The Spirit of Fighting


Originally published in Edition One (2023)


Content warnings: References to violence

When I was in primary school I got jumped by a group of older students. They knocked me to the ground, kicked me, and crushed me against the asphalt. I had been in fights before, and even lost some. I was a rough kid that had a rough childhood. But I came from a family of fighters. My father had countless fighting stories that I learnt as a child. Fighting was more than normal, it was virtuous. So when that group of kids got the better of me, my young ego was bruised much worse than my body was. My single-mother was at a loss, I refused to rat them out. I knew snitches get stitches, and this was between me and them, no one else. Later that week, in a fateful moment, the knocker rapped our front door and a man in a gi signed me up for karate lessons. At eight years old I started a lifelong journey of martial arts, and many, many more fights. 

A few years later, I saw the Rock Lee versus Gaara fight in Naruto. It was one of the numerous classic fights that anime put to sound and light. The colours were vibrant, the characters fascinating, and the sound and action engrossing. Yet it was the spirit of the episode that stood above all else, elevating it to the cultural touchstone it is today. For fans of the series, and indeed Japanese culture, those immortal scenes represent one of the paramount examples of the fighting spirit trope. 

Tropes are funny things; they represent the familiar patterns of our stories but they are more than just stories. The fighting spirit is real, I’ve felt it bubble and boil in my chest as it invigorated my body and cleared my mind to focus on a singular, violent, task. It appears in story after story as a boon to the hero in need, allowing them to do the impossible. It renders flesh untearable, bones unbreakable, and violence inescapable as the hero surpasses expectations. Goku’s ascension to Super Saiyan status is perhaps the most famous example of this. As he avenges Krillin, his fallen best friend, and ends Freiza’s reign of terror it is clear to the audience that nothing will spur Goku on more than protecting his loved ones. 

It is in the fine print of these moments that we learn what the fighting spirit really is. It always sits within us, waiting for you to make a choice to fight. Then, the spirit moves you.

What frustrated me most about getting jumped back in the day wasn’t the hurt, the randomness of it, or the unwarranted nature of the attack. No, I could deal with all of that. What burnt me up the most was that I knew each and every one of those kids, and I knew in my heart (even if I was wrong) that if we lined them up I could beat all of their asses back, to back, to back, to back. But instead, they jumped me like cowards and I didn’t stand a chance. In the lawlessness of the playground, I lamented the lack of honour. I made a choice, I was never going to find myself in that sort of position again, curled up in a ball, protecting my head and organs. I would make myself as lethal as possible, so when anyone tried such an attack again, I would be ready, I would fight, and I wouldn’t give up. I wanted to fight. It was in my blood; I was born to fight. I was even named after Mike Tyson. My fighting spirit had awakened. For Rock Lee, he had to prove his potential. For Goku, it was vengeance and love. For me back then, fighting was my identity, my ego.   

As I grew, I enjoyed nothing more than putting bullies in their place. The friends I made standing up for people in highschool are still some of my best friends to this day. But as time went on, I began to learn that you cannot solve every problem in life with violence. Not every girl is impressed with how hard you can punch, or how many judo throws you have perfected. Sure, some are, but there is more to life than fighting. 

At university, I learnt hard lessons on grief and violence. In mourning I had to reconcile my own relationship with, and love of fighting. I routinely watched people have their arms and legs mangled, their necks twisted and strangled and their brains separated from consciousness with every imaginable technique. Yet, I could not stomach the thought of it happening to the ones I cared for and loved. I had become a monster capable of great evil, of ending a life and perpetuating our endless cycles of violence. I had hurt people and been hurt in return. In my mind it had become all the same, violence is violence. When faced with the dark, endless, abyss of unknowing that is death, I flinched. I thought I saw my reflection. There could be no greater affront to one's spirit than to snuff the light out of another. Yet, my passion was learning, practising, and mastering every which way that I might do. I was repulsed at and offended by my own pursuits, as I was confronted with the wrongness of my thought and life's work.

In time, working my way out of this pit of despair and self-hatred, I returned to the mats. I did what I knew, even if my heart was not in it. I donned my gi, tied my belt and bowed as I stepped on the mat. Reunited with the men who would shape my character, our bodies moving in the unique rhythm of jiu-jitsu. We danced together in pain. I looked out across the mat and saw the familiar focus and drive one might see during training. Initially, it chilled my blood to see these faces of violence. 

But I also saw other things. I saw a teenage girl, wrestling her way to the top position against a man more than twice her age and nearly double her weight. I saw two competitors putting each other through their paces, testing their alacrity. I saw a beginner, in a baggy oversized and borrowed uniform begin to put together the basic movements they would need to eventually master if they were to learn this complicated but beautiful art. 

For the longest time my fighting spirit was about domination, about supremacy, about glory and about finding truth through competition. Where I was challenged, I must rise and conquer. Those were the follies of a younger, less time-worn man. While the skills stay with me, they are a last resort. My yearning to prove myself has largely passed. Now I train out of a love of learning, and to deepen my understanding and appreciation.

For my money, there is no greater art than the martial, and no braver artist than the fighter. For the beauty of fighting is not in the moves, or the results, but in the spirit of the people who do and the courage they show to be more than themselves, even if but for a brief moment.


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