The first solid hit I ever got was rewarding. It was in my first month or so of MMA training, back before I ever picked up a sword. I was a young and not so spry 30, my opponent was a broad shouldered 19 year old beast. I caught a left hook to the temple so hard that both feet left the ground, and I flew sideways for about a meter before crashing into the wall…still on my feet, still in guard. The world was pretty wobbly, but I was inordinately pleased that I was still up and in guard.

George St. Pierre just retired from MMA competition after booking more time in the cage than anyone else. One of the concerns people had brought up was the amount of damage he had taken in the ring. It accumulates. Muhammad Ali had an incredible ability to dodge blows, but he’s still suffering from the cruelest effects of being hit repeatedly. You can win all of your fights, but still walk away with life-altering damage.

Not that I’m talking about the long-term effects of pro fighting, but just pointing out that even the most winning fighters still take epic blows in the process of winning a bout. To be an unarmed fighter means coming to grips with the fact that you are going to getting hit, and getting hit hard. And it can’t faze you in the slightest when it happens, or you will get a world more hurt in short order.

There are conditioning tricks you can do that ease things…and before any gets any ideas, getting hit hard repeatedly in order to get used to being hit is a stupid idea. Just ask Mr. Ali. I’m not going to talk about the physical things today. I’m more interested in the mental process.

The first hurdle to overcome in learning to box is to overcome the fear of being hit. Most people never start boxing because they have a simple and wise desire to not be hit in the face. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just common sense. In our classes, most people can do our boxing lessons and never have to deal with being struck. But as you train more, the temptation to put on the gloves and join the advanced students becomes more tempting. The temptation mixed in with the desire not to be punched in the face can start to turn into anxiety and even fear.

I like to watch a student’s first contact sparring session. Safety and pedagogy aside, it’s always rewarding to see someone get rocked for the first time. It’s a serious life-altering moment for everyone. They will not be the same person afterwards, and it’s a privilege to see that moment. It’s almost always the same response. They get hit, you see them briefly fade out just a tiny bit…not from the force of the blow so much as from a moment of pulling into themselves.

For the tiniest second, they have a little moment of introspection. They realize they have just been hit hard and wobbled. The initial flash is shocking and overwhelming…the brain screams about horrible things. But then reality floods in. In the moment, there is little or no pain. There is a little bit of fog over everything, but you can sense it starting to fade almost immediately. You are still alive. Still functioning. It’s not so bad at all. And…what the hell! They hit me! I’m not going to let them get away with that!

Nobody likes getting hit. Once you get past that first blow, you start the process of learning to keep moving and keep fighting, ignoring the impact. It becomes a skill…a feature. A part of who you are. You learn to not get hit, but you also learn to move past being hit. It’s an essential part of being a martial artist. It’s not one of the enjoyable parts, but it is key. It’s not a thing you can avoid.

The photo above, by the way, is not quite what it seems. Justin has been rocked back not by the right hand in contact with his waist, but by one of She-Hulk’s wicked left hooks. You can see from the distance his head has moved back that it was one hell of a punch. It only slowed him down for a second, though. The favour was returned later. The things we do for fun…