Why hooligans should practice martial arts

I have been practicing martial arts for well over 30 years so the concept of striking other human beings without the need of being angry at them is well embedded in my subconscious. At the same time I cannot understand or tolerate any form of fanatism, being it religious, sport related or whatever else. I do not watch football and I truly struggle to understand how people can have a fight and risk their life in name of the team they support.

A few weeks back I watched a TV documentary about hooligans and how the culture has evolved over the years. More recently they got better organised thanks to technologies like mobile phone but also they have been progressively controlled by increasing security and video surveillance both inside and outside the football fields. When I see tens or hundreds of people whose only purpose in life is to organise a trip to another town and plan how to fight their counterparts it seems to me very much like a barbaric, irrational act which is hard to explain. I can even try to understand why hooligans have this rush to fight but when they use random weapons, fight many of them against one it seems way too dangerous, putting many lives at risk.

I am not stranger to violence and any person who, like me, is into contact martial arts might agree that fighting another human being can be a great challenge and pleasant adrenaline rush. However in martial arts we have a code of ethics, discipline, proper behaviour, we have rules, referees and judges, even medical assistance when needed.

This is the reason I am suggesting to hooligans to take up martial arts; some people might object that they are already dangerous enough without the training by here is my reasoning. Martial arts will:

  • teach them how to be (more) fair toward their opponents
  • that fighting one-to-one is fine
  • that you need to train regularly and being fit
  • that you need humility and respect for your opponents as much as for fellow training partners
  • that if you train and spar regularly you might get the same adrenaline rush as when you fight other hooligans; perhaps if you do that 3-4 times per week you don’t need to do it on match day

That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Or… perhaps people that can be classified as hooligans will not have the discipline and the will power to take up a martial art in a serious way and stick to a regular training regime. That’s why we are martial artists and they are hooligans.

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My visit at BCMMA7

BCMMA7 BCMMA7 was an event I could not miss.  My friend and kickboxing student Luca Senatore was fighting his first MMA bout and I had to be there.  The British Challenge Mix Martial Arts # 7 was held in Colchester on Sunday 1st June.

I have seen before a handful of MMA fights in various venues in South East England and London. I liked this event more than the others for a number of good reasons listed below:

  • Luca did a fantastic entry and literally dominated the first round; the fact that he lost the fight for submission on the second round did not diminish his enthusiasm and exited like a true winner and sportsman
  • The quality of the fights, all at amateur level, was reasonably high and just in a couple of short occasions they lost control and looked a bit like a Friday night brawl more than a sport bout between trained people
  • The venue was conveniently positioned with free parking, well organised with security efficient and friendly; the fact that it wasn’t too crowded I guess it helped logistics
  • The bar is of very generous size and friendly staffed making the whole drinking experience at the event even better

The positive aspects described above made this event a fun day out with some friends however I have a few recommendations that I would like to offer to the organisers for next time:

  • In more than once occasion the referee let the fight going for a few extra seconds before calling the TKO; those extra seconds have caused one fighter to lose consciousness and another one to have his face more swollen than necessary. I am aware that fighters safety is highly considered in MMA fights but an even stricter regime should be applied for amateurs, particularly at their first fight.
  • Breaks were in my opinion too long and further delaying the show. The first “5 minutes” break lasted about 20 and we left the show at 9:40 at the beginning of the third break when the whole event was supposed to be over by 9:30.
  • The sound system was way too cracking and unable to cope with loud base sounds; perhaps a few extra loudspeakers or better quality ones could help.
  • The round girls… I have noticed dozen of female spectators and a couple of waitresses which were better looking that those girls. It should be that difficult to find to decent looking one next time.
  • Avoid empty tables: I guess there was an expectation to sell more VIP tickets for tables around the cage but, if sales did not go as expected I would suggest to either take out the empty tables or being nice to regulars that perhaps cannot afford the VIP ticket. Once they try VIP treatment perhaps next time they will go for it.

Once again I was impressed of the event and will be back for another one, particularly if Luca fights again.

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The four key ingredients for effective strikes

Round Kick

Image courtesy and copyright of Duncan Grisby

I got inspired about writing this post by reading the 4 Hour Chef by Timothy Ferris. In what it looks like a cookery book Tim packs tons of amazing methodologies about how to learn a huge range of different skills. This post is about using the key components that help delivering a great strike as if they were ingredients for a recipe. When cooking it is possible to deliver different kinds of food by varying amounts of the same ingredients; by the same token we can deliver strikes that have different effect on their target by adjusting the dosage of each individual component or ingredient. I am exploring in this post how that can affect and improve your striking skills.

When I teach total beginners from scratch I first focus on the basic movements and soon after trying to explain how each ingredient should be used. Around a third of my students have previous experience from other clubs and unfortunately, in many cases, they were not taught things the right way. I find that many people understand or even master well one or two of these ingredients but often cannot blend and vary all of them at once. The right combination of the four ingredients makes a strike, being a punch or a kick, very effective.

The same principles I am about to describe apply, albeit in slightly different contexts, when you are sparring in your club, fighting in a competitive bout or in a self defence situation. The expected outcome will determine the combination, essentially the recipe, about how to blend these four ingredients in a way that will make your strikes remarkably effective.

Here are the ingredients:

  • Speed
  • Power
  • Frequency or Pace
  • Accuracy

Let’s explore each ingredient, together with a few training tips that can help improving them individually and then how to combine them effectively.

Speed

Using an approximate definition (sorry for the physicists that read this) by speed we define how fast your strike can travel from its resting position, e.g. your guard, all the way to its target and back. By travelling fast the strike will offer the following physical advantages:

  • It will build up more momentum, increasing the damaging power that will hit the target
  • It will give less time to the opponent to block or avoid the attack, increasing your score rate
  • It will keep you off guard for shorter time so offering less opportunities for counter attack, decreasing your opponent’s score rate

There are other advantages, sometimes less tangible and more depending on your opponent: if every time you hit the opponent he/she is struggling to cope with your strike or getting overwhelmed you are in a very advantageous position.

Speed is very much function of your muscle structure; some people can naturally tense their muscles in the appropriate way to deliver fast and smooth movements while others less so. If you would like to improve the speed of a particular strike here are some tips that you should however check with your coach before applying. If you would like to improve speed on more than one technique please apply these tips to all of the techniques:

  • Repeat the same strike several times, trying to increase speed, even so slightly, every time; a simple way of doing this is consciously relax all muscles involved before the strike and then try to tense them in the right order, in to maximise execution speed
  • Alternate very slow techniques with very fast ones; the slow ones should be delivered while tensing all muscles in the arm or leg used to strike while the fast ones should be following the principles explained at the previous point
  • Deliver the technique in bursts of two, three or more strikes aiming at delivering equally powerful and fast techniques throughout the sequence
  • Ensure that each strike ends at the same point where it started, e.g. back in guard or where the next strike will start from; this will help you with frequency as described later
  • Use resistance, either an elastic band that goes against the movement or holding / attaching weights to the limb that you are working out.

Power

Again I will apologise to physicists about my crude definition of power: power in a strike is about delivering damage. A strike is powerful when you can shake an opponent with a kick, push him/her in the same direction of the strike and so on. When the opponent’s body hurts he/she is less likely to hit us back. Several powerful strikes are likely to deliver the damage that a single one cannot deliver.

Power is both function of your speed and you body mass, however in different proportions. A powerful strike should be hitting the surface of the target and shake it inside; powerful strikes are not about pushing opponents off their position but leave them where they are, in pain. In order to maximise power we must be hitting with the whole body, aligning forces in the same direction rather than just using the striking arm or leg.

Here are some suggestions about training for power:

  • Work at the bag or on pads and concentrate purely on power; many of the suggestions above about speed can be applied to power training
  • Try some isometric exercises by touching your target first and then try to push it as you were delivering the strike from there
  • Repeat the same strike twice or more times and ensure that each strike has the same power

Frequency or pace

By frequency and pace I mean how often you strike and how many times. Speed is directly related to frequency. If your speed is high you will be able to hit more times in a certain period of time, increasing frequency. That will keep the opponent busy and he/she will have less time to defend or counter attack.

Frequency makes sense to be practiced on multiple strikes so start working at combinations. All of the suggestions mentioned above can be used to improve and workout frequency. Work first at combinations of the same or very similar techniques then start varying them. If your style is about punching and kicking then try optimising frequency on mixed combinations of punches and kicks.

Accuracy

Accuracy is about delivering strikes to the right spot, at the right time, maximising the amount of damage delivered and saving energy. The same strike, delivered with the same power and at the same speed to a neutral spot, say a shoulder, might just waste the time and energy used for it. On the other hand if accurately delivered to the right spot, e.g. the jaw, the temple, solar plexus or the liver, it might knock somebody out. Accuracy is not just about striking precisely within a 3D space but it is also involving time; the right spot might be available to be hit just at a certain point and just accurate timing allows you to hit the right target at the right time.

Accuracy is easier said than done, particularly while fighting a non cooperating opponent that is trying his/her best to avoid being hit and fighting back at the same time.

Here are some suggestions about training for accuracy:

  • Start by hitting static targets and ensure that the strike hits as accurately as possible the spot you are aiming at. You should always aim at small targets, e.g. a coin size, rather than a large one such as a dinner plate
  • Work on individual strikes first, then repetitions of the same strike then combinations of different strikes
  • Work on moving targets; a partner or coach with focus mitts will help you to improve and focus on accuracy on both 3D space and timing

A few consideration about how to best blend the 4 ingredients

In an ideal world you would like to deliver super fact, accurate and powerful kicks and punches in bursts of 3-5 strikes and overwhelm your opponent. The underline limitation is obviously the amount of total stamina or energy available, very much a function of your fitness level. Powerful punches use more energy than soft ones; powerful kicks use about 3 times the energy of each punch.

Here below a few facts about combining the four key ingredients in different martial arts and styles:

  • Boxers tend to apply good combinations of speed, power, accuracy and frequency
  • Free style Karate and Semi contact kickboxing fighters tend to use speed and accuracy to score points; often their strikes are not too powerful and the very nature of their styles keeps frequency to a minimum because they aim to score with one key technique and the fight gets stopped by the referee
  • Full contact Karate tend to concentrate on the single killer strike, therefore speed and power are good, often matched with good accuracy, but frequency is just not there for the same reason as semi contact fighters
  • Thai boxers train for power and speed, some time frequency; in my experience their accuracy could be often improved and they try to overcome the lack of it by hitting harder
  • Light contact kickboxers have to balance speed, accuracy and frequency but they must be controlled on the power they deliver simply because excessive power could be penalised
  • Full contact kickboxers should be delivering a good combination of high power, speed, accuracy and frequency and some of them do
  • Prectitioners of Wing Chun tend to hit at a very high frequency and often with accuracy but power is some times neglegted.

Conclusions

Regardless the martial art you are training you should always consider these four ingredients as the basic components to deliver effective strikes. It is very important to understand and master the right combination of these components so that you can deliver the strikes you really want to.

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Fundamental differences between amateur and professional fighting

Image Courtesy and Copyright 2014 Duncan Grisby

For many of us training martial arts is a way of life; some martial artists train just a few times per week or less while others follow a (nearly) daily routine.  While techniques and general skills can be maintained with relatively little effort and commitment the fitness and endurance required to fighting full contact imposes a strict training regime.

When I trained kickboxing in Italy between 1981 and 1994 I was training with several national, European and world class fighters; at that time it was possible to be included in those circles and win their titles while training 3 times per week for a couple of hours, perhaps adding a Saturday afternoon sparring sessions during the last few weeks before a fight.

Fast forward 3 decades and most martial arts clubs I know of are training 4-6 days per week and expect most of their athletes to be training 3-4 of these day, on average.  These minimum requirements for amateurs, perhaps keen amateurs but nothing more than that.

Moving into professional fighting is true paradigm shift, big time so.  Going pro means making a living out of your passion which is great; at the same time the stakes become bigger, much bigger and the level of preparation, in terms of physical fitness, technique, endurance and several other aspects of your practice must grow. An average week for a professional fighter sees a 5-6 days of different training sessions usually split in two daily workouts of 2-3 hours each.  Cardio workout like running are alternated to specific activities that focus on one particular aspect of your training such as speed, strength,  power, endurance, defence, ring (or cage) strategies and so on.  Training is no longer managed by a single coach or instructor but usually by a team of different specialists each of them concentrating on one of the above aspects.  Nutrition becomes also a very important aspect of the professional fighter: eating varied, lean and healthy which is a sufficient suggestion for any good amateur, is no longer enough. Very specific and personalised diets must be followed to ensure the optimum intake of carbs, proteins, amino acids, and vitamins, ensuring maximum energy and fast recovery from each workout while maintaining the best possible weight.

This is true for fighting sports as much as it is for other professional sports like Tennis; I saw an interview with John McEnroe discussing the latest victory of Andy Murray at the Wimbledon 2013.  McEnroe was stating how in the 70ies and 80ies his generation of players were obviously good players, people which played better than others, more than others and went on to win great matches.  The reality of a modern world level player is a complete marketing and sports machine working with several full time experts in strength, fitness, tennis, nutrition as well as mind coaches and sports psychologists.

So if you are considering a career as a professional fighter where you dream a life of training and going for fights think again; it’s way more than just a job.

 

 

 

 

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A dignified approach to sparring beginners

sparring

Image Copyright and courtesy of Duncan Grisby

A couple of weeks ago I was having a chat with a friend who started white collar boxing in a local Cambridge club late last year. He described his first day in that club in a way that many would depict as a horrifying experience. He was asked to enter the ring to spar with 5 established, fit and trained athletes from that gym, just to see “what he’s got”. Result was, unsurprisingly, that he had a black eye and bruised nose. In my opinion the above described event could indeed be a good approach to check who really has the guts to step into a ring without necessarily being prepared for that kind of confrontation; it’s also a great way of losing, by the dozens, potentially good students and future promising fighters, by discouraging them to continue training.

As a martial artist and a coach I find this kind of attitude very much old school and outdated; I like to teach, instil and apply what we could define as a dignified approach to sparring beginners, a methodology that encourages a novice student to starts her first steps into sparring without unnecessary risks of getting hurt.

Sparring is about putting in practice what technical lessons are teaching: techniques, combinations, foot work, attacking, defending and blocking; it all gets mixed together at fast pace and without precise order. At first this is all very confusing and often overwhelming; for some people sparring triggers nearly irrational violent instincts while others simply freeze and get frustrated, feeling incapable of delivering decent performance.

We must assume that any decent martial arts club will have a bunch of senior students and members who are skilled in sparring and fit for fighting. Some of them are perhaps competing at local, regional or national level. These people have both the skill and the fitness to potentially hurt, seriously hurt, a beginner if just they wanted to. However it makes very little sense to do that; I educate all of my students to avoid exploiting the advantage they have on beginners.

A dignified approach to sparring beginners is simply about setting your skills at a level that is slightly better than the beginner you are training with and showing her how you can score on them starting from a fairly soft level of contact. Pressure of contact can and should be increased as and when applicable. This methodology ensures that the advanced student is winning the round and maintains its technical superiority while it offers a list of advantages to both people sparring:

  • Better control of the fight
  • Reduced risk of injuries from both sides
  • Fostering an increasing self confidence for the beginners that ultimately helps to improve her technique and sparring skills

In some cases the dignified approach to sparring beginners becomes difficult to maintain because:

  • The beginner is learning and progressing a lot faster than expected and her techniques from one session to the other improves to a much better point
  • The beginner builds up a false illusion that her sparring skills are now sufficient to put in difficulty the advance student
  • The beginner gets enraged and starts hitting without any control

In the above cases we usually approach the problem with a few words of advice; if the beginners still misbehaves out of logical control we suggest increasing the pressure until it is enough to win the round and educate her.

So if you are a beginner you can be assured that your first sparring sessions will not be traumatic and testing what “you have got” but be aware that there are usually many people in the club that can potentially harm you so respect for your opponent is always a must.

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