Athletics have always been important to Adam Eskin, the CEO of Dig Inn, a farm-to-table marketplace chain in New York. But as he got a bit older–Eskin is 33–he began to find the routine at the gym pretty boring. Eventually, his trainer, noting Eskin’s competitive nature, said, “You should meet Mustang McKee.”
Mustang McKee, it turned out, was a British-born model who doubles as a trainer in the art of Muay Thai, or Thai boxing. Eskin remembers his first session with McKee. “I was punching and kicking the pads. That first session was exhausting, like no workout I’d ever had. It took that one session for me to say, ‘Okay, this is for me.’” Eskin soon realized that he wanted to do Thai boxing so often that he’d need to find a more affordable outlet–group classes. McKee referred Eskin to a studio called Renzo Gracie.
At Gracie, Eskin quickly learned his weakness as a fighter. In business, it often suited Eskin to be aggressive and hard-charging. But Thai boxing is a martial art: technique is more important than strength. “The best fighters don’t ultimately try that hard or exert themselves in order to generate power,” says Eskin.
Still, that didn’t mean it came naturally to him. “I was always a brute-force kind of athlete.” The instructors at Gracie told Eskin to relax, to go easy, but Eskin admits he started out just trying to punch as hard as possible. “It was partly ego, partly just that I liked hearing loud noises come from the pad,” he says. “When you’re new at something, most people are better than you, so you want to punch hard and kick hard, to kind of stick your chest out.”
Eskin says in those early days there were “countless incidents” where an instructor told him to dial back the power and focus on technique. “Then he’d leave, and three minutes later, I was punching too hard,” he admits.
Eskin started at Gracie in December of 2011; not until December 2012 did he graduate to the “elite” level, meaning he was finally allowed to start sparring with other partners (rather than doing exercises). It was an honor–but Eskin almost blew it immediately. The first time he sparred, an instructor told him to go easy. Eskin dialed it back briefly, but then started going too hard again. The instructor barked at him: “You’re not listening. Go have a seat. You’re out.”
“That wasn’t the last time I was given that type of feedback,” Eskin says now.
If it seemed, at times, that Eskin would never learn to dial down the aggression, a blessing in disguise was about to hit him in the face–literally. Recently, a sparring partner smashed Eskin in the face, breaking his nose.
In fact, it wasn’t the first time Eskin had been injured while studying Thai boxing. Luckily, he has come to see these injuries as key to his learning process. “Every time I’ve gone away for an injury of some sort, whether it’s been a mild injury or a longer one, I’ve come back a better fighter–or at least a better sparring partner.” He says that the time off from the sport allows him to engage in the “mental side of Thai boxing.” Gears turn in his brain; things start to click. “When I come back from an injury, I’m more Zen about technique,” he says.
For the longest time, for instance, Eskin had struggled to master the roundhouse kick. He had seen the expert Thai boxers at Gracie swing their legs around with grace and force, but Eskin had never been able to replicate the move. “I kept just taking my big thick leg and kicking really hard,” he recalls.
But when Eskin returned following an injury, something had altered in his brain. An instructor called on him to do a roundhouse kick, and Eskin lifted his leg, spun his back heel towards his opponent, and swung his leg around on an even plane like a baseball bat. “I finally figured out how to kick properly,” he recalls. “It was one of my high points.”
That day, after class, the same instructor who had chewed Eskin out for his aggression before praised his technique. “He shook my hand and said, ‘You did great work today, you showed tremendous progress.’ It felt really good.” Eskin went home and told his wife.
Following his most recent injuries, however, Eskin’s wife isn’t so keen on having her husband sparring again. On the morning of our interview, Eskin says he just threw out his back turning on a baseboard heater. Three weeks prior, he tore layers of skin off both his calves. He finds himself wondering if his original goal with Thai boxing–to be able to get in the ring and fight–should still be his ultimate goal.
“Part of me feels I want to give it one last shot, to train hard, and if I break my nose, so be it,” he says. The part of him that craves victory can’t imagine aiming for anything else.
But Thai boxing’s focus on technique rather than power has brought him around to another way of thinking. “A different idea might be to continue to think about the sport in a different way: to get exercise, to have technique-based goals.” He admits, though: “I’m having a hard time doing that. For me, it’s like, ‘What do you ever win?’”
He thinks aloud. “If I never get into a place where I’m opposing somebody, where I’m fighting for something. . .” he trails off. “Can I be satisfied with anything short of that?” He’s not sure. But if he could tap into the Zen part of him that wants to answer “yes,” he recognizes that that would be another kind of victory.