I tried Muay Thai recently for the first time last week. I don’t have any plans to become a mixed martial arts athlete any time soon, but it’s something I had to do, both because I feel as though one should constantly challenge themselves to develop in different ways so that the through the crucible of awkwardness and near humiliation they can find themselves transformed into a better stronger more pure version of themselves… AND because I had talked about doing it so much that my wife bought me 10 classes at a local Muay Thai school and if I didn’t take the classes, she was going to be really pissed off at me.
My desire to take up this training is complicated. The most simple explanation is that several years ago, I looked at myself in the mirror and realized that in having lost weight, I had very little muscle tone. Having had a few on again-off again extended trysts with the gym, in the past, I knew I could do better. So I started lifting. Slowly but surely, I became stronger and added actual muscle to my body. One day at the gym, I saw a heavy bag and thought, I’ll go ahead and punch this a few times. I’m much stronger than I used to be, I’m going to wail on this thing. Very quickly, I realized I would get exhausted and really had no idea what I was doing. Unlike a lot of people in internet discussion threads, when I have no idea what I’m doing, I try to learn more.
Enter months of watching boxing videos, MMA, videos. Slowly but surely, it became something I would try to learn more about. I bought hand wraps. I bought boxing gloves. I got better, but after a time, I realized I probably wouldn’t really do well if I were in a physical confrontation. I was faking it but I had no idea what I was doing. Don’t get me wrong…
I’m 6’2, 235 pounds and people assume I played football in high school (I didn’t, I wrestled though. Badly). People my size generally think it’s not a good idea to pick trouble with me. It’s a great feeling. At the same time, I had an older brother who was much more the naturally athletic type, who, though I could easily out-grapple growing up (I sucked in matches but man I could outwrestle most people who had no idea what they were doing), he had MUCH better hands (punching abilities) than me. Like a Civil War trauma surgeon’s assistant, I caught so many hands. I had to figure out what I was doing.
Watching mixed martial arts videos, I generally came to realize that the fighters in the octagon use Muay Thai so much because it’s so damn efficient. It’s the science of 8 limbs. There’s no silly forms or impractical stances. It has basic parts of boxing, but adds kicks, knees, elbows, trips and throws, and makes use of clinching. In the past, when I watched boxing, I would see boxers lock up and just look like they were hugging because they were exhausted. It ruined the sport for me for a long time. In muay thai, it’s not just hugging. It’s the setup for all of those trips and throws. And it can be so damn efficient.
So I made an appointment for my first class as this would be a one on one experience. The impression I got over the phone was that I would just be learning basic things like how to not hurt myself by sprinting headfirst into a cinder block wall. That’s not part of Muay Thai or anything, but they probably not want me to do that, especially on my first class. I figured I could get in a quick weightlifting session and a little bit of cardio beforehand and not really suffer any negative consequences. I took my preworkout supplement, had a good workout and came home with enough time to eat my first real meal of the day and then shower.
I got to the class and my instructor showed me the basics of kicking with my front and rear leg and basics of throwing jabs, crosses and hooks. Still running high on the tail end of my preworkout, I found myself pouring sweat just standing still. After a half hour, my instructor said “well that’s the end of the one on one, you ready for your first class?”
Not knowing what I was getting into, I smiled and started stretching. It turned out I was getting into fighter conditioning. What followed was 30 minutes of a 60 minute class based in repeating the teacher’s commanded combinations five times and then calling out your partner’s repetitions as they performed them. I made so many mistakes. Not just in form and footwork.
I barely ate during the day and hadn’t digested the food I just ate. I was in the ironic situation of having calories sloshing around my stomach and not having any in my bloodstream. Being used to hitting a poor heavy bag, I unintentionally put way too much effort into each punch. Lastly, and possibly worst of all, I didn’t breathe properly.
This sounds incredibly stupid to anyone who has never worked on a heavy bag. When lifting weights, especially doing squats, one does “valsalva” breathing in which you hold your breath for a time to make your core as rigid and firm as possible. When throwing a punch, you find yourself attempting to keep your core rigid for the maximum transference of energy from your hips to your hands. If you ever listen to a boxing match, you will hear lots of hissing between grunts as punches land. This is because the boxers let their breath out with each punch to maximize core rigidity but not hold their breath so long that they become winded extra quickly from moving around the ring and punching.
After a half hour, I was on the verge of vomiting, my eyes were bloodshot, my face was beet red, and my shirt was soaked in sweat. My right bicep was so worn out from throwing right hooks that I could no longer hold my arm straight. My heart would not stop racing and yet I wanted to pass out. Having made plans before the class, I left at the half hour break. When I left, I was so exhausted I didn’t even bother putting my shoes back on. I shuffled off to my car, still gasping for air and started the engine… with my left hand, as my right bicep was still useless.
Before I left, I looked around the room and everyone had a big smile on their face. Not because they were laughing at my idiocy, that I was some meathead better suited for putting idiotic amounts of weight across my back than fighting. It was a smile of camaraderie. Their eyes said “you’re not great yet, but you’re trying so you’re one of us now. Welcome to the club.” Before I left, my instructor asked how I was doing. I told him “it’s the most tired I’ve been in a long time, but it’s the most alive I felt. This is the hardest I’ve worked since wrestling in high school.” I then drove home and laid on the floor and panted and asked my wife to rub my cramped arm because I was underfed, overworked and dehydrated.
I can’t wait to go back.