Karate

Hi, and happy New Year. First of all, apologies for the lack of activity on here. I have been working on other projects, writing a sequel to my first fictional novel, which is currently in production under my pen name, Tyrrel Francis.

 

Anyway, I thought I would kick off the new year with a post on a subject for which there will always be a place in my heart, Karate, an art which was in Martial Arts terms, my first true love.

 

Karate is one of the best known Martial Arts in the West, but also one of the least understood. To many non-martial artists, Karate is just another word for Martial Arts, and any art gets branded with the label. This is partly why a film about Kung Fu got labelled as the remake of the iconic Karate Kid film.

 

Then there is the negative press, the readership of the armchair experts, labelling Karate as ineffective and flowery, judging an art by who, in their opinion, could beat who up. Martial Arts magazines can be just as guilty, belittling it in favour of whatever art has become fashionable at the time. Why is this? Is it because at one time, Karate was the ‘Fashionable Art’, and that time has passed?

 

Karate was the result of Okinawans, and other inhabitants of the Ryuku Islands, between Japan and China, being occupied by the Japanese, who banned the use and carrying of all weapons, being taught the art of Kempo by Chinese traders in order to defend themselves. This included both unarmed striking techniques, and adapting tools, mainly farming and fishing, as weapons. The practice was banned by the ruling Japanese after the art was used by a small and troublesome resistance against them, hence the use of Kata, or formal display, to hide the practice in a workout routine. After the Second World War, many American Servicemen, stationed in the Islands, learned the art and introduced it to the US on their return home, experimenting with competition rules, and giving birth to what we know as Kickboxing, which is not to be mistaken for the more ancient forms of Combat Sports such as Muay Thai, which has it’s on origins in Asia.

 

I have read an article in a Health Magazine, written by a Non-Martial Artist, who had tried a session of a few different arts, and printed his conclusions as to which arts were best for what. It was a brief insight, and he labelled Karate as ‘Best for Discipline’, but added that if you tried to use it to defend yourself outside the Newsagent, you would likely end up in Hospital. I have heard lot’s of similar conclusions from people who have watched a session, pointing out very helpfully the ineffectiveness and dangers of holding your non-punching fist on your hip, and working from deep, long stances, comparing it to arts such as boxing, which, being relatively simple, can be put into practice after a handful of sessions. I admit, as a person for whom Karate was my first love, that I have questioned the hours of drilling techniques up and down in lines, and the endless practice of Kata.

 

It does take years of practicing Karate to have the ability of putting it into practice effectively, and took looking outside of the art to realise what I had been practicing all those years. It made me realise why the more advance you become in Karate, the more short, higher stances are introduced, and the way you execute your techniques evolves. The long deep stances become transitional, not held for more than a moment at the correct time before shortening to what is considered one of the more ‘advanced’ stances. The years of working up and down the hall, of three step, five step, one step, and of advanced prearranged ‘Kumite’, were programming the muscle memory, and conditioning the necessary muscle groups, as well as building the fighting spirit and developing the internal organs in a dynamic way. If you watch a top level Boxer, or Mixed Martial Artist, you will see some of the same stances and explosive movements as you will see in a basic Karate session, and some of the same footwork.

 

Karate, when practiced at the highest level, is very explosive, dynamic, and direct. An advanced ‘Karateka’ is hardly recognisable from a basic beginner, but will still practice basic, fundamental, foundation techniques and drills. As an art, it is also a very effective, and compatible base style, giving the practitioner good grounding towards adapting to another art, whether it be a striking, or a grappling style.

Preparing for Competition

As Martial Artists, some of us feel the need to test our skills in a competitive arena, whether that be an open mat elimination tournament, or on a fight show in either a Boxing Ring or a Cage. Some may take this more or less seriously than others, but this depends on the drive and dreams of the Martial Artist or Combat Sports competitor. It is also influenced by the set of rules for the event. Having competed in Traditional Karate, Light Contact, Semi Contact and Full Contact, I can say that there is nothing more sobering that the knowledge that at a specified time and date, you and an opponent are going to attempt to knock each other out in front of a crowd.

 

So how do we prepare for this type of event? What can we do to know that when we step into that arena, that we are ready to do ourselves justice? I think the first thing that changes is the attitude towards training. You imagine your opponent training hard and pushing themselves, and try to train and push harder. When before you might take a breather, or miss a couple of repetitions, you keep going. You hit the pads harder and faster, you spar harder, and so on. You supplement and enhance your training by getting the running kit on and getting out when you can’t train at the club. The great Mohamed Ali always said; “The fight is won or lost on the road!” And of course, there is a lot of truth in this.

 

For events with weight categories, weight has to be monitored and controlled. This is not rocket science, as it is done with a combination of training and diet management. Simply put it is energy expelled versus calories consumed. Looking more deeply, it is trying to make sure you eat the right foods to support your training regime. Each individual will find out what works best with their own metabolism, but the basic principle is to make sure that all food groups are represented in the right amount. Natural sugars, as found in fruit, are good to consume before training, and irons, proteins and natural fats, as found in vegetables and meats can be consumed afterwards. Trying to cut weight drastically is ill advised. It is best to cut over time and stabilise at around your fight weight so that any adjustments leading up to the event are minor, is much healthier and more likely to succeed. Martial Arts Sports and Combat Sports are a lifestyle, so long term adjustments to the way we eat are not unreasonable and will make us healthier in the long term. My personal recipe for this was to switch to soya milk from dairy, have regular intake of vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, green beans, soya beans, baked beans and as well as other vegetables, and fruits such as bananas, cranberries, raisins, grapes, blueberries, and raspberries, usually in a homemade smoothie. If you try living and eating like a monk, you will be setting yourself up to fail, but by simply controlling indulgence, and not bloating yourself to finish your plate, it is possible to regulate your weight.

 

For full contact, remember that large muscle groups have the potential to slow you down and drain you, and you need to keep a certain amount of fat reserve to help absorb impact, and as energy reserves. No matter how fit you are, you will be glad of these when competing. Fast food is worth avoiding, but it is also important to treat yourself with something you enjoy. Fish and chicken, as long as they are of a good quality, are good sources of goodness, including protein and carbohydrate. A good source of natural fat is the avocado, which goes well either in a salad, a sandwich, on dry biscuits or on toast. Brown rice is a good food, but remember, it needs soaking in water for a few hours before boiling. Overnight is the best, otherwise it is like eating toe nail clippings, which never did anybody any good. White rice is also a good source of carbohydrates. A useful tool for weight adjustment is celery, which takes more energy to digest than you get from it, however, dipping it in sour cream and chive dip, or humus, does defeat the object! I am no dietician, as that title has to be earned by academia, but anybody can call themselves a “nutritionist”.

 

Once you are in this mind set, however, it is difficult to fit rest into the schedule. We are not machines, and our bodies need time to heal and consolidate. Sleep is important to rest our minds, and give ourselves time for the benefits of all our hard work to take effect. This time can be used to visualise the event. Picturing the “Walk On”, the most nerve wracking part of competing on a fight show is good practice. Listening to your entrance track can be useful mental preparation, as well as picturing yourself engaging with your opponent.

 

Taking every opportunity to train by yourself when you cannot train with others, either at the club, or as extra curricular work is advisable. If bag work is part of this training, then music can help. Again, if you can include your entrance track in this, it can help you get in the “mode” when the day comes. Love it or hate it, running is the base of all fitness. Running to fight is different to running long distance. It is better to cover short distances quickly than long distances slowly. Interval training is a good way of simulating the explosive nature of Combat Sports. Properly cushioned footwear is essential to prevent and minimise injury.

 

Regular stretching exercises are a good way of maintaining health of your muscles and tendons, and preventing injury. This does not need to be taken to the extreme. Some of us are more flexible than others, and if you try and copy Jean Claud Van Damme you have the potential to cause yourself a long term injury. Ease yourself into the stretch, let your body settle and then ease a little further and hold. You do not need ballet dancer flexibility to do well in Martial Arts or Combat Sports, but keeping yourself as injury free as possible can never be bad.

 

On the week leading up to the event, this is the time to ease off, but keep yourself active without risking injury. You do not want any niggles or soreness on the day, but you need to be happy in your own mind that you have done all you can to give yourself a chance.

 

On the day of the event, you will find your own routine. Hopefully you will have done all of the groundwork. Now it is down to nerve control. If this is an event where you have to weigh in, have a medical and a referee’s meeting etc, just go with the flow but try to relax and focus. Take plenty of fluids, and eat foods that are beneficial, like Bananas, raisins, pasta, tuna or salmon I have always found this type of event easier to deal with than an open mat elimination tournament, because you have a rough idea of when it is your turn to compete. Elimination tournaments always left me mentally exhausted you can never relax, having to constantly monitor several areas at once. I think my record was the 2007 WAKO British championships, when we had to set off for Nottingham at about 0600hrs, weigh in and register at about 0930hrs, and I had my first bout at around 1900hrs. This was in the Light Contact category, each bout was 2 x 2 minute rounds, and I came away with a silver medal, which I really felt I’d earned by that point. I was just glad somebody else was driving as we travelled back to Somerset.

The Origin of Martial Arts

Before reading an article about the subject, I always used to assume that Martial Arts originated in The Orient. The main theory, however, is that the birthplace of what we call “Martial Arts” is actually India, brought to China by travelling monks with a need to protect themselves against bandits and such like on the perilous journey. I don’t know how the historians came to this conclusion, as feasible as it sounds, as there are many possible answers to the question; “Where do Martial Arts come from?”

 

Really, as somebody who ponders this type of thing, I think there cannot possibly be more than one answer. I find it hard to believe that with the human race, being what it is, spread out over the world with a tendency for violence, and the need to defend against it, then there has to have been many influences to what became Martial Arts, and this would explain, in part, the many styles and disciplines. I doubt very much that it all started with one style and spread outwards from India, evolving differently with every direction in which it was shared. The ways in which an art could have evolved are varied, but not as varied as the direction from which a system can be taken from the basic need to fight in some way and evolved.

 

Conquerors such as Alexander the Great and Genghis Kahn and their compatriots would obviously have contributed to, and influenced different fighting systems with both the military application, and early Combat Sports. The famous flying kick, as depicted in the popular TV series “Kung Fu”, was said to have been an idea of the Mongolians as a way of dismounting enemy cavalry by using a pole vault to propel themselves to the height of their enemy on horseback to kick them out of the saddle. There is no record of this having ever been attempted, but it sounds impressive.

 

Another story I enjoy is the origin of Brazilian art Capoeira, which came about from natives rebelling against the cruel slave trade. Capoeira is characteristically acrobatic and flamboyant, partly because it was hidden from the colonial rulers in traditional dance.

 

Every nation with a violent history, which is most, if not all, will at some point have had some system of fighting, whether that be grappling, striking, or armed combat. Some of these systems had military applications, some were for the purpose of resisting oppressors or self defence, some for sport, or some purely for spiritual enlightenment.

 

I used to wonder, as an Englishman, why we do not have a native Martial Art, when our history is as packed with people fighting each other as any other nation’s. We do however have some systems. Western Boxing can only be the evolution of Pugilism, where two people fought each other for the amusement of a crowd, who would wager on the result. I did, when researching titles on Self Defence, stumble on a book about an art called “Bartitsu”, popular among the Gentry during Victorian times as a method of defence against “ruffians and robbers”, using common items such as umbrellas and walking canes, as well as fists and feet, and referred to in the tales of the fictional character Sherlock Holmes. There is also a Combat Sport, spawned in the rough mining towns of the North West called “Catch Wrestling”, which is barely heard of in the UK, but is very popular in the US. I would still have expected there to be more however, such as the art of using a quarter staff or other traditional weapons, but then, our feudal systems were not around as late as those of countries like Japan or Korea.

 

Freestyle Kickboxing was the result of American service personnel, based in Okinawa and Japan after World War II, bringing the art of Karate home with them, and then experimenting with different competitive rules. Another system from the US was founded by the late Ed Parker, body guard to Elvis Presley, and founder of American Kenpo, a hybrid of Chinese Kempo, which was the forerunner of Karate, taught to the Okinawans to defend themselves against their Japanese occupiers in a regime where weapons were banned.

 

The French produced La Savate, a style sometimes referred to as “French Kickboxing”, which is the result of Napoleon sending envoys to discover how the Okinawans had managed to cause their Japanese occupiers so much of a headache without weapons.

 

Kung Fu is said to have its roots in Shaolin, where the Buddhist Monks learned to defend themselves when they left to teach in other areas of China, and shared the spiritual philosophy with their religious discipline.

 

Tae Kwon Do evolved from Korean soldiers, regularly picked on by their Japanese occupiers, being taught a mixture of Karate and other Korean arts, Tang So Do and Moo Duck Kwan, forming a hybrid, which became Tae Kwon Do.

 

It does seem that some things travel full circle. Many arts will have evolved as a result of soldiers and warriors fighting systems, and it is from some of those arts, that techniques are taken and adapted for use by modern day military and law enforcement. Arts such as Ju Jitsu and Aikido have a range of techniques that can be adapted to both of these roles, and it wouldn’t surprise me if elements of Ninjitsu are used in Special Forces training.  On the flip side of this, Krav Maga is a modern system of self defence, based on techniques used by the Israeli military.

 

So, going back to the original question, it is highly likely that the origin of Martial Arts is an evolution around anywhere on the planet that people gather or live together. There are arts in Africa, South America, Europe, and obviously Asia, and all have no doubt been evolving for however long human beings have existed together, fought each other or even worshipped together, and they’re all evolving constantly.

The Objective

Sometimes, when martial arts, self defence and fighting techniques are discussed, a disagreement ensues about what skill set is best in a self defence situation. This argument, depending on those involved, and the setting in which the argument or discussion takes place, for example, the pub, can reach varying degrees of silliness and outrageousness. It has, however, caused me to ponder, yet again, about what differs these competing entities for the ‘practicality crown’? I have come to the conclusion, that what sets the skill sets apart is ‘The Objective’.

 

The Martial Artist

Objectives for martial artists vary. Self defence may well be one of their motivations for training, but there are grades to achieve, competitive achievement, fitness, health, stress relief and many more. Most martial artists pay a fee to train, and do so because they want to, not as a job.

 

Combat Sports

In combat sports, the objective is simple. Win. This is done by outscoring, submitting, knocking out or outperforming the opponent as scored by referees or judges. The opponent will have trained for the competition, and will have a similar skill set. There is a large overlap in combat sports and martial arts, as with self defence training. A ven diagram can be drawn with the three headings.

 

Door Work and Security

Door staff are there for the safety of the customers, and are employed or hired by the establishment. Their skill set is based around spotting and anticipating trouble, defusing conflict, ejecting trouble makers, splitting up fights, and managing the customers in the event of an emergency. It takes a certain mentality and awareness. They generally deal with people in a state of intoxication, mostly through alcohol, but also through recreational drugs. They are often the target of abuse and violence, just because they are there doing the job, and in some situations they have to defend themselves. Good door staff will look out for each other and minimise conflict, and most door staff qualify as this. It is a job which requires patience, courage and awareness, and most importantly, the mind set of looking out for each other and working as a team.

 

Police

The police skill set is fairly unique. It incorporates some of the skill required of door staff, but the boundary does not end at the doors of a premises. They are required to head towards situations, like the other emergency services, that most members of the public avoid and head away from. When it is necessary for the police to use force, as well as separating combatants, they need to be able to detain and often restrain offenders, some of whom, do not come willingly. It is not enough to simply defend themselves. They might have to pursue suspected offenders on foot, before getting into a physical struggle with them. It is far safer, both for the detainee, and for the officers, for more than one officer to be involved in the arrest. This is often looked on as ‘unfair’ by some, usually the one being detained or their friends, but fairness doesn’t feature in the objective.

 

Armed Forces

The military application will vary depending on the circumstances, but if this happens to be a war time or conflict situation, then this can include attempting to kill somebody. Usually this will be from distance, with varying types of weapon, but occasionally it could involve close quarter combat.

 

 

Street Fighting

When somebody refers to themselves as a ‘street fighter’, it can often be a large tell tale sign of an ego, and wanting to impress. I don’t quite know what qualifies somebody for this label, or whether it requires training of any kind. I suspect strongly that the type of person who aspires to this label is either telling a story to ‘big themselves up’, or when on a night out, likes to get involved in scuffles and brawls. Most of the time, it is not a fight this person is looking for, but to hurt another, and brag about it later, adjusting the facts to make them look either aggrieved or increase their status within whatever social group they mix. Their targets will more often than not, be somebody either distracted, outnumbered, or that they assess as less of a threat, because, lets face it, if it’s a fair fight, they could get hurt! Quite often, this is the type of person described as ‘the attacker’ in a self defence situation.

 

Close Protection

Body guards are employed by those who can afford it, and who are perceived either by themselves, or another party to be at risk. For a close protection operative, their objective is to protect their client, as the title suggests.

 

Self Defence

Self defence is the use of avoidance, escape, or if necessary force to protect yourself, your family or friends. You cannot always anticipate or avoid a confrontation, but if you do happen to be attacked, then the objective is clear, escape, ideally without injury, or if are unable to, neutralise the threat by proportionate means. You have to remember that you may have to justify your actions later, so it is important to only do what is necessary in order to get away, or get those dear to you away from trouble. It is not to teach your attacker a lesson, or leave them unconscious and humiliated. This might be necessary in some cases, but your aim is not to impress.

 

In truth, all of the categories of skill set above have elements which can be applied to defending yourself, less so in the case of our friend the ‘street fighter’, but within the others, the only thing that varies is the objective. It is also worth pointing out that many of the techniques used and taught in the professions and pastimes employ the same principles as are taught in martial arts, just selected and adapted to the task in hand. At the end of the day, as humans we are only variations of the same form, and the laws of physics never change.

Every Student Matters

It may sound obvious, but one of the hallmarks of a good instructor, is one who has time for every student. In addition, one of the hallmarks of a truly great club, is one where there is a diverse mix of personalities, goals, skill levels and backgrounds amongst the students. What I mean by this, is that some clubs are for fighters only, and others are for fitness or grades. There is nothing wrong with either, but a truly great club can be all of these.

 

Yes, it is great for the club to be able to boast a high percentage of local, national or even international champions, or black belts for example, but is this a universal attraction to the club? Every club needs new members coming through the door, and for those new members to become regular members, who bring more new members, otherwise, the club ceases to function. It is a fact of life that people have to move on, or give things up for varying reasons, therefore, for the club to survive, it has to attract new blood.

 

Competitive success is a goal, and a motivation, but it is only one of the many goals that can be strived for in Martial Arts and Combat Sports. Some people are motivated purely by the health benefits, stress relief or to build confidence. The timid personality, not necessarily a child, who is being bullied at either work or school, is as much a part of the club as the seasoned competitor training for their next bout, or the star pupil preparing for their next Black Belt grading. A good instructor or coach will have time for all of them, and be able to work the sessions to benefit all. True, one week the focus may be on one group more than another, but as long as this is shifted and spread about, then the balance is restored. Plus, even the most seasoned practitioners need to spend time on the fundamental basics of their art.

 

There comes a common problem among Combat Sports and Martial Arts clubs. Every club has this person at some point, and sometimes more than one. They are not necessarily a vindictive or malicious person, perhaps over enthusiastic, driven, or their ambition is just not equalled by their coordination. This is the person that everybody dreads partnering during the session, whether that be to practice techniques or combinations, or to spar with. The pair work is often worse with this person, because you have to ultimately take their over enthusiastic blows, or suffer the pain of the bone on bone block, with which they consistently manage to catch you in the same, traumatised spot.

 

Sparring with this person can become a test of extreme courage every time you touch gloves with them. Some of these people do calm down. Some of them need to be knocked down by a senior student or the instructor to get the message, “either calm down or don’t come back,” but there are some who just won’t get the message. The harder you hit them, the more they enjoy it, and the more it escalates. Yes, this type of sparring does have its uses for others training for fights, but to have to do it all the time is unsustainable. Sometimes, say after a long, tiring day at work, you may not be in the mood to have to go flat out in order to avoid injury. Most people have to work to earn a living. No wage, no training! So the number of people willing to work with this individual becomes less and less.

 

In addition to this, the worst time for the timid beginner to walk through the doors is when this person is in full flow, mid sparring session. It is intimidating enough walking in to a club full of black belts and senior colour belts, or just being the new addition to the club among seasoned regulars, without wondering if this person is going to be unleashed on you.

 

This type of person has to be managed carefully, and sometimes it will take a very strong instructor to do this. Some clubs have the luxury of being able to run fighters only sessions, away from the view of those who do not wish to go down this route, but sometimes this person is too much of a liability to work with the fighters, who cannot afford to be injured, either because that means taking time off work, or it disrupts their preparation for their next competitive event.

 

No instructor wants to ban somebody from the club, but sometimes, for the sake of the club and the other students, there is no option. It is sad and difficult decision for the instructor to make. It is much easier if this person is a sadistic bully (sadly, you do encounter these in any walk of life, including Combat Sports and Martial Arts), but when it is somebody who basically has a good heart, but can’t control themselves, it becomes so much harder. However, so that the others, the single mother needing her release, the timid, bullied teenager, the older man trying to get active and avoid ill health in his later life, as well as the other potential competitors and seasoned fighters, it sometimes has to be done. As well as a good instructor, a great club will be filled with good, rounded people, who will understand and be grateful that their mentor has taken action for the good of the many.

To Grade, or Not to Grade

I’ll never forget the feeling of swapping my White Belt for a darker colour. My first Karate Grading was very formal. One of the senior instructors came to the club for a week day session, which he took. The grading followed the main session, where we took it in turns, starting with the most junior, to demonstrate basic combinations, pre-set sparring, and finished with kata. I would liken the experience to having a sack full of sand poured down my throat followed by exhausted elation at climbing the ladder.

 

My first Judo Grading was a different format. It came in two sections, theory and practical. For the theory, I had to demonstrate throws, ground holds, arm locks and strangles to an examiner. The techniques were divided into a syllabus for each grade. In order to reach each grade, the theory up to that level had to be demonstrated and certified. The practical test was similar to competition. Every entrant got three or so bouts, and entrants were assessed according to how well they performed, obviously taking in to account the number of wins. In my first grading, I lost every bout, but, as a junior at the time, was allowed to attach three red bands to the end of my White Belt.

 

I have never been able to come close to describing the feeling of achieving Black Belt status. Clearly it is not the mythical badge of the elite that was perceived, but the closest I can get to describing the feeling is passing your driving test a thousand times or more in one day. I’m not devaluing it, it is a significant step along the way, but then, you move to another ladder, and struggle on upwards once more.

 

In Eastern countries, such as Japan for example, there are no colour belts. There is white, and there is black. The word ‘Dan’ simply translates as ‘Degree’. A Karateka gets his or her black belt on achieving a ‘Degree’ in Karate. Prior to that system, the instructor wore a Black Belt to differentiate from the students who all wore White Belts to hold their gi jackets closed.

 

Coloured Belts in Martial Arts, and some Combat Sports, were a Western addition. It could be argued that this is how, we in The West, gauge our progress. A more cynical argument would be that it is a way for clubs, instructors and governing bodies to make more money out of students.

 

When I made the transition from Karate to Western Kickboxing, I was initially reluctant to start climbing the ladder again, but my instructor persuaded me to skip a few grades and go for one that he thought was my level, already having years of experience behind me, but also having to adapt. I don’t know why this accelerated my improvement, but I suspect it may have been that as a higher grade, I was paired with the higher grades and therefore tested more and more. It felt just as good to reach Black Belt level in Kickboxing.

 

I have since trained with many other Kickboxing clubs, some of which recognised my grade and allowed me to wear my belt, but at others the instructor requested that I remove it if I were going to train with them. I always went with what the instructor wanted because the most important thing was to be allowed to train. I did not suddenly become inferior because I was not wearing a belt.

 

When I started training in Muay Thai, I found the fact that we don’t wear belts refreshing, liberating even. I’m not saying that there is not a ranking system in Muay Thai, but in my club we don’t even have a club uniform. In a class there is a mixture of T shirts, training vests and long sleeved rash guard tops, as well as Muay Thai, Boxing and MMA shorts. You can only tell the advanced students from their ability, and everybody pairs with everybody as a matter of course. Some people progress faster than others, but nobody worries about who holds what grade.

 

I don’t know if it is because I have been through many gradings, and my inner ego is satisfied, or if I am tired of the stress of gradings, but one of the things that I am enjoying about Muay Thai is this non uniformity. I like to believe that I haven’t stopped improving, so the question is; are gradings necessary? Do we need to have colour belts as interim badges of rank, merit or progress, or can our performance speak for itself?

 

It may seem like an ‘opt out’ conclusion, but I think that, although gradings and a structured belt or rank system are not necessary, they are not a hindrance either. What they do is give you a benchmark to define your own progress. The Black Belt is not the end of the journey either, as there are then Dan Grades to achieve, but in Boxing, for example, this is not an issue. You don’t have to grade to improve or progress, but if it leads to personal achievement, why resist doing so? A colour belt, or other depiction of grade, is something to feel personally proud of at every stage, and if it makes you hungry for more, that can only be a good thing. Really, if you enjoy your art, you will remain hungry regardless, but what it essentially boils down to is a balance between doing as ‘The Romans do’, and personal choice. However, it is hard to stand at one end of the line while those around you are moving up, if that is the way your club and its governing body operate.

Making the Weight

Combat sports have weight categories for very good reason. Fairness. Yes, skill, speed, mobility, timing, fitness etc are all tools that can be used to level the playing field, it is the whole point of having a skill set, but the bigger the weight difference, the more of these attributes are needed to equal the balance and make a fair contest. Being outgunned by an opponent with more weight and power behind their attacks is a very real, and significant obstacle to overcome, and requires your skills and abilities to be substantially superior to theirs. It is by no means impossible to beat somebody bigger, heavier and more durable than yourself, but it does make it that much harder, and even more so in sports such as MMA, which include grappling. Obviously, like the other factors listed, weight can never be an exact match between opponents, but it can be within boundaries of proximity. I have first hand experience of getting this wrong, being almost 10kg lighter than an opponent, leaving no margin for error at all. As it was, I did make one hell of an error, leaving myself open for a well timed shin across the face, and ended up unconscious and lying through the ropes, half out of the ring. Lesson learned!

 

From then on, I did not intend to lose weight, but over about 8 months I lost 9kg, which meant dropping from middleweight to welterweight. It was over a long period of time, and one thing I have managed to do is settle at that weight.

 

I was at a fight show last weekend (thankfully my own performance does not need to be mentioned in this article) and one of my team mates, after completing 3 x 3 minute rounds of full contact K1 kickboxing, suffered from dizziness, and couldn’t stop shaking. It took a lot of sugary drinks and a bit of time to get him to settle again. This was due to more than one factor, but arguably the biggest, was rapid weight cut within a short space of time.

 

In an ideal world, weigh ins would always be 1-2 days before an event to give time for the competitors to rehydrate, raise sugar levels etc. The tragic death of a kickboxer in the US last year brought that exact issue to the headlines. However, most of us aren’t at a level of competition where we have the luxury of making it to the venue 1-2 days prior to the event. Only the very top competitors don’t need to have another job, and for competitors such as myself, competing is not going to pay the bills, and we therefore work full time. So we have no option but to weigh in on the day. If all shows insisted on weighing in the day before, at best, only local fighters would compete on local shows, as not enough people would be able to travel. It could potentially be the death of fight shows below top professional level. This however, leaves the issues around competitors needing to continue whatever dieting routine they have needed to follow, right up until the last minute, give or take a matter of hours.

 

I am sometimes staggered by the amount of weight some fighters have to lose in order to compete at their target weight. It can really reach the extreme in some cases, and I sometimes wonder at the long term health risks involved with continually losing and gaining weight, in some cases by 10kg or more. I have seen fighters enter the ring looking dangerously gaunt, and seen them lose their energy very rapidly in what is a highly stressful environment for the human body to be in. This is supposed to be beneficial to our health, but I cannot see treating ourselves in this way as being the least bit conducive to long term wellbeing.

 

In order to compete, especially in full contact combat sports, the body needs enough fuel to keep going, to be sufficiently hydrated to process the energy and keep the brain focussed, and have enough fat, not only to act as back up energy, but to help absorb impact and blunt trauma.

 

I promised myself a long time ago, taking the advice of an experienced kickboxing instructor, that I would not do this to myself. Yes I made the error I mentioned above, when I should have walked away from an unequal contest, but I have never had to cut more than 1-2kg to make weight. I have always settled near to my fighting weight and tried to maintain that as a constant. Don’t get me wrong, I do not live and eat like a monk, far from it. My partner thinks my diet is terrible, but I would argue that I eat all of my food groups, and include foods that are conducive to my training. I believe that if I were to join dieting groups, then I would be consistently rebuked about my intake of carbohydrates, but I do not follow such a regime. I just work on the theory that if you include a variety of fruit and vegetables, limit the amount of animal fat and red meat, and neither starve, nor bloat yourself, added to training hard and regularly, then the body should be able use what you give it in a constructive way. I’m not claiming that what I do is perfect, nor would I say that I am either a leading authority, or an expert, but I like to think I have a good level of energy compared to a lot of younger men and women, and I would also mention that I am rarely ill.

 

The day of a fight show or competition can be stressful enough, without having to worry about being light or heavy enough, and the knock on effect of not being able to eat or drink enough until very close to the event is added and unnecessary pressure. Some competitors may feel that in order to be in this world, that they have to endure sizable adjustments to their body weight. I am of the mind that we can make things a lot easier on ourselves by not giving ourselves too much to do, in too short a space of time. This avoids risking a detrimental effect on our long term health, and our ability to be as good as we can at what we do.

Fitness in Class

I recently heard a Ju Jitsu instructor quoted as saying. “If I want to get fit I’ll go running!” This was apparently not in his own class, but when taking part in a Muay Thai session. I have also heard a top Muay Thai instructor say about his sessions. “I’m here to teach the art. It’s up to my students to work on their own fitness.” So there are obviously two trains of thought here. Should time in the session be devoted to fitness, or should it be up to us to find time for the extra work?

 

I once, when searching for somewhere to train after I had moved, took part in a session when the instructor rebuked me for putting too much effort into a technique. He told me. “When you get attacked, fear will reduce your energy levels to thirty percent, so you need to be able to practice the technique with thirty percent.” Yes, being attacked does reduce your energy, I can’t say by how much, I suppose it must be different for everybody, but assuming it is a seventy percent reduction, and you’re used to drilling your defence with thirty, won’t that mean you risk being reduced to minus forty in an unexpected tight spot? That was the last time I trained at his club.

 

 

I discussed the ‘thirty percent theory’ with a Jeet kung Do instructor, who I know from when he trained at the same Karate club.  It was his branching out to Wing Chun and Escrima that inspired me to look outside my base art as he had done. His sessions were physically tough, yet he still had a range of ages and abilities. He told me; “That’s why I work my students hard. I can’t scare them, but I can wear them out and then get them to practice their techniques.” Something I noted for myself was, during his sessions, it was the individual effort he was looking for, based on the individual, not on a common target.

My old Karate instructor always said that Martial Arts is for everybody, which is also true. His sessions were full of a wide range of ages, and people with disabilities. In fact, the other instructor was a childhood polio sufferer. However, we might not have done circuit training during the sessions, but I always left feeling like I had worked out.

 

 

That seems to be the point. Everybody has a level that they can safely work to. Before joining a club, many instructors will get new students to sign a disclaimer to assess their fitness to train, and if there is any doubt, they will advise them to consult their doctor, in much the same way as a commercial gym or a personal trainer would.

 

I have always said that if I were to suffer an injury, or my health were to deteriorate to such an extent that I could no longer keep up with my current level of training I would find something a little less extreme. One thing about Muay Thai, is that you can’t train without some physical exertion, even if you don’t include circuit training or other drills in the session. The extremity of this will depend on the club and instructor.

 

As a competitor in Combat Sports, like many other members of my club, I am of the mind set that fitness is a vital part of the training, should be included as part of the session, and built on outside the dojo. But then, I compete in a full contact arena, and this is not necessarily a common rule of every art or Martial Artist.

 

Lengths of session vary from one to two hours. If circuit training is included in that time, it can be a significant percentage of the time, especially if more time is dedicated to stretching. The session has to be constructive to its purpose. If you have a Tai Chi class, which includes a high percentage of senior citizens, the aim of the session is the general aerobic and spiritual health of the practitioners. Their needs differ from those of a Judo club, full of people looking to grade and compete, or a self defence based class. It is a question of context.

 

Going back to my initial question, the amount of time during a session, if any, dedicated to physical fitness, outside that gained by practicing the techniques, depends on the nature of the art being practiced, and the style of the instructor. Mohamed Ali once made the statement. “The fight is won or lost on the road.” This is very true of competitors in any sport, and for anybody to achieve their maximum potential, an amount of training outside the club sessions is essential.

 

There is certainly a place within the session for fitness, but it is most beneficial if it is what is referred to as ‘Sports Specific’. Being able to bench press one hundred kilos might be beneficial for practitioner of a grappling based art, however, it should not be done in the same way that a body builder would do it. Something both grappling and striking arts have in common is the need for explosive power and speed over pure brute strength, together with good cardio vascular and body conditioning. Body weight exercises such as sit ups, squat thrusts and so on, combined with the use of equipment such as skipping ropes, kettle bell weights and medicine balls are extremely beneficial. In lots of cases, the fitness, practice of techniques, and drills are interlinked. Pad work and bag work are good practice for range, depth and accuracy development, and support all of the fitness needs of the Martial Artist or Combat Sports Competitor.

 

If you join a Boxing, Kickboxing, Muay Thai, Judo or MMA club, you can have a fairly reasonable expectation that fitness training is highly likely to feature somewhere. If you are joining a traditional Ju Jitsu, Karate, Tao Kwon Do or Kung Fu club for example, the inclusion or exclusion of other forms of workout will depend heavily on the point of view of the instructor and the physical capabilities of the club members.

Sportsmanship vs Gamesmanship

I was recently involved in a discussion, via the medium of social media, after I commented on a status, posted by a friend and MMA competitor. The subject was the latest round of a Mixed Martial Arts show, which had been recently aired on television. The theme of the status was the conduct of two of the competitors, before and after their bout, which was hyped as a ‘Grudge Match’.

 

During the broadcast, they showed footage of one of the fighters making a personal comment about the other, and his relationship with his ex girlfriend, followed immediately by the other shoving him backwards. Then followed clips of the two being interviewed and verbally bashing the other in very loud American Wrestling style, loaded with testosterone. Then came the fight. The aggrieved fighter won by decision, although it was not a classic encounter by any means, but he won convincingly. Then they continued to bait each other, having a microphone provided to assist with this.

 

I happened to agree with my friend, who thought that this behaviour turns what is an emerging sport into a soap opera. However, one of her American friends disagreed strongly, I assume he had strong feelings, to use the language; “I wipe my ass with your sportsmanship. This is a ‘Bloodsport’, and you have to be a fighter to appreciate that!” Okay, obviously hit a nerve there, but, as we both pointed out, we are full contact competitors, and still would rather our sport, and art weren’t dragged through the mud by behaviour no better than that expected of a football hooligan.

 

Sadly, this type of thing is ever present, and always gets time in the media. People always forgave Mohamed Ali for it, because of his talent. The late Henry Cooper, who fought Ali twice, voiced his opinion on this type of behaviour, but still forgave Ali, saying; “There was always a sense of tongue in cheek with Ali, but the others, they mean it.” I am an Ali fan as well, but I think there were times he crossed the line, and I wish he hadn’t. He played mind games, and was good at it, but it lost him a load of local support when he fought Joe Frasier in Manila.

 

So where is the line between ‘Fighting Smart’ and ‘Fighting Dirty’? Is there a place for this in sport? The media seem to think so, but then, is any publicity really ‘Good Publicity’? Some people enjoy this kind of thing, but I can’t help thinking it does Combat Sports no good what so ever.

 

A sport cannot function without competitors, and high level competitors, in any sport, are role models for the next generation. Combat Sports and Martial Arts are about enriching our lives and making us better people, so who does this behaviour from the top attract to the sport or art?

 

Thankfully, there are still plenty of positive examples. In the same discussion, I gave praise to a fighter, known as ‘King Mo’ for his conduct. He won his bout by ground and pound, for those unfamiliar with this concept, it is as it sounds, he was on top of his opponent, raining punches down on him, and it reached the point where his opponent was no longer actively defending himself, so the referee, rightly, stopped the contest. Before King Mo disengaged to celebrate his win, he first checked that his opponent was okay. Yes he then went and enjoyed the moment and pretended to do front crawl, breast stroke and then back stroke on the floor of the cage, but he showed his colours as a true gent and a sportsman. Examples of more well known, positive role models for combat sports, are Amir Kahn and Nicola Adams.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I think that to succeed, using the rules of your sport to your advantage is a must, but I am not sure what is achieved by open bad mouthing and hostility other than to turn people away from the sport. It takes a lot of discipline, heart and commitment to reach that level, not traits that are in abundance in street thugs and hooligans, so why behave like one openly?

 

You may not like your opponent, but the best way to make a statement is to beat them, or make them have to dig deep into their reserves of will and courage to beat you. At least there can be mutual respect between enemies. They say that grudges sell tickets, but has it not all been done before? It may well sell more tickets if the event is run with good competitive spirit.

 

I think a lot of sports can learn from one of my other loves, rugby. This is a game where the players slam into each other at full tilt. Sure, tempers flare on the pitch, but that’s where it stays until the next time they play. One memory from 2014 is the sight of both the England and Samoa teams sharing a group huddle after their particularly physical encounter during the Autumn internationals. This is the type of thing that can sway the mind of the parent to allow their child to take up the sport, as they see two groups of rounded people sharing a moment of mutual respect after refusing to back down.

 

I have competed in Full Contact K1 Kickboxing for a few years now, although I started a little late in life, and after every fight, win lose or draw, I have showed respect to my opponent, received it in return, and I hope this continues. It has never been my thing to interact with my opponent before a fight. It is harder to try and knock a ‘Nice Guy’ out if I’m honest, but I’m happy to chat afterwards, and have made some good friends that way. These are people who have done you the honour of allowing you to test your skills, training, and personal qualities against theirs, and, as my friend who posted the status on social media pointed out; “What would we achieve if we had no opponents?”

Tradition vs Progress

People like tradition. Turkey at Christmas, eggs at Easter, fireworks on November 5th etc. We like traditions in sport, the Haka in Rugby Union, Tennis Whites and so on. Some Martial Arts are older than Christmas, let alone the other examples, and the traditions run deep. The traditions are respectful, spiritual, and sometimes mysterious. Some governing bodies place more emphasis on traditions, and honouring the heritage of the art, than progress.

 

Whether we like it or not, the world moves forward. Not always in the right direction, but change is one of the inevitable things in life, like death and taxes! Yet we still feel the need to cling to our past while continually adapting to the constantly evolving world around us. But then, do we lose the essence of what we’re doing if we ignore tradition and go with progress alone?

 

One analogy a Karate practitioner offered in a discussion with me years ago was;

“When breeding dogs, it’s nice to keep them pure and looking nice.” Okay, but my counter to that would be that if you over do it, without any fresh genes then the dogs have genetic defects and health problems, whereas mongrels tend to be healthier and live longer.

 

I spent thirteen years in the Royal Navy, a profession steeped in tradition, with far too many to list here. However, some traditions remain, and others fall by the wayside. I remember talking to an ex sailor, of senior years, and he was complaining that on board ship, the tradition of ringing a bell every hour was no longer observed. I would argue that this practice was removed as most people have their own watches and alarm clocks to keep track of their shifts and duties, but he would not be appeased. I am however, fairly confident that when he joined, there were old practices that had been removed, and that his seniors would have been complaining about their absence. Wooden ships are traditional, and beautiful, but where would the logic be in refusing to progress to modern warships just to preserve this?

 

So how does this apply to Martial Arts? An example within Karate is ‘Kata’. In Tae Kwon Do these are referred to as ‘Patterns’, and in Freestyle Martial Arts, and some styles of Kung Fu, they are called ‘Forms’. These are formal displays, where the practitioner demonstrates a set sequence of combinations within its own ritual. A Kata starts, and ends at the same point, with a bow. Karate was hidden within Kata for years when it was disguised as a kind of dance or exercise routine while it was banned by the Japanese occupiers when they ruled the Ryuku Islands. Karate survived because of Kata, and it is still considered an important part of Karate training. But what is the benefit of practicing Kata, and other traditions in the modern world?

 

Using Kata as an example, ignoring the traditional and spiritual significance, done correctly, it is an exercise in timing, movement and technique. It also helps to develop fighting spirit, body conditioning, and focus, as well as presenting an important element of Martial Arts, respect. This is done in different ways in arts such as Muay Thai, Boxing and Win Chun, where training drills and pad work are used. Muay Thai, although a Combat Sport, has as many traditions as Karate, due to its ancient roots in Muay Boran and links to Buddhism.

 

However, if we reject adding new techniques and more effective ways of achieving the aim, don’t we get left behind? Doesn’t what we’re doing just become a flowery display? I don’t think many people start training in a Martial Art without at some point considering its potential to be used as a self defence system. During my time practicing Karate, one thing that I noticed was that we spent a lot of time working on defences against Karate techniques. We occasionally practiced a kind of improvised self defence scenario, but as a percentage this was limited, and it is difficult to play the ‘aggressor’ when you have been practicing sharp, clinical techniques for years.

 

Some traditional Martial Arts uniforms, such as the Karate or Judo ‘Gi’, or the Tae Kwon Do ‘Dobok’, are based on the style of dress in the time and region of the arts. They have no practical design, and can actually be quite restrictive and uncomfortable to train in. We may experiment and use different, more advanced fabrics, but the basic design stays the same. In Muay Thai we are lucky with the traditional shorts, but they were designed for purpose to allow freedom of movement during competition. Some more modern fighting systems are more interested in practicality than uniformity, and this is sometimes reflected in what the practitioners wear to train.

 

As time goes on, new traditions can be adopted as older ones are replaced. People evolve too. I do not miss practicing Kata now that I train in Muay Thai instead of Karate, but that does not mean I regret spending years doing so. Quite the opposite. I feel that it has had a massive influence on my life and personal development. If something is labelled as ‘Traditional’, it does not automatically mean it is better or worse, it just means that it has been around a long time. It is true that self defence in 19th Century Okinawa differs from that of 21st Century Britain, but both have basic principles in common.

 

So is tradition a block to progress, or is progress an insult to tradition? Surely there has to be a balance between the two. Everything has to evolve to fit into the modern world, but keeping positive traditions alive can actually aid progress. I would be sad to see, for example, the bow taken out of the ritual of Eastern Martial Arts, as it is a gesture of respect and humility, which are qualities that can help make us better people.

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