Faith in Fighting
By Rick Caudle
Since before the time that Bodhidarma began to train the monks at the Shaolin Temple, man has looked to his spiritual beliefs for strength in battle.
Hundreds of years ago, every temple in China, Thailand , and Japan provided a training hall, insuring the preservation of their particular religion or philosophy.
One religious sect in India, takes it a step further. The 500 year old faith called Sikhism, ordains an elite group known as The Khalsa or The Pure. They are believed to be Saint/Warriors, and besides their own congregation, will fight for the right of any religion to worship in freedom. The Sikh warriors have their own unique styles of martial arts that include both weapon and empty hand techniques.
Another group of fighters who have always displayed their beliefs are Muay Thai kickboxers. At traditional matches in Thailand, the fighters wear the Mongkon (head piece) and Kruang Ruangs (arm bands) which have been blessed by the Buddhist Monks. If you ever see them fight, you will notice that the mongkon can only be removed by their trainer, being very careful not to actually touch their heads. Thai boxers believe that these blessings will keep them from getting knocked out or suffering a devastating injury. Most of the fighters in Thailand will tell you that by wearing these symbols of faith, they have won more matches and avoided any serious damage to their bodies. They are also required to perform the Wai Kru and Ram Muay, giving thanks to their instructors, families, and the ancestors who came before them.
Muay Thai is demonstrated at many religious events in Thailand and has been for hundreds of years. Being that the majority of the population of Asia is Buddhist, Thai boxers have been influenced by their upbringing, just as fighters in the West have grown to express their Christian values. “Thou shall not kill” is a concept that is shared by both Buddhists and Christians, but in neither philosophy does it say, “Thou shall not fight”. The idea that we all want to protect ourselves, our family, and our country is universal.
Clint Heyliger, president of the United States Muay Thai Association says, “Sometimes fighters don’t want to participate in the beautiful rituals of the Wai Kru and Ram Muay because they are not Buddhists. I tell them that there is nothing in the ritual that is degrading or defamatory to any religion. I asked them “Do you believe in God? Do you love your parents? And do you believe in your teacher?” They usually answer yes.
I then say to them, “What is there in the Ram Muay or Wai Kru that stated you had to be a Buddhist? Nothing at all. You pray to your own God, but you can still follow the ritual. Bowing to each other, performing the Ram Muay and the Wai Kru all show respect, and in Thailand, no one wants to be seen as disrespectful.”
Unfortunately, we are all too familiar with the religious zealots that have been in the forefront of our TV screens for the last few years. The suicide bombers of the Islamic “Jihad” are willing to give the ultimate sacrifice for their faith by wearing an explosive device, which upon detonation, will take other’s lives. Just as the famous Japanese Kamikaze pilots of W.W.II, they too believe they’ll earn a special place in Heaven for their endeavors.
Nowadays, after winning a match, some extremely tough MMA competitors such as Randy Couture, Kimo Leopoldo, Vitor Belfort, Diego Sanchez, Roger Huerta, and Brian Warren take time to thank God and Jesus for their victories in the Octagon, putting them first as the source of their power. In fact, Leopoldo even carried a large wooden cross to the ring in his early UFC days.
“About 3 days before a fight, I’ll start reading The Word to get prepared mentally”, says UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. “I pray a lot and try to tune into whatever plan God has for my life”.
Kimo, Vitor, and Brian, along with many other MMA competitors, bare tattoos which proudly show their dedication to Christ. Strike up a conversation with some of these guys and you may get the opinion that fighting in the ring can be a spiritual battle too. They will quickly tell you that overcoming one’s fear can sometimes be helped with a little prayer just before entering the ring. Often you will see a fighter give the sign of the cross and at the end of the match, point to the sky, giving the victory to their Heavenly Father. The Christian Bible depicts many brave warriors who carried out God’s will and were triumphant over insurmountable odds. Aside from the huge victories presented in the Scriptures, another era that saw the God of Abraham brought to the battlefield, were The Crusades. There were many wars during the Middle Ages that were given this name, as they were basically struggles between the Christians and Muslims for ownership of the Holy Land. These military conflicts continued from the 11th century through the 16th, with the majority of them being sanctioned by the Pope.
Another perspective is from one of the most colorful competitors, Pro-Wrestler turned MMA fighter, Native American, Ruben “Warpath” Villareal:
“Every single day I get up in the morning and pray to the Creator. I have been blessed with a beautiful family and the ability to pay my bills. I am living my dream and I continue to pray that I will stay on this path. If you look back in History, you will find that three things are constant. Survival, war, and a belief system. Looking to the Creator predates thinking man. Praying came from an innate “feeling”. Everyone believes in something, even if you are an Atheist. I have faith that tomorrow the sun will come up. If I die before morning, you can bet the sun will still rise”. Warpath reminds us that his people have always had spiritual purpose in their lives. When killing a deer, the warrior always ask the deer for forgiveness and promises to use every part of his body. He thanks the deer for feeding his family, and he is grateful to the Creator for providing the deer. In this philosophy, we are all equal in the creation. This is why they say Brother bear, Brother raccoon, and Mother Earth. Villareal believes that we are all spiritual beings. In the days before a match, Warpath increases his prayers and keeps his mind on the heart of a warrior.
When a warrior goes into battle, he knows he may not be coming back, so he must get right with God. He must also keep his mind on the moment, and ask to be granted the ability to focus totally on the fight.
When Warpath competes, he sometimes runs into promoters who don’t understand his heritage. In California, just minutes before entering the ring, he is often asked to remove his war paint. This has been difficult for Ruben, and taking this away from him makes him feel awkward in the ring. In the early days of his career, he would light the sacred sage and let the smoke cover him as a symbol of the warrior spirit. He also wears a singlet into the ring which has the likeness of his spirit guide, the bear.
Matt Horwich, formerly of the IFL team, The Wolfpack, carries a Bible to the ring with him, which he calls his “Breastplate of Righteousness”. A man who says he didn’t like hitting people when he started MMA, credits coach Matt “The Law” Lindland, with helping him grow as a fighter.
In today’s MMA world, there is no shortage of heroes. In an industry that grows larger every day, perhaps man will find a way to satisfy his basic needs, test his strength in battle, and connect with his creator. It seems that hardwired somewhere in our beings are the prime directives. On one hand, we want to be devastating fighters. On the other, we desire to find inner peace and enlightenment through devotion. Being that martial arts originated from philosophical men during threatening times, perhaps we can draw from their example and become better people as well, both physically and spiritually. Maybe we can all get more fulfillment from competing if we take a little time to tap into our inner consciousness. With some soul searching and a touch of contemplation, any athletic endeavor can become a celebration of life. Remember, even Rocky Balboa gets a blessing from the old Priest before every fight.