When I was 16, I watched a friend get verbally bullied for months before being beaten up at my high school. That scared me to the point where I decided that I needed to take up martial arts to prevent the same thing from happening to me. The only problem was, I didn’t know anything about martial arts and had no clue where to start — at the time, I spent most of my time playing guitar or reading.
So, I decided to check out some local bookstores and see if I could find a book that would either inspire me or at least give me a sense of direction.
Sam Sheridan’s A Fighter’s Heart: One Man’s Journey Through the World of Fighting immediately caught my eye.
The book is about Sheridan’s experiences with Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), where martial artists compete in a cage or a ring with the objective of knocking out, submitting or out pointing an opponent — there are few rules around how you can or can’t do this as well. Due to the sports flexibility and lack of rules, competitors are forced to study multiple martial arts and mix them together in order to eliminate any weaknesses that could be exploited by an opponent.
This strategy of mixing martial arts developed because, in early MMA competitions, it was common to see small competitors beat large, skilled fighters by simply dragging them to the ground and manipulating their opponents’ limbs or using choke holds to force a submission. In response, martial artists who practiced classical martial arts involving punching and kicking were forced to learn ground-based martial arts in order to defend themselves.
In the book, Sheridan travels all over the world learning different martial arts disciplines in order to become proficient in MMA. This appealed directly to my love of travel and fascination with different cultures, leading me to finish the book within a week. When I was done, I was eager to try out MMA and began searching for a gym in my hometown.
I soon found a local gym that specialized in MMA and went in to take an introductory class. To say I was intimidated would be an understatement. When I showed up I was out of shape, unathletic and had no self-confidence. To make matters worse, the gym had a large roster of professional fighters who were all incredibly talented and in amazing shape — they scared the hell out of me.
Fortunately, MMA has a different culture than most sports, and that reflected in my first gym experience. The instructors, professional fighters and other casual practitioners were relaxed and there was very little ego or bravado. Even the scariest looking people in the room were friendly and enthusiastic to help new people learn the ropes. One of the most interesting things I noticed was that everyone came from different walks of life and many, like myself, were inspired to get involved due to experiences with bullying. I was hooked immediately and began attending class as much as possible.
The effects on my life were profound. I got in better shape, made new friends and built up my confidence.
I soon realized that martial arts and fighting were difficult to learn, even for the most athletic people. In order to get good at them you must spend hours sparring — fighting with teammates with additional protection to avoid injury — and competing as much as possible. Consequently, I realized that most bullies are probably really bad at fighting in comparison to the people I was training and sparring with every day. This helped me to abandon my fear of bullies and made high school, workplaces and nights out much less intimidating.
MMA also had a dramatic influence on how I view women in sports. One of my coaches and many of my classmates were professional female fighters. To this day, some of my roughest sparring sessions and some of my most lopsided losses have come at the hand of women half my size with twice my skill level. These experiences both humbled me and showed me that traditional notions of men’s unquestioned physical superiority over women are false. Any man who uses the expression “hits like a girl” has not been punched in the face by a female MMA fighter.
I have continued to practice martial arts since high school and it remains my favourite hobby. I’ve never reread Sheridan’s book and to this day its tacky title and slightly gross cover photo make me cringe; however, I still keep it on my bookshelf despite my girlfriend’s repeated pleas to get rid of it.