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.

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.

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.

Disambiguation about 5 styles called Kickboxing

For somebody who has been practicing kickboxing since before it was given this name I find somehow irritating when people confuse it or, worse, deliberately misuse its name for commercial reasons.  Most martial arts, despite attracting some time interesting numbers of keen followers, failed to attract the real interest of the masses in terms the education systems, TV coverage and commercial sponsorships.  The only exception, over the last decade or so is the growing popularity of MMA.

If we can thank Bruce Lee for creating a huge awareness and interest for martial arts thanks to his movies in the 60ies and 70ies we could thank Jean Claude Van Damme for helping Kickboxing becoming a main stream martial art and sport thanks to his movies of from the late 80ies and early 90ies.  So while if you are practicing Tang So Do or Wing Chun you still have to explain to people what you do when you tell people to be training Kickboxing most of them will have at least a clue of what you do.

For this reason many organizations are promoting their martial arts as Kickboxing even when they are practicing something else and they should really keep its original name.  I will list below the 5 martial arts to me known that are all confusingly called Kickboxing while just one of them should be it.

American Kickboxing

Original called Karate Contact to differentiate from the no-contact karate competitions that still take place nowadays.  This martial art was initially practiced as a form of freestyle karate that allowed contact during sparring and competitions; it then developed into adding more appropriate boxing punches and combinations of kicks and punches.  Targets for all punches and kicks are the front part of the body and face, no low kicks are allowed.  American Kickboxing is practiced with full protection kit, boxing gloves, mouth guard, groin guard, sheen pads and foot pads. The uniform usually includes a t-shirt or jacket and long trousers.

Muay Thai

Muay Thai, also called Thai Boxing or Thai Kickboxing is a form of sport fight originated in Thailand and it allows one of the most complete and harsh fighting scenario for a sport bout.  Muay Thai allows punches, kicks, elbow and knee strikes to all parts of the body.  While training is usually performed while wearing a reasonable level of kit such as gloves, mouth guard, groin guard and sheen pads, fights are performed without any leg protection.

Japanese Kickboxing

The origins of Japanese Kickboxing are rooted in Muay Thai. It all started in th 60ies when a Japanese Karate master, after seeing a Muay Thai fight decided, to adopt a similar style fight full contact sparring.  Japanese Kickboxing has now evolved into K1 a world popular fighting sport that looks similar to Thai boxing, excluding elbow strikes; that means it allows punches, kicks and knee strikes to all parts of the body, excluding groin.   K1 has regular followers and practitioners in Japan, Europe and USA with TV coverage and large sponsorships. Typical uniform for Japanese Kickboxing is just shorts and perhaps a vest.

Savate

Also called French Boxing (or Boxe Française) is a French version of fighting sport with a number of differences compared to the rest of similar martial arts. In Savate both punches and kicks are allowed but they limit the target for the formers to the front of body, above the belt and face, e.g. similar to IBA boxing; quite confusingly kicks are instead allowed to hit the whole body, including back and legs.  The uniform used for Savate is also very typical as it’s a Lycra fabric full body suit and they wear boots instead of foot pads.

Sanda or Sanshou

Sanda, also called Chinese Kickboxing, was originally developed by the Chinese military based upon the intense study and practices of traditional Kung Fu and modern combat fighting techniques; it is a full contact form or Kickboxing usually practiced as a fighting application of various kung fu styles like Shaolin or Wu Shu.  Its freestyle philosophy embraces a sport fight with little rules, where kicks and punches to any area of the body (excluding groin) are allowed; throws are also possible but the fight gets stopped as soon as the fighters hit the ground (e.g. no grappling and submission).

So in my opinion just American and Japanese Kickboxing have the legitimate right to be called Kickboxing while the remaining three are getting free publicity by the big popularity that the name Kickboxing has gained over the last 20 years or so.  This list is the most accurate to the best of my knowledge; it relies on my over 30 years experience in martial arts and research I did online, both on Wikipedia and other sources.  If you have any suggestions for amendments please leave a comment.