Discovering MMA and Taiji: Part 2

After two years of MMA training, I felt I had a decent grasp on the fundamentals and it was time to test myself once again. I went undefeated in my amateur and semi-professional MMA bouts and turned professional at the age of 23. I took on someone who would be entering our fight with a 2-0 record. Having studied footage of his previous bouts, I knew I would be victorious.

During this period, I was supporting myself financially by playing poker.

There was very little money on offer for this bout, so I proposed a winner-takes-all wager with my opponent at the weigh-ins. Although he refused the bet, it certainly helped give me the psychological edge over him, which added even more to my confidence. I won that fight in 1 minute 16 seconds, during which I delivered my trademark “windmill” punch to add extra entertainment value for the crowd along the way.

In total, my first three professional fights lasted a collective time of under five minutes, and I didn’t receive a single blow. I wondered if my time competing had come to an end and whether I’d achieved what I’d set out to do. I felt little sense of accomplishment after the third fight (even though this opponent did agree to a winner-takes-all bet).

But just as I was considering my future, fate intervened, as the UFC was about to audition in my hometown of London for the latest season of their popular reality show – The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), which would pit the best of the UK against the best of America.

This was too much of an opportunity and coincidence to ignore. After a successful day of auditioning, passing the medicals, and winning an elimination fight by TKO in the first round, I was off to Las Vegas to live in a mansion for seven weeks with 15 other fighters.

Standing proudly in front of the Raised Spirit logo (as borrowed from the ancient bagua symbol), on my return fight after a 5-year break. I made history that night in becoming the first UFC fighter to represent taijiquan in MMA, winning by submission in the 1st round.
Standing proudly in front of the Raised Spirit logo (as borrowed from the ancient bagua symbol), on my return fight after a 5-year break. I made history that night in becoming the first UFC fighter to represent taijiquan in MMA, winning by submission in the 1st round.
Daniel Domp

On the back of my performances on TUF, I was offered a UFC contract; but it wasn’t long before the feelings of stagnation returned. Although the global travelling was a nice perk, one day I woke up and realised fighting professionally had become a job to me. The initial joy of overcoming personal fears and conquering new challenges had diminished, and my rate of learning had begun to plateau.

It also bothered me that I was competing in a sport where the vast majority of the “athletes” were on some sorts of performance-enhancing drugs, which coupled with a rule-set which favoured the strong and explosive fighter, would work well against the more technical and defensive competitor.

So at the end of 2010 I decided to put competing to one side, with the aim of recapturing the essence of what appealed to me so much when I first started out on my martial arts journey. Enter taijiquan, the ancient Chinese internal martial art that would immediately fill the void I was feeling and continue to capture my imagination to this day, as I continue to pursue mastery.

My first session was in a park one summer’s day, and I ended the hour with more energy than I’d begun with and a whole new wealth of material to ponder. What we focused on in that session were concepts I’d never been exposed to before, emphasizing sensitivity, intent, alignment, and rooting, among others.

It was a pleasure to feel like a complete beginner again, knowing there was this whole realm of knowledge to assimilate that would add leaps and bounds to my martial arts skills.

taiji practise MMA
Nothing as calming for the spirit as some Taiji form practise in the park!
Sam Rowland

MMA and Taiji

But more importantly, I intuitively knew these were principles that would transfer into my everyday Iife…leading to a more harmonious and peaceful way of living. The popular external martial arts commonly found in MMA promote and condition the mind into an attitude of attrition – of force meeting force head on, of one’s will being imposed over another’s.

However, the taiji approach is not to resist or insist, but instead to harmonise with the incoming force, working with it or going around it. To achieve this takes much reprogramming, all the more so for those who have had many years of training habits built in conditioned to perform the exact opposite response.

Through study, research, and anecdotes from my numerous teachers I gradually learnt more about the history of taijiquan and discovered that it was founded on Daoist principles – those employed by nature. I gradually became aware of how powerful yet subtle nature’s operating principles are,

as described by Lao Tzu in the seminal Daoist text over 2000 years ago – the Dao De Jing (meaning literally “The Book of the Way and its Virtues”).

My study of Daoism has since shaped every aspect of my life, from the structure of my day (and year), to how I raise my kids. It influences my choices in what and how I cook and even extends into my artwork – I paint Sacred Geometry art (think mandalas, or feng shui, the study of natural energy flows).

family pictures MMA
With my beautiful Jo and two main training partners, Shen and Amadeus.

In 2015 after a five-year break from competition, I felt the calling to test my new way of training and headlined the inaugural Macto Championship, winning in just over two minutes against a dangerous and durable boxing specialist. It would mark the first occasion a UFC fighter had represented the internal martial arts in MMA and provided me plenty of feedback on how to tailor my training going forward.

Today, aged 31, I still feel a few years away from reaching my prime, and I leave the door open as to whether I will fight again. For now, I am content deepening my understanding of the internal martial arts and passing on my knowledge to students around the world under the Raised Spirit banner.

Whether for fighting skills, or purely for its amazing health benefits, taiji has the ability to bring insight into the levels of efficiency that are possible. After one taste of an experience that cannot quite be computed, one immediately becomes committed to discovering how deep the rabbit hole goes.

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