Actors know all two well that there is a danger in being typecast. They know that there’s a risk in repeatedly finding themselves acting in the same types of roles over and over. When they then want to appear in a different role, both casting directors, and the public at large, may not enjoy seeing them in any other kind of role than the one they had become known for.
Almost 2-decades ago, when I was still part of Straight Blast Gym, and their main stand up coach, I stepped onto the worldwide stage so to speak, and taught my first ever large international seminar. I was in my early 20’s. That day, and the years to come, would typecast me as a certain kind of martial artist. In simply terms, I was seen as a fighter, tough, uncompromising, aggressive, and with no sense of humour. If this was a Hollywood production, I would have been the perfect actor for the main bad guy of the movie.
I Was Acting A Role
The thing is, I was acting. No one back then asked, or even really cared about my background. No one, knew the backstory. As is generally the case, when you have succeeded at something, people only see you as that success now. Trying desperately to fit in, to make my mark, which was then a very hyper-competitive environment, I acted my way into the tough guy role.
But behind the scenes, I was struggling with the torment of my past. The verbal and physical abuse from my alcoholic Mom, the incessant bullying growing up, the embarrassment of being poor, and the emptiness of never knowing my Father. I was broken, and the only way I thought I could fix that brokenness, was by fighting hard, and winning each time I did. This behaviour seemed acceptable too. No one around me, or even those who I learned other arts from, once told me, that the way I was going was a dead end street.
A combination of peer acceptance, built up anger from my past, being in physical shape, and the willingness to take on anyone, anytime, earned me a reputation as the Pit-bull. In hindsight, I now realise that environment informs behaviour. So no wonder then, that all the guys with similar baggage gravitated to me, so I could inturn, teach them in the same violent tools I had success in. My first VHS instructional tapes were all about fighting. I began to gain a reputation beyond SBG. And soon, I had a following. To say I was more popular as a martial artist in the 2000s wouldn’t be a lie.
Taking The Mask Off
Then, gradually over time, as I began to take stock of my life, and my actions, I realised that the role I was playing, wasn’t the role I really wanted to be known for. As I began to change my approach, there was a backlash. I lost fans. They all moved onto the next extreme perverted martial expression they could find. I realised that day, I had been typecast. Breaking that image, wasn’t going to be easy. A lot of people wouldn’t like it either. People don’t want you to change once they have decided who they think you are, this is either to praise you, or more than often so it allows them to discredit you.
I think we are all wearing a mask, and put on an act to fit in. We all want to fit in, be recognised, and to be acknowledged that we do actually exist. But when we do, it is so easy to lose our essence. I was so afraid during my SBG days, and at my own studio that I would be caught out for the fraud I felt I was. I wasn’t this tough, mean, unstoppable fighter — what I was, was a scared little boy, who missed the loving touch of his Mother, and who desperately wished he had the guiding hand of his Father.
Who I Really Am, Or At Least Working To Be
If I am totally honest with myself, and I step away from ‘Rodney the Fighter’ for a second — I was, and have never been that guy. Had I not grown up where I did, had I not endured what I did, I seriously doubt I would have taken up martial arts to begin with. I was a creative kid, inspired by nature, mythology, and the freedom of exploration. Now that I have come clean with myself to who I really am, my martial arts journey has taken on a very different trajectory.
I still believe 100% that it is imperative that you should have the self-defence skills to protect yourself, and those you love — and I am still very happy to teach that. But raw fighting, no longer holds any fascination for me. It doesn’t spark passion in me, in fact, I dislike it. I never liked fighting, and I was never that type of kid growing up. Environment forced me to become something I never wanted to become to begin with.
Today I am first and foremost a martial ARTist (although I am no longer a fan of that term either). I know almost all of the people in my industry obsessed with getting in a cage and fighting another human being, or obsessed with the realities of the street, don’t get it. I have compassion for them too. Fuck, I never got it either. It took me three decades to even have the courage to step away from simply just fighting, for the sake of fighting ( I used all the convenient excuses to, to get away with it, “its sport” “its self defense training” “that person chose to be there”).
So Why Carry On Doing Martial Arts?
So why even carry on doing martial arts? This is a question I wrestle with every single day. I will be honest, some days I don’t want to do it anymore. But here is the thing, at least for me. Even after all the inner work I have done, the trauma of my past still hangs heavy on my shoulders. The martial arts experience, most notably sparring, becomes a field of play, in which I can safely project my neurosis onto, and in doing so constructively work through it.
As Charles Rycroft notes about psychoanalysis it, “regards the self as a psychobiological entity which is always striving for self-realisation and self fulfillment. In other words, it regards mankind as sharing with the animal and plant world the intrinsic drive to create and recreate its own nature.” Martial arts, at least how I practice it now, allows me, to create a new nature of being. Not as that scared little boy, but rather one that has fully embarrassed his center of power. I don’t always get it right either, and on those days that I don’t — the sparring experience allows for a recreation from a less optimal state of being to one that is.
The Inner Opponent
My realisation, especially over the past few years is that I have never been fighting anyone else but myself. As long as I continued to fight the shadowy world outside of me, I would never come to grips with the shadows inside. I prefer to look at myself these days as a Primal Artist. I recognise within me, ancient biological, evolutionary needs to survive, to seek out survival data, to fight for the right for myself to live, and to protect those I love to do the same. But there is another side of this energy, an archetypal one, that if understood through the act of fighting itself (although now more symbolic like sparring) becomes a field of play that can allow for self realisation and self fulfillment to take place.
I am going to be really honest here too. I have fought a lot in my life, both in the ring and on the streets. People try to make such a big deal about the whole thing, especially those Reality Based crowds. Fighting really isn’t hard at all. Once you get past, or push through the fear, striking another human being is easy. Once you in the fight, you lose concern for yourself, pushed on to do what needs to be done, by an ancient survival cocktail. There is only two outcomes in the end, you either win, or you lose.
But fighting your inner opponent, that part that was scared to begin with, now that’s a fight that’s hard to take on. In the moments I am sparring, and I get tagged more times than I like, and I feel my anger building up, I have two choices — use that anger to get the better of the person in front of me — or to not buy into that anger at all. The later is the hard part, the former is easy. Expressing anger, is always easier than accepting it.
You see, this is my realisation. That anger that builds up inside me in sparring, has zero to do with the fact that my opponent is catching me. I have been hit so many times in my life, why would that matter at all. What that anger is about is everything that happened to me in my life growing up, it’s a mix of abandonment, fear, of never really belonging. I would argue, that for everyone who just wants to learn how to fight, the whole thing they dealing with has nothing to do with the external fight against someone else. There’s an internal battle going on. But dealing with it head on is painful. So it becomes far more easier to suggest that the fear isn’t really inside — but outside somewhere like that figure lurking on the street corner just waiting to pounce.
Remove The Skeletons, Removes External Victory
I have always found it interesting how great athletes, who then come clean about the skeletons in their closet (or get caught out) can no longer win at the sport they became famous for. May it just be, that it was that inner opponent they refused to contend with, that through its insecurity, fear, aggression, and self loathing, gave the necessary energy to conquer those outside opponents? That inner opponent doesn’t want you to confront it. Instead it tells you the fight is outside. If you did decide to confront it, not only will you have to come to grips with things you have been avoiding about yourself for a long time, but you likely won’t like what you find. Invariably you may decide to give up on the very thing you became noted for (go back to what I wrote about earlier, once the skeletons are out, these people can no longer win).
I know for myself, once I decided to take on my inner opponent, and I began to have a few victories over it, the thought of fighting someone as sport, no longer seemed very appealing. I also know that dealing with that inner opponent is damn hard. My inner opponent is a real jerk. He kind of pisses me off all the time, because just when I think I am getting somewhere with him, he trips me up again. But, I have found the best way to deal with him. I put him on the mat, and I make him spar. Everything he then tries to do, to regress back to that old Rodney I work to then circumvent.
The outcome, I feel alive for the first time in my life. I feel like I really achieved a level of personal mastery. I am thankful I had the courage, as hard as it has been to do this work. I am a better person today than I was back then. I am more calm, more focused, and my (destructive) ego no longer runs the show (at least most days). And when it does rear its ugly head, I know how to deal with it. I tell it, in a calm voice, “it’s time to spar my old friend!”