Depending on which city you’re in, you can either hear the noise first, or smell the stench before you ever see it.  In Tokyo, the sound a kickboxing gym generates is a signature, and it can be heard a minute or more before you reach the entrance.  In Bangkok, the distinct smell of a gym can find you as far away as a city block, due to so many gyms being open air affairs, if the wind is right.  In either location, the smell and the sound tell you a lot about whether that gym is for real, or a pretender.

I have been kickboxing honestly for seven years, and dishonestly for an additional three before that.

When I walked into Ihara gym in Tokyo of 2003, without even knowing it, I had literally walked into the baddest gym in Japan, and a contender, at that time, for baddest gym in the world.  I never thought I would become a pro, but I did. And I never thought I would fight in front of ten thousand people, but I did.  I also never thought I could be so let down and so hurt by a location, by a place, but I was.

The smell of an honest kickboxing gym;It reeks. Besides the clear smell of sweat and leather, there is also the distinct odor of Thai sports lineaments.  It’s oddly minty, yet an intensely spicy smell, it sticks to everything and it’s almost impossible to get rid of.  When I walk into a gym, an honest gym, this smell finds me and not only do my juices begin to flow, but it wraps itself around me in a familiar cocoon and my body instinctively prepares itself for torment.

The sound, also, of an honest gym is really distinct.  First, there’s the ring timer. A real gym doesn’t have a little pink muffin, easy-bake oven, timer on a table to tell people when a round is over with a shy little “beep“.  In an honest gym there is, without fail, a massive industrial sized ring timer on a shelf, a wall, or a table and it screams the beginning of rounds, the last thirty seconds of rounds and the end.  It’s a voice that any serious kick-boxer comes to know well.  It shows up in your dreams.  It sounds off in your private fantasies, the ones that don’t involve sex. If you know what I’m talking about, there is a chance you’re honest.  If you don’t, well, please enjoy your “Kickboxing: for the streets” classes you have on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The next noise that is a hallmark of kickboxing is that, every gym, Tokyo or Bangkok, sounds a lot like a zoo.  The wails, the grunts, the screams, the odd high-pitched crescendo “Ooooeeee” and the coaches yelling “UP-UP“.  The guttural sound that rises out of your stomach and chest up through your neck and climaxes when your fist, wrapped in smelly bandages and loose gloves of worse smelling worked leather smack, with a satisfying thud, into a two-hundred pound heavy bag and your voice roars.  That’s kickboxing.

The last sound, which is subtle; but a deal breaker for fakers and fitness gyms is the slap.  There is no slapping noise in an honest and proper kickboxing gym.  That slapping noise you hear at Gold’s Gym and at the MMA gym you sometimes workout at is someones foot slapping into a heavy back.  Serious kick-boxers don’t do this.  The foot will break on the hard, sweaty reality of an opponents tempered shin bone.  Real kick-boxers do the round kick with the shin and the resulting sound is a dull, quick “thud”.  No slapping and smacking.  If someone is making a habit of this sound, I can only recommend that if you are an honest kick-boxer, that you spar with him immediately.  It’ll be a lot of fun for you.

The first day I trained, at Ihara gym in Tokyo Japan,  I was absurdly schooled in how much I didn’t know.

I was training alongside not only Masato, who would go on mere months later to win the K-1 World Max GP but also the legendary ShinNopadetsorn (possibly THE most underrated and ignored Raja Champ in history) and Fuji Chalmsok, who we all just called “Yuk” and was physically the strongest little man I have ever encountered.  I also met Kikkuchi Gosuke, and I only mention him last because, in my opinion, despite his being a champion then, he didn’t come into his prime until two years later. When he was obsessed with showing everyone that he was absolutely the best, months before retiring.

My first lesson there, at Ihara, was instructive and simple and it was prolific beyond anything I could have understood at that time. It contained two points which I would go on to hear hundreds of times, over and over, and I would come to say to those that I coached, over and over.

“Hit Harder. Be Balanced.”

That was it. Simple. True.  Deceptively Basic.

When all the components of real kickboxing are boiled down and the tricks and the frills and the gimmicks, so popular in Thailand and with Thai wanna-be fighters, are removed then kickboxing at it’s core is about kicking, punching, elbowing and kneeing harder then the other guys, while maintaining ones balance. That’s it. That’s all it is.

It took me only seven years, and an immeasurable amount of pain, humiliation, sacrifice and glory, to fully understand this.  Hit Harder, be Balanced.  It says things far and beyond the world of kickboxing, but I don’t try and understand those yet. My mind still builds it’s fantasies in the square circle, almost every night as I lie awake, wanting sleep but not allowing it.

Leaving my gym, was like getting divorced, and having a parent die at the same time.  It’s simply impossible to explain what that place meant to me and how much I put on the alter to stay there for so long but I will never regret anything from that temple of men; men who still go where eagles dare.  Literally and without devices: The Few and the Proud. I gave a lot, but I took away massive tomes of life experience and knowledge regarding the true sport of the gods.  I’m still, six months later, trying to get over it, but I have learned my lessons well.  I will never stop kickboxing as long as my legs will carry me to a gym, anywhere.  It is, without exception, the most sublime sport, even physical activity, I have ever participated in.

Fakers beware.  The real deal is out there.

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