“I love fighting it,” James Singleton says. “I love the pain. I love the whole experience.”
He may be annoyed by that last sentence, but he’s more than happy to move on from it.
Singleton is better known as a national champion judoka and figure skater, the teenage star who took the Japan National Skating Championships by storm at age 16 and dreamed of the Olympics. Those ambitions have taken a back seat for the rest of his life, as he’s expanded from striking to jiu-jitsu.
“I was better at gymnastics but I really liked the adrenaline rush of fighting,” Singleton, 26, told BBC World Service’s Studio Stream. “It’s the hardest sport in the world to learn.”
His discovery of jiu-jitsu came on a trip to Japan in 2014. “It’s this crazy, long, gorgeous, amazing sport with real people doing it. It’s like you’re one of them.”
But he was also suffering with injuries and burn-out.
“I was trying out mixed martial arts but I started to really fall in love with jiu-jitsu and I don’t feel that I’m fighting anymore. I’m learning something new and it’s so much more painful than anything that I can imagine.”
In February 2017, he beat Alan Roulston at the championship that will bring together British mixed martial arts fighters hoping to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
“One minute I was this kid who was fighting the year before and the next minute I’m the world champion,” Singleton recalls. “I don’t want to be world champion again, I want to be world champion for life.”
Unlike many fighters whose rivals cajole them into risking their safety by sending them for a sit-up or spinning kick, Singleton never went jiu-jitsu training alone.
“It’s totally addictive for me,” he said. “You want to keep on training just to keep on improving.”
What’s even more addictive, though, is watching other fighters and watching their skills he’s honed on TV over the years. It doesn’t hurt that as well as being the son of a judoka, James was also trained in mixed martial arts under an imposing Japanese guru.
“I’m learning more in the UK than I would have in Japan so it’s very close to what I know, so it’s very easy for me to improve, if I go to a game and see someone improve, that’s the motivation. The realisation that I can actually put it into practice is what’s motivating me.”
And on top of all that, competition.
“It’s not really a good time to make up my mind if I am going to become a jiu-jitsu fighter, I have a big decision to make,” he laughs. “So I’m training hard, I’m trying out new things and I’m trying to improve my confidence.”
So far he’s managed to overcome the fear factor. “Once you decide that you want to do this, and you begin to believe that you can do it, then you’re going to push your boundaries because you want to be the best.
“I’ll never go into a fight frightened, I love it. You get nervous when someone comes to hit you, but you kind of get into the fight when they attack you. You’ve decided to get out of the fight. I’m there to make you lose, and that’s what I’m here to do.”
Amelia Peck from Studio Stream
Studio Stream is a weekly online radio show exploring health, wellbeing and general wellbeing. Every Monday at 10:45am ET, it brings together people who are being creative, healthy and to living their best lives.
You can listen on the BBC World Service or stream the show on Soundcloud.