For a very long time, in fact not even that long ago, I was embarrassed to tell my story. I preferred for people to see me as I am now, and to not know the backstory. Over the past few years I have opened up more about my life’s story. Partly because people keep asking, partly because I have needed to heal, and partly because, it is that very story that has led me where I am today. While there is much of my life’s story I have shared, there are still some chapters I am still unable to share because of deep pain, and embarrassment — but who knows in time, with enough inner work, that will change as well.
To say “I owe my life to martial arts” is no understatement. It saved me from the bullies growing up, it kept me sane during my mother’s explosive alcoholic outbursts, and, for several years, it literally saved my life as a doorman outside some of South Africa’s roughest night clubs. It kept me safe in the ring and on the mat when physically challenged—but most importantly, it gave me the confidence to achieve personal and professional success. Exactly how martial arts enabled me to succeed, and the lessons I learned, might not be what you expect.
Before I get into my story, I want to first bring you up to date on my status as a martial arts fighter and coach. While few people outside the world of mixed martial arts (MMA) will even know of my existence, I have achieved a considerable degree of success and notoriety in my own field. I have many good friends and other people who support my unorthodox approach to martial arts. But, precisely because I have a different approach, I also have many detractors, perhaps even enemies—tough-guys in MMA who think I’ve “sold out.” As it happens, I don’t think that to succeed in this sport (or life in general) you need to be violent and aggressive to the point where “winning at all costs” is all that matters. As a result, in some quarters, I am perceived and tagged as a “hippie martial artist.”
But I wasn’t always considered the anti-tough-guy of martial arts—in fact, I was that Tough-Guy! And that’s where my story begins . . .
Toughness, No Choice!
Being a tough guy was not a choice—it was a necessity. I thought I needed to be tough to be taken seriously in the world of modern martial arts. On the streets, I had to learn to protect myself in whatever ways worked—being tough was not just an option, it was literally life or death. When I later took up martial arts professionally, I imported that mentality into the sport because I thought I needed to be the Tough-Guy to succeed in that world.
To be honest, I didn’t take up martial arts to become the “ultimate fighter,” or to be a fearless tough-guy. Throughout my life, I have always been somewhat of a “Reluctant Warrior”. For me, it was always more a case of cultivating a “tough guise” rather than being a tough guy. Putting on the tough guise, however, enabled me to survive.
Growing up, I always felt like the odd kid out. Besides feeling awkward in my own body as a child, I felt unaccepted where I lived. My childhood in Johannesburg was surrounded by violence and insecurity. It was a harsh environment to grow up in—especially for a soft-spoken, creative kid, like I was, who hated confrontation. I was bullied severely as a child, not only in my neighbourhood, but more so at school. Having my head flushed in the toilet, arriving home with a bloody nose, torn shirt, and drawing pins put on my school chair . . . these were just a few of the torments I had to endure on a daily basis growing up.
Three incidents stand out in my memories of pre-primary school. In Grade two, I was stalked and bullied by a kid named CM, who, on several occasions, cut the back of my legs with a razor blade, and who also beat me up every time the teacher left the classroom. He was not alone by any means: Like him, most of the kids at my school were extreme bullies too (many of them are now serving time in prison).
In third grade, while I was sick in bed with German measles, the trouble-making kids used me as a scapegoat by branding me as their gang leader (I didn’t even know what a gang was at that age). I wasn’t guilty, but it didn’t stop the head mistress from punishing me, and I spent several months at breaks with my nose pressed up against the flag pole in the school yard, while the kids who put me there had a good laugh at my expense. In those days, corporal punishment was still acceptable, and so the headmistress took it upon herself to strike me with her cane more than the maximum of six that was allowed. The punishment seemed so extreme and unfair; that I reacted by pulling the cane from her hands and striking her in the face. Not surprisingly, that almost got me expelled from school. But, I guess, because violence was so endemic—among students and teachers alike—they let me stay on.
I attended several schools growing up, mainly in impoverished neighbourhoods, where they cared little about the kids. Teachers mostly looked the other way when the bullies ganged up on unfortunate kids like me—probably because many of the teachers were bullies too. For example, being racked over the knuckles with a wooden ruler for not concentrating in class happened daily.
Anxiety, A State of Being
Given those early experiences, I developed an uncontrollable anxiety and fear just thinking about school—a condition that lasted well in to my 20s. Even today, my heart starts racing, and I feel sick to my stomach, when I go to pick up my own kids from school. I know this is totally unreasonable, as they go to a great school with caring teachers and staff—nothing like the place I had to endure as a kid. Nevertheless, my early experiences were so traumatic, the memory remains imprinted in my body.
Growing up without ever knowing my father, I became an easy target for the bullies. My mother, although she was a quite woman—reminded me of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when she got drunk. She suffered from alcoholism for most of her life, until she was diagnosed with terminal cancer; and then, and only then, was she suddenly able to stop drinking. For the most part, she was not interested in my life, so I pretty much got on with trying to survive and doing my own thing. After years of vainly pleading with her to stop drinking, telling her how it was ruining my life, she finally found the strength and motivation to quit only in the face of her own death. But by then I had almost stopped talking to her.
When I was 17, she kicked me out of the house in a drunken rage, and I found myself sleeping on a park bench (where I used to play as a kid). Destitute and alone, with less than $20 in my pocket, I had to survive the mean streets of Johannesburg. Needless to say, I never finished high school. A few years later, I briefly reunited with my mom on her deathbed. She died on the way to the hospital in the back of my car, held by my wife Louise.
The Heroic Journey of A Martial Artist
I didn’t have many friends growing up. I was an outsider, and although I loved playing sports, I never understood the fierce need to compete. I still feel that way today. In a school where only the best players were chosen to play sports, and kids like me who had no talent for the game, had to watch from the bench, fuelled my disdain for competitive sports even further. Later, when I began to compete in karate and boxing, I learned to fight to win, mostly out of fear of being physically hurt or humiliated. If I didn’t win, I was made to feel like a loser. My boxing coach once slapped me in the face because he caught me crying. “Toughen up boy,” he said.
Yet, ironically, boxing and martial arts became my escape from my troubled childhood. I went to see as many martial arts movies as I could, and then took up the art itself. I remember, among my earliest and fondest memories of martial arts, watching old Chinese kung fu movies on the reel at my uncle’s house. Even at age six, I was captivated by how, through rigorous and arduous training, the main character was able to transform himself from a weak unassuming man, into the hero—using kung fu to beat the bad guys tormenting his village, and, along the way, getting the girl of his dreams.
After being kicked out of my home, I found a half-way house that took me in. Soon after that, still just 17, I signed up for compulsory military service. I found myself part of the VIP Protection Unit. An uncompromising military section, built on strict discipline. Equipped with my karate and boxing skills, I decided from the first day on the base, that I wasn’t going to allow anyone to push me around. This no-nonsense attitude caught the eye of the regimental sergeant major (RSM), who called me into his office: “King, I hear the men are scared of you? We need someone like you. Here you go. You are the new platoon sergeant.”
And there I was, with the most hated job in my unit. A big bull’s-eye on my back, everyone was out to get me. The army made me tough. So tough, in fact, that I became the hand-to-hand combat instructor for the unit. On some level, I think the RSM regretted giving me that position, but I got the job done, and I wasn’t scared to use violence to make it happen. On the final day, as I was leaving and heading back into civilian life, he called me over and muttered: “King, I am glad you’re leaving this man’s army.”
With all these negative experiences growing up, and having to watch my back constantly in the army, I grew bitter, angry, and violent. I was all about the fight. Winning was all that mattered. I had developed a serious reputation as someone you didn’t want to mess with.
But I didn’t like what I had become. A decade ago, in a moment of insight, I remembered what drew me to martial arts in the first place. It was not so much the effectiveness of skills, or being good at fighting, but rather its transformative potential.
I decided to overhaul my entire martial arts approach. I had to find a positive expression for my fighting skills, something that would positively change lives for the better. Otherwise, I was going to quit. For two long years I suffered from serious depression, but told no one. After all, I had a reputation, guys were scared of me, and I was at the top of my physical game. I was the Alpha.
When I finally had the courage to tell everyone that I had decided to go down a different path, they all stared back at me. Sport Illustrated South Africa referred to me as the “father of mixed martial arts in South Africa.” And I was. At a pivotal meeting at my gym, aptly names Street Tough, all the people sitting in front of me I had personally groomed to be fighters. These guys were tough, uncompromising; hard. But when I told them about my new direction, they looked back at me, uncomprehending, as if waiting for the punch line that would reveal the “joke.” But I wasn’t joking. I was deadly serious. Looking at their faces, I could see they thought I had lost the plot. I told them I wanted to return to the original reason I had taken up martial arts: I loved and valued it as a path to personal transformation. I couldn’t do it the “tough” way anymore. I didn’t want anything to do with it if it was all about violence, winning, and beating up other people—even as sport. If I was going to spend my time in the ring or on the mat, it had to be positive, add value, and change lives for the better. However, given the state of the game, I couldn’t see that happening—not without a new vision and leadership.
Ninety percent of those at that meeting left my studio within two months and never came back. Even though, deep down, I knew I had made the right decision, I felt as I did as a small child—shunned, isolated, and alone. I wanted to quit, give it all up and head off to Thailand to teach English.
But, by then, resilience had taken root in my soul, and I didn’t quit. In fact, the changes I made sky-rocketed my success—in martial arts, in business, and in my personal life. Today, one of the things that gets me most excited is when I see how my approach to martial arts does the same for my students.
I went back to school, did my undergrad work in psychology, then later received a masters degree in leading innovation and change, and at the time of writing this I am completing my doctoral degree at the University of Leicester’s School of Business. I started two programs, focused on life performance coaching using martial arts. And my “unorthodox” Crazy Monkey Defence method is now taught in more than fifteen countries around the world.
Not bad for a boy who started out with only $20 in his pocket.
If I Can, Anyone Can
This, of course, is the short version of my story, but it captures the essence of what martial arts has done for me. This is why I am so passionate these days about martial arts as a transformative vehicle leading to personal mastery. Sure its great to know you can fight, but knowing how to fight, never made me successful — rather, it was the inner game tools I developed through the experience of martial arts that stand out the most. Does this mean I have arrived? Far from it!
I still take it very personally when people screw me over for no apparent reason other than what they feel will serve them best. I don’t trust people easily either. Action means more to me than words, because growing up, everyone was a player. The inner work I have done through my martial arts training has highlighted to me, how the trauma of childhood can be hard to break. But, and crucially, without the focus on the inner lessons of martial arts, I would be nowhere. I don’t say this lightly, had I simply continued to only focus on the effectiveness of the fight, I would be behind bars now.
To reiterate again, it was the inner game that I developed that allowed me to take on the martial arts of everyday life and win. To do this, you don’t need to be the toughest guy on the block, I wasn’t. You don’t need to be the best fighter, I have never been that. You don’t need to compete, I never enjoyed it. You just need to be willing to do the inner work, to be prepared to confront your shadows. I can’t think of anything else other than martial arts that could have been so positive to my life. It can be for you too!