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The Extraordinary True Story of How a Muay Thai Champion Survived Hell on the Frontline in Afghanistan
By Paul Warren, Jeff Apter
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2015 Paul Warren
All rights reserved.
'EFFORT. PATIENCE. MODERATION. RESPECT.'
I think there's always been drama in my life. I was definitely off to a rough start when I lost my mother before I'd even reached my first birthday. I only know her through old photos and other people's memories; I've never really looked into the circumstances of how she died. But clearly I've been dealing with death from a very young age. While I try not to dwell on it and concentrate on the family I have rather than the one I've lost, when you're exposed to death as a child it's a devastating thing, something that scars you deeply.
I was born on 19 February 1979, in Port Kembla, an industrial town on the south side of Wollongong, best known for its huge BlueScope facility and sandy beaches. I didn't have a great relationship with my father, Ron, even though he didn't neglect my needs growing up. We have no relationship at all today, but I harbour no real animosity towards him. We've just grown apart.
My father was an old school type, stern, a disciplinarian. He worked on oil rigs and places like that. He was also a pretty good rugby league player, a front rower in the Group 7 competition, who'd go on to captain-coach teams in Warilla and Albion Park. I saw him play a bit as a kid. He wasn't overly big for his position, but he was tough. Later in life he didn't mind telling me how good he was, which could become pretty annoying. But that's how he was. The strongest father/son memory I have from my childhood is the day the handle of a cricket bat broke as he wrapped it around my backside. I guess you could say I was a bit of a menace as a kid.
After my mother died in 1980 my father remarried within a year or two and my step-mum Rochelle quickly became a very special person in my life. But by remarrying, Dad created a divide in our family. My birth mother's parents disliked my father, and that in turn created a disconnect between my older sister Diana and me, which we've only recently started to repair.
I don't like calling Rochelle my step-mum — she might not have been my birth mother but she treated me like her son and raised me. To me, your mum is the woman who raises you, and that for me was Rochelle. She looked after me when I was sick, and when my brother Shaun and I started to compete in fights, she would drive us all over the place, with no complaints. I considered myself lucky — Rochelle was incredibly supportive. I've heard from people who had trouble with their step-parents, that there'd be some kind of distance, but that just wasn't the case with me. Rochelle is also a very strong woman, who has had to deal with Crohn's disease for much of her adult life. Although she is on the tall side for a woman — she stands about five foot ten — Rochelle usually looks drawn out and tired, her shoulders stooped, because of her illness and the medication she takes. She also lost much of her bowel due to cancer. But Rochelle is very tough, which is a constant with the women in my life. Joan, my mother-in-law, is a breast cancer survivor — and my wife Dee has to put up with me, which can be a bit of a challenge.
Rochelle could be a disciplinarian; like my old man she wouldn't let any of us get away with stuff. But unlike Dad, she would explain why I was getting in trouble, whereas with Dad I'd get a hiding and then I'd wonder, What was that all about?
Rochelle's son Shaun is my younger brother — and if you ever call us half-brothers you'll be offending us both. We're very different physically; Shaun is stockier than me, a fair bit shorter, and we're four years apart, but we have a relationship that's stronger than the bond between blood brothers, to my mind. Sure, we fight and fight hard, and are both stubborn as hell, but that's how brothers are, that's how they relate to each other. I'd also grow close to Craig and Alex, my other younger siblings, over the years.
Shaun doesn't say much, but he has a lot of resolve. I've seen him take some terrible hidings in the gym, but he never gave up: he just kept coming back for more, fighting hard. When my wife Dee first met him, she pulled me aside afterwards and said, 'I don't think he likes me.' He hadn't said much to her all night, but that's just his way; he's reserved. Shaun would come to express himself in different ways; he'd think nothing of fighting in bright pink shorts, something I'd never do.
When we'd play backyard footy as kids, the games would always end in a fight — and as we got older and began sparring together, we'd get pretty competitive, often a bit out of control. However, fighting together on the same fight card when we were older remains a very fond memory for me. And I was glad to see Shaun many years later at my bedside in Germany, after my accident in Afghanistan, when I was really hurting.
* * *
Mum and Dad moved us to Toowoomba in Queensland when I was about two or three. I'm pretty sure that our move was prompted by their desire to try a new life in a different place. My Dad had been offered a captain-coach's post with a footy club in Toowoomba, and he also held down a regular job, working nightshift.
We settled in Crows Nest, a tiny little town about 40 kilometres outside Toowoomba. And I do mean tiny. The population was maybe 1000 people; the town centre was little more than a small group of shops and a solitary pub. It was the kind of place you could drive through and not notice a thing, a real dust speck on the map. There were fruit orchards just outside town, but it seemed to me that two out of every three people who lived in Crows Nest worked for the council.
I was a chubby, uncoordinated little fucker and was bullied, sometimes even beaten up, by older kids on the way to and from the local primary school, which was no fun. But I didn't bear any grudges, I just accepted that was how life was: I was the chubby kid the older kids picked on. I was no athlete, either. I'd typically run last in every athletics event in my early school days. Dad, because of his footy background, was always onto me and Shaun about training more, and I did improve athletically towards the end of primary school. But those early years were tough.
I was a bit of a wild child with a thing for pyromania — I loved playing with matches and all that kind of mischief. I'd visit my grandmother, grab some matches and hide away under her house, lighting little fires. I guess I was bored. One day at home I was flicking an open fire with a tea towel, and it caught alight. Instead of throwing it on the ground and stomping out the fire, I ran to my sister's room, opened the door and threw the flaming tea towel inside. It wasn't the smartest move I've ever made. The story still makes my Mum mad.
One day, when I was ten and Shaun was about six, Dad came home and dropped a bombshell on the pair of us.
'What do you reckon,' he asked, 'about trying out karate?'
Shaun and I were absolutely into the idea, but at the same time, we were a bit shocked, especially when Dad told us he'd been going to a dojo for several months himself. We couldn't connect Dad and karate; he just wasn't that kind of guy. It was such a bad fit. He was pushing 40, his body had been pretty smashed up playing footy — and he was working out in a dojo? Looking back, I suspect he might have been keeping it quiet so he could get a bit of a head start on Shaun and me if we took it up. Typical.
Anyway, we loved the idea and were keen to go. We'd both played football and other sports, just like most kids our ages, but this seemed different and new. It was the era of Jean-Claude Van Damme and The Karate Kid, which we'd watched on an old VHS tape, so we knew enough about the sport to be interested. Karate was cool. I also think that Dad figured we could use a little more discipline, and that was a big part of karate, as I'd quickly come to learn.
* * *
I remember the first time I walked into the gym at Toowoomba PCYC, where the Renbukan karate club was based. The lessons were held in an upstairs room, not quite the size of a basketball court, but still a big open space with a hard wood floor. There was a bigger space downstairs, which, as I came to learn, was like the Holy Grail for a kid like me. This was where the adults trained, along with the kids who had progressed really well. My first big goal was to get down there, where the real action took place. I always needed a goal to keep me motivated and focused; without a target I could get lazy.
Anyway, I was ten years old that first day, and I walked in wearing my footy shorts and my bright yellow shirt from school, while all the others were decked out in their karate outfits, ready to go. I was way out of place. Straight away I knew I had to earn my way in, that I had to man-up in order to get through these early sessions. And there was loads to learn, important things like bowing before I entered, paying my respects to the dojo and the people inside it. That was new. Then there was my GI, my karate uniform; I just had no idea. There were strings going everywhere and early on I never tied them right and my shirt would be flapping all over the place within the first few minutes of a class. Clearly, there was way more to karate than flailing away at the other guy.
At the same time it didn't take long for my alpha male to emerge. A few weeks into my time at Renbukan I found myself looking at the others in the group, sizing them up and thinking, 'Well, I'm better than you — and you, too. That guy over there can kick; I'd better watch him.' Not much has changed over the years.
I loved karate, Shaun did too, and as our skills improved we both started to dedicate more and more time to the art. Shaun and I really got into training and the process of putting on our GI, once I got all the strings sorted. Yet athletically speaking we were very different. Shaun chose to juggle karate with footy, but unlike me he was just one of those naturally gifted blokes, who'd score three tries in the grand final and make it look easy. Karate was no different for him.
Dad coached Shaun's footy team and they butted heads a fair bit. I remember one game, when Shaun's team was ahead about forty points, and he was lining up a conversion for yet another try. As Shaun prepared to kick the goal, on a whim he switched around, converting the try left-footed. While he still kicked the goal, the old man went nuts. To him, it was a sign of disrespect. He pulled Shaun straight off the field, no questions asked.
I was proud of Shaun and happy for him, but he also pissed me off. He could be a bit lazy. As a junior he had talent scouts from big footy teams like the Bulldogs sniffing around with a view to signing him up, but Shaun didn't change for anyone or anything. I had to work harder.
* * *
We took to karate like ducks to water and were mad keen to train three times a week. Mum would drive the 40 minutes into Toowoomba after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays and then again on Sundays. This created an interesting situation at home: Shaun and I had to behave or Mum and Dad could potentially stop us from going to training.
The old man really laid down the law. 'We're not putting all this time and effort and money into karate,' he told us, 'if you're getting up to no good.'
So no more fire starting or madness for Shaun and me. We toed the line and really dedicated ourselves to training, a commitment that would continue over the next seven or eight years, as we worked our way up through the ranks.
A lot of local kids were bored and got into drinking and smoking weed at a pretty early age, but this didn't hold any interest for Shaun and me, particularly once we started competing. (I now plan to do what my parents did and put my children into martial arts as soon as they're old enough.) Karate taught me a lot of things I may not have learned otherwise at that age: confidence, coordination (which I desperately needed), discipline — and respect.
The respect part of karate was a different concept for me to get my head around as a kid. I came to accept that it was part of martial arts; that was the way things were. I learned to kneel as I entered the dojo and bowed to show respect to the teacher. As instructed, I did my best to empty my head of all the rubbish from the day and simply concentrate on the class. At the end of each class we had a chant: 'EFFORT. PATIENCE. MODERATION. RESPECT.' I didn't understand it at the time, I simply memorised it, but looking back I think they're qualities I now have as an adult. OK, maybe not patience, but I'm working on that.
* * *
At the end of that first year, after months of training, Renbukan held their annual inter-club semi-contact tournament, mainly, I think, to give the youngsters a taste of competition. It wasn't so much a chance to beat people up but to test our skills and see if what we'd learned stood up in a competitive environment. It was also a chance to be 'graded', to potentially move up in belts. The process went like this: you'd advance from a beginner's white to a yellow belt and then have a black stripe added before advancing to the next colour; the stripe was sort of a halfway mark. So from a yellow belt you'd move up to yellow with a black stripe, and so on, hopefully all the way to black belt. There were two, maybe three gradings each year, so I'd spend about six months at each belt level.
I was a very nervous ten-year-old yellow belt, tying up my GI and preparing for my first competition. I must have run to the toilet a million times as my nerves got the better of me, an unfortunate trait that stayed with me throughout my fighting career. Someone said to me that it's good to have butterflies for a fight, 'but they have to fly in formation'. That comment stuck with me; it made good sense.
In karate there's a two-minute time limit, there are no rounds like in boxing, and the goal is to score as many points as you can with kicks and punches. It is really more a display of technique than anything else. Karate is built upon repetition — although I couldn't hit especially hard at that age.
I think there were eight of us grouped together and my goal was to finish in the top three. Even as a ten-year-old I was madly competitive, more so when I saw some of the senior blokes with Queensland representative badges sewn onto their uniforms.
'Yeah,' I thought to myself, 'that's what I want.'
The one kid who really stood out from the others was Matty Hall, a good friend of mine from school in Crows Nest. I could see even then that he was way better than me — and it felt really weird fighting someone I regarded as a schoolfriend, bowing to him and then trying to kick him as hard as I could. (We're still good friends today.) Matty might have been stocky but he was strong, with amazing flexibility and explosive power in his legs. He whipped his kicks up high and fast. I looked and learned; I could see how easy it would be for him to land a kick on my head — and the last thing I wanted to wear was one of his kicks. My awareness only made me even more nervous, so much so that I accidentally kicked him in the nuts. Matty didn't like that and he got really pissed off at me. He beat me and went on to win the event.
I didn't make the final after losing to Matty but I did finish third. I knew two things straight away: I really enjoyed the sport, but I needed to train harder and focus more intently if I was to get better.
All my family was there to cheer me on; Shaun was still too young to take part. Dad wasn't the kind of parent to pat you on the back and tell you how great you'd done, but he did make sure I stayed calm and didn't get distracted. Most kids would be bouncing around, full of nervous energy, but not me. Even though I did well in that first event, there were no big celebrations afterwards. Once we'd helped pack up and drive home it was late afternoon. I think we shared a couple of cans of soft drink back in Crows Nest.
I sometimes think about how supportive my family was; I really can't complain. Growing up, Shaun and I had everything we needed, even if Dad could be a bit of a hard-arse. Who knows what might have happened if Mum and Dad hadn't supported us? I could be sitting in the pub in Crows Nest, on the council, without much of a future. And it's like quicksand in that town: if you don't get out you'll go under.CHAPTER 2
I underwent some big physical changes when I reached the end of primary school and morphed from a chubby kid to a gangly, praying mantis-like thing. There was a downside to my growth spurt — for reasons I didn't understand, the divisions in some karate competitions were broken down by height, rather than age or weight. So here I was, not quite a teenager, and I was up against sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. It was a classic case of being careful for what you wished for: I'd hoped for some real competition, and now I had it, all the time. We wore protective padding and some events were non-contact, so there was little chance of serious injury, but the fighting was still pretty fierce. I was punching above my weight, quite literally. Still, I won as many bouts as I lost.
Excerpted from The Fighter by Paul Warren, Jeff Apter. Copyright © 2015 Paul Warren. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsLIST OF PHOTOGRAPHS,
FOREWORD: AFGHANISTAN, 2010 by HUGH RIMINTON,
PROLOGUE: INVICTUS GAMES, LONDON, SEPTEMBER 2014,
1 'EFFORT. PATIENCE. MODERATION. RESPECT.',
2 KARATE DAYS,
3 FINDING MUAY THAI,
4 THE WARLORD,
5 NO TIME TO HEAL,
6 CHANGING COURSE,
7 BEING THE GREY MAN,
8 NEW PLANS,
9 IN-COUNTRY: AFGHANISTAN,
10 18 JULY 2009,
11 WORST DAY OF MY LIFE,
13 A DOWNWARD SPIRAL,
14 GONNA BE A DAD,
15 WHERE TO NOW?,
16 LIFE BEYOND THE ARMY,
EPILOGUE: LIVING WITH PTSD,
THE STORY BEHIND 'DUST OF URUZGAN' by FRED SMITH,