When I took up fighting, it quickly became apparent that my ego would be my gnarliest opponent. I was forty-three when I started, with a career in journalism based on independent decision-making – so I was far less amenable to being told what to do than a 12-year-old might be. As an adult I’ve had a tendency to avoid activities in which my performance would be anything less than above average.
It’s a testament to my ego – and the need for special treatment – that I pay for a personal Muay Thai trainer about 30 times more frequently than I attend a Muay Thai class. One of my trainer’s names, back in his MMA fighting days, was “the Human Bear Enclosure”. Since then, Nick Mann has stacked on another 30 kilograms of muscle in his reincarnation as a pro-wrestler called Gore – brother of another of my interviewees, KrackerJak. He walks like a blockbuster bad guy, arms held at bay by his swollen lats.
Ordinarily, trainers scream motivational slogans at you: sentiments that spill over into their social media accounts. “Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny” was doing the rounds on the ’gram for a while. Some added weight by attributing it to CS Lewis, although it’s actually just a line from a movie version of The Chronicles of Narnia. “There’s no losing, only learning!” is a favourite with those trainers teaching fighting skills.
Nick disagrees with that sentiment. “There’s definitely losing,” he says when I start working with him, and he’s not about to let me sign up for an interclub – a friendly bish-bosh that doesn’t go on your fight record – until he’s satisfied I won’t embarrass him. Nick’s Instagram profile is nihilistic in tone, and suggests that training is merely a prelude to death. One post is of a bin, with the suggestion you put your hopes and dreams in it.
Muay Thai is the “art of eight limbs”, a combat sport that originated in the sixteenth century and is often utilised in modern MMA. As I pirouette around, throwing legs, Nick keeps his face expressionless as a bouncer (which he also is).
Things get more inventive as our sessions continue. Sometimes I’m made to shadow-box with thumb tacks taped to my heels, to keep me on the balls of my feet. Other times, as I do sit-ups, he crouches next to me and smashes me in the guts with a kickpad. Each time he’s about to slam the pad down, I hear him take a sharp breath, maybe for effect.
For the past few months we’ve worked on pads – he holds them, I punch and kick them – and it hasn’t been necessary to think for myself, nor hold back on the power. Today, we’re sparring for the first time. Playing, he emphasises. But like every other wet-behind-the-ears student before me, I’m pistoning in hard and fast.
My fights have hitherto been limited to drunken brawls at taxi ranks and in featureless hallways; things I can barely remember, but nevertheless I’ve congratulated myself for hands thrown, no matter how untechnical. Now it’s the opposite. Control apparently trumps enthusiasm.
Nick catches every kick and blocks every punch, and occasionally sweeps me to the canvas, ramping up my frustration a notch on each occasion. “You’re telegraphing all your moves and any time you have made contact has been a fluke," lui dice. A couple of times, he backs himself against the ropes and buries his head in his guard – his forearms – obligingly leaving everything else open. Faced with this invitation and the self-efficacy it requires of me, I panic. His grin is just visible through his wrists. Rather than calculate my opportunity, I whale at him ineffectively. Despair turns to hopelessness turns to blind kicking. Sometimes I kick upwards – like a lever – between his legs. That’s not a move.
In pro-wrestling terms, if you go too rough on your opponent, they might give you what’s known as a “receipt”. It’s an act of retaliation, twice as hard, to smack you back down to size. “Watch it,” it says.
In round two, as I flail in impotent rage, Nick starts issuing his receipts: repeated chops to my left leg, which I should be noticing is a pattern. They’re much harder chops than our official “just playing” capacity, and I make that known by spitting “Fuck!” each time one lands. At this, he goes even harder. Receipt. Such an innocuous word, not at all loaded with spite.
Eventually, the buzzer sounds. Nick leads me by one arm till I’m against the ropes. Unable to avert my gaze, I let my eyes glaze over.
“You’re getting too emotional," lui dice. I’m not, I think indignantly, as emotions swarm all over my body. He must mean “angry”. Although, come to think of it, I could cry right now. “You need to be cold, calm and ruthless,” he continues, up in my face. “If you come at me like that, you leave me no choice but to respond.”
So fighters must have “heart”, as they say – and yet, their hearts must be devoid of emotion. Devoid of the purest, most cleansing hatred I think I must ever have felt forge through my veins. In my last book, I wrote about my abundance of this particular emotion. The rage. The fucking rage! It’s always there, inflating inside me, like the Hindenburg awaiting a match. Rage has propelled me in all my ventures, a boundless energy that is as productive as it has been destructive. Why does Nick not appreciate the powerful raw material I’m working with? But it’s not a conversation for today. Today I’m just focused on keeping my face steady while taking off my shin guards.
When I leave the gym, pain radiates from my thigh, up through some mysterious new elevator-of-awful in my torso, and into my chest. Halfway down the road, I give up on hobbling and get an Uber.
At home, I cry into a neat gin and smear myself in Tiger Balm, and think: there’s no better way to learn how fragile you really are than building up your physical and mental strength for months, only to have it crumble at the first test.
Muay Thai was supposed to be character-building. I had taken it up when I was called on to make a police statement about a historical crime, which would be a lengthy process over which I had no control. Making this report, I decided, must also signal the end of the passive state of “victim” I had internalised. Walk tall, I chastened myself, wandering aimlessly through London after I’d completed the police interview. Taller. See how different that feels? Wow. Bring on the new era!
It felt forced, but I don’t like having no control. And unless you’re unlucky enough to be sick – or maybe until you’re unlucky enough to be sick – you can at least control your body. That’s why people who have experienced abuse, inconsistent parenting, medical procedures or some other lack of agency when young tend to be drawn to self-harm, substance use and eating disorders. I knew this, which is why I was determined to weaponise my body more productively. Other women I meet when training have similar reasons, growing up in homes of family violence being one I hear repeatedly.
Before too long, I will have to spar again, sacrificing my self-respect anew. Maybe these knocks to the confidence could be likened to hypertrophy, the process of weightlifting: you put the muscle tissue under stress and cause micro tears. It’s only through gaining and recovering from these tears that the muscle grows.