A few years ago I was having a conversation with Eran Bert, who is an Israeli martial artist who trains the military and elite body guards in Israel. We were talking about the distinction between sports fighting and real life and death attack. He made the comment that in real life confrontations ‘you don’t win fights, you survive them.’ This really made me think. This is a very important distinction. A fight in the ring ends with a decision or a KO and the goal is to win. If you don’t win you go home to train again. In a life and death battle you either survive it or you die. There is no sense of winning and losing, no title, no purse, no fairness, rules or glory. That you survive and continue to live is the single and primary goal.
This really changes your perspective in training. He told me that statistically it takes 12 blows to ‘soften’ an opponent before the final strikes. The adrenaline is so high and the endorphins so strong that the body can take a tremendous amount of injury before it fails. People who do not train for this level of intensity will not succeed in battle. It’s really a scary premise when you think about it. After a long talk about the statistical odds in a real fight I said to him, “You just don’t want me to sleep at night, do you?” He laughed.
The reality is that this brings your approach to training to a whole new level. I am talking martial arts here, not sport fighting. Here you use whatever means necessary to win; there is nothing ‘fair’ or clean here. I’ve spent thirty years of my life around the world’s best boxers and martial artists and have total respect for them. This does not mean that sports fighters are not tough or skilled, they are, but their skills are honed for a specific type of battle within a framework. This is not to imply that they don’t also train for real battle; they may or may not, but in sports fights there are weight classifications to balance out the matches. You don’t see a heavy weight fighting a light weight. What I am trying to convey here is that if you do not face this reality in your own training you may be woefully inadequate in actually surviving a fight. If you are attacked on the street and you are 5’3” and 123 lbs and your attacker is 6’2” and 190 lbs you don’t get to call off the attack to make it fairer. Sports fights are competitions among equals. Muggings are not.
This does not mean that you have to be brutal and vicious in your training but you do have be intelligent and effective. Special Forces go through rigorous training without killing each other. There is a way to do this in a controlled environment. It is my contention that most people that train in martial arts in the US really don’t want to confront the harsh realities of violence and what it takes to survive. They want to be comforted and assured that what they practice in the school will give them a guaranteed win in a fight. I’ve seen instructors tell their class ‘this works, you will be safe with what we are teaching’. I’ve observed many classes in different schools where the students, especially in women’s self-defense classes, think they have power and skill but they really don’t. What they are being taught might work in the controlled environment of a class but not on the street. It’s hard to entice new students without promising these salves of safety. On the other hand, it is dangerous to have a false sense of security. Years ago, I was invited to watch a women’s self-defense class at a local university. The teacher brought in volunteer male students to work with the women to make it more realistic. I thought this was a noble but flawed idea. Every technique the women used worked on these guys. From breaking holds to delivering blows, they all worked. I was asked what I thought about the class. They were practicing breaking grabs and choke holds at the time. I asked if I might try something and the teacher agreed. I took out a twenty-dollar bill and laid it on the floor in front of the guys and said, “Whose ever hold cannot be broken can have the $20”. Not a single guys hold could be broken after that. I explained that their incentive was merely beer money while on the street the incentive was to not go to jail; a much greater incentive. The women were disheartened and the teacher annoyed but so what? Would you rather be informed or deluded?
Eran asked me why I don’t have many students and I replied, “It’s not because we are violent here, we are not at all, but I will not sugar coat reality and they don’t like that. I will not guarantee they will be safe but they will increase the odds of their safety’. His response was, “If you were in Israel you’d have a full school every night”.
I am well aware that my style of teaching causes consternation here. It’s strange because there is no violence here but telling people what really happens in a fight is not something they want to hear. Many people come to me to learn forms or secret hands that they think will protect them. They are disappointed that I don’t entertain these ideas. Some have come through my door with years of martial arts yet have no ability to stop the simplest combination of punches. “This isn’t how we did it in my school” is often their refrain when they can’t handle it. I do not condone bullying or ‘bad ass’ attitudes here, but I do condone reality checks. Can you take pressure and can you handle chaos? If not here, where will you learn it?
My parallel life is in music. If you want to join a band and say I can play guitar, good, let’s do a song together and see if you can hang. Everyone thinks they can but can they really? I’ve been around professional musicians for years. Now and then someone will show up who has played as a hobby or was in a high school rock band but that is the extent of their ability. Regardless they are full of confidence. They will ask to sit in on a jam and when the playing starts, they will invariably and immediately flounder and get lost asking, ‘what key is this in? what are the chords’? Only to hear from my friends “I thought you said you could play”? There is nothing cruel about this or condescending, just facing reality. Real musicians will immediately discern what keys it is in and the chord pattern without being informed. They can anticipate what is coming and meet it head on. This has happened before, they are used to this, it is ingrained in their playing. On the odd occasion the guest can really hang the response is simply an accepting smile or simply ‘cool man’. There is no difference between this and real combat. You will get no clues, cues or retakes. The attack will happen and your response has to be quick, effective, immediate and fierce. If you do not train for this you will not be ready for this. There is no magic!
Practice what works.
My teacher told me size doesn't matter........now I'm wondering if that's true.
After almost 50 years in martial arts I can tell you that I am vehemently against sparring……when you first begin training. Why? Because until you learn to control your flinching and fear reflexes you are not really gaining anything you're just doing everything you can to protect yourself and not get hit. You don’t learn in this situation. I’ve seen many schools start sparring within one or two days of enrolling. This is insane. You don’t start football on the gridiron or swimming by jumping in the ocean. You start in a controlled safe environment as you develop the tools to swim or run the field. If you were put in the ocean the first day you’d be in panic mode from the start. I spend a lot of time with my students when they first begin lessons teaching them to watch an attack with no interception. Hands up in front of them or by their sides and just have someone throw very controlled punches at them slowly. If the student is flinching then he is overwhelmed and fearful. We do this until there’s a comfort level involved. The student learns to watch the punches without fear. After they accomplish that they learn to evade by just moving their body, no blocking. Slipping a punch, moving side to side or tucking back just a few inches to watch the punch miss them. Again, being aware of flinching. When the student is comfortable with this then they start moving about, learning footwork to avoid being hit. Eventually they bring their hands into play to intercept and counter but not until they are able to calmly engage in the play. From here on you can step up the intensity to heavy sparring.
Sparring is absolutely necessary to learn how to fight. Shadow boxing, kata, whatever, do not teach you to fight under pressure. The stamina a real fight takes up is remarkable. You would never attempt to swim in the ocean, like a Navy Seal does, without the rigorous training to prepare for this. You cannot practice tennis against a wall and expect to play against a real competitor. You would not just train batting with a pitching machine and expect to go against a Major League pitcher; it would be suicide. So, you can in no way expect to be able to fight without sparring in real time. There is nothing like being cracked one and trying to continue to fight. Most people when struck become very self-aware and lose sight of their opponent. Then they are prey to their attacker. I was taught years ago that you need to get hit really hard and realize that it didn’t kill you to harden yourself in a fight. I personally thought that was BS when I heard it but reality opened my eyes later. I got hit many times when I first sparred and if it hurt too much I stopped the bout to recover. There was a safety net in it. A year or so into it I was sparring a guy who was a real bully, like something out of a bad movie. He hit me pretty hard and knocked me down and I stopped the match. I was weak, had no stomach for it and somewhat of a coward. Later he was sparring another guy and was pummeling him. You could see the glee in his sadistic eyes as he hit this guy. The other kid wouldn’t quit, had real guts, but was getting creamed. I went into a rage and stepped between them. The bully lit up, ‘back for more? Great!” I didn’t care what happened to me I wanted to crush him for being such a cruel person. We had a bloody bash but I bested him. He was stunned. This happened because I did not care what happened to me, I was fully determined to flatten him at any cost. This was the turning point for me in martial arts. If the first time you face this is in a life and death situation on the street you are most likely doomed. The skill doesn’t magically arise in real life as many schools teach. You have to earn it. As the saying goes ‘it’s not what you do when you get knocked down but what you do when you get up again’. To this day I do not enjoy violence at any level but I know what it takes to win a fight. I am not a fool thinking I am unbeatable; I am not young. I once told Renzo Gracie that I submit to gravity now at my age. I would have never understood what it takes if I had not sparred. RESPECTFUL sparring/training is absolutely necessary to condition the mind and body in a fight. I know nobody really wants to hear that but it’s true, not just for boxing but for all competitive physical endeavors. Practice what is real.
I've been practicing staff in the Dojo for weeks now, this lion is toast!
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