Five lessons I learnt from “Idris Elba: Fighter”

It used to take many months of training for a beginner to be ready to fight at amateur level and often years for professionals; thing have changed in recent years.  Nowadays is relatively common to hear of individuals with less than two years’ training experience having their professional debut in MMA or Kickboxing.  I watched last night the last episode of the reality TV series “Idris Elba: Fighter” and I was pleased of the overall content.  In fact it was a nice learning experience about Idris Elba, his ambitious project and the result he managed to achieve.  Here are the five lessons I learnt.

You can make a kickboxer in 12 months

I come from the traditional martial arts background where anybody with less than 5 years’ experience is considered a beginner.  Over the last couple of decades I learnt, from teaching some of my highly motivated students, that is possible to teach most of the techniques within a few months and these techniques can be perfected in the next half a year or so.  When I teach kickboxing to Cambridge University Kickboxing I often meet in October beginners  who want to fight the following March and, every year, at least a few of them, achieve amazing results and scores. “Idris Elba: Fighter” shows that a 44 years old actor with no previous martial arts experience can become a kickboxer in 12 months.

Never underestimate the underdog

His opponent was very full of himself; his fight plan was about finishing the fight within 30 seconds, maximum 1 minute.  He assumed Idris would not be a decent kickboxer because he is an actor. In fighting sports KO do happen and this one was one of them.  In all honesty, I am not too impressed of a kickboxer with 16 years’ experience who loses against a guy who did not know kickboxing a year ago.

The coach has a main role

A good coach knows what to teach you, how to get you fight ready, how to maximise your strengths and to avoid exposing your weaknesses. With a good coach Idris went from total beginner to a professional training proficiency within a year.  He had the right support in terms of training, recovering, therapy and nutrition over a year of very intense training.

Money helps, always

Coaching and gym cost money, supplements and the right food cost money, therapists cost money.  Training cost money because while you are training you are not working. So having money in the form of savings or a sponsor helps your dream to become true, faster than if you have to support your dream while working a full time job.

It’s all about determination

Training is hard; preparing for a professional fight, however just 3x2mins rounds, is draining for the expected fitness level, the technical skills required and the mental attitude.  These three components are essential but determination, together and the right coach support in the dark moments, is what pushes you forward, when it hurts, when you are tired or you feel you cannot continue.

At the end of a full year preparation the fight lasted a relatively short time; Idris was surely loosing badly for the first minute or so.  He got hit everywhere by punches, kicks and knee strikes; then he managed to hit back a few times.  His opponent was not prepared to this retaliation and got scored badly by a few punches then a knee strike in the stomach put him down.  The referee counted to 10 and gave to Idris the victory by KO.

Did Idris move with the smoothness of a jungle cat?  No he did not; his positions, foot work and guard looked similar to many beginners I coach.  In one of his last training session when he was training with an American champion it was very visible the difference of many years of experience between the two guys in the ring.  However Idris set himself an ambitious goal, he worked hard for it and, by all means: well done Idris Elba.

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You can just fight what you have seen before

I was finishing a beginners’ course last night and one of the attendees was expressing his doubts about how he will develop the necessary skills to throw punches and kicks as well as blocking attacks at the right time.

I immediately reassured him that with time and careful teaching all necessary defence and attack skills will develop like natural instincts; I also added that “you can just fight what you have seen before”. To prove this simple concept I stepped a couple of metres away from him, removed my belt, folded it 4 times and threw it toward his chest saying ”catch!”.  He caught it without hesitation and smiled.  I then carried on explaining; you naturally catch an object thrown at you because that’s what you have been taught since you were a kid, by playing ball games and so on.

If you train just specific techniques you will be vulnerable to attacks which you are not used to.  You will be able to block and avoid kicks and punches once you have seen them coming your way, many times, and being taught how to block and avoid them from different positions and angles.

To develop good fighting skills it’s essential to train in a variety of ways, with people of different sizes and shapes.  In that way each possible combination of techniques can be tested and natural reactions get developed at subconscious level, generating instinctive moves.

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What I learnt from teaching martial arts

Copyright Duncan Grisby 2010There is an old saying that goes: “if you can’t do teach”; for me teaching has actually improved my doing.  In fact my knowledge about martial arts practice has dramatically improved since I started teaching.  When I first learnt martial arts I was in my early teens; I remember struggling initially with coordination and fitness but, with continuous and consistent training, I reached a good standard within months.  By all means my technique and proficiency kept improving for years; as most movements and techniques were quite natural for me, I never had to analyse too hard how I was doing things.

Years later, when I started teaching, I realised that people from all walks of life were approaching martial arts and, as it happens, some of them were terrific, some hopeless and the majority in the middle.  By teaching martial arts to people who are not naturally talented and/or fit and/or coordinated I realised that many of them require much more explanation than showing the technique a few times and hoping they learn it.  Many people need the technique to be deconstructed and explained; in same cases a clear description of the muscles involved is necessary to fully achieve the expected result.  By analysing each technique in detail, including what muscle groups are working how and when, I forced my mind to grasp every single aspect of each movement and by improving my awareness about them it has greatly improved my technique.

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The second defeat of Ronda Rousey

Ronda Rousey challenged Amanda Nunes’ world title on 30 December 2016 at UFC 207 and she lost, for the second and consecutive time in her career.  She is an undiscussed celebrity within MMA and UFC but, as I previously wrote about, everything changed dramatically for her when she lost her title to Holly Holm in November 2015.

There is no doubt that her first defeat had a strong effect on her image and confidence as she totally disappeared for months.  There was quite a bit of speculation about whether she would ever come back and when.   Finally she announced to be challenging Nunes at UFC 207, without releasing any official interviews or taking part in press conferences.  The fight itself did not look too good as it lasted merely 47 seconds; Nunes managed to connect one of her powerful punches on her opponent’s face and, noticing Rousey visibly shaken, she continued with several other punches until the referee called the TKO.

A lot of interviews were released by all people with an opinion; the one I found most significant was from Nunes herself.  She stated that Rousey’s strategy was completely wrong; instead of concentrating on her winning techniques like take downs and arm bars she tried a stand up strategy and could not cope with her opponent’s pressure.  Nunes also blamed very strongly Rousey’s boxing coach who gave her the false illusion that she could hold her position on a striking game plan when she is a great grappler and wrestler.

We’ll see whether she is ever going to come back to UFC or even moving on to acting as many have speculated.   Much of her notoriety and status as a champion opened for her possibilities of various roles in Hollywood movies but, now that is no longer the champion she used to be, perhaps many of them will dry out.

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Ageing and training

For the first 15 years of my martial arts training I had a teacher who was always training as part of the class.  While many sport coaches are usually on the side barking orders he was actively showing, demonstrating and practicing his techniques with us.

Unsurprisingly when I started running my own classes I could not think of a different way of teaching and, more than 25 years later, I am still training while teaching and teaching while training.  Until about 4 years ago I could probably count on one hand, within a whole year, the number of lessons I missed or I simply coached without being part of the class. More recently, partially due to a number of training incidents which damaged my back, toes, shoulders, ribs and arm I started to slack a bit, train lighter or a bit less intensively to a point where a standard training session would be kind of challenging.

Early last year I was taking it easy as I was still recovering from a broken rib which happened in October 2015 and, during a training session, I ripped a tendon in my left arm which required a surgical procedure to be put back in working order.  I noticed then that I allowed my fitness level to slip too much below a minimum expected level and this was triggering a number of niggling issues.

At that point I decided to increase the frequency and regularity of my training while reducing the times I allow myself to simply run a lesson to no more than once per month.  I also select very carefully my training partners to minimise the risk of training due to excess of force or lack of control.  Fast forward about 6 months of very regular and consistent training and I feel, once more, at the top of my game.  I decided to concentrate on fast and technical training, which I most enjoy, and leave the sheer full contact stuff to people who are 10, 20 and 30+.

I simply had to acknowledge that if I have students in my weight category or heavier and they are training for full contact fights I should not try to spar with them full contact as I can get hurt.  Apart from that I can still train regularly and consistently with a broad range of athletes at various levels of skill and fitness and keep in good shape while enjoying myself and being able to keep my technique at a high level and being worth the black belt I am wearing.

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