The toughest call a fighter has to make is when to call it a day. In a line of work where one makes an anathema of quitting at just about anything, hanging up the gloves requires a complete shift in mentality. Admitting that it’s all over is to swallow the bitterest pill of all.
When to retire depends on a number of factors: your style, your weight class, your schedule, the financial opportunities left available to you, and so on. Guys in the lighter weights tend to bow out sooner, as those milliseconds that get shaved off your reactions as you approach the end of your third decade of existence are more telling for the little guys. The majority of Thai boys, who start fighting as children are often thoroughly washed by their mid 20’s. In contrast you’ll regularly see Heavyweights fighting on in relatively good form right through their 30’s. You occasionally get the odd combination of genius and monastic lifestyle like Bernard Hopkins, that can stay competitive and prolong their career beyond the norm: but they’re the exception to a fairly firm rule.
Regardless of how smart you fight or how much you accomplish, there comes a time when you have to reflect, and accept the jig is up. Fighting is a young man’s game.
I made an honest assessment of where I was at the end of 2013, and decided to cash my chips out while the going was still relatively good, to move on to a coaching role before the last of my brains got bashed out. After a pretty disastrous false start and a bad investment on a gym, I ended up back in London assistant coaching with my friend. He had a personal training client who was a very successful businessman with a passion for martial arts. Although he trained Boxing here, he was enamoured with the mystique of Chinese Kung Fu, and made regular trips to China to train with the now infamous Ma Bao Guo. As a gift to Ma, he brought him to England and hired a film company to document his exploits and his style of martial arts.
I’d done some small appearances in a couple of music videos earlier, chasing Starboy Nathan through a nightclub in a surreal dream sequence, and as a bareknuckle boxer, in the video for Indy/folky/punky act Jim Lockey and the solemn sun. The concept for the video was an ageing boxer, weighing up his chances of getting one more win under his belt, imagines the fight playing out, then reverses time and walks away, concluding that he hasn’t got it in him anymore. The band walks in as he exits, bequeathing his fighting spirit to the young musicians. I was to play the contender. The chap who played the old boy who chooses to bow out, he was an ex-offender who’d straightened himself out after spending his best years hooked on class-A’s and in and out of jail. He’d turned his hand to unlicensed boxing, so he looked the part and was competent with his hands. His real job was youth work, and he spent his days out on the London streets, working to get young lads from deprived areas away from ‘that life’.
In a deep chamber of a disused railway arch, they assembled a small crowd in 40’s period clothing as the audience. They must have been the band’s friends, doing it for fun. They weren’t really the sort of crowd you’d get at an underground bareknuckle bout at all. They were all really pleasant middle class kids, and when the director turned the camera on them and asked them to bay for blood as the knockout was about to unfold, one of them shouted out “duff him up!” in a clement manner, with a very posh accent; causing everyone to stop shouting, Boxing and playing their instruments, and piss themselves laughing. I choreographed the fight action with my partner. Pulling punches, and ‘selling’ the hits is a very different skill to actually fighting. Real fighting, at a real pace, often doesn’t come off well on film, and of course you can’t do multiple takes and angles if the movements are unpredictable, or if someone gets really hurt. The end product was really pretty good, and I’m quite proud of it.
So, roll forward a couple of years, I was the one that picked up my kit bag and walked away, and ended up cast as the ‘Uke’ for ‘master’ Ma’s fluff piece. The concept for my scene was to contrast the old and new, and show his classical Kung Fu juxtaposed with modern sports. I was given to understand that it was simply a vanity project for his own edification, and not for general release.
For those that aren’t familiar, there’s an established protocol for martial arts demos, for teaching or entertainment purposes, that people fall in to the roles of ‘Uke’ and ‘Tori’, to use the Judo terminology. One person is essentially passive, or offers and agreed upon attack (Uke), and the other (Tori) executes an agreed upon attack or counter attack in such a way as to allow the Uke to fall safely or mimic the effect had the attack been delivered with real intent. With Ma, the choreography was rather difficult. Martial arts styles are in a way analogous to languages, in that you might compare say karate and Taekwondo the way you might compare Spanish and Portuguese: some critical differences, but with the Latinate base and some similar verbiage you can muddle through to an understanding, even without a previous knowledge of the other. Other systems are closer to comparing English to Chinese: essentially having the same purpose, but very little common foundation.
Creating understanding between two people who neither speak the same language nor move with the same physical language made choreography very difficult. Without a clear vision from Ma about what precisely he wanted to demonstrate, we ended up sort of busking it, where I shadowed the basic combination I would offer up so that he knew what to expect, then I would deliver it to him. He would surprise me with a counter that he didn’t explain in advance, then I would try to ‘sell’ it as best I could without getting poked in the eye. I was professionally unsatisfied with how I thought the end product would look, as the stylistic clash and lack of direction from Ma meant that we ended up with neither spectacular stunts nor concise demonstrations of a particular technique. I explained the situation to the patron and the film crew, who were all quite genial about it and assured me they could make it look alright in the editing process.
Ma himself was just a bit annoying, and a bit weird. He’d flick mock strikes and gouges at my eyes and groin in the midst of conversation, in a sort of ‘could’ve had you there’ power gesture. He had a large growth on the palm of one hand, which he explained via a translator was a repository of the superfluity ‘chi’ he had accumulated. I’m not a doctor, but it looked like a benign cancerous growth. Getting slapped in the face with it was a little creepy. Still, it was his show, he was the star of the movie. I was an employee, and frankly I was glad of the work, so I just put his curiosities down to cultural differences and kept my manners in check.
The thing was, he wasn’t actually bad, which in some way makes it worse that he felt the need to commit this fraud. I had my Jiu-Jitsu gi in my kit bag, and I did some Shuai Jiao with him. He had really good base, and really good balance taking. For a man of nearly 70 he was very strong, that kind of tendon strength from a lifetime of training. Nonetheless, he is an old man, and needed constant breaks to sit on a chair between takes. I treated him with the deference I hope someone will treat me with if I can still train in my 60’s, and just went with it and didn’t attempt to throw him. I took great care not to accidentally hit him during the demos, and even took pains not to get dirt on his silk uniform as much as was practicable.
In a curious coincidence, Ma had lived in my hometown of Newcastle upon Tyne back in the 90’s. He’d had a Kwoon, a Chinese martial arts studio, in the city’s Chinatown just off the central square of the city. With Newcastle being a small city, rather than being an actual town, it amounts to a pan-Asian restaurant street with a late night pool hall. His student, the patron of the movie told me enthusiastically how he had offered full contact challenge matches in the city, and taken on the city’s tough guys, hooligans and Rugby players. All the more impressive thanks to his small stature. The thing is, I remember him standing at Greys Monument, dressed in full Kung fu regalia doing demos to promote his school. The challenges weren’t for full contact ‘Vale Tudo’ matches. Monument is the highly surveilled central point of the city, sandwiched between shopping arcades and transport hubs, where political demonstrations etc. are permitted and Policemen patrol regularly. They were the party piece tricks of typical martial arts demos: not without skill, but hinge on setting strict parameters for the challenger in feats of strength or balance. It’s more equivalent to the skill of a street magician than a prizefighter.
Newcastle has always had a healthy fighting circuit. Boxing aplenty, Muay Thai, Karate, Kickboxing, Choi Lee Fut, and more. The head coach of the Judo club I was part of for a while, he’d cross trained in Muay Thai with my trainer, and had orchestrated Vale Tudo fights against other martial arts groups in pre-UFC days, without even knowing it was happening in Brazil. I’d never heard Ma’s name mentioned by any of them. (My teacher Crezio, his father really did do that, in order to test and prove Jiu-Jitsu) That should have let me know that he was a snake, but I just ignored it as I was here to do a job.
Fast forward a year, and I’d forgotten all about Ma’s movie. Chinese MMA fighter Xiu Xiaodong knocks out an elderly looking TaiChi master in China. Over here the footage went round on Facebook, in the same way people pass around any footage of someone getting knocked out, be it in a ring or a school playground. I’m not quite sure what perverse pleasure people get out of seeing knockouts, especially when divorced from the context of a good contest. There are a few instances, where as a sports fan you might want to admire the perfect timing and placement of a punch. Most viewers aren’t that discerning, and there’s no skill to admire in knocking out someone unskilled or overmatched. Xiu Xiadong, as he himself admits, is not an extraordinary MMA fighter. His fame hails from his role as a debunker of Chinese martial arts mythology, challenging charlatan ‘masters’ to expose their lack of supernatural ability. All of those arguments were largely settled in the West long ago, and nobody but a few fringe cranks confuse martial arts movies with real fighting. Without any knowledge of the situation in China and the popular conception of classical martial arts, watching him bang out an old man just looked awful. If a competitive fighter did that over here they’d be ostracised, because there is no rivalry between MMA and classical martial arts, no more than there’s a rivalry between the historical re-enactment society and the Royal Marines. You have to look a little deeper into traditional Kung Fu’s place in Chinese society and culture to make sense of the incidents and Xiu Xiadong’s campaign.
In the wake of the blindingly unsurprising defeat of the Taijiquan master, Ma decided to release clips of the film along with a presentation claiming to have beaten me in an actual bout. At first I thought it was funny, because the notion was so absurd. I just figured I’d get rinsed by my mates for a day or two and then it would be forgotten again. Quite quickly I started getting emails and messages from Chinese journalists and martial arts fans asking if it was true. I responded to a few, explaining that I’d been acting in a demo, and you should be able to tell just by looking at it. It was more of an inconvenience than an embarrassment at this point, since I didn’t really have time to message everyone back. It got worse when BJJ Scout, who I’m a big fan of, and a very credible source of BJJ and MMA analytical material, picked up the story and got on social asking the ‘who da fook is dat guy?’ question. It hadn’t dawned on me, since it was clearly not actual combat, that it could look like I was complicit in something to anyone with half a clue. The problem wasn’t that it might look like I really had lost a fight to a pensioner, but rather that I might have taken money to sell out MMA or Jiu-Jitsu and wittingly take part in a hoax. Luckily a couple of good guys like Bellator’s Jude Samuel took my part, and explained that I was legit and had just been scammed.
Sadly, speculation abounded online, and largely seemed to be summed up by notions not that Ma was a charlatan, but actually that I wasn’t even a braggable win because apparently I’d been shite. The bit that was actually hurtful was not a slur on my reputation. I’ve entirely given up notions of legacy and delusions of posterity about anything I managed to accomplish as a fighter. What bothered me was that his wife was with him, and he introduced me to her. They gave me some nice gifts of Chinese teas in ornamental packaging as a thanks for doing the demonstration. That doesn’t exactly qualify as a friendship, but it’s at least a token of solidarity as martial arts students. Betraying that small gesture seemed to make the deception all the more duplicitous. I wonder if he intended to make false claims all along, or just saw an opportunity in the wake of the Xiu Xiadong incidents. Perhaps he just reimagined the whole thing a year later, and convinced himself he’d participated in an actual bout.
I had some communication from big promotions in China, legitimate ones with proper financial backing, to set up a ‘rematch’. I never had any intention of fighting an old man, but I thought maybe I could get some international bouts for my boys, and tried to pitch a team challenge. I figured there would be some kind of stitch up, along the lines of dressing up some quality San Shou guys in silk pyjamas or something. I reached out to people who know the lay of the land in China, as here’s the irony, I’m one of rather few MMA pro’s that trained in and utilised traditional Chinese martial arts. My MMA coach Alan Orr is one of the world’s leading figures in Wing Chun, with a lineage back to China. Our squad spent the last couple of decades testing and proving Wing Chun in MMA, Boxing and Kickboxing bouts. The messages came back rapidly: Don’t go near it. Traditional martial arts are tied in to the cultural infrastructure of Chinese military and political authority in a way that’s entirely alien to the occidental paradigm. Over here, challenging traditional martial artists to MMA fights would be at best irrelevant, but really would just be distasteful bullying. Over there it would be an affront to the history and culture of a system that pays little heed to the notion of human rights, and cares little for foreigners. So f*** that for a laugh.
Off the back of his claims over with the film with me, he arranged a challenge match with Xiu Xiadong, now much vilified and his whole life hampered by China’s oppressive social scoring methods. Just as the bout was about to begin the arena was stormed by police, who arrested ‘Mad Dog’, but not Ma. That seemed ample confirmation about the warnings I’d received over going to China, and assumed Ma had set the whole thing up as another publicity stunt. A journalist I’d been speaking to later told me that Ma’s family had called the police out of concern for his wellbeing, which sounds plausible.
I heard little after that, and was permitted to put the embarrassment behind me and forget all about it once again. A few days ago a video did the rounds of him getting his clock cleaned in a kickboxing bout. I presumed he knew what he was doing, and was just presenting these things as a show, with no intention of going through with any actual combat. It seems he really did believe he could fight. Quite predictably, the almost Septuagenarian Ma got banged out bad, by a guy who was apparently 50 years old and an amateur enthusiast. The opponent looked every inch the hobbyist, but it still wasn’t even competitive. It looked like precisely what one would expect from a 69 year old man getting hit in the mush.
A couple of people sent me the video, thinking that I’d be pleased to see him get what he deserved. I’d wondered how much of him making up the story that he’d beaten me in a fight was him being a malicious old shit, and how much was just him being a daft old bugger. In the wake of being knocked out, he apparently announced he won, and stopped the match to avoid causing the opponent serious harm. In light of those claims, it looks he’s more than just a funny old fantasist. He’s obviously not well in the head. The poor sod is wired up green to red. I thought that perhaps he had been a tough kid in his day, and had a few street fights or something. Maybe he just couldn’t see how things had changed with MMA, viewing it through the prism of years of quixotic training drills: with no sparring except perhaps with a few of his willing disciples, eager to capitulate the the quasi-religious figure of their master. Looking at the sad spectacle of him getting baffled, and then stiff-leg starched, I don’t think he ever had a fight in his life. I think it was all pure fantasy, and he’s a weird old narcissist that told his lies so long he started to believe them.
As much as it’s embarrassing to have my name in any way connected to his, and a bit irritating to have the sort of credulous whoppers that pay any heed to characters like this insinuate that I might have actually lost to him, I still can’t bring myself to be angry at him. I had a good think about why, because normally I’d be raging if somebody was to pretend they’d kicked my arse. I have to conclude that it would take some measure of respect to give him the credibility to get angry. I truly just feel pity for him. The poor fool spent his whole life pursuing a fantasy of magic powers, and now he’s 0-1 in amateur kickboxing on the verge of his 70th birthday. I don’t like seeing anyone get knocked out these days, especially not mentally ill pensioners.