Character & Soul, Self-Improvement

For The Love of Combat Sports – Denise Li

The blood, bruises and injuries are all part of the character-building process of martial arts, says Denise Li. 

Event poster for my debut amateur boxing fight in April

Event poster for my debut amateur boxing fight in April

“Tsk, tsk,” my mum says with a shake of her head as she notices the bruises on my wrists and my legs.

“I don’t get it,” a friend says to me over Facebook chat. “You and Alain don’t strike me as violent types. Why do you guys do martial arts?”

“Why would anyone voluntarily put themselves at risk of getting hurt?” Yet another friend muses out loud to me.

Lately I’ve been fielding a whole slew of questions pertaining to my passion, martial arts. To them, it seems incongruous that someone who’s as nice and unassuming as myself would want to engage in sports that potentially involves blood, bruises and broken bones.

But the violent (let’s just call a spade a spade) bit is just one aspect of the sport. It is the journey to getting into the ring that I enjoy the most. Far from being about beating your opponent to a pulp, mixed martial arts also requires a high level of strategy that I shan’t pretend to know anything about at this point, given that I’ve only been at it for less than a month. My partner Alain calls the grappling aspect of it “human chess” and I am inclined to agree. At high levels, you must have an arsenal of moves at your disposal, be able to read your opponent’s game and act accordingly.

Besides the fact that there is so much to learn, I like combat sports because it allows me to indulge my primal side in a very controlled environment. In the real world, I try to “opt out” of the rat race as far as possible; I don’t like politicking, and I am uncomfortable with the fact that sometimes, my career advancement would come at the expense of someone else’s. Inside the ring, however, and during sparring sessions, there are rules to follow: Illegal moves are penalised, and going too hard on your partner during sparring is usually frowned upon. It looks like a scrap when two people spar or fight, but there’s a sense of organised chaos about the whole thing I find quite … comforting.

Most important of all, the reason I always go back to martial arts is because it forces me to face my fears time and again. Even after all these years, I am terrified every time I’m called upon to spar. Standing in front of a person to trade punches is as scary as you imagine it to be: Not only is it unpleasant to be punched in the face, it’s always slightly embarrassing if you put on a poor performance. But sparring and/or fighting is really a microcosm of real life, isn’t it? Despite trying your best, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

So, as you can see, my reasons for engaging in combat sports are myriad and, I think, not gender-specific. I think regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman, we all have something we want to prove to ourselves. Every day, we are called upon to stand and fight: To prove our worth in the workplace, or to protect our family and friends when the need arises. Combat sports builds a certain kind of resilience and courage that I haven’t found with any other activity I have engaged in.

I like the me that I discovered since I started training in martial arts. Before, I think there was always some part of me that was looking for an escape from “the real world” – I quit my glamourous job in magazines to travel, fell in love with travelling and was convinced that I needed to live someplace else in order to be happy. I drank too much whenever I was upset or stressed. I found it hard to come to terms with my “real life” and circumstances – I always felt like I was biding my time before I could do what I really wanted, even when I wasn’t all that sure about that was. But martial arts has pushed me to fully embrace and accept Life as is, warts and all. It is, at once, empowering and humbling. Empowering because I like seeing progress, I like knowing that I am getting stronger every time I train. Humbling because I know that no matter how much effort I put in, or how many hours I train, there will always be someone out there better than me. But what matters most is that you keep going, despite the setbacks you face.

At the end of the day, my friends, what you see is me putting myself in the face of danger when I spar or fight someone in the ring. But really, all I’m doing is fighting to become a better version of myself.

Shameless plug: I organise a women’s MMA group training session every weekend. If you would like to train with me in a friendly, non-intimidating environment made up of beginners, please drop me an email at

About the Author: Denise Li is a founder of Material World and a freelance writer-editor. Before that, she spent a few years in the Features section of CLEO and Cosmopolitan Singapore. She considers Chiang Mai her spiritual home and makes it a point to head there for a yearly pilgrimage. She’s also a fitness buff and enjoys boxing, running and the occasional yoga session. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLiTweets.

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