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.

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.

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.