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.

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.

The first UFC defeat of Ronda Rousey

I was intrigued by the content of this video with testimonials from Dana White and lots of Hollywood celebrities which built a great hype about this event.  Personally I had no strong opinion about what could be the result of Rousey vs. Holm at the UFC 193 in Melbourne. Being a kickboxer and loving strikes I surely had a natural preference for Holly Holm who is a Kickboxer and Boxer. She has been winning most of her MMA fights with kicks in her opponents’ heads which is kind of exceptional.

As Sylvester Stallone said in short interview: “one of them will win and the other will lose”.  That’s what happens every time. Obviously expectations are very high when you have a challenge between two undefeated fighters: at the end of the fight one of them will be a former undefeated fighter.

When I saw Rousey’s defeat by Holm’s flag strike, a kick in the head, I was pleased of such a spectacular win but also surprised of what that defeat has generated.  My surprise to the results has a number of different angles which I will explain in a few points:

  • Nearly superfluous to say Rousey is a great grappler and managed to finish most of her latest fights by using what she knows best: judo throws followed by very fast punching to the opponent just grounded or armbars.
  • It was pretty obvious that Holm would not want to go there, hence her very mobile footwork, succeeding to maintain a stand up fight where she is strongest. By using this strategy Holm managed to keep Rousey at bay and hit her in the face a number of times with strong cross punches as well as with a round elbow strike.
  • I was very surprised to see Rousey losing her usual control to the point that in the second round she charged Holm so aggressively and uncontrollably that she fell against the net.
  • Perhaps not having the level of control she is used to have and feeling the pressure of an opponent who would not be as controllable as others she lost her concentration. Definitely her guard was not where it was supposed to be and one by one each of the strikes chipped her down to the point that Holm’s kick had a clear path to Rousey lower jaw and neck putting her KO.
  • Rousey doesn’t really behave like shy as a person; she is full of herself and proud of being a tough fighter which was undefeated until last Saturday. Dana White himself, having discounted for years women being part of UFC, has been promoting her as the best fighters he has worked with. Regardless of this result hopefully he will not change his point of view about her.
  • Fame doesn’t come without repercussions and her bravado has definitely irritated lots of people. Her behaviour just before the fight, including her refusing to touch Holm’s gloves in my opinion should have not been accepted by the organisers.  If we accept substandard sportsmanship behaviours what are we teaching to all beginners and children that look at us to learn how to behave?
  • Despite Rousey’s arrogance I was surprised, to say the little, about the amount of poison spewed toward her. Starting from her main contender Meisha Tate, which is kind of understandable, to Donald Trump and many others all were very happy she lost and filling up social media feeds with their negative comments.
  • This fight reminded me a bit the famous rumble in the jungle when Muhammed Ali challenged and defeated George Foreman in Zaire. Foreman was so sure of winning this fight that entered a three years of depression due to his defeat.  Mind coaching and mental rehearsal have become standard practice for most professional fighters so I assume Rousey’s will be no different.  I trust Ronda will be surrounded by enough councillors, sport psychologists and mind coaches which will help her to analyse what went wrong, cope with the defeat and get ready for her next fight.

I am pleased that after some time in hospital and a few long days of silence Rousey has released an official statement explaining she will take some time off and come back stronger than before.  Martial arts, taught in the traditional way, promote humility and being humble: unfortunately these qualities don’t fit too well with the show business which fighting sports, and UFC in particular, have become.  Perhaps this loss will teach Ronda Rousey how to be a real champion, someone that after falling this hard goes back to the drawing board and understands what went wrong, learn from her mistakes and becomes even better.

Haywire – Gina Carano

I was surprised to watch Haywire last night and like it to a point of considering it the movies with the best (read: realistic and credible) fighting scenes I have seen in a long time.

There is no doubt that my passion for martial arts was started in the 70ies with Bruce Lee and other Hong Kong productions which were invading the cinema theatres at that time;  I have also written in the past about movies that, seen now with experience and knowledge, look a bit ridiculous.  Too often choreographers and stunt coordinators simply assume we are all gullible and we don’t understand what’s possible and just fill up movies with scenes which as just pure fantasy.

I found Haywire different; using techniques which are credible and nearly realistic.  Gina Carano showing off her full repertoire of Muay Thai well mixed with ju-jistu and wrestling. It’s realistic to the point that she fights people bigger than her with real effort and manages to get hurt in the process, she even looks out of breath a couple of times which is unusual in movies.  

Of course some scenes are exaggerated.  She gets shot in an arm and, despite a few minutes of pain, two scenes later she carries on fighting as nothing happened.  Then the scene in the hotel, against the character played by Michael Fassbender, when her head and face hit glass panels and other sharp objects without getting cut but, hey, it’s a movie after all 😉  Well done to producer, director, actors, stunt coordinator and of course Gina who uses very well her martial arts skills together with the typical action movie plot.

An inspiring day with Bill Wallace

Bill Wallace - Massimo Gaetani - Paul Barnett

Bill Wallace, Massimo Gaetani and Paul Barnett at Trinity College Cambridge

I recently had the opportunity of spending an entire day, including a 2 hours workshop, with Bill ‘Superfoot’ Wallace and here are some of my impressions about my time with this legend of modern martial arts.  It all started when Paul Barnett, a karate teacher which acts as his agent, contacted me offering a possible date for a seminar that I accepted without hesitation.  I previously met Superfoot in 2011 at a workshop organised by Colin Payne down in Kent but the opportunity of having him in my club with my students and instructors was not to be missed.

Bill arrived at London Heathrow with an overnight flight landing at 5:55am; Paul collected him and drove straight to Cambridge where they arrived just before 8:30am.  I was waiting for them at my clinic.  Bill recognised me from our previous, albeit very short and crowded encounter, but it was immediately as if we knew each other for a long time.  As he was very tired and jet lagged I allowed him to have a nap in one of our therapy rooms.

He woke up at about midday and we went together for lunch and then a coffee in town while visiting a couple of Cambridge Colleges.  The afternoon went by pretty fast and it was soon time for our workshop that lasted about two hours where Bill run through the basic concepts of his ‘Superfoot’ system and he was explaining how he kept winning fights in his career of undefeated 6 time world champion of Full Contact kickboxing.

BillFlexibilityBill is in late 60es and when you see him on the street he looks like a man of his age in a very good shape.  When he gets changed and starts warming up he just transforms in a different person; he is more flexible than most people I know and can kill with a speed and accuracy that must be seen live.

BillMassimoDinnerAfter the workshop we went out for dinner and it was about 9:30pm when Paul called it the day and moved on to their next destination for the workshop they planned for the second day of Bill’s 9 days staying the UK.

All of my students and instructors were thrilled by the idea of training with such a legend before we started.  After the workshop, they all confirmed how Bill exceeded any expectation.  There is no doubt that training with a legend like Bill ‘Superfoot’ Wallace is great from a technical point of view, for any martial artist that uses kicks.  However I gained more insights about his philosophy of life and training than I actually learn new techniques or strategies to win fights.  It’s great to speak to him about how  he met and/or trained with a huge range of celebrities within the martial arts, sports fighting and show business: Bruce Lee, Elvis Presley, Dan Inosanto, Dominique Valera and Benny Urquidez just mention a few.  The fact that at 67 he still training regularly and runs between 80 and 100 workshops per year in 2 continents is a great inspiration for all martial artists that, like me, are aiming at training until old age.  I hope there will be other opportunities to have a seminar with Superfoot in the near future; in the mean time I can say he really made my day.