The Diaries of a Rebel Ivy League PhD Student Preparing for his First Muay Thai Bout

This piece is the first entry in a six part mini series detailing the journey of Paul Muniz, an Ivy League PhD student preparing for his first Muay Thai bout. Paul will make his amateur debut at Friday Night Fights on February 28th, 2014 at the Broad Street Ballroom in New York City.

Part 1 of 6: Why Am I Doing This?

paul munizWith my amateur Muay Thai debut coming up on February 28th, which is less than three weeks away from the time of this writing, I am constantly asking myself “why do I fight?”  My short answer is this: fighting satisfies me.

My name is Paul Muniz.  I am a 23 year old sociology PhD student at Cornell University.  Additionally, I have held research positions at Stanford University and with the Cory Booker administration in Newark, New Jersey. I graduated with my BA in sociology from SUNY Geneseo in December 2012 as one of the top 15 members of my graduating class, which was composed of slightly over one thousand students. I am the son of a union construction worker and, as such, I come from strong working class roots.

All of this, combined with my Puerto Rican heritage, tells a tale.  I am the story of upward mobility; I am the lucky one who achieved, and continues to achieve, the American Dream. Undoubtedly, this results from a combination of my hard work, the hard work of those around me, and a fair amount of luck.

I live in beautiful Ithaca, NY, free from many worries and woes. I have amazing friends and an phenomenal girlfriend that I am convinced is Super Woman.  My program at Cornell is fully funded, which means that they pay me to go to school. In short, I have everything in life that I could have ever dreamed of, so why the hell would I sign up to step into a ring with a grown man whose only task is to try to take my head off?

Because like I said, fighting satisfies me.

Allow me to elaborate:

I believe that we as humans are inherently social beings. We only really exist in the context of the other.  We dress to satisfy the other, we talk in a language that is understandable to the other, we engage in behaviors that are socially acceptable to the other.  This other is not anyone in particular, s/he is just a generalized idea that reflects how we think our actions will be received by the general public or by a specific group that we wish to impress.

In our interactions with the generalized other(s), our purposes are twofold. First, we are genuinely social beings, and sociality satisfies us.  We enjoy being around people we like and gain a genuine sense of satisfaction from interacting with those that we want to interact with.  Second, we have ulterior motives.  We are bounded utility maximizers that aim to achieve our own individualized ends, sometimes at the expense of another. While these two facets of social life are sometimes mutually exclusive, they are not necessarily so.  In this particular journey, my personal motives and my desire for sociality do not clash.

I am going to apply the two aforementioned points to my journey in reverse order.  First, my personal motives to fight are simple.  I am a young, testosterone sodden male who has something to prove. It is a peculiar desire, but it is not uncommon. I yearn to show the other just how tough I am.  Muay Thai just might be the most dangerous of the major combat sports, so I figure its a good route to take to demonstrate my toughness and my masculinity. To me, this is fairly straight forward.

The other point, about the satisfaction of sociality, requires a bit more detail:

In 2011, I met Gary Moneleone, a Muay Thai fighter who has since gone on to win a WKA North American championship and to fight for large promotions such as New York City’s Friday Night Fights. Gary’s work ethic both inside and outside of the ring inspired me to push harder in my own life.

Inevitably, Gary and a few friends that I met within his circles (e.g., Chris Longo, Paul Miller, and Sunny Rivera) started teaching me little things here and there. I have always been fairly athletic and I do have a background as a scholastic wrestler, so the move to Muay Thai felt somewhat natural.

Seemingly overnight, I had friends picking up fights all over the place. I witnessed my close friend and high school classmate Sean McArdle start off his amateur career at a perfect 3-0.  I saw Gary improve leaps and bounds en route to capturing his WKA title.  I was introduced to a bunch of talented fighters, and in an apparent blur I was all of a sudden immersed in the central New Jersey Muay Thai community and culture.

Then, in the Spring of 2013, I met Jaffer “Poppa Pump” Panezai.

When I met Jaffer, a 2013 WKA world champion who is now my coach, I was in awe.  Jaffer is a warrior like those found in storybooks.  He is a leader, an intellectual, and a guru of sport.  He also has a body shot that will leave your liver feeling worse than a handle of Jack Daniels taken straight to the face. Jaffer quickly became a role model to me and his other fighters became my family.

This is where the social component comes in.

Jaffer has recently launched a new fighter brand, Bad Guy Muay Thai, (shameless plug, check us out at facebook.com/badguymuaythai) which is a sponsorship team that I am proudly a part of.  When the bGMt fighters train, WE TRAIN.  We work to that point where we discover new parts about ourselves and about our farthest limits. We arrive at these points of discovery as a team, and I learn more about myself than I could in any classroom.

There are few things that I’ve experienced that can bring me closer to another person than this mutual and simultaneous discovery of self.  If you walk into Apollon Gym in Edison, NJ on any given day, you’ll likely see a combination of us beating the snot out of each other.  If you keep watching, you’ll see that after we’re done training, we hang around joking, laughing, and sometimes even crying.  This is one of the most powerful types of social bonds that I’ve experienced.  This, to me, is representative of the power of pure sociality.

paul muniz muay thaiWith the aforementioned in mind, I want to speak briefly from a more abstract level. I want to speak about life choices and maximizing happiness. We generally try to be rational utility maximizers; that is, we aim to be somewhat selfish in order to maximize our incomes and the amount of stuff we can buy, the trips we can take, etc.  We try to maximize the quality of our sexual partners and the newness of our electronic devices. This is exactly why I work tirelessly in the classroom. I want to gain prestige and I want to maximize my income potential.  The funny part about this is that these are goals that mediate the actual goal that we all share: to achieve happiness.

Fighting, to those with my best academic and career prospects in mind, is seen as irrational. I am risking head trauma when my brain is my ticket to a lavish lifestyle.  I won’t be able to focus on my studies as closely while preparing over these next three weeks. I have spent money on training and travel that I could be investing more wisely. I show up to class having to hide (or explain) bruises and some days it is a struggle to sit in a chair at a discussion session for several hours because my legs hurt from eating a few too many kicks in practice.

But if the ultimate goal is happiness, and Muay Thai makes me happy, then am I not circumventing these intermediate goals and simply arriving at true happiness by fighting?

I have no intention to stop being an academic or to stop pushing my mind to its limits, but there is no point in my life for being in the classroom if I am not happy while doing so.  I have the freedom to pursue multiple goals at once; one for today and one for tomorrow. So for now, I will fight and I will be happy.  I’ll think more later.

Part 2 Part 3

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