Martial arts schools vs. fight clubs

I was having a conversation with a new student the other day and he was asking clarifications about sparring and competing in fights.  We discussed the typical approach to fighting and teaching in Boxing, Muay Thai and then MMA, then I explained my philosophy of running my club.  I consider myself a martial artist and a martial arts teacher.  As it happens we specialise in kick boxing and we do spar regularly and train for fights that many of our members attend.  Sparring is and should be a fundamental part of martial arts training and nobody should use excuses to avoid it.  Sparring, however limited by rules, is the only way of testing whether your techniques can be really used against a non collaborative opponent.  At the same time my martial art approach philosophy is that everybody should be trained and inspired to improve their skills but nobody should be discriminated against their, perhaps not great, fighting performance.

My main point about martial arts school like mine and the difference of approach compared to fight clubs is the emphasis and focus on fighting and fighting capabilities.  In many Boxing, Muay Thai and MMA club they assess very quickly whether you could be a good fighter and will invest their time in you just in case of positive outcome.  In my club the attention your will get from me, other instructors and senior members of the club is just proportional to you attendance and determination to succeed.  Talented people will achieve results faster but the truly determined will succeed anyway.

In my pitch to new these students I simply stated: “I am martial artist and I teach martial arts; fighting is a result and a necessary consequence of training martial arts but not the only result”.  Being a martial artist is much more than being a fighter.  Fighters train and fight to win; for many this is a career that can have a beginning and an end; when they finish that career they retire and stop training.  Martial artists train for, among other things, personal improvement and for them; there is potentially no end in their training, perhaps an evolution of styles, often dictated by their body getting older.

Powerful strikes: my top 5 martial arts punches

Martial artists and sport fighters with some level of experience are aware that some punches or kicks are stronger than others; some people just accept that as a fact, some of us try to understand the reasons behind by studying the human anatomy, how the body works and how biomechanics actually apply to these techniques.

If the first step in this process will help you understanding why things work in a certain way the natural evolution from there will be to better train the muscles involved in the movement and improve your performance.

Although different people will achieve different results when striking with various punches I will list below my 5 top favourite martial arts punches (e.g. not limiting ourselves to IBA boxing strikes):

The Jab

I think of the jab as an amazing technique; when well trained it can be super fast, ideal to strike the opponent at both medium (abdomen, chest) and high level (face).  In boxing (as much as in kickboxing) the Jab is very much the bread and butter of the fight, mostly used to strike often the opponent in order to check and maintain the distance and as a preparation for other more powerful, but often slower and more energy demanding, techniques.  The Jab should always travel on a straight line, directly from your guard toward its target and then being withdrawn immediately to go back ready for the next strike.  The total number of muscles involved in the jab is relatively small: mostly the triceps, with small contribution from deltoid, pectoral and trapezium.  Extra power can be added with a well timed little step forward while some people add an extra torsion on their core to involve a few more muscles; I generally don’t as I find it time consuming and less easy to follow up.

The Hook

It’s the most powerful punch I can throw, with either hand or from either stance, reason being the high number of strong muscle groups involved in the motion: the bicep, the deltoid, pectoral, some of the abdominals, good part of the core and, if well performed, the calf, quadriceps and the hip area. Although all hooks hits the target sideways in a circular motion, from a mechanical and geometrical point of view the hook performed with the leading (front) hand is totally different from the hook performed with the rear (back) hand.  In the first case the only way of delivering power is to perform a counter turn that while shifting weight on the rear leg builds up momentum to be transferred to the arm and the fist.  When striking with the rear leg it’s important to push from the rear leg, starting from the ball of the rear foot, twisting the hips forward in synch with the arm moving forward in the strike.

The Cross

The Cross shares the simplicity offered by a straight trajectory similarly to the jab, but it develops more power for two main reasons: it travels for a long distance therefore it builds up more momentum, delivering more damage; it involves, on top of all muscles involved in the jab, the hip torsion (core, gluteus) and the push from the rear leg as previously described in the hook from the rear hand. Adding a little step even if moving just a few millimetres it can help to add a substantial amount of extra power.

The Back Fist

The Back Fist punch (as in the picture above) is a typical martial arts punch that derives from traditional styles like karate and kung fu; it was never part of the IBA boxing repertoire but, funny enough in the UK it is being progressively removed from various light and full contact kickboxing rules.  The Back Fist is not a particularly powerful punch as it involves just triceps and the shoulder muscles; at the same it is very fast and annoying because it hits people on the side of the face or some times on the nose.  Very popular in semi contact kickboxing it’s an ideal technique to be used while fighting in side stance and combined with side, round and hook kicks with the front leg.

The Spinning Back Fist

The Back Fist is the only punch that makes sense when performed while spinning back; while maintaining the limitations of being by its own nature a weak punch the spinning movement, if well performed and timed, can deliver an unexpected amount of power.  The spinning should always being performed in a way that the eyes (e.g. your vision) hit the target before the punch, in short, look at what you are striking.  The Spinning Back Fist was acceptable within kickboxing rules until a few years ago but it’s now been abolished in every style for its apparent lack of control and the amount of damage it can deliver when properly performed.

Quality of preparation and personal safety in Boxing

Last night I watched an amateur boxing fight just outside Cambridge and I was surprised and disappointed by the low quality of the technique in the majority of the fighters.  This post is not about me being disrespectful toward those young men that had enough courage to wear their gloves and enter the ring but more as a criticism toward coaches that dare sending inexperienced fighters to fight in a potentially very dangerous sport.

Boxing is a full contact fighting sport: this means that regardless the safety measures imposed by referee and judges each strike is meant to be thrown and hit at maximum power.  Considering that the preferred target for most strikes is the face and the side of the head it is obvious that damages and injuries are likely and frequent.

In more than one occasion, during last night’s 11 bouts fighters were bleeding, the referee was counting because they were loosing it and in two cases it was a clear knock out.  In fact since the beginning of one of the fights it was pretty obvious that the two guys had no idea about how technique should be and, apart from wearing gloves and shorts, they were pretty much fighting like in any street brawl on a Saturday night.  The referee even stopped the fight at some point in the second round to indicate that swinging punching like a bar fighter was not the way to go: just about 5 seconds after I made a comment about the fact that if one of those uncontrolled punched connected it would have been a KO when it just happened, bang.  The boxer fell on his side, unconscious and did not move at all for several seconds: referee and medical officer intervened and helped him recovering.  When he regained consciousness he was looking around with the typical expression of who doesn’t know where he is.

Perhaps I am from a dated, maybe even out of date, school and I value my students’ safety above anything.  Perhaps it is the fact that, in our case, when kicks are also used damages can be even worse: in any case I am pretty sure that I would have not put most of those fighters in a ring given their actual level of experience.  Fighting is not about being tough and fighting like a man: it’s about reaching the right level of preparation and quality of technique and having enough experience to avoid being slaughtered.

The dilemma between technique and toughness in fighting sports

We define combat sport a sport application or expression of a martial art where we set and impose rules to limit and control the amount of damage that can be inflicted to the opponent.

Ranging from contactless Karate tournament, via Boxing and all the way to MMA fighting sports usually assign points to each technique that scores and in many cases contemplate the eventuality of one of the opponent being knocked out (KO) or giving up the fight before the end and accepting defeat.

I am a strong fan of good technique and properly applied guard at all times: high quality technique will be more efficient in terms of using your energy as well as minimising your chance of running out of it.  The guard, as I previously wrote about, will ensure you won’t be hit as often or as hard, reducing the chances for a KO from your opponent as well as minimising the points scored on you.  Most people I am teaching to are buying into this concept and accept that good technique must be there as a foundation to build on the remaining attributes of a winner.  A minority of others, being naturally aggressive and perhaps with a higher pain threshold, they assume they can just get in the ring let the opponent coming forward and aiming at knocking them down before the end of the fight.

From my point of view this is a strategy that is meant to be short lived and not guaranteeing a long career for a winner.  Here are my reasons for it:

  • Knocking somebody down, in a fight where both opponent are well trained and fit sports fighter is a small chance of hitting the right spot at the right time: it doesn’t happen often, particularly if your opponent has proper technique and guard;
  • Regardless how tough you are is just going to be time before you meet somebody tougher, somebody who has higher pain threshold, more adrenaline in their body and don’t go down as you expect;
  • If you are just aiming at the KO strike without a point based strategy two things can happen: you don’t succeed at your KO and the opponent wins because scoring more points or you become victim of your own strategy and get hit hard where it really hurts and get knocked down yourself;
  • Repeated hard strikes in the head cause long term disabilities and injuries so even if it doesn’t hurt now it will cause problems later.

Muhammad Ali was the first boxer that demonstrated that a fight could be won by playing by the rules, not looking for a fast KO but keep scoring on the opponent throughout the fight.  That doesn’t mean being a lower quality fighter but simply someone who is there to win, repeatedly, aiming at the top title.  Another demonstration of what I am stating here was the recent boxing fight of David Haye v Nikolai Valuev: the quality of the show was somehow not there as it can be seen in these videos.  Haye kept moving backward and away from his massive opponent Valuev but as he kept scoring with many, many points at the body, he won the world title.  That was a very well managed fight played strategically from beginning to end with the victory in mind.

I would like to conclude with a simple clarification: good technique is not just meant to look good, it’s meant to be very powerful, fast efficient and effective for the person using it.  At the same time when training for sport fighting you should always bear in mind what the rules are and understanding how you can win by scoring more points.  If the KO is allowed in your discipline and you can finish the fight before it may be a bonus but a good fighter is more likely to win more often than a tough one.

The puncher, the kicker and the kick boxer

Boxing is about punching: boxers have a reputation for amazingly strong punches, well known among all fighting sports.  The reality is simple: boxing is limited to 4 basic punches to be delivered with large padded gloves and that has helped the techniques and the training to evolve to its maximum efficiency.

On the other hand Tae Kwon Do is a martial arts (and fighting sport) that is nearly fully based on kicks.  TKD fighting allows full contact for kicks and, quite strangely, controlled contact for punches to the head.

For a long time I kind of assumed that if someone could do boxing training and then TKD do training would be a good puncher and then a good kicker, therefore a good kick boxer.  A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to realise that my thinking was flawed when LK joined my club.  He was fitting perfectly to the above description: 2 years of TKD and over a year of boxing.

While in principle this person knows how to punch and kick very well I immediately noticed a peculiar behaviour in his approach to sparring: he would either kick, nice combinations, while maintaining a pretty poor guard, typical of TKD fighters; in other circumstances he would get close and punch like a real boxer.  It then occurred to me that his training, his knowledge of fighting, was lacking a fundamental part of what kick boxers rely on: articulated combinations of punches and kicks so he would do either or but never combined.

Ultimately, because sparring should be spontaneous and without thinking his subconscious either relies on the punching combinations he known from boxing or from the kicking combinations from TKD but he never mixes and bridges between the two.  It will be a while before alternating kicks and punches will be natural to him.