The First Rule of Boxing: Zanshin

By Nick Porter: In the Japanese martial arts there is a concept called Zanshin. Zanshin translates roughly as “continuing mind”, and suggests the ability of an experienced exponent of the martial ways to be able to discern danger and to minimize risk of injury through a sort of constant awareness. To the more impressionable, it seems a prescience of danger, of predicting attacks and ambushes that has been demonstrated in everything from Kurosawa's Seven Samurai to Spiderman. However, the true definition of zanshin is not nearly so esoteric: essentially, it is the ability to read situations and move himself away from danger outside of training when it presents itself by learning to recognize it constantly in training. Perhaps an extraneous point, but one that explains, at least partially, my absence from writing these last few weeks. Although I try not to make my writing here incredibly personal, I hope my readers can indulge me just this once as I recount something that cannot be taught in a training hall.

For those who have never met me, although my pedigree is varied, with my red hair and fair complexion a strong case can be made towards at least a bit of Irish ancestry. Therefore, St. Patrick's Day is a holiday that has become one of my favorites-- an excuse to dress up, get drunk, and be stupid. However, I never could have foreseen what my self-induced lack of awareness would have led to a few Saturdays ago, and how it has made me consider my training, and my lifestyle, since.

I had to work that day, but after work I met up with a friend of mine and a group of his friends. As the evening continued, so too did the drinks, until one of our group was kicked out of the bar we were at, forcing us to go look for him. Although visibly and undeniably drunk, the man had seemed to all accounts amiable as the evening progressed, and I found him down a side street near the bar we had just left, sprawled out on the street. I picked him up, and was carrying him back to where my friend was waiting, trying to hail a cab.

It is here my memory goes out.

From the accounts I have gathered, with no provocation or warning, this drunk friend of a friend reared back and hit me in the back of the head. I then wheeled around and hit him back, before he pushed me off of the curb where, due to my self-induced lack of reflexes, I hit the side of my head against the street and was out. At this point, my friend who had seen this ran up and choked his drunk acquaintance out, only to see two men standing over me, rifling through my pockets. I awoke several minutes later, confused, with a headache, and relieved of my cell phone and digital camera.

Since then, I have thought often about that night; namely, what I did wrong, and how I could have prevented this situation that could have been much worse. I felt, and feel, very much a hypocrite: as an Aikido instructor, I have years of breakfalling experience, but could not keep my head from hitting the pavement. I have been involved in the martial arts and boxing intensively since I was 12 years old, and when it finally mattered, I was unable to use it. Ultimately, the blame for this cannot lie on my drunk acquaintance, though what he did was unacceptable, nor for the opportunistic thieves who were probably about to rob him until they saw what unfolded, but unfortunately I have been unable to reach them for further comment.

As a boxing trainer, I often tell my neophyte fighters something that anyone familiar with boxing will know: “Protect yourself at all times.” This is the first and greatest Commandment in the Bible of Boxing, and one that Arturo Gatti learned as he took his eyes off of Floyd Mayweather to complain about an alleged foul before being knocked down and that Nate Campbell learned by dropping his hands and taunting Robbie Peden, only to wind up on the canvas. Like Gatti, I had been lulled into a false sense of security: because an arbiter (Gatti's ref or my friend) was just a few feet away on the street corner, or because I did not perceive any danger from the drunk. However, like Campbell, I was hurt because I was cocky, headstrong, and convinced of my own invulnerability.

Floyd Patterson, heavyweight champion in the late 1950's with the dubious distinction of being knocked down more than any heavyweight champion before or since, once said "It's easy to do anything in victory. It's in defeat that a man reveals himself." I was defeated that night; not by my opponent, or by my anonymous assailants, but by myself and my inability to call upon the thousands of hours I have invested into training, and in that defeat something very stark was revealed to me. The obvious revelation, given to me many times recounting this story by friends, was “Don't help drunken strangers.” However, the better lesson gleaned from that evening was learning to recognize danger before it becomes dangerous.

In boxing, this manifests itself as the ability to quickly judge an opponent's strengths and weaknesses; to maintain an unyielding confidence in victory without ever forgetting the looming threat of defeat. While competing, you have only one assailant who stands in front of you and whose intentions are clearly stated. However, reality is much less kind and also much less subtle, and requires us to defend ourselves at all times. This continuing awareness is not paranoia, for that is no more effective than a boxer assuming his opponent is invincible. This delusion is nothing more than another form of self-defeat. Awareness in the martial sense is merely in being able to see, through constant training and observation, what is dangerous and what is not. It is there that zanshin, the first rule of boxing, must also become the first rule of living for any who would take their craft and their safety seriously, and a lesson I will not soon forget.

"Though you may give up your life, never give up your honor." --Musashi

Article posted on 25.03.2008

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