Everyday Christian: MMA fighting has taught me about faith

There is a chance that in the last year, I have learnt far more about the life of discipleship through MMA, than I have through my local church.  

I know that sounds outrageous. Hear me out.  

Late last year, I embarked on one of the most challenging experiences of my life — a 20-week training program in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).  

If you’re not familiar with MMA, it’s basically a combination of a stand-up, kickboxing style of fighting, combined with on the ground grappling, jiujitsu style.  

Protected with only a mouth guard, 8-ounce gloves and shin pads, it’s a very intense, high impact sport. There are only three ways to win a fight: a knockout; a submission (where your opponent ‘taps out’ from a pressure point that you have their body in); or the judges scoring at the end of the rounds.  

This program promised to take me from being a novice to being skilled enough to compete in a full-scale competition – with a walk out song, pay-per-view live stream, cage and all. (Terrifying, right?!)  

I needed to train six days a week, doing 90-minute sessions at 5 am every morning

But to get there, I needed to train six days a week, doing 90-minute sessions at 5 am every morning. The combination of skill acquisition, drills, repetition, and gruelling conditioning sessions threw me out of my comfort zone. It showed me I was capable of far more than I thought possible.  

Before long, what started as training every morning soon doubled to include training almost every evening – plus running before training in the morning.  

Suddenly, my whole life was oriented around MMA training. It affected the food I ate, the supplements I took, the time I went to bed, the way I structured my day, the social events that I said yes to, and how I spent my weekends. Almost every aspect of my life changed in some way to be formed around this experience.  

Yet, I didn’t mind making such huge sacrifices because I absolutely loved what I was doing and the journey I was on. The cost was part of the process, and I didn’t resent it once. It’s amazing how capable we are at making time and space for the things that really matter to us.  

Something I had previously hardly known existed was now consuming so much of my time and thoughts. You could say that I had a ‘whole of life’ re-orientation around MMA.  

While my ‘end goal’ – the fight night in March (which was the best experience ever, by the way!) – quickly came and went, the training continued. What began as a 20-week fun challenge has now morphed into a journey I want to be on for a long time.  

The difference is that I’m now playing the long game. Rather than a ‘quick fix’ one-off experience, I’m committed to learning this sport from my coaches for many years to come. I’ve chosen to become an apprentice of a few highly skilled coaches who have been doing this for much longer than I have.  

But what makes the sport fun is the people. Because there is not a lot that you can learn without training partners, there is a beautiful culture of respect and, over time, strong bonds of friendship around the gym. Those with more experience love to pass on the skills and techniques they have learnt, and I get to do the same with those coming after me. It’s an incredible community, which is a huge part of why I keep coming back.  

One of my greatest learnings from the sport has been about perceived ‘failure’. I’ve come to understand that sometimes you’ve got ‘tap out’ before you get seriously injured. Be prepared to take a loss on the chin and continue training, rather than sitting on the sidelines for the next four weeks because you couldn’t show a little humility.  

As clichéd as it sounds, I’ve experienced firsthand how losing can be a tough pill to swallow, but how what you do with that failure, and how your respond to it, really matters and reveals your true character. 

These lessons are, of course, ones that are also true of my spiritual walk. Training and discipline matter. Who you choose to learn from and be shaped by is important, as is the community you choose to do it with. Being a disciple of Jesus can change everything. It can reorient every aspect of my life. Failures, making mistakes and learning from them are part of playing the long game.  

When I think about both my spiritual walk and my experience of MMA, it feels like being “in the arena”, as Theodore Roosevelt puts it. 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” 

Just as I want to be fighting “in the arena” of MMA, so do I want to be in the arena of my faith for a long time to come.