I met a fighter this past weekend in St. Pete. A real fighter. Michael De La Pava, Miami Mike we called him. That was so we could separate him from Tight Mike, who was from Queens, a boxer himself, who but for age and experience might just as well be the subject of this essay.
I’ve never seen Mike fight, but I know he can bang. How?
His whole bearing speaks of it. Early Saturday morning, as we made our introductions he said he was a Muay Thai instructor and mentioned he had a few fights under his belt. He stated this simply with no need for embellishment. I’ve learned over several years of interaction in the martial arts world, the more a dog barks, the less fight he actually has in him. Mike was not barking.
Muay Thai is a kickboxing style that comes from Thailand. It’s been popularized in film by actors like Jean Claude Van Damme and Tony Jaa. It’s a very physically demanding art and practitioners learn to give and take massive amounts of punishment in the form of punches, elbows, knees and kicks. It’s also a very traditional style whose history reaches into antiquity.
In Thailand a whole culture surrounds the art with fighters joining their respective camps at very young ages, sometimes as early as three or four. They eat, train and sleep with their camp, integrating themselves into a larger fight family. Even as young children their lives center around Muay Thai. They contribute to the functioning and sustenance of the camp, beginning their own training by five or six and entering their first fight somewhere between ten and twelve. By twenty-one most fighters are ready to retire with several hundred fights under their belts. Once retired successful fighters parlay their experience into coaching careers.
Traditional Muay Thai, even as practised by non-Thai, involves an elaborate pre-fight ceremonial dance where the fighter shows honor to the ring, the audience, his coach and most importantly his opponent.
Mike’s humility speaks more to his experience and prowess in the ring than any bragging ever could. Not once did we hear a story about how he had some poor slob up against the ropes or of the power and might of his feet and fists. Instead we heard of the sacrifice it takes to be a fighter, the discipline and the dedication. Long hours of training, strict diets, the mental focus that excludes everything but the fight. One fight might take three to five months worth of discipline and sacrifice–sacrifice that comes from not just himself, but his friends and loved ones as well.
He’s the first to admit that humility is one of the first and most lasting of the lessons of a true fighter.. My own martial arts experience began with Tai Chi and progressed into traditional karate and kung fu styles. Each of these are respectable arts steeped in history and tradition, but they are also taught as no-contact arts. The foundation of each of them is in kata or forms, choreographed patterns of movement designed to teach the fundamental movements of each respective style. Back in the day this was how a student was introduced to the ‘toolbox’ of movements contained in each style. After having mastered each of these ‘tools’ a student then learned how to free form these movements and eventually to fight. As such a modern student learns how to fight the air, all the while building his fantasy world with support and illustration from the latest Hollywood blockbuster or a classic chop-socky from Hong Kong’s heyday.
In antiquity the ultimate aim of all fighting styles was fighting. The style itself was a form of martial technology, the information contained therein guarded as precious military secrets. Today the practice of most traditional styles is an exercise in historical preservation, an admirable pursuit, the downside of which is that many a youngster grows up in his style or school thinking he can fight when he has actually has no real experience fighting. The end result is often the dirty little secret of martial arts schools–the all too common story of a young, foolish black belt picking a fight with an untrained, but experienced kid on the street and getting his ass handed to him.
An early lesson of anyone who does fight is that no matter how big and bad you think you are, there’s always someone out there who is bigger and badder. A true fighter is humble, he’s had his share of wins and losses and has a realistic view of himself. He knows a fight can turn on the slightest of insignificances and that often the winner is nothing more than the one who wanted it more.