Rodney King changes his approach to martial arts

Rodney King picked up martial arts to protect himself from bullies; it ended up saving him – from himself.

MARTIAL arts exponent Rodney King was at the top of his game as one of South Africa’s leading mixed martial arts coaches and fighters when he decided to walk away from the world of competitive fighting.

“It wasn’t like I wasn’t winning. I was at my peak; I was doing great. But I also realised that winning didn’t make me feel better about myself. I didn’t feel like I was making a difference. I wasn’t confident or secure. In fact, I felt even more afraid and delusional, which is ironic. I was always looking behind my back. I took a look at myself and where I was at as a coach and fighter, and I didn’t like what I saw,” says King who was recently dubbed the “Father of Mixed Martial Arts in South Africa” by Sports Illustrated magazine.

What he saw was an aggressive alpha male who was out of touch with himself. King decided to take a step back and examine himself and his approach to martial arts.

“I was in a sort of depressive state and I thought to myself that if I was going to keep on doing this (martial arts), it had to be more than just about fighting. It had to transform me for the better and if I can’t find that, then I don’t want to do it anymore. So I stopped fighting and for a while, I stopped teaching,” he says.

King picked up martial arts as a young boy, purely as a means of self-protection.

“I grew up pretty poor on the south side of Johannesburg in South Africa. The neighbourhood was rife with gangs and I was bullied all the time as a child. I used to walk to school and because I was constantly being bullied, I had to find different routes to get home so that I didn’t get pounced on. My mother was an abusive alcoholic and I was kicked out of the house when I was 17. I didn’t finish high school and always felt like an outsider.

A necessity

“Growing up, I realised very quickly that it wasn’t important how smart I was but how tough I was. So I picked up martial arts as a means of protecting myself. It was a necessity,” he recalls.

King found respite in martial arts. He became one of South Africa’s leading martial arts exponents in the 1990s, responsible for bringing in mixed martial arts and Brazilian jiu-jitsu to South Africa.

“But I got lost in that world of being tough, you know. It overtook my life. I became the tough guy, the alpha male ...just the kind of person I feared as a young boy. I went into the military where I was a combat instructor for my unit and then after that, because I didn’t have an education, I became a bouncer for some of the toughest nightclubs in South Africa for eight years. I fought to survive,” he says.

Thankfully, King had that “light bulb moment” 13 years or so ago when he didn’t like the person staring back at him in the mirror.

He went back to the basics: studying the origins of martial arts and looking at the historical context of traditional “warriors” like the samurai, and he came to understand that he was missing the “balance” that is inherent in all martial arts disciplines.

“Take the example of the samurai. When a samurai trains, he doesn’t just train in warrior arts but also in the softer skills. They have to be a master of the sword and a master of the tea ceremony, they had to do theatre and calligraphy and be an expert in all that.

“Why would a samurai need those soft skills? Well, the way I see it is that the elders in that society realised that if you only teach somebody how to fight, he doesn’t become a warrior but a mercenary and the very people you charge to protect society will be the ones who destroy it. There has to be balance. It is the same with martial arts. The objective of martial arts is to transcend aggression,” he says.

After a two-year hiatus from fighting, King came back with a martial arts programme he designed himself called Crazy Monkey Defense (CMD) which does not focus on fighting but on applying the principals of martial arts in life.

“The main focus of the Crazy Monkey Defense programme is taking lessons from the mat into life. Most of our clients want to perform better in life and in their careers. It could be anything from learning to manage their stress, to developing a better mental game.

“To be at your peak performance in martial arts, you need to be completely present, focused and mindful of yourself. Anytime you start thinking about the future and pre-empting your opponent’s moves or dwelling on your mistakes, it’s just going to land you in trouble.

“This is true in life, too. To be successful in your career and to have successful relationships with people, you have to be focused and present and authentic,” he says.

Established in 2002, CMD is now being taught and practised in 13 countries worldwide, including Malaysia. King was recently in Malaysia to conduct a series of workshops at the Crazy Monkey Defense gym in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur.

What’s unique about the CMD programme, adds King, is the class environment which is anything but aggressive.

“Most of the people that train with us are not out to compete. Some are, but the vast majority come to us because they want to learn to move their bodies, to learn about themselves through movement and ultimately to live a healthier and more productive life. We don’t want meatheads or people who just want to fight. In fact, we won’t allow them to train with us.

“We aren’t hyper-competitive. We don’t want to create people who are aggressive. We want people to challenge themselves and not fight against each other. We want them to learn through co-operation. The nice thing about CMD is that you can come and train at your own pace. Some days, you may not want to push too hard and that’s fine. We want you to be inspired and excited and not walk out injured,” he says.

King admits that he has himself experienced the positive effects of CMD training and is no longer the angry person he used to be.

“CMD has, more than anything, allowed me to be happy with myself and not feel like I have to match up to anyone else. It has helped me let go of my anger because I was a very angry kid and an aggressive teen and young adult, and that was a heavy burden all my life. I have been able to let go of all of that and am completely confident with who I am now.

“And, it has helped me achieve success. When I was growing up, my teachers said I would never amount to anything and that I would be a failure. I guess I proved them wrong!” he says, with a confident smile. To find out more about King’s Crazy Monkey Defense programme, go to

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