Few things impress me as much as discovering that champions are also genuinely nice people.
In Born to Run, Christopher McDougall wrote about Scott Jurek’s constant encouragement of fellow runners. After setting records at 100-mile ultramarathons, Jurek would plop down in a sleeping bag and cheer on every last runner, sometimes for 12 hours or more. During a 50-mile race in sizzling Mexican canyons, as he pursued the lead runners, Jurek stopped to brief a fellow runner on the trail conditions and aid stations ahead of her. He increased the distance he’d have to reel in his competitors so he could help a friend.
I’ve had the pleasure of learning from one of the nicest and toughest people I know. Bunkerd Faphimi is a muay thai figher and trainer at Fight and Fitness in San Francisco. He has an astounding 350+ fights under his belt. He’s known in Thailand as the People’s Champion, and as soon as you meet him, you’ll know why. He’s incredibly kind, generous, and playful. Have a look at his fight videos. He likes to take a lot of punishment, and yet, he’s often smiling in the ring. Not a showboating smile, but one of enjoyment. Better yet, watch him spar with students. He offers a near-constant onomatopoeic commentary, delighting in an activity in which he’s mostly letting himself get kicked, punched, and put in the clinch. He’s the living antithesis of both the evil Karate Kid Freudian-father archetype sensei, and, with his sheer unpretentiousness and demystified approach to muay thai, of the ‘magical Asian’ Mr. Miyagi. His love of muay thai, and of life, is like exuberance embodied.
I often find myself defending fight sports from people view it as sanctioned brutality. What they don’t understand is that these are highly evolved sports that people spend years of their lives dedicating their lives to. You don’t get to that level without knowing, in your heart of hearts, that this is what you really want, and proving it over and over again. As Chris Cariaso, the other head trainer at Fight and Fitness (and a super nice guy who rescues dogs when he’s not training, teaching, and fighting in the UFC) said, he’s “living the dream.”
This gratitude for life experiences also extends to gratitude to other competitors. Though fighters and promoters hype fights as ways to settle personal beefs, fighters also experience profound gratitude and respect for competitors when the fight is fair, their skills are closely matched, and the fight is so enjoyable that the outcome becomes less significant. When you’ve witnessed your opponent’s skill and heart firsthand—when they’ve gained your respect and you haven’t compromised yourself or your performance in any way—you recognize that there is no shame or sadness in losing to such a worthy competitor.
This is very similar to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of flow: the activity becomes autotelic, skills are well-suited to the challenges, and participants lose themselves to the activity.
You can see this elatedness exemplified at the end of bloody battles when the fighters, after the last bell, happy and exhausted, embrace. They also often gently touch each other’s heads or draw their foreheads together—I’ve even seen a boxer wipe another’s face. You don’t have to be a social psychologists to recognize these signs of affection and intimacy. Their wide smiles are pictures of gratitude. (Forrest Griffin vs. Stephen Bonnar, TUF1, is a classic example. I’m sure I was not the only fan rooting for both of them by the end.) Sometimes, one fighter will raise the competitor’s hand in the air, not necessarily to signal his own loss, but to acknowledge his opponent’s champion spirit. In a world of machismo, humility shines.
Premise #1: True champions express gratitude, humility, and generosity.
McDougall writes that people are born to run, and that we love running because we love being with other runners. We are part of a human pack when we run together. Though endurance running is often accompanied by pain and exhaustion, many top runners compete with smiles on their faces. The joy of the activity is self-evident; the urge to help others enjoy the activity follows.
Speculations: Art is highly competitive and individual artists often compete against each other for grants, residencies, commissions, exhibition opportunities, and teaching jobs. Who are the top practitioners in the arts who express profound generosity and gratitude?
How do artists—even as competitors—help each other? Share our joy? Express our pack-hood?
When do we help each other find the flow?
Is art practice like endurance running? Can artists find the joy even as we slog it out for miles in the rain alone, as well as when we assemble and compete?
When our skills are evenly matched how do we raise another’s fist in the air, recognizing their spirits?
Is there a lesson for artists to be learned about becoming a contender before becoming a champion?
Read the abstract of a fantastic profile of Bunkerd by Elif Batuman in the New Yorker.
Watch a video interview with Bunkerd on MyMuayThai.com, an excellent resource for all things muay thai by a true practitioner.
[Added October 16, 2011] Read a recent blog post by Jurek on running with others.