Sparring with your friends to win against your demons

I saw the other day this very inspirational video from Benny “the jet” Urquidez and after some initial hesitation I literally had to write something more than a little compliment note.  I always considered myself a martial artist more than a fighter; for me learning and being good at techniques was and is more important than simple beating up people.  However, martial arts are about fighting and being at ease with it is essential, in order to put in practice what we learn from a technical point of view.

Some school push the fighting concept to the extreme and just spar all the time; these school often produce aggressive fighters that might have an easy early career but then face the reality of other aggressive fighter which are also technically very good.  Other schools simply use excuses like “what we do is too dangerous and we cannot practice it” and just don’t spar at all.  I mentioned in previous posts the importance of realistic training as well my view about fighting and winning.

In this short video Benny “the jet” highlights fears and worries that many people have when they start sparring and just by keep training, perhaps by asking to some people to go easy of you until you get better, will help you learn and improve your sparring technique and, eventually, become a champion if that’s what you aspire to.  By sparring your friends you will learn to fight and win against your inner demons that ultimately are the ones who are slowing you down and hindering your fighting skills.

My thoughts about fighting, winning and losing

winningFighting sports offer a broad range of opportunities for competitive people that are interested in measuring their skills and performance against others.  Martial arts were invented to improve fighting skills, initially for warriors and soldiers then for ordinary people to help them defending themselves.  Best way of testing one’s skill was to challenge somebody else and see who the winner was.  Obviously when weapons are involved the result could be lethal for one of the fighters but, the evolution of unarmed combat has developed many different fighting styles that, fast forwarded into the 20th and now 21st century, originated nearly as many sports regulations.  Unless you are practicing a very specific and traditional martial art like Aikido or Wing Chun you will have the opportunity of testing your skills against another fighter in a properly organised tournament.

I have always embraced martial arts practice in a very holistic way trying to develop all aspects of self development and skill improvement they can offer; that means that for me sparring and fighting was never the only or the most predominant activity in my training.  However there is no doubt that fighting itself is the ultimate test that measures how realistic you training is and how applicable the techniques you have been practicing are.  I could probably describe my whole thoughts on the topic as: you must fight and being good at it but when training for it sparring is not the only part you should concentrate on.

If you are taking part in a marathon you know that there will tens of thousand participant and one winner; there a very high probability it won’t be you.  So entering a marathon is the kind of thing many people do for the sake of actually doing it with very little ambitions of actually winning one.  When fighting a martial arts bout you know it will be just you and another individual; by the end of the fight one of you will be the winner and the other… the looser; there is no problem about that but many people take the whole thing way too serious.

Winning is good, it makes you feel good and gives you amazing personal rewards.  Losing is not so good but, particularly at the beginning, you need to take into account that losing is part of life and it’s not the end of it.  Personally I don’t like losing and therefore, when I was competing, I would not enter a tournament unless I knew I worked very hard and felt ready for it I knew I had a fair chance of winning and most times I did win.  Now that I am coaching athletes I consider their victory or defeat as much as if I were fighting myself.  For that reason I work very closely with them and make sure I push their skills and preparation beyond their normal comfort zone so that they can have their fair chance of winning.

The actual physical martial aspect of fighting need to be blended with the psychological aspect of how one’s mind will accept and process very fast thoughts before and during the fight as well strong feeling associated to the irrational act of entering a ring or a cage and trying to beat somebody else up, even if by obeying to some rules. Many people including myself consider normal what and how they do things and some times unusual or odd other people’s approach when different.  So in my opinion everybody should apply the simple rule of entering competition just when well prepared and with a fair chance of winning. I felt very uncomfortable a few weeks ago while watching the Cambridge University Tao Kwon Do club losing very badly in a Varsity fight against Oxford University.  I was stunned by how poorly prepared most of the Cambridge boys and girls were and how they have been pushed into a fight without their fair chance of winning, surely due to little or no sparring practice during their training.

Losing in a martial arts bout can hurt your body and head, on top of your ego and soul; you must train hard until you have done everything that was possible to prepare your self and being ready, so to have your fair chance for a victory.

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.

Differences between Kickboxing and Thai Boxing

Many people, too many people, confuse Kickboxing with Thai Boxing (also called Muai Thai): perhaps it is because of the generalization that many schools do in defining any fighting sport that uses upper and lower body strikes (e.g. punches and kicks) as Kickboxing.  I used the term fighting sport to indicate a martial art that gets practiced according to some sport rules: these rules define, among other things, what can be used as a striking weapon and what areas of the opponent’s body can be hit.

In general the correct definition for Kickboxing is what is also called American Kickboxing, the style initially defined in the late sixties / early seventies as Full Contact Karate.  The pioneers of this sport where people like Bill Wallace, Joe Lewis and Benny Urquidez: they eventually renamed it Kickboxing to indicate a Boxing fight with added kicks when got into disagreement with the traditional Karate people that were (and are) still fighting with little or no contact.  Several other styles get called Kickboxing while being obviously something else: Thai Boxing, topic of this post, is the typical example but Savate, a French style with some obvious differences gets called Kickboxing and even Sanda, a sport application of Kung Fu gets sometimes called Chinese Kickboxing.

Although there are some very obvious differences between Kickboxing and Thai Boxing I will try to make them very obvious for the neophyte:

  • Kickboxing is American and Thai Boxing is Thai… not that easy to spot to the untrained observer but the most obvious aspect of this difference is in the uniform that is generally adopted although there are exceptions.  The former one uses (and imposes during tournaments) long trousers while the latter uses broad silk shorts, usually in very bright colours.
  • Kickboxing uses the same range of punches from standard IBF Boxing plus back fist and knife hand strike together with all most obvious kicks: front, side, round, axe and so on, including all variations of jumping, spinning back.  Thai Boxing allows all of the above and adds elbow and knee strikes: in reality knees are considered kind of preferential weapon and they tend to deliver a high percentage of the most devastating blows.
  • In Kickboxing you cannot grab and hold any of the opponents limbs or body parts: Thai Boxing allows for example grabbing the opponent’s leg and hold onto it while striking at the rest of the body; it is also allowed to clinch and strike at the same time.
  • Kickboxing’s techniques can land on the opponent’s torso, face and head: no strikes are allowed to the legs, back or back of the head.  Thai Boxing can strike everywhere excluding the groin area.
  • Kickboxing is practiced wearing full protection kit made of gloves, mouth guard, groin guard, shin and foot pad: Thai Boxing fighters wear just gloves, mouth and groin guard.
  • Kickboxing’s competitions can follow Semi, Light or Full contact rules: Thai Boxing just applies to Full contact.

Just because video are better than words, now that a bit of explanation has been offered please have a look at these two examples I found.  The first is a friendly demonstration fight between Bill Wallace and Dominique Valera: please notice the variety of techniques and how spectacular they look.  If they were in a competition they would have been less spectacular and much more violent:

The second video shows a Thai Boxing fight.  Although the number of techniques available to Thai Boxing fighters is larger than most of the other fighting sports the actual number of techniques effectively used is generally smaller:

I hope you enjoyed this post and the video I selected as examples: any comment is, as usual, highly appreciated.