An Old Man Gets His Ass Kicked
Sometimes, when I'm in other countries, or just among people who speak different languages, I get myself into trouble. At various times since I was a little kid, I've studied German, Spanish, French, and Russian. I have retained, at the very least, a couple phrases in each of these languages, and a foolhardy urge to use them in the presence of native speakers. My accent and delivery is just good enough that my interlocuter assumes that I'm actually capable of carrying on a conversation. Embarrassment ensues. I dig deep for one of the first phrases one learns in any language: "Do you speak English?"
Similar trouble has cropped up for me in my new hobby: Mixed Martial Arts. In the three weeks that I've been working out at my local boxing/Muay Thai/pummeling gym, I've picked up some basic skills. That, plus my unconscious absorption of cinematic martial arts choreography, and my generally battered appearance, has given other members at my gym the mistaken impression that I'm conversant in fisticuffs. In fact, I'm much better at speaking Vietnamese than fighting--and I can barely order an iced coffee at the pho house without pointing at the menu.
I wrote an essay at The Atlantic about my desire to learn how to fight, and most of the commenters--some of them experienced brawlers themselves--told me that I was an idiot and I would end up in the hospital. This gave me some pause, but I figured I had enough sense to bail if I felt uncomfortable.
After a week or so of training, I wrote a little update where I chuckled about my fears. This gym wasn't Fight Club after all: just a fun new way to burn some calories.
Shortly after that sanguine assessment of my new diversion, shit got real. Just as I was getting comfortable with punching and kicking the "Thai pads" held by my sparring partners, and starting to feel like they noticed the impact, the instructor had us drop the pads. It's one thing to practice a combination of punches and kicks on targets that are more or less where you expect them to be, and quite another to try to remember how to throw a push-kick while someone is punching you in the face.
In my teaching experience, both as an English teacher and a ski instructor, I've been an adherent of the "scaffolding" concept: Teach discrete skills and weave them all together so the student can gain confidence as he or she approaches the ultimate goal. My Muay Thai instructor seems to have a more "holistic" approach. Teach a couple moves and then throw the student into the lion's den to fend for himself.
The last time I went to the fighting gym, we warmed up as usual by jumping rope and shadow boxing. Then the instructor barked at us to put on our shin guards and gloves, and pair up.
I did as I was told, and partnered with a guy about my size who didn't look particularly intimidating. Having received absolutely no instruction on how hard to hit, or any other particulars, I started fighting. I assumed we were not allowed to elbow each other in the face.
My first round went all right. Not having been punched in the face in twenty years or so, the first couple shots to the head got my attention. My opponent corrected my blocking form, and kept punching. Then something pretty cool happened. I landed a couple punches, and my partner retreated. I kicked him a few times and he took a defensive posture. I was chasing him!
Then the bell rang, and we switched partners. The next guy I fought was also my size, but much leaner. And, like most of the guys, about twenty years younger than me. His gloves and shin pads were well-worn. Mine still smelled like the packaging they had been shipped in.
Partner #2 was helpful with the tips, and I started getting used to being hit in the face. But he wasn't retreating. When I landed a punch, he quickly responded with four. Sweat was dripping into my eyes, I couldn't breath through my nose, and my mouth guard felt like it was smothering me. I had to raise my hand and take a breath several times.
And then there was Partner #3. Followed by Partner #4. The beatings I received were interchangeable. I felt like, had these been actual fights, as opposed to friendly sparring, my only recourse would have been to punch as hard as I could and hope to blunder into a knock-out, or at least stave off my inevitable beatdown. But instead, I had to rely on my fitness and skill, which are about as strong as my conversational Russian.
In my bout with Partner #4, I threw a roundhouse kick with my left leg, landing it ineffectually on his ribcage. In pivoting on my right foot, I managed to pull my right hamstring, precisely in the spot where the surgeon had removed some tendon tissue to reconstruct the anterior cruciate ligament in my knee six years ago.
We were done sparring after that. It was time to go upstairs to the cage, and practice clinch work. The instructor told me to wipe the blood off my face and get up there. I was bleeding? Yes. My nose and maybe my mouth. I couldn't really tell where all it was coming from.
After class, I limped back to the minivan and drove home, where I read stories to the kids through my blood-stuffed nose and tucked them in.
I haven't been back since then. It's been more than a week. If my absence from the gym has registered with anyone, they probably assume that I have given up on the sport. But I don't think I have. For one thing, my wife bought me a three-month membership for Christmas, and I'll be damned if I let two months of it go to waste. I'll just hang out in there and use the goddamn rowing machines if I have to. But this shit is hard on an old man. I might have recovered from a pulled hamstring in a couple days ten or twenty years ago. But I rode my skateboard with the kids yesterday as they tore through the neighborhood on their scooters, and it's still tender. As is my nose. And, if I'm to be perfectly honest, my stupid twenty-year-old ego.