The sacrosanctity of the ring; the consecration of the mats
I wrote this for Darla. Darla is my friend and she is opening up a fighting gym in a small town in Northern California. She intends to train fighters and those who want to train like fighters.
I am probably wasting my time in writing it for her in that I know she already understands why these places where we go to train and become better humans are so, so special. In fact, I’d guess that she probably could explain it better, and because she is who she is, in way fewer words.
It is less for her education than it is for me to cheer her along and remind her, that when the running of a business bogs her down, that to those who come there, it is not a business but a very sacred place.
To all of those who have coached me and led … I initially wrote it for Darla, but if you read it, you may see yourself here too.
Years ago, I was attending a course for personal development. As a part of the curriculum, they asked us all to sit quietly and imagine ourselves in a place that brought us peace. It was essentially going to be a guided meditation. I didn’t really place much value in these types of exercises but I had told myself I would commit myself to the process and do what I was asked.
I sat back and closed my eyes, imagining a beautiful forest with a small stream. I climbed up a big rock where I could see the trees and the stream and the sky. As the instructor continued talking, I noticed I drifted off and I thought I fell asleep. Very quickly, I found myself lying in a big wrestling room. I didn’t recognize the room. The mats were red and yellow, but it was a big room. It smelled and I was sweaty.
I could hear the facilitator talking me through the meditation and I shook myself back to where I was supposed to be. Shit. Focus. The river. Stay the course.
I felt the rock underneath me and relaxed to the sound of the stream. Do what you are supposed to. Focus.
I drifted away again.
I was back in the wrestling room. Sweaty and smiling.
I am not one who believes in insights through meditation or that kind of heeby jeeby shit. I am not a big believer in emotion or “sitting in my feelings.” Or at least I don’t think I am.
I didn’t realize, at the time when I was trying to “do it right,” what that meditation was trying to tell me. My place of peace isn’t necessarily peaceful.
The insight shouldn’t have surprised me. It had happened before. Years before I was training at my gym, I had a fight coming up soon and I was at the end of a camp. I was battered and bruised, like always, probably overtraining, I was lying on my back looking up at all the old fight posters, banners and awards and belts. I was sweaty and hungry, tired and hurting. I was late getting back to a family function, something my wife and kids needed me for. But as I laid there looking around, I realized there was no other place in the world I wanted to be.
I felt tears running down my face.
Boxing gyms, kickboxing gyms, wrestling rooms, Jiu-jitsu academies, dojos – I refer to them all as fighting gyms. Fighting gyms are sacred, sacred places.
I thought a lot about that sentence before I wrote it.
I didn’t want it to sound cliche or basic. I looked up the word sacred to make sure it fit: Connected with God (or the gods) or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving great respect or reverence.
It is what I meant.
Fighting gyms are like churches. I have always believed if there was a god and he wanted to talk to me, he should catch me when I am fighting and it is quiet.
It is probably the only time I could hear him.
People go to church, searching for truth and answers to questions in their lives.
I will propose that there are no other places in our society besides these gyms where truth is doled more liberally. There are very few places where you will get answers, even if you don’t want to hear them. Fighting gyms are there to show us the path to who we want to be, but only after we start by accepting who we are.
And they will always, sometimes painfully, show us who we really are.
The walls of the best fighting gyms are covered with posters and handbills of fighters you have never heard of and most of which you probably never will. If you wander around long enough reading the flyers stapled to the walls, you may catch the name of someone you saw on TV once and you wonder whatever happened to him. I remember walking into my first MMA gym and scanning all the posters on the wall and then looking on to the training floor to see if any of the guys on the posters were there.
Years later, I remember seeing the first poster on the wall of my gym that I was on. A new kid asked if that was me.
“It is,” I replied, feigning humility, but beaming inside.
I spent a week training at Jackson Wink MMA in Albuquerque, New Mexico, considered by some as the GOAT of all Combat sports academies. Of course they had the photos of Jon Jones, Holly Holm, Cowboy Cerrone and all the other UFC greats, but an entire corner of the gym was covered with notices of local fighters and local shows.
Those are the fighters that keep the lights on at a fighting gym. Those who are still there and the ghosts of those who have walked away.
When I travel for work, I like to bring my gear, hand wraps and gloves, a gi, board shorts and a rash guard, and visit gyms, That was how I ended up at Jackson-Wink, I like to think that I do this because I am so dedicated to the arts that I can’t take a break, but that is nowhere near the truth.
When I walk into one of these places, I get noticed. I’m 6’2, 240 with cauliflower ears. I get sized up. I always feel like everyone wants to see what they have against me.
But that is why I like to go to new gyms when I travel. It is simply practice in fear management. New guys in fighting gyms are treated as outsiders, at least until we know you. In these cases I was that outsider.
In my home kickboxing gym, my coach had a rule. When you come to our gym and spar with us, we only spar at 100 percent. His rationale was simple: We don’t know you and don’t trust you. We don’t know what your 60 percent looks like compared to ours so we might get hurt or hurt you. If we all just agree on 100 percent, then everyone will keep their hands up. After we know you we can back it down.
People didn’t like this and sometimes would refuse to spar with us, but it started making sense to me when I traveled. When I would spar while on the road, I didn’t have the luxury of enforcing the 100 percent rule. I was a guest. I had to follow their rules.
I was in a gym outside of Tempe, Arizona and had just finished the grappling class. I didn’t want to go back to the hotel yet and I had my gear so I jumped into the striking class. I saw a guy about my age and weight and we teamed up and started drilling. At the end of class, the coach said we were going to do a few rounds of sparring. We touched gloves and he said, “ Let’s go light.”
I nodded and said, “I’ll follow your lead.” It went great. I caught him with a few good jabs and he was a master of leg kicks and body shots. We did two rounds together and at the end we were both tired but no worse for the wear. I found another partner and had a similar two rounds. Good training. Good control.
“Rotate,” the coach called out. “New partner.”
I turned around and made eye contact with a young kid. He was a few pounds lighter and a few inches taller than me. The bell sounded and we touched gloves. He started throwing bombs.
I covered up to absorb them.
He bounced back and smiled, moved forward a with a hard double hook to my head, which I blocked but he caught me with a good straight right. I moved away and he came back with a combination that ended with a hard leg kick. I blocked the hands but the kick landed and hurt.
I circled away and said, “You throw pretty hard.”
“Nah, just light sparring,” he said.
I shook my head. We moved in and I caught him with a hard straight jab and he slipped my cross. He moved back in with a jab and then threw a high hard head kick that I saw coming.
I weaved underneath and crunched down, just as his shin whipped to where my head had just been. As I came back up I threw a hard left hook to his ribs and followed with another right to his belly. He backed up to the wall and dropped to the ground.
He sat for a minute and then said, “Those were some hard shots.”
“Sorry, man, it’s just light sparring at my gym.”
He stayed on the wall for the rest of the round and through the next. Class ended and my original partner came over with a smile. We touched gloves and he thanked me for the work and the rounds. He looked over at the kid on the wall and back at me and smiled.
A few months back, my son asked to go to a sparring session at my gym. He had been hitting pads with me, and doing some really light sparring in the backyard with me. I think he had geared up and gone at it with some of his untrained friends too. But all that is different than sparring with those who are trained to strike.
The dad in me said he wasn’t ready.
The man in me said he has to figure that out himself.
Most fighters I know are not violent people. By fighters, I mean the ones that really know. They want to develop skills. I always joke that I don’t like to fight people I don’t like. I like to fight my friends. I don’t want to injure them (I don’t consider black eyes or broken or bloody noses injuries) but I like to hurt them a little. They like to do it to me too.
I explained to him that this is a fighting gym, with people who take it very seriously. Training for fighting, even for those who do it recreationally, is not recreational. Getting beat in tennis practice is not the same as getting beat in combat sports practice.
Real fighting gyms are not egalitarian places. There are divisions: Pros, amatuers, hobbyists, competitors and martial artists. There are ranks and belts that determine status like a caste system.
“There is a pecking order,” I explained to him. “And, it is pretty rigorously followed. If you go in and you are at the bottom of the pecking order and you act like you are at the bottom of the pecking order, you will get your ass kicked, but everyone will work with you and try to make you better.”
“If you go in and act like you are higher on the pecking order than you are, you will just get beat on until you figure it out and either toe the line or leave.”
I was his first partner and I let him work. As his confidence grew, he got cocky and started swinging harder. I slowed him down with a body shot and he got it back under control.
We grabbed new partners, he shut his mouth and took a whooping. He listened to others helping him and fought back. He landed some shots and was staggered by others. But he learned.
One of the last rounds of the night, he was grabbed by “that guy.” In this case, let’s call him Adam. Every gym I have ever been to has one of those guys. Actually, every gym has had several of them. They come and they go. They don’t last long and they are never consistent. They talk a lot and look for prey, not training partners. He grabbed my boy before I could warn him.
This is how you have to learn, I told myself …
I tried to keep an eye on them while doing my round with a younger, faster kid. We joked and jabbed and he caught me a few times as I tried to keep my hands up and peer over. That guy was being that guy, exploiting Luke’s inexperience and just being a dick. The dad in me wanted to protect him but I was proud that he kept working and trying, learning. In the end Luke survived and I was proud. He stood his ground and learned something about guys like Adam.
The coach was watching Adam and Luke too. He had seen what I saw.
“One more round?” I asked coach.
“One more round, grab a new partner,” he called out. “Adam, go with Rick.”
He reluctantly moved forward in front of me and we touched gloves.
I smiled. Coach smiled.
The round timer buzzed.
Adam learned how pecking orders work.
If you don’t grapple, you may not understand mat mopping. Mats are gross, covered in sweat and bodily fluids. High school wrestling mats are especially gross because high school wrestlers are especially gross.
At the start of the wrestling season, when in my first year coaching, I had a talk with the high schoolers.
“Who’s job is it to mop the mats before practice each day?” I asked.
The juniors and seniors growled out in unison, “ Freshmen.”
“Wrong,” I countered, “Mopping the mats is everyone’s job. You seniors aren’t so good you don’t need to mop mats. You will mop too.”
“Let’s try again, freshman, who’s job is it to mop the mats?”
“Everyones!” they yelled back enthusiastically.
“Bullshit,” I yelled back. “You all need to learn your place and earn your stripes. It is a rite of passage. Get them mopped each day so we can start on time.”
I don’t believe in entitlement, but I do believe in pecking orders.
Everybody should mop mats, just for different reasons.
“The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all kinds of talk, get told that you’re a god or a total bastard. The Iron will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.” – Iron and the Soul – Henry Rollins
Henry Rollins was talking about lifting weights but if he was a fighter, he’d have written about hard foam mats.
The mats won’t lie to you.
They remind you when you have been neglecting them. Step away from a few months and go back. When you get in the shower your skin is covered in bruises and scrapes and scars and you have no idea where they came from.
They remind you when you are taking the easy way out. The only thing I can think about when my face is on the mat is an old coach telling me when I was a kid, “Nothing on that mat but sweat and pubic hair. Why are you wiping your face in it?”
More than three decades later, I still hear him when I lie there lazilly.
They won’t lie to you. They remind you when you are getting old.
When I was coaching at the high school, we had another assistant, a great kid, D1 all-american and just wrestled in the Olympic trials helping us out. After one practice, he asked if I wanted to go a few takedowns. Now, I am a realist. I didn’t figure I could whoop him. I just wanted to compete. I was good enough for that. We circled. He shot.
I saw it coming. No real set up. I sent the signal from my brain to my legs, “Sprawl.”
They didn’t. He shot under and took me down without a fight.
“The mat is sticky,” I thought, “My foot stuck.” We came back up. Same thing happened.
The mat wasn’t sticky.
We came back up. I shot – if this was basketball, I shot an airball. I don’t even know where he went. We went a few more rounds, same outcome. He got bored.
I was changing out of my shoes, cussing at the laces as I couldn’t get them to unknot. Another coach, a friend, looked at me laughing, “What is wrong with you?”
“What the fuck do you think is wrong with me?”
“He is in his prime,” He smiled as he said it.
“I’m … I’m … I’m in my p-p-prime too,” I stuttered and screamed at him, spittle flying from my lips and tears welling up in my eyes. I walked out of the room. Fuck!
They mats won’t lie to you.
Last week, I was sitting at home staring at my gym bag. It had been a long day, a longer week and a really long year. I had initially planned on going to kick boxing and then to grapple after, but as the day wore on, I lost motivation. I was sore, I’d been training a lot lately. Maybe I needed a night off. Maybe, I needed to cut back.
There is one thought that gets me up to go. Fear of the day I can’t.
There will be a day I will beg for, trade all I had, just to feel that pain and agony of training one more time.
I might lie to myself, but the mats won’t.
My wife and I have different versions of our dream homes. She is an amazing designer and the things she has done to our current home cause people to stop and knock on our door and ask for the name of the designer and contractor she used. Most of it she designed and I built, based on her direction. I tell people I live in a Pottery Barn catalog.
When I won my first championship belt, I put it on the mantle of our fireplace and shined a light on it.
“How long do you plan on that staying there?” she asked.
A couple weeks later it was packed away.
She tells people I have no standards and would be happy living in a van by the river, a thought I smile at and won’t deny. She puts up with a lot.
If I had a dream house, it would be less of a house and more of a barn with an apartment where I could sleep and cook, shower and shit. It would have a wrestling mat, a boxing ring and a workout area. I’d heat it with a wood burning stove. If we want our lives to be about the places we inhabit, this would be the story I’d want to tell.
There is a show on an online grappling channel that details the lives of a submission fighting team out of Mt. Vernon, Illinois called Daisy Fresh. The gym is an old laundry mat that I can’t believe code enforcement hasn’t condemned. Athletes, with nowhere else to go, sleep on the mat or in their cars, use a hotplate to cook meals and take their smelly training gear to a local apartment laundry room to wash it with hand soap. They live there, because to them, this is all that life is about. They have everything they need in that place. It is dirty and disgusting and when my wife and I watched it, I said, “To me that looks like heaven, I’d live there. ”
“I know,” she replied immediately as though she was expecting me to say it.
She puts up with a lot.
In his auto-biographical telling about his wrestling and writing life, novelist extraordinaire, John Irving describes his wrestling room, which is 25 feet away from the office where he writes.
“I go to such lengths to describe the territory of my wrestling room and it’s proximity to my office because I want you to understand that the distance between my writing and my wrestling is never great …”
Hemingway said something similar: “My writing is nothing. My boxing is everything.” I doubt his writing improved his boxing, but no one can doubt what he learned as a pugilist transformed him as a writer. You learn a lot about the nature of man in a boxing ring.
Though I consider myself a writer, I am not comparing myself to Irving or Hemingway as a scribe, but I’d think I could have hung with either of them on the mats or in the ring. And I’d guess, we’d see the world from a similar place because we share that lens.
My jiu-jitsu coach, who as far as I know has never written anything, understands that sense of place the same way. When I started training with him, he told me that he was happy when he opened his gym, because if his fiance ever kicked him out, he’d still have everything he needed and could sleep on the mats. I am sure he loves his fiance, but I don’t think he saw Plan B as a failure.
I have a van.
Those that we love and love us back, don’t always like to hear it this way, because they think it means we see them as secondary. That is not what it means, but we know if we don’t take care of this part of us, that part will be useless too. That was a part of us before them and it will be there still even if they leave. The idea that we choose “it” or these places over them is the wrong way to look at it. We choose them in spite of “it.” “It” is foundational, not optional. It is George Strait singing, “If I hurry, I can still make Cheyenne,” to the woman who left him for some guy, “who sure ain’t no rodeo man …” It is Mickey Rourke as Randy “The Ram” Ramzinski walking away from a stipper played by Marissa Tomei (bad decision by the way) so he can soar off the top turnbuckle just one more time.
To paraphrase Irving, the distance between my fighting and everything else in my life is not that great. In fact, I don’t know who I would be without it. To that end, these places, these real fighting gyms I am talking about are full of people that understand that.
In many circles, in my family life or professional life, I have to explain my black eyes and cauliflower ears. There are people in my life that look at me as selfish for going away to train with friends or getting on a plane to go compete by myself in a tournament. It’s time to grow up. They think I need to move past the silliness and be a better husband and father. Maybe.
But in these gyms, these places, I am not an old man trying to recapture my youth. I am a guy who is finding a way to do that thing that … that thing I just have to do and still juggle life and a wife and a family. I can’t explain it with words like passion or love, or fitness or self-defense. I don’t do it for any of that. And here in these places, I don’t have to explain it. The people here know already. They know it for themselves. I am not claiming to be part of a marginalized group looking for a place to feel like I fit in, but I’ll be damned if that isn’t what it feels like. The best of these places are full of misfits I wouldn’t interact with in the rest of my life if I didn’t know them the way I do. But now I know them and their experiences as people. Maybe it makes me a better husband and a father. A better human.
And isn’t that what a church is supposed to be? A place that will accept you if you are seeking a truth and are committed to the process, no matter where you are on that path; A place where you can fail and learn and not be judged because failure in these places is universal and not just a accepted but required – it is the only way we learn; A place where the bullshit story you tell yourself and all your Instagram followers will be certified one way or another.
Sounds a lot like the places I’ve trained.
The other night before bed, I was watching some videos on Flowrestling. Flo is a channel dedicated to sports programming. There is Flowrestling, Flograppling, FloCombat etc. I am told there is a cheer and gymnastics version too.
I had a ton of crazy things going on in my life and I couldn’t sleep. I was stressed and and really just wanted to be anywhere other than where I was. I needed something that would bring me the peace of sleep.
Flowrestling has news and interviews traditional networks don’t carry. I was watching an interview with a University of Iowa wrestler. For those that don’t know, Iowa is the original mecca of American wrestling. The kid who was being interviewed was a returning senior, who had come up short in his bid for a national championship but was offered one more season based on the pandemic. He was talking about what it meant to be an Iowa wrestler and to train in that historic room. In the background there was a practice going on.
I watched athletes drilling takedowns, I heard the whistles and could smell the room. It looked like a hard practice, an amazing practice. Those guys were suffering. Takedowns, one for one, back and forth. Bam, your opponent hits a high crotch to a double to the mat. Climb to your feet and give it back. It looked brutal. I’d give everything to feel the way they were feeling.
I’d guess that is the reason people go to church in the first place. They see believers and the peace and contentment and confidence they live with. They get baptized in because they want that feeling too.
The interview ended and a new clip started, simply filming a practice showing guys drilling takedown after takedown. The next thing I knew, I was sleeping peacefully on the couch.
I wrote this for Darla. Darla is my friend and she is opening up a fighting gym in a small town in Northern California. She intends to train fighters and those who want to train like fighters. I am probably wasting my time in writing it for her in that I know she already understands…