Long road

In the beginning, the life of a professional athlete was otherworldly to me. None of my friends took care of themselves, I did not live responsibly and was in an abusive relationship.

I would escape to boxing class and for one hour, I could be in control of my life. My confidence grew as my fitness and proficiency improved and boxing became a mirror; the strength I built in the gym was reflected in my own life. For every class I added to my schedule, I kicked a negative habit or person out of my life. In a short period, my motivation for training transformed from a release or a hobby, into a discipline that provided me with much needed structure and a desire to become a better martial artist.

As I progressed, moving into Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), my fellow team mates suggested I enter an interclub. When they asked me to ‘give it a go’, I assumed they were joking and would avoid eye contact, shaking my head with a silent no. Prior to this, I had not thought about competing but the challenge stirred up an urge to test my skills. I put myself forward after a year of training and dominated my first match against a much heavier woman, who was also a kickboxing coach. I went onto lose my second match to a male opponent by decision. I did not tap to a deep choke, stubbornly biting off a part of my tongue in the process. These experiences lit a fire under me; I was seeking something and through competition, I felt closer to that unknown. I started doing more privates and talked with my coach about the road to becoming a professional fighter.

Inspired, I planned a round the world trip to study martial arts at their origins and to fight. I was determined to ‘turn pro’ and get signed to a promotion, hoping one day to fight in the country of my birth, the Philippines and go on to be a Champion.

My dream came true for the most part. On the 15th April 2016, I fought April Osenio on the One Championship, Global Rivals show in Manila, Philippines. This is what I had worked for since leaving my hometown. I was a professional fighter, signed to one of the world’s biggest MMA promotions and fighting in the Philippines. I had hoped this fight would set me back on the winning track after a losing streak.

In the first round, after securing a take down, I was working for ground and pound from my opponent’s guard. April attempted an arm bar but I escaped by stepping over her head and re-established my position. Every time I pressed forward to strike, my base was compromised and April would look to capture an arm. April’s second submission attempt was from against the cage, I was unable to pull my arm out from the stack and had little room to move, she began to roll over her inside shoulder to execute the infamous arm bar. I was off balance and attempted a last resort knee ride to the face. I fell forward my arm still trapped and now fully extended, I felt fibres like guitar strings snap off. My arm was trapped underneath me in an awkward position, although I tried to adjust, more guitar strings were plucked free and I tapped before my arm broke.

"Hell is not a place you go, if you’re not a Christian. It’s the failure of your life’s greatest ambition"

-Immortal technique

Backstage I faced Anthony Lange my Australian coach that had flown out to corner me, Sir Henry Cerilla my Filipino Punong Guro who looked crestfallen and coach Mike who took me under his wing at sister gym KMA in Makati. I thought about my wasted preparation. I had flown out early to acclimatise, going as far as to rent an apartment with no air con during the hottest time of year. Right there and then, I felt as if I needed to retire from the sheer humiliation, imagining my relatives’ disappointment from the crowd who were there to support my come back. The factor that haunted me the most was despite my extensive training in striking, I didn’t throw a single punch. In my impetuousness, I came out fast with tunnel vision for a take down, getting caught in the process. Overall, I was deeply unhappy with my performance. However, on the ambulance ride from the venue to Manila hospital, my resilience returned when my Punong Guro and I discussed my next visit and my next fight.

"The biggest test of courage on earth is to bear defeat without losing heart"

-Robert Green Ingersoll

Once home, I discovered that I had a caught an infection from contaminated foods. During fight week, I had wrongly attributed symptoms to adrenaline dumps. Also, the gravity of my injury began to sink in. I sustained a complete tear of my Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) in my elbow and was told this injury could take up to 12 months to heal.

Being right handed, I was unable to do the most basic things easily, I felt goofy for the first few days while adjusting. Luckily, I could work in accounts unaffected but I was not able to hold pads for clients and there were certain things I could not demonstrate in my classes. This had financial implications, made worse as my training camp was funded ‘optimistically’. By not earning the desired result, let’s just say that I had dug myself a hole.

The thought of being limited in my training ability and out of competition for so long was overwhelming, the imaginary gap between me and my future opponents widened and it was hard to stay the course. I was aware that I needed to control my mind and emotions to handle this frustrating situation and I sought a sport psychologist to get some perspective.

“What seems to us as bitter trials are often blessings in disguise”

-Oscar Wilde

Being injured and realising that I would not be competing for a while or even sparring, I felt oddly lost at sea. As I went about my day, there seemed to be an emptiness which I attributed to a lack of urgency. I experienced an anti-climax, which can be the nature of competition, win or lose. I felt adrift for some time after the event, even though my rehab was going well and I had planned my next fight camp abroad. The time stretched out before me like a void. With no immediacy of competition and a less intense schedule, I indulged in ways I wouldn’t normally; I ate what I wanted and met up with friends for drinks. I took time to relax and realised that I had not done this for a very long time.

My fast pace life was out of necessity. When I first arrived in Australia, I needed to create a base and establish myself. I found a job the first day in the country and later began working in an office. The stable hours allowed me to plan my training schedule, which included sessions scattered all over Sydney. I undertook studies to be a personal trainer and set up my own business, which expanded into martial art coaching so I trained clients and held classes on evenings also weekends. I had a family life to incorporate too as my partner had a son and I took on the role as stepmother wholeheartedly. Now living in a family dynamic, with new responsibilities, I was reluctant to take risks and worked harder to create financial stability.

My schedule looked stacked on paper but I believed I could manage this effectively through my organisational skills. I tracked my daily food, finances and training, whilst maintaining work and social obligations. In terms of managing my commitments, I was fastidious but in pursuit of my goals, I often neglected my personal life and self-care. I prided myself on my resourcefulness and grit but when I started losing fights, I had to think about the big picture; I was running on empty and realised there were some big decisions to make.

“If you love life, don’t waste time, for time is what life is made up of”

-Bruce lee

On a typical day, I would be getting up as early as 5am to do my first session, starting work in accounts at 9am, then teaching a kickboxing class at 6pm, followed by my second session in the evening. This resulted in always being home late for diner. After a shower, I would need to prepare for the next day, packing my bags, lesson planning or doing paperwork. Despite being extremely tired, I rarely slept well and this perpetuated a cycle of getting run down, sick and injured. The inconsistency was extremely frustrating and I longed for more training and recovery time. I worried about my ability to absorb information after a full day’s work, comparing myself to imaginary opponents with no distracting day jobs, this enervated me further.

The quote "I didn’t come this far to only come this far" which is often attributed to Tom Brady, became my mantra. I could have let the financial, physical and emotional stress prevent me from continuing. Instead, I began the lengthy rehab process. I gave myself an overhaul; I addressed health issues, investigating allergies, combating stress and adrenal fatigue. I reformed my training schedule to reduce travel time and focus on strength in my rehab program or technique in classes where I could not yet do live drills. I changed my working hours to better suit my schedule and despite being in high demand, I reduced my coaching hours. I still had a lot to learn and needed to refocus on my own training before serving others.

“Rest and self-care are so important. When you take time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve others from the overflow. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.”

-Eleanor Brownn

Additionally, I hired a mind coach who played a pivotal role in stopping my negative train of thought, which in turn increased my performance and overall well-being. I also worked with a sport psychologist who helped me discover my why and clear out mental junk in the process. By taking a multidimensional approach to my recovery, I was able to create a better work life balance. 10 months on from the fight, my energy levels have returned and my brain fog cleared enough to finish a long standing creative project in this website and blog. In short, I discovered less is more and streamlined my road to recovery.

During my forced timeout, the lesson of patience has been ever present. With time to reflect, the simplicity of my original mission to become a better martial artist has refocused me. Consistency and small improvements each session have reassured me that I’m still on track. By investing in self-work, I have felt more grounded and able to regulate my emotions; I hope to carry this composure with me into the fighting arena.

I have made peace with the fact this journey is a slow grind. It will take as long as it takes to become a complete fighter and the best person I can be. My next milestone will be at Jackson Wink MMA Academy in Alburquerque NM this month, where I plan to do my next fight camp with the earned privilege of not working for two months. Until then, left foot, right foot.

Nat Hills

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