can win the Anytown USA Jock Strap Tournament and win a trophy 3 times the size of the Americas Cup. Wow-how true!
Even after all the training and tournaments, those demons of fear and lack of self-confidence in my head telling me I was not good enough were still there. Not having the prospect of any tournaments or challenges on the horizon put them to sleep, but did not eradicate them from my thinking. I knew that I was better than this and was capable of more. By this point I had started teaching Wing Chun and knew that the lessons I gained from this experience could only benefit my abilities as an instructor and a practitioner for my class as well as building my confidence to be able to apply these in a self-defense scenario should I ever need to.
The pros far outweigh the cons in this case and so I so I signed up with Keith and began training diligently at the CBC for my fight.
The event was called the “Bridgeport Beatdown” and the night of the fight Keith and I got there early and saw the fight card for the first time, since up to that point I had no idea who I would be facing. My heart dropped when I found out who my opponent would be. It turns out this was someone I had known from the Midwest Circuit days as a teenager: a 2nd degree black belt in Kenpo Karate, this guy had gone on to train with the Carlson Gracie MMA Jiu Jitsu team and had a record of 3-1 in MMA competition. The owner Rick knew we were both martial artists first and foremost and this would be both of our first straight-up boxing matches, so he paired the two of us together.
Two female competitors going at it at the Bridgeport Beatdown to the delight of the crowd. I remember remarking to Keith that if they continued at that pace someone was gonna get KO’d. No one did, and they went all 3 rounds lighting each other up. A hell of a fight.
The place was packed with stockbrokers and their guests eager to see a night of boxing. 2 professional boxers, “Macho” Miguel Hernandez and Angel “Torito” Hernandez, were on hand as guests to watch us amateurs put on a show. The butterflies started really kicking in as I watched the first couple matches and saw the fighters tearing into each other like dogs that had not eaten in 3 days while the crowd ate it up like Romans in the Coliseum.
Mine was the first match after the intermission and with each match that I watched I grew more and more nervous. Part of me was actually hoping that this guy got injured in training and wouldn’t be able to fight. Nothing doing, and soon we were being prepped for our mini walkouts. Our names were called, we walked out to the ring to music and after being read our instructions and touching gloves we were ready to go.
Not 30 seconds in the first round I was against the ropes, bleeding from a shot to the nose and rattled. At that point I had honestly fallen back to my old way of thinking, “well, at least it was a good experience…” repeating in my head the same old bullshit my fear had doled out to me so many times before. Then I got back to the corner and saw that Sam Colonna was my ringman.
Sam Colonna working Rita Figueroa’s corner during one of her professional matches. I am so glad I had the experience of having him corner one of my fights. It was a privilege and an honor-and a bit intimidating, I mean you don’t want to fuck up when you have to answer to this guy when you go back at the end of the round!
Peppered in among several curse words were instructions to to keep my hands up and not be so flat-footed. I said okay and what seems like two seconds later we were standing up for round two.
Something happened in this round; something that had probably been germinating for years. The pieces start to fall into place. I caught him with a stiff jab that halted his forward momentum, since at that point based on my piss-poor first round he probably assumed he could move in at will. Once I realized I had some success with this, my confidence crew and I began to pepper the jab out with more authority, keeping him at bay while setting up other shots. He was doing the same thing and we engaged in another round of “rock’em sock’em robots” style punching.
I was told later that the crowd loved it and were cheering loudly but to tell you the truth there could have been a freaking rocket ship on one side of me and a dump truck on the other and I wouldn’t have known; I was in such a tunnel the only thing I could think of was getting back to the stool to get some rest.
As anyone who has ever laced up gloves and went a few rounds can verify nothing- and I mean nothing- will zap your ass faster then standing and just punching. In kickboxing the pace is different, having to transition between punches and kicks. MMA has the ground aspect where you can rest while planning strategy. Boxing is different. Here there is nowhere to hide; you are literally either punching or being punched the entire time. The bell signifying the end of the 2nd round rang and we staggered back to our corners.
If Sam thought I did a better job this round he sure didn’t show it. As I took a swig of water and gulped for air he knelt in front of me, got right in my face and said, “how f****** bad do you want to win this fight? How bad?”
“Bad!” I said with as much energy as I could muster.
“HOW F***ING BAD?” he said again, louder.
“REAL BAD!” I yelled back.
The bell rang and after a last-minute tip to once again “keep my f***ing hands up!” we were out in the middle of the ring for the third round and final round.
All I remember about that round is feeling like something snapped. I felt strong. I felt mean. I felt focused. I felt like a bulldozer plowing forward taking hits and pressing on. My earlier self-talk that had plagued me in so many tournaments past of “well at least this is a good experience,” was replaced by “now it’s MY time and it’s about goddamn time.” I didn’t realize it then as I had more immediate concerns to tend to, like not getting my face punched in, but my confidence had grown and had finally come out.
I was stalking and moving forward. He punched me, I punched him back. He punched me, I punched him back. Midway through the round he threw a jab and a drop-level cross that hit me square in the belly, knocking my wind out down but to be honest there wasn’t much wind in there since I was so tired. Every time he punched, I answered back. All I remember is parrying a lot of jabs and throwing a lot of hook-cross-hook combos. The last 30 seconds we were literally just standing there duking it out, too tired to do anything but punch each other. When I watch Rocky Balboa, that last round where Rocky and Mason Dixon are just standing there punching is how it felt to me although to be honest with you it probably looked more like two drunk guys bitch-slapping each other but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
The final bell rang and we hugged, each exclaiming how glad we were that it was done.
As we waited for the judges scorecards I I remember two thoughts distinctly going through my head. The first was that I hope it was not a repeat of the Second Great Lakes Kung Fu Tournament, almost immediately followed by “f*** that- you finally let it go this time. Whatever happens happens, but at least you broke that habit. “ I knew that no matter which way it went, I could look in then mirror and be completely fine with whatever the result was.
It went to the judges’ scorecards and wouldn’t you know it, my hand gets raised. The crowd cheered loudly and Rick presented me with a little trophy of a boxer on a pedestal. That is the only trophy that I still have out on my shelf. All of my earlier tournament trophies sit on a shelf in my folks’ garage and my my kung fu tournament medals sit in that Superman lunch box on a shelf in my closet with my Marathon medal but that trophy is the only one that I have sitting out on my bookcase.
Why? Because my confidence is in there.
My trophy from that fight. It was my time. I earned it.
As I made my way out of the ring and half-walked, half-staggered back to the locker room, the two pro boxers sitting at the head table pointed at me and gave me a thumbs up and fist in the air. I nodded, waved and went back to the locker room to grab some water, park my exhausted ass in a chair and enjoy for the first time the rest of the night as a spectator. Not only did I win but I had accomplished finally what I had set out to do way back at 15.
I couldn’t help but think of the words Willem Defoe’s character Sgt. Elias said to Charlie Sheen in Platoon, “the worm has definitely turned for you, man…”
Watching 2 of the more experienced fighters duke it out after my fight. I am against the wall in the black tank top to the left of this picture.
Some folks are able to dial into their killer instinct very easily. Not having been particularly athletic growing up and never having really played contact sports prior to martial arts, this process was much longer for me. It also involved much deprogramming negative thought patterns that I fully did not realize how deep and pervasive were ingrained in my subconscious and how much they affected my ability to teach and train in Wing Chun, as well as my ability to confidently trained for a self-defense scenario.
Having the experience of fighting another person is a great one but for me it was only good enough to “have the experience” for a while. After getting plenty of ass-beatings I was all stocked up on “experience.” Now I wanted to know what winning was like, and not in a “point” karate tournament patty-cake bullshit sense or because your opponent was penalized for not following the rules. I wanted to know what it felt like to go toe-to-toe with another trained trained person full-contact, to beat the shit out of each other and still stand there unafraid. After slugging it out with a tough as hell MMA fighter, giving and taking one hell of a beating and having my hand raised, let me just tell you that it feels pretty damn good.
Since that day those lessons have stayed with me. The demons always come up, since there will always be fear of any conflict or fight, consensual or otherwise. I still feel jitters when sparring and that’s not a bad thing. If you aren’t a little bit nervous before you spar you are either lying or you’re a moron. A bit of nerves shows you appreciate the situation but aren’t consumed or controlled by it. The challenge is to, as Master Wong Shun Leung put it, “be the master, not the slave.” How do you do this? Confidence.
What is different is that now I am able to recognize these demons and acknowledge them without giving them power. I can channel that healthy fear into assertiveness. I can remain focused, relaxed and not so easily rattled. When I spar now I may still be hesitant at points, but confident in my training in my ability to weather whatever storms arise and move forward, applying what I have trained to what needs to be done.
My entire cumulative experience has taught me many things, but most importantly that we are all either moving for or regressing in our training. There is no such thing is treading water. If you’re not improving, you’re regressing: it’s that simple. That doesn’t mean that as we get older we are supposed to become bigger, faster and stronger. Rocky Balboa said that time is the only opponent that is undefeated. The mind on the other hand is the one weapon that can only grow more razor sharp with age and experience.
Train honestly. Confront your demons. Prove yourself right. Prove yourself worthy of success and maximizing your potential-because you are. It took me a while-probably longer than most-to fully KNOW this, per the title of this article and that’s OK. All that matters is what you take from it. I got what I wanted out of my experiences.
Wing Chun is a self-defense art, and we all know sparring, even full-contact sparring, is not the same as self-defense; not by a longshot. But the lessons gained by confronting one’s demons of inadequacy, self-doubt and ultimately FEAR carry a value for self-defense training that is pretty hard to match.
To all of folks I have had the privilege of training with and competing against over these years (even that arrogant prick who caught me with those illegal elbows to the face) I extended the heartiest “thank you” anybody has ever extended to someone else. I hope that I have helped you as much.
Get out there and get smacked around-it ain’t gonna kill you. It will make you stronger.
Train Smart, Stay Safe
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