Far from the bright lights and adulation of fans, a fighter’s life can often be a lonely one.

A common story among many fighters dramatizes a tough life as a kid, embroiled in street fights, growing up to embrace martial arts as an outlet for all that teenage angst. If you’re lucky, you might be scouted to test your skills on an international stage as a professional fighter. But when fighting is all you know, the sport can be a cruel one.

One day you might be enjoying the glow of adoring fans, the next day he could well be forgotten.

It’s not uncommon to see fighters walk away from a career fighting anxiety, depression and confusion. Some integrate back into normal life, but more often than not many fall off the tracks, taking to drink and drugs, battling depression and poverty.

I WENT FROM BEING SOMEONE WHO FEARED PEOPLE TO A GUY MANY FEARED. I HATED IT.

One person most familiar with battling inner demons is Rodney King, renown South African martial arts coach with a 4th degree BJJ black belt, creator of Crazy Monkey Defense and the brains behind mat-to-boardroom training programs like EmbodiedMBA.

King had a volatile childhood. Growing up poor and bullied, in a violent neighborhood, he was forced to deal with an alcoholic and abusive mother who had kicked him out of his home when he was just 17-years-old.

Wrought with insecurities, fear and anger, King embraced martial arts initially as a means of self-preservation, only to realise that the functional skills of martial arts was not enough to deal with his inner demons. Ultimately, the philosophy and the values encompassing resilience, honor, discipline and respect taught as an art in martial arts, were the soft skills that supported his journey to success.

While King introduced MMA to South Africa, he never felt compelled to compete in the sport which linked him to his moniker, “Father of MMA in South Africa”.

When questioned about it, he asked, “I had no need to do so. I could tap someone out quite easily within the confines of a closed gym, but that does not make me a lesser fighter just because I did not do so in a cage.”

King is critical about fighters who created a persona of toughness, brandishing the trash talking, showboating and complete disregard for the true principles behind martial arts.

“I was one of them,” he says. “I grew up in a violent environment, where I felt weak and could not protect myself. I walked around with a tough guy persona, putting myself on a pedestal. I went from someone who feared people, to become a guy many had feared. That is not my authentic self. I hated it.”

The Inner Samurai

King was inspired by Austrain psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl who had spent three years surviving atrocities of the concentration camps during World War 2.

In the heat of adversity, King lived by Frankl’s axiom that, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

King, like many others living in an environment fraught with danger and who had to fend for himself, had been lost in that world of “toughness”.

“Yeah, I was the tough guy, alpha male type, the kind of person I feared as a young boy. I viewed the world through the eyes of a victim.

“I was prepared to defend myself at any given time. The only way I knew how was to meet an aggressor with aggression.”

With these skills, King spent time as a combat instructor in the army, and when he left the army, he opted to be a bouncer because he had no education at that time.

For eight years, King was a bouncer for some of the toughest nightclubs in South Africa and ended up in fights almost nightly. His excuse was that he had to fight to survive. However, Frankl’s words taught him that he need not have to continue to lead that life, always braving the storms with aggression.

He had to make the right choices to turn his life around, and influence his desired outcomes on his own terms. King went back to basics and studied the origins of martial arts with more depth. He studied the historical context of traditional “warriors” like the samurai and he came to understand that all that time, he had embraced martial arts in the wrong way.

“Take the example of the samurai. When one trains to be a samurai, he doesn’t just train in the warrior arts but also in the soft skills. He had to be a master of the sword as well as be a master of the tea ceremony, theatre, calligraphy, poetry and all that.

The Inner Game

Ultimately, with martial arts, King’s goal for his students, was what he had himself gained immensely.

“The martial arts aspect of what I learnt taught me to be resilient. The art allows me to be open to opportunities. When one can be conscious enough to step out of the rigid perceptions of himself and his environment, he can be open to a world of opportunities and take on what he had thought he could never do before. The ability to change his mindset and adapt in the face of unplanned and uncertain circumstances empowers him to influence his own outcomes.”

From his Mat-to-Life training principles, King used martial arts as a base to teach regular corporate employees intrinsic skills like resilience and mindfulness to help them navigate the complexities of corporate life. He teaches these employees to be completely present, focused and mindful of themselves.

THE MARTIAL ARTS ASPECT OF WHAT I LEARNT TAUGHT ME TO BE RESILIENT.

The reality of corporate life is that organisations often go through structural and strategy changes as they adapt to the demands of market forces and competition. In spite of their professional skills, knowledge and experience, these changes put undue stress on employees who often suffer from the brunt of job insecurities, pressures of deadlines and interpersonal conflicts within the office.

The foundation of King’s methodology in honing high performance mindsets, started with the notion of being present in the moment. When a fighter entered a cage, he needed to be mindfully engaged with the present moment.

As the cage door shuts behind him, the focus should be on his opponent. He would not have the time to think about his training situations in the past, he has to react to the present and respond tactically to his opponent.

Similarly, with an employee in a corporate world, who might be facing a challenge, whether he was presenting a proposal to the management, getting buy-in from his colleagues about an approach to a project, or making strategic decisions on a business issue, he would have to be very present in the moment. He had to be aware of his strengths and what he could leverage, and respond with clarity of mind, instead of being caught up with doubts, uncertainties and anxieties, and even the pressure of multiple commitments that plagued his current state of mind.

As a fighter entered the cage to face his opponent, how he carried himself, that is, his “body-tude” did matter. The way he walked, the way he stepped forward into the cage, the way he stood, the aura he portrayed, could be a make or break factor in his fight.

Similarly with an employee in a corporate world, how he “brought” himself to the table to manage his day to day work challenges, could shape his mental attitude and be a decisive factor in resolving an issue, winning a deal, or garnering a job.

“To take on the everyday martial arts of life and win,” King maintains the need to be mindful in action. Attachment to negativity and unrealistic expectations only served to be a limitation to one’s progress.

When a fighter assessed his fight outcome with the preconceived notion that was negative, there would be a huge chance that he would be greeted with a defeat. Likewise, when an employee in the corporate world approached a project or a difficult manager with a negative mindset, he would probably not be able to manage them as effectively as he should.

King sealed his methodology with the most basic technique of breathing. Breathing supports the nervous system and helps with stress management.

The stress a fighter faced before his fight and within the cage, would be similar to that of an employee in a corporate world facing regular work challenges like project deadlines, demanding bosses, performance management issues and organizational changes. Breathing right was basic to helping bring back composure, balance and harmony to otherwise stressful moments.

Find out more about Rodney King’s coaching and ideas.