Much like religion and politics, I’ve found some topics to evoke a certain passion in people. There’s the “Is it rude not to reply on WhatsApp,” and the “Should you wash your jeans,” but my favourite questions has to be: “Is it okay to dine alone?”
Of course, whenever I broach this topic, the conversation naturally steers to other social activities, and I enjoy watching people’s faces slowly fade from amusement to horror.
Would I watch a movie alone? Yes.
Travel alone? Done it, love it!
Visit a mall? Attend a dance workshop? Skateboard in the park?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
As an introvert, I don’t care what it is I do, as long as I get ample ‘me’ time. I relish telling people how much I enjoy my own company, though in my case, it’s more about being drained by the presence of other people than anything.
So I love being alone. Nothing new there. If you knew me, you probably knew that already.
Still, I’m not made of steel. There have been circumstances where I thought being alone was a bad idea. One such occasion would be the first Malaysian International Mixed Martial Arts (MIMMA) event.
There I was, looking at my opponent on the other end of the cage. His corner was yelling for him to take things to the ground. What advice did my cornerman have?
Because as you’ve probably guessed, I went alone.
Now, going alone wasn’t my idea. But I was a broke accounting student without any gym affiliations, and I didn’t know a soul who was into combat sports. I asked my then-girlfriend if she could be around in case I broke an arm and couldn’t drive home. I forgot what her excuse was, but it was along the lines of “Haha yeah, um no.”
So to MIMMA alone it was. Fighting as a way to discover myself has always been a romantic notion in my head. There’s no purer way of finding out who you truly are than the prospect of getting the shit beaten out of you.
Would I run? Would I give up? Do I have what it takes? Those were questions I wanted to find out. So I joined the competition. Of course, I’d realise my folly pretty early on.
My doubts started in the warm-up pen, and it just escalated from there.
In between my feeble attempts at warming up, I overheard a trainer talking about a contestant. “I know that guy,” he told his protege. “He trains in PJ. He’s got nothing on you.”
One-two punch, sidestep, face another pair: “You thirsty? Want me to get some water for you?”
Parry, counter, throw a knee: “Did you bring everything? Gumshield? Groin cup?”
Kick, block, kick again… and everybody had a warmup partner except me.
You know those movies where the protagonist who’s just gone through a breakup has to walk past dozens of loving couples on Valentine’s Day? That’s what it felt like in that pen, only with much more bromance than the average chick flick.
So okay, fine. Maybe I was just being a baby. I endured what I had to until we were up. It was go time.
There were a bunch of tests we had to go through, but it all culminated to one round in the cage. It took the ref touching my balls before I’d realise my next mistake.
“No cup, no fight.”
I ran after the guy who’d just finished his fight and frantically begged for his cup. He reacted surprisingly well for someone who was chased by a sweaty half-naked dude pointing at his penis.
We scurried off into a corner, and as he handed me his cup, I swear I saw ball-sweat still evaporating from that thing. Beggars can’t be choosers, so I put it on and embraced the newfound warmth in my pants.
“Good luck,” he said. The first words of encouragement I’ve received for the day. It took just two words to make me realise how alone I was, and how being alone was far, far different from being alone.
It also showed me how little gestures have the power to make or break a stranger’s day.
“Thanks,” I said. “I really appreciate it.” I turned to the ring, then doubled back. “By the way… do you think you can record my fight?”
So there we were, two guys in a cage, ready to put hurt on each other for the sake of sport. Despite being wrecked by the nerves, I found it to be a spiritual moment. The moment the bell sounded, life seemed to become incredibly simple.
Everything seemed to fade away—all my worries, fear, doubt, and misery—and my brain was only concerned about one thing: to survive. It was a refreshing change from having my mind crowded with inane shit throughout the day.
I don’t recall much of the round. It was mostly him trying to take me to the ground, and me trying to keep things standing. Thankfully, neither of us got hurt. I never made it through, but the experience itself was worth it, win or lose.
The fight wasn’t impressive, but I still watch the video from time to time, to remind myself that I’m capable of facing my biggest fears.
That evening, I drove home with the biggest smile on my face and a groin protector I forgot to return.