how fighting taught me to stop fighting myself
After a tough breakup, Tom Usher found himself in a boxing gym throwing up the tuna salad he’d had for lunch. It’s the best decision he ever made.
words Tom Usher
This article is part of THE WOONIVERSE ACCORDING TO... Jamie Flatters.
It’s quite annoying, for both genders in a hetero couple, that people often decide to do their hardest glow-ups right after a breakup. Women will get a daring new statement haircut, maybe a fringe, because they’ve never tried it before. Men will decide that they’re actually not too lazy to cook for themselves, maybe they’ll get really got into dishes you can make in a Le Creuset. Both will either cane the gym with a seething ferocity or, behind the wheel on their death drive, get off their faces every weekend.
Me, I’m a fighting guy, an extension of the seething gym goers, whereby I throw myself into a new form of fighting every time I come out of a long-term relationship. I started boxing, maybe in a pointed move, as my ex often used to cut out pictures of badly bleeding and beaten boxers from newspapers to warn me off taking it up. I went ahead and did it anyway, and I’m so glad I did.
Back then, like most men when it really comes down to it, I was a coward. I used to have a few IRL scraps here and there, but they terrified me; I had no idea how to fight and had been mugged enough times to be overwhelmed by trembling at any potential confrontation. When squaring up to some guy on the street I would’ve tried to look as hard as possible to cover up that sinking feeling flashing over my insides. But if I faced up to my 20-year-old self as I am today, I’d instantly see the telltale signs of fear in my younger eyes.
Although I would’ve never admitted this to myself back then, that deep-rooted insecurity with myself in confrontations is probably what drove me to boxing. Outwardly, I would’ve just told you that I took it up because “I just love fighting”, to make my decision seem blasé, when in reality I did it because I was ashamed of how weak I felt when faced with conflict.
Luckily I’m hard now so I don’t have to worry about that anymore.
But entering into my first ever gym, Toe 2 Toe Boxing, in a converted garage in Norwich, was terrifying, and also quite embarrassing. There’s something weirdly shameful about not being able to properly use a skipping rope in front of a room full of ripped, surly men, and even more mortifying is being pushed so hard on the pads that you keel over and throw up a bit of the tuna bean salad you had for lunch. Which I did.
The most humiliating part of my first time in a boxing gym though was the realisation that I couldn’t throw a punch properly. It’s one of those things you feel should come innately to you as a man, like being able to open a fastly tightened jar lid for your mum or cooking a half-decent steak for a girl you fancy. And here I was, doing it wrong this whole time, looking like a dickhead in every fight.
Unfortunately, in boxing, there is no way around any of this luminous imposter syndrome. You have to just keep skipping and sweating and punching, over and over, until the scary lads give you heartwarming banter, the coaches ask you how you’re getting on in your personal life, and you’re able to do three minutes on the pads without throwing up.
My first fight, held in a Holiday Inn off a ring road on the outskirts of Norwich, is probably when I stopped feeling like a fraud. I lost in the final seconds of the last round (caught with a lucky punch), but I felt like I gained the respect of my coaches and my peers in the gym. It felt a bit like being promoted at work, I was now one of the more experienced guys, no longer an intern. Now it was my turn to look surly and nonchalant while I pounded the bags as fresh, wide-eyed dudes entered the gym for their first time.
Fast forward a few years and, after another stinging, staring out the window and listening to Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works 85-92 kind of break up, I decided to head to the island city of Phuket, Thailand. I needed to get away from the vices, distractions and lazy conveniences in London that had made me bitterly unhappy, and regularly making that kind of “huuunngghh” noise people over 55 make when they bend down to pick something up.
Even though I’d been boxing for a long time at that point, doing Muay Thai training in Phuket was essentially like starting all over again. It’s pretty much the best location for Muay Thai in the world, the best gyms, the best trainers and the best level of competition. So walking into Phuket Top Team (home of my favourite ever Muay Thai fighter: Lerdsila) as a heartbroken and depressed man, it felt as intimidating as stepping into my first ever boxing gym all those years ago, just that now I didn’t know how to throw a kick or a knee properly instead of a punch.
Luckily, I wasn’t the only one running away from my problems. In fact, from speaking to the lads at the gym, I quickly realised people fell into two categories: those who were there to sharpen their skills, usually either pro or semi-pro fighters, or guys who were trying to escape the drink, drugs, bad relationships, debts, and every other type of typically insidious problems men often unthinkingly wade around in just to give their lives some friction. It was kind of like Lord of the Flies: a collection of lost boys, aggressively rejecting their past, all fighting for their lives on an island, all losing weight quite rapidly, all mostly acting quite feral.
And that’s the funny thing about the friends you make from combat sports. You spend an hour or two, sometimes twice daily, literally trying to kick the shit out of each other. I often bleed, bruise, and ache in a new way every day. Yet I feel closer to the guys smashing me up than I do with a lot of other people in my life, and I usually barely even know them.
Whatever problem I have going into the gym, I leave with it feeling lighter in my head, softer on my shoulders. And I can’t help but feel grateful to the coaches and fellow fighters for making me forget about my worries and helping me to eventually improve myself, even if that mostly involves them causing me considerable pain.
Whenever I’m in the cage at my London gym, the MMA Clinic in Angel, all I’m thinking about is how to avoid being rear naked choked or arm barred into submission. I haven’t got time to think about how I’m unemployed, or in debt, or how Arsenal are throwing away the title - I'm focusing 110% of my brain, like Uri Geller bending a spoon - on how best to avoid the overhand right or a single leg takedown.
There’s no room for egos when you’re training in combat sports, but also, there’s no room mentally for anything outside what's happening then and there in the gym. It’s the one place I feel like I can genuinely lose myself for a few hours, a form of escapism that isn’t killing me inside.
Last year, I was in a bad place (England, but also mentally). I don’t know if I was depressed, but I felt ashamed every time I looked in the mirror, was caning the drink and drugs with reckless abandon, and my most listened-to artist on Spotify was a grindcore band called Pig Destroyer, so…probably. But having a reason to get out of bed every day, a purpose, a physical and mental discipline, and a group of like-minded lads that were there to encourage, challenge and sometimes give me a much-needed kick up the arse, felt like it turned my life around. Sure, I’m still unemployed, still in debt and Arsenal have still thrown away the title.
But luckily I’m hard now so I don’t have to worry about that anymore.
Welcome to THE WOONIVERSE ACCORDING TO… Jamie Flatters. In this liminal space, we provide an individual a chance to reflect through creativity how to harness their own power to make a positive change in the real world around them. This time around sees Jamie and some of our writers reflect on the idea of self-love and what it means to them. There's even a relaxing hypnotherapy session if you're struggling yourself).
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