Full Contact: A Former Pro Kickboxer Discusses Fighting With Pain
*This is Part I of a two-part interview
No Pain, No Gain: Or Injury
With sports, come injuries: and pain. That’s inevitable. The role of orthopedic surgeons and medical staff – especially today, as professional athletes are bigger, faster, stronger – are crucial to players’ health and protection from injury and pain.
Though pain is a part of every sport, it’s most prevalent in contact and combat sports. One currently popular combat sport is Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA. Many of you know it: the cage around the ring, two martial art pros pitted against each other, to see which one is the “toughest” physically, mentally, and skillfully, to disregard the pain and inflict enough pain on their opponent so they “tap out.” But today’s blog is going to focus on America’s first mixed martial art. We’ll be talking with one of its founding fighters. The sport became popular in the late ’70s and early ’80s, further made popular up by TV and movie stars such as Chuck Norris and Claude Van Damme dishin’ out a whole lotta pain. Yep. We’re talking about kickboxing.
Today we’ll discuss this with a former kickboxer who’s seen his fair share of accolades: and his fair share of pain. He’s been on the cover of kickboxing magazines, has had profile articles written about him, and as I found out, has had lots and lots of injuries, pain, and surgeries. Not only was he a professional kickboxer, but he currently holds a ninth-degree black belt in karate: the highest level belt you can attain. He also recently retired from the police force as Deputy Chief after 32 years of service. His name? Mike McNamara. And how did I gain access to interview him for Onward Orthopedics?
Well, um: he’s, uh…he’s my dad (ahem).
I thought it appropriate to interview my father about his fighting career since kickboxing is a sport that touches on a number of issues orthopedic surgeons face. I wanted to hear his opinions and experiences with injuries, pain and pain thresholds, and how it affects not only competing but how it affects the body long-term. We’ll get to the long-term in Part II of the interview, but for now? Let’s listen in on what “The Greyhound” (his moniker during his fighting days) has to say:
OO: Well, hello, Dad! To begin, can you give us a brief intro. about your karate career?
MM: Well, hello, David! Sure. This is now my 50th year in the Martial Arts. I Started Karate in 1967 at the Elgin YMCA in Illinois when I was 16. I made black belt in June of 1972 but competed in karate tournaments around the country ever since I was a white belt. While competing, I met Ken Knudsen, the owner of Olympic Karate Studios: a chain of karate studios in the Chicagoland area. When I made my black belt he offered me a job running one of the schools.
OO: You’re also a retired Police Officer, which I’m sure also can be a pain hazard! But you’ve competed throughout your career as a cop in the World Police and Fire Games in Karate. How many times did you medal at the Police Olympics, again?
MM: In the World Police and Fire Games, just in Karate sparring, let’s see…I’ve been to 11 games throughout the world, and got seven golds, two silvers, and two bronze.
OO: And am I right that was a record medal count?
MM: Yeah, that’s the most that anybody’s won.
OO: Boom! Right now, though, I want to focus on your kickboxing career, injuries and the pain you sustained. As a combat sport, you’re prone to a lot more pain and injuries, I would think. So, how did you transition from karate to becoming a professional kickboxer?
MM: It was a natural progression. At that time it was actually called Full Contact Karate. Kickboxing is actually a part of karate. I was always involved in competition & liked the boxing. Competing in the martial arts always [felt like] a “game of tag.” [Meaning,] you win by scoring touch-points rather than trying to knock down your opponent, like in boxing. I liked [the full contact aspect] so I got into kickboxing. It became an organized sport in 1974 when the Professional Karate Association (PKA) held the Full Contact Karate championships in L.A. We then started promoting Full Contact Karate fight cards (the name of the promotional company McNamara co-founded was called ChicagoFights), as did other people around the country. That was in 1975.
OO: Did it require different training than karate?
MM: Much, much more intense training.
OO: Orthopedics is commonly thought of as Sports Medicine. When you were competing as a kickboxer, what kind of injuries and pain did you sustain? Later on, we’ll talk about the orthopedic surgeries you’ve done.
MM: I’ve had every finger and toe broken; my nose has been broken ten times; I’ve had numerous ribs broken; a torn meniscus in my left knee; a torn rotator cuff, and these are just the ones I’ve had surgery on. I’ve also broken my right hand, and, according to my orthopedic surgeon now, I at some point broke a major bone in my foot that healed but formed a bone chip. And then…I’ve had a neck fusion from repeated trauma to the neck and spine. My doctor asked me if I had ever gotten hit in the head before. I said: “uh…maaaybe?” (he starts to chuckle).
OO: Stop, stop, dad! You are a hot mess! (we both laugh: me probably more loudly).
MM: But wait, I haven’t told you about the concussions.
OO: Oh, yeah, that’s a good point to talk about. Go ahead…
MM: At last count…seven concussions?
OO: Wow! I didn’t even know that. Well, I guess that explains why you’re stupid! (Another joke: my dad is quite articulate, actually. He holds a Master’s in Criminal Justice, and tours around high schools giving presentations with his company License for Life). This seems like a good time to discuss pain & injury in sports, then. At Onward Orthopedics we’ve talked in the past about pain thresholds and the Pain Index Indicator. When you became more seasoned as a fighter, did you feel your pain threshold got higher?
MM: Sure. You ALWAYS were hurt.
OO: When you were fighting, did you ever think about the possible long-term damage to your body?
MM: When you’re in your 20’s and 30’s you don’t think past tomorrow, as far as injuries go.
OO: So you did compete with pain?
MM: When I break toes, sure, when I break fingers, sure. We would just tape them up and continue.
OO: That’s really relevant. We recently published a blog post about football players, concussions, and what’s called a “culture of resistance.” Was there a “culture of resistance” when you were competing as well? Meaning, did you play when you were really hurt while pretending you weren’t?
MM: Absolutely. If you got hurt by your opponent you were trained to show you weren’t hurt.
OO: Any advice for those in training in terms of knowing when to stop because of the pain?
MM: Pain’s an individual thing. Some people just have a higher pain level.
[But having said that,] we always liked to say in kickboxing the toughest guy in the ring was always the cornermen. They’d say things like, “hey, you can do it, you can keep going, you’re not hurt! [etc.]”
But it’s like: hey! it’s not YOU who are in their fighting! That’s why you need medical people in the corner if there’s pain evident [to stop a fight if they see a player is doing a lot of damage to their body]. A lot of people don’t like medical staff because they’re in charge of stopping the fight, and stopping the fight is stopping the entertainment. I think having more medical staff is good. Why? ‘Cause you could be killed! You could be killed.
OO: That’s a great place to end. Thanks so much, dad. Talk to you next week!