The roots of my want were steeped in the mud of fear and hurt, but when the cage door shut and the steel lock click-clicked I felt closer to the canvas of God’s hands.

My religion couldn’t deny science because it was built on the gristle of science’s back. It was reliant upon evolution for pulse, an evolution watered only when trusting strangers swapped sweat. It had nothing to do with a holy trinity and everything to do with a body trinity: how to protect yours, how to break others, how to make it new. Prizefighting wasn’t about black and it wasn’t about blue; it was about how you lived the hues between. It was about how you untucked silent screams from their warmth when the alarm thrummed at 3am, about teasing out and believing morning routine sacred:

Body: force it to wake the fuck up,
Body: force lamplight into liquid night and black coffee into empty stomach,
Head: stay sane for five-hour drive, eight hours of combat, five-hour drive.

Note: force was bass and force was treble but I’d convinced myself that all was gentle.

Route: Altoona, Pennsylvania to the Renzo Gracie Academy in Manhattan.

In 2015 all towns you’ve heard of and most you’ve not have a mixed martial arts (MMA) academy. But a decade ago the sport—illegal in Pennsylvania until 2009 and still illegal in New York—was just learning how best to swim in the waters of public perception. Dojo owners who could see the forthcoming tipping point quickly added the word “mixed” to the front of their “martial art” signage. This was one of those unethical business moves deemed smart. And yet in garages all across the United States and eventually on Pay-Per-View television practitioners of aikido, taekwondo and kung fu, to name a few, were regularly decimated by those who practiced wrestling, muay Thai and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, among others.

Result: martial arts developed more in the past decade than in the previous 500 years.

The progressive religion of MMA had effectively dismantled many of the dirty little secrets of traditional martial arts—namely that they were flawless, better than all the others because of X and Y. I was fortunate enough to be able to see a knife cut through the X and Y’s bullshit, and this brought me and so many others from around the country and around the world to Renzo’s.

If you wanted to live in the dream that you could fight you would walk through the doors of that old dojo with the new sign. But if you wanted to pursue the dream, to rip it down from the bones of the clouds and actually learn how to fight, you’d do whatever it took to get to a place like this. I did. Ask the bone spurs lodged somewhere under my brain. Ask those I’ve choked unconscious. Ask those who have whooped my ass.

We all carry our pride of knowingness wherever we go. We sprinkle it wherever we most need it: into gym bags or briefcases or restless minds, onto advice or mirrors or awkward family dinners. May we go to the body first. May we go there twice, first. The head can front but not when it’s distracted.

Cus D’Amato, legendary trainer of Floyd Patterson and Mike Tyson, is renowned for his “number system.” I retired in 2007 but still feel truths dance from this one:

5: Left Hook to the Liver
6: Right Hook to the Spleen
4: Right Uppercut to the Bottom of the Chin (Mental Symphysis)


Cameron Conaway is the author of Malaria, Poems, one of five poetry collections to make NPR’s “Best Books of 2014” list. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The Guardian and ESPN. Conaway is a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grantee and he currently teaches at Penn State Brandywine. Follow him on Twitter @CameronConaway.