At 6 foot 5 inches, a blazing black Mohawk and 8mm tunnels in each ear, Phillip doesn’t look like the philosophically rich individual he is. However, zipping up his jacket on a chilly morning in Wales, the fighter tells us how an obsession with mixed martial arts (MMA) became a love affair, and took his life in an incredibly positive direction.
Martial Arts does not appeal to everyone. In fact, it is probably safe to say that most people have little to no interest in them. With so many different kinds, each titled little more than a smattering of seemingly random syllables, it can be hard to understand why anybody would. I myself am a black belt in the Korean Tae Kwon Do, and without its influence my life would have taken a completely different direction.
Throughout my childhood I had the unrelenting feeling that I didn’t quite fit in. Through school, I would jump sporadically from group to group, always playing the outsider, never quite accepted into the bonds of brotherhood I saw shared by my peers. Academically I was not the most successful either, due to two learning disabilities I would not be aware of until years later. I failed many exams and generally achieved little outside the parameters of fucking about. I was great at making people laugh, though.
During my childhood I would often struggle with speech. I would have a composed dialogue prepared perfectly in my mind, but somewhere between the thought process and my actual release, the words would reorganise themselves and come out as nonsense. And when you can’t explain yourself properly, when you can’t express yourself in the most simple and obvious way possible, the outcome is highly frustrating. Additionally, reading was almost impossible. I have twenty-twenty vision when it comes to everything else, but the moment I started to read, the words they would take on a life of their own and before my brain could register what they meant, they’d move ever so slightly out of view. Between that and being a clumsy fuck, I was getting a little pissed off…
In 1999, I was watching TV with my Dad when a commercial featuring a stunning display of martial arts popped up on screen. It was love at first sight and my Dad, witnessing my awe, inquired as to whether I’d like to give it a go – I agreed. I experienced my first taste the following week and since then, I’ve returned time and time again. I remember sulkily taking my girlfriend to the movies on Valentine’ s Day, when all I wanted to do was spend time with my Korean mistress.
I fell in love instantly. And still to this day, like any good marriage, my passion has not reduced and if anything, has only blossomed over time. Each time I enter the dojo with a brief bow to the sensei it’s like I’m home – literally and spiritually. I feel relieved to have returned. I feel whole again.
Each Martial Art teaches an incredible amount of self-control, and requires you to exercise this control constantly. Trust me, it’s pretty hard not to perfectly execute a roundhouse kick to someone’s face after they cut in line at McDonalds. However, you must be disciplined enough to spend hours and hours practicing simple moves such as outer forearm blocks, or simple turning kicks over and over and over. Each move must be precise, each block, each kick and each punch simply cannot be an inch out of place, and the only way to get it right is with constant, daily practice.
Whilst completing a pattern, practising at home, or fighting at a competition my mind is always the same. Active meditation is how I like to think of it – An emptying of the mind, completely unconscious focus but with absolute concentration. When you strike with your arm outstretched, all you can see are the four, un-conquerable white peaks cresting your tense fist. Everything else is a blur.
There is nothing more liberating than relinquishing control. When it comes to going, toe to toe, you have to leave the practice at the mat and let go. You have to empty your mind with your only consideration being reaction. Fighting both allows and requires you to be free. There is no mask to hide behind. You have to trust your true self to surface in order to beat all kinds of shit out of your opponent’s true self. In one of the most memorable scenes in the history of cinema, Fight Club’s Tyler Durden proposed, ‘How much can you know about yourself, [if] you’ve never been in a fight?’ Never have truer words been uttered.
Self-preservation is the most intense of all human traits. When pushed, any human is capable of doing incredible things for the sake of their own survival and until you know what those things are, is it possible to really know yourself? This is what martial arts offer, a chance to explore your own spirit and the inalienable traits that are at the core what make you who you are.
In the normal world I lose my keys, my wallet, trip over a curb or fall down some stairs. I now know that to be the fault of severe Dyspraxia, a mental condition which decided to drag along its as-annoying brother dyslexia, with as much severity. However, when practicing Tae Kwon Do I am composed, efficient and entirely mentally present. I never trip, never muddle my words and never miss-time a move. It allows me to experience a sense of power and control I seldom get to in the outside world.
To me Tae Kwon Do is not sport. It is religious in the way it provides a sense of direction almost never achieved without the help of a higher power. It has given me focus and direction, as well as confidence and the ability to trust myself in situations in which I would otherwise lose faith.
The most important element however is the respect I have for the world. It is a learned respect deeply ingrained in my psyche. Fighting alleviated the mystery of what I am capable of and gives me greater understanding of my place in the world.