The Good Fight: Documentary & Feature Story
Editor’s Note: This is a mini documentary accompanied by a feature story about Michael Fisher, a Jamaican pastor from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He’s one of Canada’s premier martial artists. This story is about how he balances his two conflicting passions: faith & karate. See the end of this post for more information about the story’s context. ____________________________________________________________________________
Michael Fisher is a man of God — who also has the ability to put his opponents in a coma.
The 34-year-old Jamaican Baptist pastor who hails from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada is a lethal force in karate. As he sings hymns and read scriptures from the Bible during a Sunday service, Fisher’s peaceful demeanor would never indicate his true passion: Kyokushin kaikan.
Fisher is one of the globe’s top fighters in the lesser-known martial arts medium of Kyokushin, a very rigid form of karate. Kyokushin is a type of full-contact karate that was founded in 1964 by the Korean-Japanese Karate Master, Sosai Masutatsu Oyama.
“The whole philosophy of Kyokushin is about self-improvement, discipline and hard training. Everything about the style is hard,” says Fisher.
Fisher has been practicing Kyokushin since 2005. The sport’s philosophy centralizes around the “ultimate truth.”
“It’s not the Western concept of truth but the bushido meaning of discovering one’s true character when they are tried and tested through rigorous training.”
Zendo Kai Kan and laido are two are other forms of karate that Fisher practices. Kyokushin is different from MMA in that it’s direct sparring with no ground techniques. A fight ends when someone goes down or knocked out.
“It’s about learning how to not give up no matter how hard the fight is. Your body and mind have to be conditioned for the worst and even if you are injured, you may have to get in and do your next fight,” he says.
Fisher is a second Dan black belt in Kyokushin and a fifth Dan black belt in Zen Do Kai Kan. He regularly instructs karate classes in Canada, too. Aside from training and practicing Karate, as well as holding a full-time pastor position at Emmanuel Baptist Church, Fisher is highly educated. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics, a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Arts in Theology from various Atlantic Canadian universities.
Fisher was born in the small Jamaican city of May Pen. He also lived, trained and fought in Bermuda before transitioning to Canada in 2002. However, his athletic career didn’t used to look so promising. When he was 10, Fisher was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia.
“My doctor in high school says not to play any sports or do anything active because kids with sickle cell were at risk to die if they did so.”
Sickle cell anemia, common in tropical countries, is a disease where red blood cells take on sickle shape. It was a genetic mutation of the hemoglobin in Fisher’s blood, a trait he inherited, that caused this. Prior to medical advancements in recent decades, people with sickle cell anemia had their lifespans cut in half.
“I used to come home in crazy pain after every class, some days it was so bad I couldn’t get up.”
Spirituality gave him the power to overcome the ailment and he hasn’t taken medicine for the condition since he was 11.
“If God had plans for my life and that if he wanted to heal me or keep me around, nothing — not even sickle cell — could stop that. So I started playing soccer and then when I started karate I fell in love with it, especially the hard training,” Fisher describes.
Fisher was nearly 16 when he began practicing karate in 1994.
“I went to one class and was hooked,” Fisher recalls.
Jamaica’s culture was extra incentive for him to excel in karate.
“Jamaicans by nature are very proud and no one likes to be pushed around so even from a young age if you’re not able to stand up for yourself it’s not a good thing,” Fisher states.
“You’re weak if you can’t stand up for yourself. From a young age it’s important to establish that you can’t be pushed around or messed with — even if it’s just wearing a serious look on your face whenever you are out in public.”
He began to enter high school karate tournaments and he started to thrive in a variety of martial arts forms. Once in Bermuda, he began fighting in weapons divisions, usually with swords. However, the caliber lacked to what he was accustomed to in Jamaica. Upon arriving in Canada, he started a Zen Do karate club at his university.
Fisher was soon exposed to Kyokushin for the first time. In 2008 he pursued Kyokushin seriously as he began to enter national tournaments.
In 2009, Fisher was selected by Canada’s national team to represent the country in Budapest, Hungary where 500 international fighters had gathered. His time in Hungary was less than successful.
“I was disappointed but realized I had not trained enough for this caliber of competition,” he laments.
Fisher returned to Canada disappointed and down, but not defeated. He pushed his training to the extreme. He found himself in the gym everyday and in the dojo nearly as often. The next tournament that Fisher attended was in Maine in 2010. At the United States Kyokushin Open he stamped his name on his first major first place victory. A flurry of victories followed this.
The same year Fisher attended the first Dageki World Tournament in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The competition was slated to bring the world’s best fighters together. Scheduled to perform kata karate movements but not fight, Fisher changed his mind at the last second and entered in the fighting division. He hadn’t trained seriously in four months. Surprised, he found himself in the tournament’s finals facing off against Polish sensei Dominik Rzepka. An even fight until the dying seconds, the kickboxing Jamaican preacher made a fatal mistake that cost him the fight — and the world title.
“My hands dropped. I was exhausted because of the bad cardio and the Polish competitor — a really good fighter — put his knee into the side of my cheek and I went down on my knees, tried to get up but was still shaky so stayed down in disappointment,” Fisher explains.
Fisher’s lack of preparation became a mistake that wouldn’t soon escape his mind.
“In all my years of doing karate, this is considered my toughest lost. Every time I go to training — I never want to lose a fight because I’m not prepared — it must be because they are a better fighter.”
““I love the challenge karate gives and the applicability to life. All of life is a fight and you have to be prepared for it. Karate gives me the confidence to approach life with the attitude of never giving up or settling for anything less than the best that I can do.”
For months since, Fisher has had grand plans of redemption.
“Let’s say it this way: I have no intention to settle for anything less than No. 1.”
Fisher couldn’t picture his life without karate. He lives and breathes martial arts.
Fisher even prays for his opponents before meeting them in competition.
“The night before tournaments when I am praying to do well I am also praying for no one to get injured and for it to be a good day for all involved. If I hurt someone I care about their recovery so I’m definitely always praying about that.”
A testament to his faith, Fisher fights with the Japanese Kanji symbol for the Holy Spirit on his robe. Fisher found God when he was eight-years-old. He says the contrasting nature of faith and fighting actually compliment each other. For Fisher, his faith helps his karate and his karate helps his faith.
“Both are a fight that require discipline,” Fisher says.
“Fighting helps to challenge me to never give up on my faith — because I would never quit in a class. Faith gives me the confidence to know that no matter what fight I’m in, I have someone in my corner.”
Despite his love for karate, not everyone in Fisher’s church accept his martial arts endeavors.
“Because much of martial arts originated in Eastern societies there’s much concern over idol worship and animal worship. Thus, because karate is often seen as a type of martial arts, it’s often considered as a trickled down version of those arts that require meditation. That does not sit with people who believe they should be emulating you in their walk of faith,” he explains.
One woman even left his church in protest. She contested Fisher’s involvement in karate as something that she perceived as violent and a violation of his role as a preacher.
She found it hard to listen to someone who may have been preaching worship of God but seemed to be worshipping otherwise. It’s understandable because I’d react the same way if it were true. Problem is their interpretation and conclusions were wrong.”
This didn’t faze Fisher.
“It is what it is. I don’t believe in trying to please people, especially when no human being has the ability to determining the eternal home of your soul.”
His decision not to walk away from karate was firm. It wasn’t the first time Fisher pondered his involvement in karate with his religious duties in mind.
“A long time ago I wrestled with it when a friend brought it up. I stopped for a while, prayed about it, researched it and then went back when I felt okay to. The key thing for me was knowing that if it was something that would ever hinder my relationship with God I’d drop it in an instant with no remorse.”
Fisher’s role as a youth pastor has allowed him to forge important relationships with many kids both in and outside of church. Some of these youth are promising athletes who look up to Fisher and they, too, train with Fisher several times a week.
“A lot of young people need good guidance and a way to make choices that will impact their lives significantly. As athletes they are serious, even though they are young, about being better at their craft and will do anything to be better — that’s something you can’t go wrong with.”
Fisher, however, doesn’t tone down his routine to cater to the youngsters from his church. He pushes them — hard.
“I’m always looking at it as a life lesson. If I let them quit at something that looks like too much for them they’ll do the same thing when I am not around when life hits them hard.
Plus, they would be mad at me if I went easy. I’d be known as soft,” he joked.
Taylor Williams is a 21-year-old football player and one of these athletes who train with Fisher. Williams attends Fisher’s church, too. He was surprised to when recently learned of Fisher’s karate accomplishments.
“Mike is just a real good person,” says Williams. “You always gravitate towards him. He’s that guy you want to talk to and he’s real funny, too. I knew him as a youth pastor first. He’s a real modest guy so he doesn’t talk much about his accomplishments. It was just a few days I found out he’s second in the world and that’s a big deal.”
Williams says that people’s reactions vary when they discover Fisher is not only a preacher but a black belt sensei, too.
“People can’t wrap their heads around it because when you think about the church you think about no fighting. I respect that about him. People’s reactions are like, ‘that’s crazy. The pastor in your church fights?’” he adds.
Fisher’s work with his church’s youth group brought him to Asia in July. Roughly a dozen children and teenagers from Canada traveled with Fisher to Thailand. They taught English to junior, middle and high school students and performed volunteer work at orphanages near Bangkok. The group then traveled to Singapore where they attended the Baptist World Alliance Youth Congress. Fisher was pleased to visit the continent that fostered martial arts. He maintained his strict training schedule while in Thailand and Singapore and met many martial artists along the way. However, he was equally focused on making a difference in Thailand.
“The work we did is important because it opened the eyes of our kids and the kids we met. There’s no better way to transform young people than to take them out of their culture and show them how big the world is and then tell them they have a significant part to play in it,” he adds.
Editor’s Note Continued: The short documentary embedded at the top of this post and entitled, The Good Fight, is the inspiration for this story. It was shot & produced in Halifax by myself & my colleague Nick Ritcey before I wrote this piece.
This print version of the documentary came to fruition during my time in Singapore reporting for Asian Geographic. We finished shooting The Good Fight shortly before I landed in Singapore. We actually screened the film it in front of an audience the night before I flew to Asia. Fresh from production, I got to put our doc into words at Asian Geographic since they were running an internationally-themed mixed martial arts issue. Since Fisher is Jamaican-Canadian, this was perfect. Fisher also visited Thailand & Singapore after I wrote this article, which gave this story a more relevant angle. Thus, the timing was ideal, too. This isn’t as Southeast Asian-centric as my previous posts, but is a compelling story, nonetheless.
Connect with Dorian Geiger, editor of Sleepless in Singapore.