I never planned to stop fighting, but at the end of 2017, that’s what happened.
It wasn’t that I made a conscious decision to stop. Life just started to change, and as time went on, it seemed less and less likely that I would fight again. After almost two and a half years, it’s safe to say I probably won’t. It’s taken me a long time to admit that.
I found it hard to let go of the idea because being a fighter is so consuming. It requires every single piece of you, both physically and emotionally. It becomes your whole identity. When that’s taken away, you’re left feeling a little lost.
When I first stopped fighting, this was especially difficult for me. I didn’t know how to adjust to a life that didn’t entirely revolve around Muay Thai. I was used to having a purpose, to always working towards the next fight. Without that, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I started to ask myself – without this, who am I?
It felt like an identity crisis.
Someone once described stopping fighting to me as ‘becoming mortal again’ and while that felt like a conceited way to look at it, I could relate. It’s strange when you’re used to constantly testing yourself and pushing your boundaries. I went from feeling invincible at times to completely ordinary. I’d always thought that my goal with fighting was to improve myself, and that it wasn’t for any kind of glory or recognition, but perhaps there was a part of it that fed my ego, and I missed that.
Lucia Rijker described this feeling in her 1999 documentary, Shadow Boxers. “It’s very addictive because you get used to the attention”, she said. “Your performance today is your self-worth, so if you stop being good, then you think you’re worthless. When the attention gets less, you think that you’re unloved”.
I mentioned this quote in a 2013 post I wrote about not being able to fight for several months. Now, it resonates with me even more than it did then. It’s not just the attention you get from being in the ring, but also the fact that your performance and your self-worth become intertwined. When the means by which you’ve been measuring your value suddenly disappear, it can be difficult to find it again.
Filling the Void
It was important for me to fill the gap left by fighting with other pursuits. I needed to find other things that I was passionate about or good at. I’ve managed to find that in powerlifting, activism, and my work.
Now, I’ve built my life around Muay Thai in a different way. Training is still part of my daily routine, but when I’m not doing that, I’m working for a Muay Thai brand. Through that, and my activism, I’ve also been able to raise awareness of gender inequality in the sport and help to bridge the gap by introducing other women to training. All of these things give me a new sense of purpose. Without them, I’m not sure where I would be now.
Adjusting to a non-fighting lifestyle was difficult at first. I’m an ‘all or nothing’ person in many ways, and while this attribute lends itself well to training and fighting, it hindered me in this transition.
It took me a while to be able to let go of old habits and enjoy myself in ways I didn’t before. Drinking alcohol, for example, was something I didn’t do at all for at least five years. I had to convince myself that it was OK to have a drink now and then, and that I didn’t have to say no all the time, or feel guilty for starting to say yes. The same went for relaxing my eating habits, and I even felt conflicted about general socializing outside of the gym. Freely accepting invitations to go out without having to consider my training was something I wasn’t used to, and it took me a while to become comfortable with it.
For years, I would spend almost all of my time with people I met at the gym. The only thing that existed outside of that sphere was my job as a teacher, which always came second. There was just no time or even desire for anything else. Now, I have a much broader social circle. I’m extremely grateful for this, but it feels somewhat strange in comparison to my fighting days.
Missing the Ring
People always ask me if I’ll ever fight again, and I often ask myself, too. I go back and forth on the answer all the time.
Part of me really misses fighting and the whole life that surrounded it, because nothing can compare to that experience. After all, that love for Muay Thai is always there. Another part of me is relieved that I don’t do that anymore, and wonders how I would even fit it into my life now. Sometimes, I wonder if the urge to fight is just me trying to keep hold of that identity as a fighter. Do I really want to fight, or do I just need that validation? Is it just about my ego? Do I just want to prove to myself that I can still do it?
These days, when the subject of my life as a fighter is raised, I often feel the need to interject with “former fighter” or “well, that was a long time ago”. It’s almost as if I’m trying to soften the blow of any potential questions by answering them before they come (in the same way I mention to people that I’ve gained weight before they can point it out themselves).
I find myself feeling like an imposter because I no longer fight, or because I don’t ‘look like a fighter’ anymore. But funnily enough, I felt this way even while I was fighting, especially when I first started out. I always felt as if I had to prove myself. I hadn’t fought enough. I wasn’t good enough. I hadn’t gotten far enough. There was always something.
Sometimes, I even feel strange about posting old fight pictures on social media. I worry that from the outside, it might look as though I’m clinging on to something that isn’t me anymore. Again, I think that’s just my self-doubt kicking in. It is still me. You don’t have to do something for your entire life for it to be a valid part of who you are.
Even so, why do I have to explain myself? Why can’t I just call myself a fighter without feeling like I don’t deserve to?
If you don’t have enough self-confidence, you’ll always find a reason to doubt yourself, and that’s definitely the case for me. This imposter syndrome can come at all stages of the experience, and for me, it returns frequently. Despite that, there’s one thing I’m absolutely sure of — even if I never fight again, it will always be a part of who I am.
Fighting changed me for the better, in so many ways. Nothing in my entire life has made me grow so much or learn more about myself, and no one can take that from me. I shouldn’t discount myself, either. While I won’t completely rule out getting in the ring again, my sense of self doesn’t hinge on whether or not I do. Fighting will always be a part of my identity, but there’s also room for other things, and that’s OK.