A Story My Soul Held in Reserve
January 25

A Story My Soul Held in Reserve

Nicole Disney blogs:


They say your first book is different from all the others. Special. Raw. It’s the story your soul carried its whole life until the moment you found writing. The Clinch is not my first book, but it’s special in that way, in that it’s a story my soul has long held somewhere in reserve. The well was deep, so writing it was effortless. It’s also one of very few stories that I’ve ever had to find a substantial amount to cut because I just could not shut up.

Many people know by now that martial arts is not a topic I pulled from my imagination, but a central part of my real life. That being said, it’s difficult to convey just how defining they’ve been. The quickest way may be to say that although I consider writing to be the great calling of my life and the reason I’m here, if you asked me to choose one and only one, it would give me pause. Martial arts have made me who I am, body, mind, and soul, but for all that gravity, the origin story is bordering on silly.

The day I knew I absolutely needed to be a master martial artist, I was five years old, and I watched the movie Mortal Kombat for the first time. I think that same day I also banked my fifth viewing. It was, hands down, the coolest thing I’d ever seen, and I was ready to sign a lifetime contract. I wanted to grow up in the temple Liu Kang abandoned. I wanted to avenge a fallen partner with the loyalty and intensity of Sonya Blade. Johnny Cage, well, I just wanted his spinning back kick. Every time the opening credits started and that iconic song played, that was my time to practice all the kicks and acrobatics on my bed until I was exhausted and ready to settle in for the movie.

It wasn’t long at all before my mom signed me up for Taekwondo, and my journey began. I’m sure it surprises no one to hear they don’t really teach five-year-old girls how to kill people, which I found tragic, but they did teach me priceless basics and introduce me to the culture of martial arts, the respect, the discipline, the ceremony, the language, when to suck it up and when to get off the mat, how to trust, how to wait, how to win, how to lose, how to fight, but also how to not fight. 

They also introduced me to the world of tournaments, and you would be forgiven for calling me psychotically competitive. If I placed in a position that meant I was to receive a ribbon, I found it disgraceful. The medals were better, but still disappointing. The only thing I found exciting were the trophies, first through third place. The way competitions were structured was that you would compete in a given event and were judged, but you didn’t know what you received. The number was written on a piece of paper and handed to someone who would then guide you to your place in the scoring line. The longer you walked, the closer you were to the top. The first time I was ever walked all the way to the front is one of my most vivid and lasting memories. I remember all my fellow competitors’ faces as I passed them, my heart jumping as I realized I was going farther than I ever had, finally being pointed to the position at the very front, waiting there while the last few people performed, and holding my breath as they were placed in the line, praying they would not steal my position. Even after they’d all gone, I was still nervous until they actually put the trophy in my hands.

Next came sparring, and I realized I had a level inside me that most people consider unreasonable. My instructor retired and was replaced by someone much more militant, a young instructor named Brad. The atmosphere was thick with high expectations, and it wasn’t unusual for him to find ways to test our mental strength. One day we practiced outside in the snow, and you’ll have to keep in mind that you don’t wear shoes in martial arts. That class cost him some students but made me realize I wanted someone even more Brad than Brad. I bounced around many schools and styles for years looking for someone to give me the kind of immersive temple style teaching I so wanted. I wanted to be pushed and tried and tortured and broken and rebuilt. I didn’t have the language for it at the time, but I was sensing the American watering down and commercialization of martial arts, and I desperately wanted to find the most brutally traditional and authentic teacher I could find.

This eventually brought me to Enshin Karate, and I was incredibly fortunate to walk into the worldwide headquarters, the exact dojo where Kancho Joko Ninomiya—the founder of Enshin and All-Japan Tournament winner—both teaches and lives. Considering he has expanded his style and dojos around the globe, I am to this day a little staggered by the luck of him teaching in a school that was a mile from me in Denver, Colorado, of all places. It was here that I finally found the experiences I’d been looking for and was introduced to the world of no-protection, full-contact fighting. I could not get enough of it.

Joko spoke English pretty well but did struggle sometimes and was prone to smacking body parts to communicate better. Until then, I’d only ever learned pieces of Korean, but now I needed Japanese. Oftentimes, for more elaborate lessons, one of his sons, Mike, Koichi, or Jota, who spoke perfect English, would teach. Joko would be off in the back corner kicking wood beams or sandbags to condition his shins until something bothered him, and he jumped back in to correct it. He was strict, uncompromising, and intolerant of anything resembling an excuse but passionate and very much engaged in the pact of trust and connection that makes a teacher/student relationship work. I’d finally found the intensity I was after.

Despite being happy there, I ended up leaving the dojo when I received an offer to teach at a mixed discipline school, which was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down at the time. I taught Taekwondo and Karate while also learning Muay Thai, Krav Maga, and my first tiny little taste of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I learned all over again that martial arts are mental more than anything else. One of the most important lessons I could get through with a student was simply creating focus. If I could do that, I could teach them anything. If I couldn’t, no matter how athletic they were, it was useless. Some of my students were miniature versions of me, obsessed with Bruce Lee or whatever else and giving me every ounce of their effort. Others had been dumped there by parents who just wanted a break from their hyperactivity. I became attached to my students, including the ones that would really rather not be there, but I could instantly feel that I’d gone back into an environment that had to pull its punches, literally. We taught good techniques, but I wanted the heat of real combat back.

Again, I left, but this time, there was a little something called mixed martial arts on my radar, or MMA. It’s not like it didn’t exist before, but for whatever reason, it took me that long to piece together that it was where I belonged. The reason I kept gym jumping, that nothing felt quite real enough or intense enough, was because I didn’t just want to learn martial arts, I wanted to fight. It was a distinction I never knew I needed to make, but it changed everything.

Over the years I had always craved more. I’d been annoyed by the bulkiness of chest protectors and headgear, exasperated by the setup of point sparring. I hated that if I landed a punch and they landed a punch, the score was one to one, even though one could have been a knockout blow and the other could have grazed off. I hated missing an opening because I had to slow my kicks to half speed. I hated that I could compete in a tournament and still walk away not knowing who would win in a real fight. I’d had plenty of hard hits, sparring that got rowdy, and a real dose of full contact with Joko, but it was usually the exception to the rule. To most people, I was fighting, but I knew we were shackled by too many rules to call it that. Then I walked into my first MMA gym and sparred with six or seven professional MMA fighters, and I knew I’d finally found them. My people. One more try at one more gym, and I found my new family. I’ve been there ever since.

Bringing you this world and pieces of my journey in The Clinch has been the most fun I’ve ever had writing. I finally got to bring my two passions together and hopefully make a little sense of how something that seems so brutal to so many is also incredibly elegant and beautiful, and that might be even better than representing the realm of Earth in Mortal Kombat.