"Fighting reveals...that manhood, that endless test is a sham, an illusion of sorts; because when you start fighting, you realize there's never an end to it, there's always somebody better -- stronger, faster, bigger, younger, whatever, something...The quest to be the toughest in the world is an empty quest, and fighters realize that pretty quickly, I think....There's always someone out there who can beat you. It's about being the best you can be, bringing yourself closer to the perfect version." - Sam Sheridan in A Fighter's Heart
KB: I've heard many people say that martial arts helps develop humility, but I never understood how exactly it does.
SS: Absolutely. If you don’t have the ability to tap, you’re not going to make it out of the first day. In Muay Thai, if you start thinking you’re the man, you might stop sparring with guys who are better than you. You stop learning and growing.
BJ Penn rolls with white belts because they move awkwardly.
You also need humility to learn from your teachers. Even the teachers you don’t respect might have just one thing that they do really well. Or take that one guy whose ass you beat every time, he might have one bread and butter move. Steal that from him and learn from him.
But there's also a duality in fighting. In the fight itself, you need the overwhelming confidence that you’re going to smash this dude. You can’t doubt that.
Both parts are necessary, and I think the people who can walk it well are successful as fighters.
KB: Do you think that that humility transfers over into other aspects of people’s lives?
SS: Absolutely yes. I’ve seen it.
When I first moved to Thailand in 1999, at the camp I stayed in, the most humble guys were the best fighters. The second or third tier guys were cocky, arrogant, stupid, and mean. It was such an interesting disparity.
I think fighting is a real way for damaged men and women to learn wisdom, to understand who they are, and to respect themselves.
KB: What do you think is the difference between fighting and other sports in terms of learning these kinds of lessons? In football or basketball, the best guys aren’t necessarily the most humble.
SS: I would disagree.
Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan are the cockiest guys in certain ways. But again in a fight or in a game you have to have an unbelievable level of confidence. I bet you that they have the best work ethic on their team and listen to their coaches very, very well.
“Fighting is about knowing who you are”
KB: Another lesson people say can be learnt through martial arts is discovering yourself. What they do people mean by self-discovery and what you can uncover through fighting?
SS: I think it’s very simple. Fighting is about identity. It’s about knowing who you are.
If you are a boxer and you’re a tall white guy with great endurance, then don’t try to fight like Muhammed Ali. Have your guard up, jab the hell out of the dude, push him to the late rounds. Don’t try to be a slick, bob and weave guy, when you don’t have the reflexes for it. You’re forced to discover who you are in the fight game. Your illusions are fierce. I think fighting forces you to come to grips with exactly who you are.
Not all men are created equal. If you take a couple of amateur fights and you can’t beat anybody, don’t go pro.
KB: In The Fighter's Mind, Pat Miletich said that some fighters become assholes when they become champ. Yet there are some guys like Andre Ward who manage to stay nice guys. What keeps some guys grounded when they achieve success?
SS: It’s a hard one to answer.
It might be because they got into the fight game for revenge or to show their worth.
That's not enough of a reason to be fighting. Andre Ward has bigger fish to fry. He has a bigger game plan. He understands what greatness is. He understands what he’s trying to achieve. He knows that if he slips, then he won’t achieve his goals. He has a long term picture.
KB: And is the long term picture his career?
SS: It is, but it's also something more than that. He wants to be the pound for pound greatest fighter of all time.
He also wants to be more than a boxer. He wants to be a guy who can be the face of his religion. He wants to serve God. That’s a very conscious tool against ego. Once again when you start believing you’re the shit, you’re not anymore. You start falling off because you won’t push yourself, you won’t learn, and you won’t challenge the hard guys in the gym.
"For we rejoice in our suffering, because suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope." - Romans 5:3-4
KB: Sometimes when a fighter loses, mentally they’re not the same. But sometimes, they come back even better. What do you think distinguishes the fighters that learn from their losses compared to the fighters that don’t?
SS: Josh Waitzkin always talked about how if you think you’re good because you work hard and you’ve learned a lot, then a loss doesn’t necessarily mean that much.
It means that you need to work harder. Whereas if you think you’re good because you’re talented, then a loss means you’re not talented and there’s nothing you can do.
He also spoke about how the kids that thought they were really talented chess players, when they lost, they broke. Whereas kids who thought they were just really hard workers, when they lost, they did not fall to pieces.
Renzo Gracie said that you never learn anything from winning. But when you lose, you learn something. I’ll never get caught in that key lock again. I’ll never give my back to Sakuraba again. Whatever it is. You’ll learn from the mistake and it’ll forever be engraved in your mind.
I was talking to this great older boxer friend of mine. He was telling me that up until the sixties, if a boxer was fighting for the title and he didn’t have a couple of losses, the prevailing advice was that he wasn’t ready. The idea was that a part of his education wasn’t complete. He didn’t know what it was like to lose and hadn’t been pushed enough. So it wasn’t until the modern era of boxing, that you had to have contenders that were 18 and 0. You have to have the Mike Tyson unstoppable contender to generate any excitement for promoters. Now you have padding of records. You have to be real careful that you don’t expose your guy to anyone tough.
KB: If you’re winning all of the time and let’s say if you undertrained, but you never really find that out because you won.
SS: Totally. If I’m your trainer, I have to test you.
You need start learning in the ring. It’s what Angelo Dundee calls slow teach. You need to expose the fighter to a guy who holds, a guy who runs, a guy who is a slugger, a guy who is a boxer. But hopefully you can do it in a way where he doesn't lose because you can break your fighter.
Tons of talented guys are thrown to the wolves and their confidence is shot. They get knocked out and it changes the way they fight. Getting the right fights for your fighter is an art form.