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.

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.