How kickboxing can provide more than just the workout

A young Auckland man finds solace in full-combat sport.

Words & photo: Chris van Ryn

Serendipity sometimes brings life-changing moments — like the way physiotherapist Jeff Liu fell into kickboxing. Jeff’s friend asked him to attend a Muay Thai class. “I was 13, and I’d never touched martial arts.”

Jeff figured it was a way to hang out with a school friend while getting fit. Then he fell in love with the ring, the culture, companionship… “I realised how much kickboxing stimulates my mind.” After almost a decade of training and ring time, Jeff considers kickboxing has given him essential tools for navigating life.

It’s 5.30am, and Jeff is heading to the gym in Newton, Auckland. There’s nothing flashy about this gym. It’s tucked down a no-exit street in a down-to-earth industrial warehouse. Inside, the energy is raw. The air carries a concentrated odour of work-out sweat. Against one wall, a row of sausage-like, battered leather punch bags swing in syncopation with striking fists, and, at the rear, 20 or so pairs of wrestlers writhe on mats, folded into themselves like human origami, grappling in a sweaty embrace, red-faced and grunting.

In the centre of the gym is the kickboxing ring. The mat is sole-scuffed and sweat-stained, a map of every kick, knock, fall, failure and victory that has played out on its surface.

Jeff steps into the ring. He is lean and agile; his skin ripples as his muscles move. He shadow-boxes, thrusting fists into the air, quickly returning protective hands near his focused face. Then he 360s, his left leg arcing in a blur, striking an imaginary opponent.

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For some, this is a story of contained violence. For Jeff, it’s a stage for learning about life. “Fighting is very primal,” he says, leaning on the ropes. “It’s rough, but everyone here knows the rules and what they’re getting into.”

Despite the fact it’s a controlled environment, fighting is scary. In a way, that’s its purpose. And there’s a strong likelihood contestants get hurt. “I face fear every time I get into the ring. Particularly if I’m facing someone better than me, but this is where I grow the most,” says Jeff.

Modern psychology confirms that exposing yourself to managed fear de-intensifies scary situations. In life, Jeff says, we’re always fighting or struggling. From the moment of birth, people fight for breath and survival. They struggle at work or in relationships.

“We struggle here in the gym,” Jeff says, “but struggles improve us. We rise to those challenges. A big reason I’m here is because so many people are much better than me.” When the moment of truth arrives — when Jeff steps into the ring — he’s also stepping outside his comfort zone. When the soles of his feet touch the canvas, he’s on his own. And when he turns to face the fist and foot of his opponents, he has only himself to rely on. But he also knows a team is surrounding him: his coaches, other kickboxing members and sparring partners. “All of these people have contributed to my personal growth,” he says.

Kickboxing means being part of a family. Jeff recalls moving to Wellington for his clinical placement for physiotherapy. He was alone in a new city, trying to figure himself out as a young person.

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“I didn’t know anyone. I went to a kickboxing gym, and you shook hands with everybody at the end of the first lesson. The jujitsu master looked me in the eye and said, ‘Welcome to the family.’ It touched my heart. I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself.”

The kickboxing community creates a special kind of bonding. There are people with all sorts of backgrounds. Many, says Jeff, have had rough childhoods or a past trauma. Coming to the gym is cathartic, a way to work through a personal crisis.

“That’s the fun thing about martial arts: you’re running into all sorts of people. So, if you give them the time to sit down and talk, you can talk about things like their mental health. I’ve talked to people about addictions and what’s happening at home. They’re struggling to some degree, and having that space to share is just good.

“It’s almost like an animal shelter. Something’s broken; animals come in and lick their wounds. They’re coming in from the rain, the outside world. It’s nice and safe over here. And we’ve got each other’s warmth as well.”

Kickboxing for Jeff is life unfolding on the edge. The ring is a place that has the potential for great disaster. When someone is in the ring of life with their back against the ropes, facing that crisis is often the place of greatest learning.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.

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