Popular culture has taught us that tough guys are born tough, winners win, and badasses are, well, badass. Maybe I’m not all that tough, but I’ve spent most of my life competing in the sorts of sports that should come with frequent flier cards for the ER, and it’s been my experience that dominating the competition doesn’t tend to come with very many valuable lessons.
In fact, if you really want to know how to win fights, the best thing you can do while training is lose some.
After doing well in events like pugil sticks and being considered “tough” by my friends, I mistakenly started to believe that I was a tough guy. It didn’t take long to learn otherwise.
(Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jose Villalobosrocha)
While I already had a long and illustrious history of being a mouthy punk before I joined the Marines, it wasn’t until my second year in uniform that I formally entered into the world of fighting. I had earned my brown belt in the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program and had some scholastic wrestling behind me that had helped me dominate the competition in my unit and my circle of friends. As far as I was concerned, I was one tough bastard… that is until I walked into the training facility for Fight Club 29, nestled in a disused hangar in the deserts of Twentynine Palms, California.
As I walked into that bustling training environment that Coach Mark Geletko, a retired Marine Sergeant Major, cultivates through sheer force of enthusiastic will, I immediately made the most egregious of rookie mistakes: I was intimidated by the skill and athleticism in the room, so I squared my jaw and put on my best “tough guy” face. I was intent on proving to the team that I belonged there by showing off how badass I was… and silently, I promised myself I wouldn’t tap out a single time that day.
The thing is, I wasn’t badass. I was a tough guy from the block in the company of men that had dedicated themselves to the craft of fighting. Everyone in the room had at least one amateur fight under their belts, a few even had professional ones, and I fancied myself their peer from behind a handful of bar brawl stories and a knack for high school wrestling.
I was bigger, stronger, and fitter than some fighters I squared off against in those early days, but if your plan is to overwhelm experience with muscle, you’re in for a bad day.
As foolish as it seems in hindsight, I see that same look on the faces of new fighters all the time. Some are so lost behind their tough-guy facades that they can’t break through, and ultimately, they have to leave the sport behind. Others, like me, have to learn that “tough” doesn’t always mean winning, and guys that always “have to” win rarely have the skills they need to get out of a jam when they’re in one.
In the months leading up to my first fight, I began training with our team’s premier fighters in the weight class above and below my own (at 185 pounds). That meant standing and swinging with the bruising power of guys that fought heavyweight at 205+, before hopping onto the mats with the lightning quickness of a 175-pound Jiu Jitsu stud that knew more about submissions than I do about… anything.
And boy did I lose. Some days it seemed like all I did was lose. At one point during my first week, one of our best heavyweight strikers named Nate landed a powerful (and quite high) pump kick to my midsection, raising alarm bells from my small intestines all the way to my brain, all blaring in unison that if I didn’t get my ass to a bathroom, I was going to have an awfully embarrassing mess in my pants. After the emergency had passed, I half-limped my way back out of the “porta-john” outside our hangar and stumbled back into the ring, ready to get beat again.
The only really effective way to learn not to panic in a choke is to spend time getting choked. You’ve got to learn to fight back from a position of disadvantage to be a capable fighter.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Samuel Guerra)
Losing teaches you a lot of things about yourself and about the craft of fighting. Do it often enough, and you begin to understand the difference between a sloppy choke that makes it hard to breathe and a good one that makes it impossible. You start to recognize the differences between punches that could put you to bed, and the ones you’re willing to eat while you set up your next move. You start to accept the hurt to avoid an injury and to be comfortable in a submission that used to scare you. Most importantly, you stop being afraid of getting knocked out, choked out, or losing in front of your peers, and in that freedom, you’re finally able to find out what you’re really made of.
I went undefeated in my short semi-professional fighting career, though I never won by knock-out or submission. I’m still not the toughest guy around, but in the years since I transitioned from competitive fighting to simply training, I’ve learned to let go of my fear of losing and embrace the satisfying hurt of learning new lessons from skilled peers.
I may not be as quick as I was when I first got into the fighting game, but unlike that young buck, I’m not afraid to hurt, to grind, or to lose if I have to. And if you ask me, that makes me a much more dangerous old man.