I'm quite sceptical about most proverbs. Take for example, 'it's like riding a bike'. This supposes that one never forgets how to ride a bike. It is used in reference to another activity, implying that there are all sorts of activities that once learnt, one does not forget.
It's been many years since I've ridden a bike. I just never really liked them all much. I'm reasonably sure that I've forgotten how to ride one, and I'm almost certain that were I to get on one, within a hundred metres I'd be in a mangled heap of spokes and bones.
As I stood in the Muay Thai class at Chute Boxe, I found that this lack of retention also applies to my kickboxing abilities.
It's been the better part of two years since I've thrown any strikes with any frequency. I realised fairly early in my endeavours that I was no Anderson Silva; yet now I find that what little strength I had developed around that central axis through which a good Thai kick rotates has all but dissipated.
My strikes don't have much of the drive or snap to them, they're more of an insipid and gentle plap against the pad. My hips feel stiff and my tendons have reverted to that non-stretch gristly nonsense that so many misspent teenage years playing on a PSone sculpted them into.
So much then for Muay Thai and bike riding.
'Base da luta!'. Nilsinho, the instructor, shouts at me. I presume it means something along the lines of 'keep your fighting stance and don't wobble about like a drunk on his way home from the bar'.
He certainly knows his Muay Thai; his combinations exude that seamless proficiency that comes only from countless repetitions. For him throwing ten left kicks is about as neurologically and physiologically demanding as picking up a glass of water. In such a sequence each strike is a perfect reproduction of the last, it follows the same path and lands in the same place. You can see the surety and confidence of movement that demarcates the pro from the amateur, or even the straight up striker from the mixed martial artist.
The class hasn't been easy, not for me at least. The warm up was predominantly leg focused and consisted of a good deal of jogging, jumping and stretching. Even though the class is made up of students of varying abilities everyone is expected to do the same work at the same speed.
Nilsinho gets things rolling by pairing everyone up and demonstrating a (relatively) easy combination built around fundamentals. He runs through it a number of times and takes no knowledge on the students' part for granted. He explains the minutiae of foot placement, weight distribution and any other salient details. After the demonstration he gives the instruction for us to repeat the drill ten, fifteen or the dreaded twenty times.
As the class continues and we finish our sets, he adds more strikes to the total sequence, each time to be repeated between ten and twenty times. This has three consequences; the first is that the most fundamental initial sequence gets worked dozens of times in any one class, while at the same time having some exposure to the often more taxing techniques that occur later in the progression. The second is it emphasises fluency of strikes, timing and balance. Lastly it's absolutely leg shattering. As the class progresses and the sequences lengthen, you find yourself throwing over a hundred kicks in each complete set. By the time I've got to this point, my strikes are generally useless.
'Base da luta!' he shouts again, it's towards the end of the class I can barely stand, let alone fire off a slick ten shot combo.
Out of sheer bad luck I've been paired up with the most serious seeming student in the class. Instead of one of the beautiful Brazilian girls in attendance, I get the fellow who looks exactly how you'd expect a Chute Boxe fighter to look. He's stocky, has a shaved head and kicks like a mule. For a brief moment I wonder if it's not JZ Cavalcante standing opposite me. However what follows quickly dissuades me from this notion. We've been holding the pads for each other, only that one his most recent body kicks was weighted more in favour of power than accuracy. It whistles below the pad and collides perfectly with my soft, untrained leg. Just underneath my hip bone.
He holds up a hand in apology.
'No problem'. I say through clenched teeth. It is a problem though. It's like being hit with a baseball bat and has sent my leg into a numbing sleep. It's not in the slightest bit conducive to maintaining a firm 'base da luta'.
Nilsinho watches as I do my best to flap through the sequence, though thankfully as I look around I see I'm not the only one struggling to maintain power towards the end of the combination. Happily he gives me some encouragement and doesn't yell 'base da luta' at me again.
As I come to the end of my sets I groan inwardly as he moves to centre of the class and demonstrates how to add yet another two kicks. It's like getting to the top of a mountain only to realise it's a false summit and your little legs have to carry you that much further.
After a more than an hour of this it becomes clear that there isn't going to be any sparring. This suits me just fine at this stage, I don't have the kit yet and I'm not sure I could handle getting pummelled and humiliated by one of the adolescent Brazilian Buakaws that are also in attendance.
When we wrap up we line up at the back of the class, loosely categorised into two groups; the better students on one side, and the ones with a tendency to flail around on the other. Predictably I'm in the latter group. It's a sneaky bit of psychology that at first irks me, then has the intended effect. For a moment I forget my gelatinous legs and feel motivated to improve to the point were I can be part of the other group.
Similar to the BJJ sessions there is a bit of formality to observe before we are dismissed. Nilsinho gives a short talk at the end of which we all file past him creating a line that each student moves along and then adds to when he or she reaches the end. As you pass each student you offer up a 'wai' (the Thai expression of thanks and greeting), and mumble some slightly breatheless praise to each other. It's a gentle ritual that contrasts nicely with the toil that has come before.
As I stagger out of the class I ponder that perhaps for me this is like riding a bike, after all I do feel pretty much as I would had I fallen off one.