“Sure, I’ll train you but understand that you’re in the ring by yourself. The training comes down to what you’re willing to put into it, not me. I can teach you a few things and show you the fundamentals but how much you learn is up to you. I’m not saying this to sound mean, I’m saying this because 8 weeks isn’t a lot of time and boxing is a very individual sport. The way you practice will determine the way you fight.”
-Coach Falcon at Ronin Training
When people are asked about the benefits of a regular yoga practice, answers range from mental clarity to physical flexibility, stronger libidos to better cardio. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that it makes them a better boxer. And although I believe there are a number of attributes that transfer, like the usual suspects of breathing, balance, and muscle tone, I think there is one general benefit of yoga that is often overlooked, confidence. After all, how many yogis feel confident enough to leave their job to attend teacher training in an all too competitive field? How many yogis feel confident that the universe will provide if they “put out” the right energy? Or in my case, who in the world with zero boxing experience would feel confident enough to box an international talk radio host with previous bouts on a giant platform for the world to see based on a gut feeling? Most yogis would call it confidence or trust, outsiders would probably call it delusion.
The Challenge is Made
Whatever the reason, my practice has clearly instilled a confidence in me that I can breathe and work through the uncertainty and discomfort of nearly anything. For me, it’s the type of confidence that comes from knowing that on the other side of doubt lives a weightless freedom. It’s the type of confidence that encouraged me to act on a strong intuition I had one night while meditating that I should challenge Sirius XM talk radio host and NY Times best-selling author, Michael Tully, to a boxing match. There was no rational reason for me to do it other than I felt like I had something to give and share. The feeling was so strong that if I didn’t act on it immediately, the overwhelming depression of missed opportunity would have made me sick. I never boxed (or threw a punch) and am a pretty passive person, yet I had a strange sense of confidence that if I trained for 8 weeks, give it my full attention and stay healthy, then this would be the experience of a lifetime. I wasn’t wrong.
So I made the challenge to the co-host of The Jason Ellis Show to fight at an event they host every year called, Ellismania. It’s a uniquely prestigious event filled with professional MMA icons and people of the fitness community. It’s also a comedy boxing match that brings together a beautiful group of diverse fans to laugh and cheer as fighters participate in events such as musical chair fights and blind folded boxing. I’m guessing that hundreds if not thousands of people have pitched Ellismania fights to Jason and Michael over the years but for some reason, I thought this idea worked; I would give up my yoga practice and box for 8 weeks under the premise “Does yoga make you a good boxer?” I pitched the idea to Jason and he loved it. In fact, he played my video challenge on the air and discussed it extensively with his co-host, Michael Tully. At first, Tully was non-committal because of his new book launch and regular job hosting two radio shows. However, knowing that I needed the full 8 weeks to train, I followed my gut and rolled up my yoga mat. About 3 weeks prior to the event, Tully said yes.
Click the image to watch! Our match starts at 1 hour and 20 minutes into the video.
The Training Begins
I asked a few trusted teachers in the Columbus yoga community who practice combat sports if they knew of any good boxing coaches. Coach Falcon at Ronin Training was one of the names. He called me back the same day, seemed eager to help, and had an awesome nickname. More importantly, I knew what I needed most was honesty and he didn’t sugar-coat anything. In a sport where (sadly) people can get seriously injured when they go overboard, get mismatched, or aren’t properly prepared; I needed to truly know how I was doing. In addition, I needed to trust that my sparring partners and teammates actually cared about me.
We trained a lot; 60-120 minutes a day, 5-6 days a weeks, with usually at least 20 minutes of that time spent talking about the “sweet science” of boxing. Occasionally Falcon would drift off into some of his past fights, his home life, youth, or the metaphysical aspects of boxing. He had a big heart and spoke directly about whatever was on his mind. Falcon had roughly 30 amateur fights, several pro fights, and many unsanctioned bouts in alleyways, outside clubs, and one time at a busy intersection after someone ran a crosswalk. In many ways, being a passive yoga guy was so different from him yet we had so much in common. Between Coach Falcon and the others on Team Ronin like (professional fighter) Osama Ali and his wife (former USA boxer) Omera Ali, I got to connect with a lot of different styles and amazing individuals. They were always quick to jump in if they saw a teaching moment and I was happy to share with them why back bends were just as important as forward folds.
Over the course of the 8 weeks, my body was very receptive to the training. I credit much of that to hard work and general athleticism, but certainly my diet and healthy disposition helped. I believe that because of the yoga, there was very little wasted effort and I absorbed more of the benefits than the average non-practitioner. My legs (and knees) got stronger, my muscle memory adapted, my reflexes got quicker, and I developed a bit more mass to my upper body and neck. In a weird way, it also helped me work through intimacy issues. Typically, I don’t like people in my personal space. This is probably the reason that I love the invisible force field that surrounds my yoga mat. As you can imagine in a boxing match though, the idea of personal space only pertains to how far you can punch. I quickly realized that being up close and personal doesn’t matter nearly as much when you’re getting punched.
When I wasn’t throwing punches, I was thinking about them. It was hard to replace the mental clarity that I got from yoga when my head was full of so much stuff. I had to live with the knowledge that on November 9th, I was going to have a fight. Every practice, every meal, every day for that matter, the fight would cross my mind. In all actuality, I knew very little about my opponent and several guys on the show predicted that I wouldn’t make it out of the 1st Round. I found myself having to meditate every night for at least 30 to 90 minutes to reset. It was so easy to think about the fight that sometimes it would take me 25 minutes to let go and reassure myself that I was taking the right steps.
In addition to the mental, there was the [literal] physical conditioning that my head underwent to become comfortable taking punches. Eventually my nose bleeds slowed down and my natural reflex to”flinch” went away. Towards the end of it, I could even keep my eyes open with a fist coming at me. I also learned there’s a reason it’s called punch-drunk. The weird-foggy-dizzy headache feel-good euphoria that came after sparring sessions felt strangely good. I can see why people get hooked on the sport.
If there was one big crossover from yoga that I never heard mentioned in my training, it was breathing. Most people don’t talk about detailed breathing like yogis. Yogis talk about exactly when to inhale, where (in the lungs) to inhale to, and how much to exhale. To put it lightly, we go deep. Often, coach would tell me [in a general way] to “relax and breathe” and it definitely helped. I got faster and hit harder. However, it wasn’t until about 6 weeks into training that it really started to click. I came to realize that the 80/20 breathing that I was taught in yoga directly worked in the ring. Every short exhale with a punch thrown is roughly a 20% exhalation of the carbon dioxide from the top part of my lungs. The middle and bottom 80% always stay full just like I’ve practiced for years. I think most boxers learn how to do this through experience, but my guess is that it’s rarely (if ever) articulated or taught. I tested my theory and knew that if I could breath 80/20 for 30 seconds to a minute while operating at a physically high level, I had at least one advantage going in.
The day of the fight came and the crowds gathered. There were roughly a thousand people packed into the South Austin Gym chanting one word, TULLY. The opposition status gave me a bit of a boost. The energy was electric and I wore a bright red pair of our Nero leggings to match. In addition, I leaned into my character and sported a flashy red boxing robe that read, “YOGA PANTS” on the back. The bell rang and we got to work. We exchanged blows early on and Tully countered a jab with a big right overhand that sent me spinning early in the 2nd Round. He pressured me with punches and my body stopped reacting to what I wanted it to do. The crowd went wild as I realized what was happening, I was going down. The ref stepped-in and gave me a standing 8-count which meant he stopped the fight because he thought I was no longer responsive (even though I was still “standing”). He was right and that break gave me enough time to regroup.
My nerves subsided and I felt strangely confident that I had more to give. I went back to my breathing, laughed that I almost went down, and finished off the fight winning the 3rd Round decisively. Tully and I gave it our all and put on a show for the audience that people told me sparked a fire in the gym. It was a really good fight that even though I lost by decision, I felt like a champ. Looking back, I still can’t believe that I got to be a part of it. It was one of my proudest moments. Not only did the merits of yoga get discussed and debated leading up to the fight among men and broadcast for the world to hear, I got to step in the ring with someone I admire and experience a once in a lifetime event that I’ll never forget.
I look forward to diving back into my practice but have to acknowledge that yoga is what put me in this position. In the literal sense, it gave me a story line and put me in contact with the show. However in a spiritual sense, it allowed me to realize the opportunity. I was able to act on a feeling and understand that the walls of reality that build in my head are almost always higher than the walls that surround the actual circumstance. The true nature of things is often far more simplistic and sometimes, it’s as simple as having the confidence to act. I stopped practicing yoga for 8 weeks and lived my life more fully than I could ever imagine. I’m excited to get back on my mat to see where the practice takes me next.
Other timeless thoughts from Coach Falcon: