Still In The Fight

I am not sure about your martial arts journey, but I don’t ever recall having a conversation with anyone I trained under about the long term consequences to ones body in what we do. In fact, if one ever discussed it, you were kind of made to feel as if you were a wimp. When you did have an injury, and you talked about it, especially on a doctors advice, you were often answered back with the stereotypical answer, “Ah, you know those doctors, they are always over cautious, and I wouldn’t believe much of what they have to say.”

Sadly, there isn’t a day now that I don’t get out of bed in the morning feeling like an old war dog. My body has seen its fair share of ‘fight trauma.’ The last few years have been really tough on me. It was almost like the moment I turned 40 that everything seemed to go downhill. The last 2 years have been the worst, and the main reason I haven’t been so active doing seminars, new products , etc.

Outside of constant headaches that I have had for years, I started having a lot of pain in my lower back, and especially my neck. It got so bad at times that my back would go into such a severe spasm, that it knocked my entire posture out, and I found myself bed ridden for days. But, my biggest problem was my neck. After trying every conceivable pain killer on the market, I spent the entire 2015, every week between my Sports Masseuse and my Chiropractor. While it did relieve the spasms, and some of the stiffness in my neck, it wasn’t getting significantly better as I would have hoped. I was stretching, doing yoga, primal movements, all the exercises and techniques I had done previously that would typically help, but nothing was helping this time around. I stepped back considerably from sparring and rolling, and worked only with people I trusted, and to be honest, while this helped the most, the stiffness, pain, and a myriad of other complications remained. My body was letting me know there was something terribly wrong this time around.

A few months ago, my son challenged me to a push up competition. When I couldn’t even knock out a single one, I knew I had to find out what was really going on once and for all. I made an appointment with one of the top neurosurgeons in South Africa. Dozens of X-Rays and MRI’s later, I waited anxiously for the results. What I heard that morning would change my life forever. Along with typical cervicogenic headaches, he noted a spasm of my left-sided levator scapulae muscle. Although at present my neurological examination is luckily still within normal limits, this however is not the main concern. He has noted that I have severe multilevel spondylotic changes, with anterior bridging osteophyte formation at level C4/C5 as well as C5/C6. The right-sided C5, C6 as well as C7 foramens are critically narrowed and some narrowing is also seen on the left-hand side due to posterior osteophyte formations. On my MRI the left-sided C2/C3 foramen is severely narrowed due to a severely hypertrophic facet joint. The C3/C4-C6/C7 levels also show broad based disc bulging. Early spinal stenosis is present at level C4/C5 as well as C5/C6 due to small midline disc bulges. All of this only in my neck, we haven’t even looked at my back yet.

When I turned to him and asked, “If you didn’t know what I did for a living, and this was just a hobby, what would you tell me?” He replied, “I would tell you to give it up, unless you want to end up with your entire neck fused at some point!” Obviously not something I wanted to hear. You see, you just don’t think about these things when you are young. And as I noted in the beginning, no one ever told me either. No one told me, that spending years allowing people to crank on my neck in Muay Thai, getting cranked in submission wrestling, BJJ and dealing with strength junkies trying to ‘Can Open’ me from the guard, would have such a corrosive effect on my health later on in life. I asked myself the question, “If there was someone around who warned me, would I have listened?” My answer: “Maybe, maybe not, but at least I would have known.” If anything, no matter where I trained, no one created an environment that would lessen the risk of serious long term injuries — had they done that — it would have saved me a lot of problems in the future.

Thankfully, I have been changing my training regime over the past few years. Not to mention Crazy Monkey’s insistence on defence first, not taking unnecessary shots to the head (which damages your neck, because of the constant force, bounce back, and reverberation), and the importance of keeping everything tight in both defence and offence. I am certain if we didn’t train the way we do in Crazy Monkey my prognosis would have been a lot worse. Like it or not though, I am going to have to change the way I train even more going forward. I won’t be doing much neck tie anymore, rather if I do clinch, I am going to stick to CM’s Straight Jacket Clinch approach, which focuses on hand/arm controls instead of the neck. I plan to up my defence against people grabbing my neck too. But crucially, I am going to be very strict, and selective about who I both spar and live roll with. Looking back, there were so many times where I allowed my ego to intervene instead of my intellect — taking on anyone in my gym, or around the world in live sparring and rolling — even though they often where far larger, and stronger than me (and not withstanding the guys who just loved to try smash everyone they met on that mat).

Probably the most important lesson here for me, is to keep those who train under my guidance even safer than before. As they say, environment informs behaviour. It took the school of hard knocks for me to finally realise that you can build a formidable fight game without tearing into everyone night after night. It took this wake up call to realise that, what you do now, may come back to bite you in the ass later on in life. You could do this for a hobby for a couple of years, yet suffer from the damage it does to your body for years to come (typically and only noticeably later on in life). It is essential then, to warming up properly, cool down, and to keep yourself protected at all times, even if that means walking away from certain types of people who would feel nothing if they hurt you — this is essential to your longevity in martial arts.

There is still fight left in me, but now I have to fight smarter. It will effect the way I train forever, and doing 24-rounds of sparring, and hours of rolling every day is no longer an option. But listen to me when I tell you, train smart. Think long term. Ask yourself, “In what I am allowing people to do to me today, what will be the longterm affect in the end?” Martial arts is amazing, nothing beats becoming more as a human being than through real, live training — but non of it is worth it, if in your final decades on the this Planet your quality of life diminishes to the point, that just getting up in the morning, makes you wish you had already moved on beyond this world.

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2 Comments
  • Bill Sarpas
    July 5, 2016 at 12:31 pm

    Hey Rodney, sorry to hear of your difficulties. I am a few years older than you and am going through similar troubles. Mine is a blown disk at C6-7 where 30 years of degeneration had left me thinking I was going to be crippled and on the dole, my Dr. told me my cervical spine looks like a crushed beer can. Now it’s general “Degenerative Disk Disease” stemming largely from a routine of lifting very heavy weights and hitting very heavy bags very hard for a long time. This routine moved the date of a genetic predisposition affecting me ahead by decades. I have stopped road work and all but light weight work and do the vast majority of my work outs in the pool where my chiro told me even I couldn’t hurt myself, I also only use a 60lb angle bag with gel-shock gloves at less than maximal force on good days and moved mostly to a double end figure eight bag. I only spar with one friend who has back problems and with my kid’s. I also bought a “Hangups Teeter” tilt table and along with a program of neck decompression (see Scott Sonnon on Youtube), Yoga, stretching, and inverted hanging 2-3 times a day to lessen the pressure and impingement on the nerves. It is a matter of managing the symptoms and that is OK. As my father once told me “some days you are gonna wake up and feel everything that ever hit ya’, just make sure you haven’t been hit by as many things as me.” Good luck and best wishes!

  • Yann Reijkart
    August 8, 2016 at 2:42 pm

    Hey Rodney, best wishes for a sustainable recovery! Living a civil life with martial arts only a hobby of mine, I was myself forced to set priorities different than I would have liked to. And while I continue to train self-defense techniques, the biggest part of my fighting game consists now out of singing Portuguese and trying acrobatics in small circles 😉
    Now, I don’t know which fighting style is the least health impairing one, but I would love to learn more about body integrity preservation (as I already learned a lot from you in regard to gym setting and philosophy). Keep up the inspirational work and best wishes from Germany!

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