We recently bumped into an ex-student of ours at a nearby food court. James (not his real name) trained with us on and off for about six months over a year ago. When he was on, he was at the gym almost every day, often for a couple of hours. If he wasn’t training, he’d be asking people about their day or practicing his technique on the bag.
He was open about the fact he lived at an infamous hostel which was known to be habited by people with substance abuse, psychological issues and criminal records, and was frequented by the police. He never spoke of his problems in details, but it was obvious that he had his demons to battle.
Despite this, James was always pleasant and cheerful. He would greet everyone he met at the gym with a fist bump and a cheery “Hey brother!”
Yesterday was no different. He was happily chatting with the owner of the food stall, but when he saw us waving, he broke out in a smile, greeted us by name and gave us his signatory fist bump before asking us how we were.
When we last saw him, he was not in the best shape. He had stopped training due to financial and personal issues and looked downtrodden and bloated. Even though he was still smiling, he had shaken his head when we asked him how his job hunt was going.
“I don’t think I can work…” he said sadly, though he didn’t elaborate further.
So it was great to see him clean shaven and bright-eyed and with features looking sharper than previously. He told us he had been working in construction for the past seven months. In his late 30s, it was “The first full-time job I’ve ever had”.
We offered our congratulations. And mentioned that he was looking leaner and healthier than the last time we saw him.
Hearing that, his face lit up with genuine astonishment. “That’s the first time someone has given me a compliment like that,” he said.
It must be that his job is having a positive influence on him we said.
He told us that the job involved early starts and physical work. And that his managers could be quite demanding at times. And that he was overwhelmed by how much there was to learn. “But I take that as a challenge. I want to better myself,” he declared.
The time he spent training Muay Thai, was just a short stint to us. But for James, it was life-changing.
“When I started training Muay Thai, it was hard. But for the first time in my life, I wanted to improve myself… make myself better,” he explained.
He was not a natural, but he certainly gave it all every time he came in. He was a big Maori boy, but he was gentle when he was paired up with smaller partners.
Thinking back, we remember the times James stayed back after class to chat with whoever could spare a few minutes to talk to him. He didn’t talk about his personal problems but would ask for training tips and advice. He even asked to borrow a booklet about healthy eating from us and poured through it religiously.
He always had time for a smile, and a conversation with us, if we weren’t rushing somewhere, or preoccupied. We didn’t always have time to chat. Occasionally (especially when we were hungry and waiting to go and eat) we got a bit impatient. But he never took it personally. Just like when we asked him to wash his bare feet before stepping on the mats (he often arrived shoeless for training). He would oblige with a smile.
He didn’t seem to mind, (although maybe he just didn’t show it) when some people shied away from him or seemed shocked at his friendly greeting style. One time, a (now long gone) wannabe fighter with a habit of injuring his training partners missed the pad, leaving him with what we suspect was a hairline fracture in his arm. James was left unable to train for several weeks. But it wasn’t until we asked him where he had been that he mentioned his injury – and we had to pry the information from him. “It was no big deal,” he shrugged. Grudges weren’t his style.
Sometimes, the smile would fade, and you’d catch him looking a little lost and down. But when he caught your eye, he’d snap out of it and give you his signature fist bump.
“I do miss it”, he reminisced, with a faraway look in his eyes. “I’ve been trying to cut down on drinking and other things. I’m still staying at the same place, but I hope to move out and get more healthy.”
We asked him what he was having for tea. Flashing a toothy grin, he patted his stomach and said: “One thing I can’t cure my addiction to is hot chips. I love them so much.”
Sure enough, his dinner arrived – and it consisted of an extra-large bag of deep-fried spuds with extra ketchup. We couldn’t help advising him to add a bit of variety into the mix.
“Tell me more,” he said, genuinely interested while clutching his dinner. We droned on about replacing half the chips with stir-fried vegetables or salad and grilled chicken. Demonstrating how to exercise portion control by dividing his meals into portions of fibre, protein and carbohydrates.
Not exactly scintillating stuff for a Friday night conversation, but James took it all gamely. “You know what?” he announced with a grin. “I’ll try my best. Next time, I’ll cut the amount down to maybe this much,” (gesturing to 2/3 of his bag).
He looked at our dinner, consisting of Thai noodles with a sizeable amount greens. “Is that why you guys are so fast?”
When we asked what he meant, he flashed us a cheeky grin: “You’re so fast with your answers and fast on your feet. Must be all those vegetables you’re eating eh?”
Chips in hand, he stood up to go. He’d never hugged us before, but this time, he gave us each a warm hug. He smelled good. Crisp and fresh like clean laundry.
There was a wistful look on his face.
“You know what, I miss it. I really do. I’ll try to come back and train one day. Once my life gets better.”
We told him we’d like that. And we meant it.