The essentials of traditional training

Front Kick - pictures courtesy and copyright Duncan GrisbyI have been training kickboxing since 1981 and in the few years before then I learnt Judo and Karate Shotokan. Over the last 20 or so years I trained a variety of traditional martial arts and appreciated some aspects of them. My approach to martial arts was always as Bruce Less suggested: “try everything, acquire and make yours what works and discard what doesn’t work and the inessential”. I previously wrote about my not too positive opinion about traditional martial arts and too formalised etiquette in certain clubs but I will spend today some time praising its pros.

Just a couple of days ago I was running a class with the Cambridge University Kickboxing Society. While I was teaching some basics to total beginners Phil, one of my assistant instructors, was coaching some intermediate and advance members. Among Phil’s group, made of about 20 people, 7 were regular members of our club with 6-24 months experience and the rest were experienced newcomers. When, later one, I swapped role with Phil and took over the advanced class just to assess their skills I realised how poor some people’s technique was, despite several years of training in other clubs and schools.  Some of them could punch and kick in a decent way but their combinations, coordination and footwork was appalling.

At the end of the class it was refreshing hearing from Phil that the footwork and execution of most beginners, after one hour with me was better of most of the advanced students we just acquired. I am not trying to undermine other coaches and instructors’ work; over the years I just realised how important are the very few basic, traditional exercises we do which apply to footwork, stances and coordination of arms and legs to ensure active and passive guard during both attack and defensive work. People who have never seen regimental training (what in Japanese would be referred as Kihon) simply have no mind set to simply de-construct techniques and postures in a way that they can be easily learnt, adjusted or corrected.

A dignified approach to sparring beginners


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.

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.

How rules affect fighting styles

Front Kick

Image courtesy and copyright of Duncan Grisby 2013

Have you ever heard a sentence like: “this guy fights like a karateka or like a Thai Boxer”? There are indeed typical techniques that characterise various fighting styles.  However, while different martial arts styles or even individual schools promote or enhance the use of certain techniques it is more often the case that rules will have the strongest influence on fighting styles; this post analyse how and why this is happening.

Fighting rules affect two key aspect of a fight: what punches, kicks or other strikes are allowed and what area of the body can be hit with these strikes. A typical and very obvious example comes from American Kickboxing that I have been practicing for over 30 years and teaching for more than 20. When fighting full contact or light continuous style, assuming no kicks to the legs are allowed, fighters tend to adopt a front stance with their weight on the front leg that allows easy use of punches from both arms in a very similar fashion to boxing. Adopting a front stance enables kicks with the rear leg to be delivered quite naturally, usually as the natural final part of powerful combinations of punches.  Kicks with the front leg can be delivered by quickly switching into cat or side stance.  On the other side of the spectrum when fighting according to semi contact rules (also called point fighting) the importance of delivering super fast kicks is paramount, together with a reduced need of complicated punching combinations; single punches often rule.  Equally important in semi contact is the need of offering the smallest possible scoring area to the opponent because every touch scores; for this reason most of the semi contact fights see fighters adopting a side stance and same apply to Tae Kwon Do as they hardly ever punch.  Shotokan or Wado Ryu Karate fighters will usually fight in front stance with low guard in front of their chest because they don’t use many punches in combination; Kyokushin Kaikan Karate relies on the fact that no strikes will hit face or head.

Thai Boxers face a completely different reality due rules allowing strikes to any part of their body including to kicks to the legs.  If Thai Boxers relied on the same front stance that we use for American Kickboxing they would find themselves in lots of troubles as their front legs would become easy targets for strong kicks. That’s why they adopt a stance that keeps their weight heavily shifted backward.  Boxers naturally know that nothing but punches will come their way while fighting therefore they can swing and bob their head quite low and wide around their opponent’s punches.  Some of these positions would attract troubles if performed while kicks or knee strikes are allowed.  Final example is how MMA rules, allowing grabs and grappling, condition their stand up fight.  Most MMA fighters are great boxers and kickboxers but they simply cannot exploit their full potential as strikers because of the strong risk of their limbs to be grabbed and them being thrown on the floor for the grappling that will follow.

I have been experiencing for years how rules affect one’s fighting style when I welcome new members to my kickboxing club and some of them join after years of experience in various other styles like Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Thai Boxing and Kung Fu.  At the beginning they all try to keep their style and use techniques and stances they were used to; as their experience evolves their whole style also mutates and they become more and more like the other members of the club.  Although we teach our techniques and combinations according to our style there is no implicit or explicit suggestions that people should give up what they learnt, as long as they are fighting respecting our rules; however fighting according to our rules progressively inspires them to adopt the techniques and combinations we teach because they fit very well with such rules.

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.