Historians place the origins of boxing anywhere between 3000 and 1500 B.C. The Olympic Games did not officially recognize boxing as a sport until 688 B.C., but even this would not prove to be lasting. Boxing–as a sport and form of recreation–has been banned, ignored, and resurrected many times over the last several centuries for countless reasons.
Eventually, though, it would find a home and an adoring audience in England around the early 1700s. Beginning in 1743, the rules would be modified, adjusted and manipulated for the next two-hundred years eventually resulting in what we have today.
Why the abbreviated history lesson? This brief background shows quite succinctly that boxing has endured and evolved quite nicely without my input for literally thousands of years. So, two questions arise:
(1) Why do seminars?
(2) What can I possible offer that you cannot teach yourself?
As to the first question, my reason for offering seminars is simple: I am not in the habit of providing answers to people based on my beliefs and experiences without prompting.
Something must trigger it or I am going to leave well enough alone.
When I get specific questions about skill and performance enhancement in any combat sport for a specific student or athlete, I am reluctant to give much input beyond the very broadest sense of the issue.
Do I have insight beyond that? As opinionated as I am, I guarantee I do; my advice to athletes over the years has ranged from telling people how to improve their diet to advising them to take up tarot card reading as an alternative to boxing.
That said, I rarely give specifics to everyone who asks a question of me concerning combat sports and applicable training. This is because, more often than not, basic principles are simply not being observed on the part of asker.
Anything offered beyond that, in my experience, will complicate an already flawed learning process and there is no value in that. A truism exists that can be applied to nearly any aspect of goal setting and acquisition: principles are few, methods are many.
The focus of martial art/combat sport classes is the introduction and application of general information (read: principles); to expect anything more than that is to allow for the conceit that only a small portion of the class is likely to absorb what an instructor is teaching/coaching.
Recognizing this as an instructor, I am unlikely to veer from the most general application of skill training–the principles–in consideration of the greater whole–the class–when I am disseminating information. This inevitably leads to inquiries from students regarding specific issues that may go beyond the scope of these principles.
Enter method…and method is myriad.
A little psychological framing can go a long way in fight sports. Using schemas to accomplish your goals is probably the only other high value addition you can make to your process that will predict your success or failure when the time comes to test what you know against an opponent. That's when whatever mask you wear for the outside world falls away and what is left is what is real.
People are reductive by nature. Take a complex topic, reduce it to a single descriptor, understand it better. Maybe it's laziness, intellectually speaking, or maybe it's a timesaver–either way, it's not particularly helpful and it's mildly insulting.
BJJ? Fighting from your back. Boxing? Fighting with punches. Wrestling? Fighting with takedowns. Judo? Fighting with throws. Karate? Fighting for points. Catch? Fighting with submissions. It goes on and on.
That is fine for beginners. Broad concepts pared down. It is even fine for experts who don't have the patience to explain their art to someone making an inquiry. It is not fine for teaching, though, and also not ideal for training.
Take boxing, for example. Few martial arts are as taxing to the whole body as boxing. A good boxer uses his or her entire body to leverage both offense and defense. Only beginners and mediocre boxers live in their punches; the good ones know there is more to the execution of a punch than simply "hit and don't get hit." That is reductiveness to the point of ineffectiveness.
BJJ and catch are not just about fighting from your back or from the ground. These are kinesthetic arts that require an understanding of human mechanics and how best to exploit them with positions, postures, submissions, and sweeps. Again, reductiveness to the point of ineffectiveness.
Ask someone to describe what he or she does in an art and you will learn what that person values. Ask someone to describe what other arts are about and you will learn what his or her biases are. This is valuable because the former tells you whether a person is a worthy training partner and the latter tells you whether he or she understands martial arts.
You might not want to train with someone whose values in an art don't match yours or with a person who has a blindspot for other martial arts beyond his or her selected style. To that end, being reductive can help you instead of limit you.
Because you reduce the amount of time you waste on that person and that is always a good thing.
Making weak people less weak is not the same thing as making weak people strong. This is the unfortunate result of weak people training weak people.
Because weakness begets weakness.
Only the scale changes and not in a favorable way.
Most trainers, instructors, and coaches rely on the former for testimonials and income. The prevalence of mediocre training programs in the fitness, martial arts, and self-defense industries accomplishes this bare minimum of improvement and sustains many in undeserving careers.
But taking a weak person and making him or her stronger, not just less weak, is another thing altogether.
That takes a type of emotional salience most experts in the field lack; it not only requires a level of expertise beyond the ken of most self-appointed "authorities" but also a precise understanding of human nature. It is the application of emotional intelligence in empowering another through aligned values that creates something greater than the sum of its parts.
Anyone can foster marginal gains; it is almost laughably easy to take someone from incompetence to competence. Taking someone from incompetence to greatness? That requires a value system on the part of the mentor that isn't simply incentivized or egocentric. It requires strength.
Because strength begets strength.
The scale is always tipped in its favor and especially when it is shared.
Fighting is not an efficient process. Trying to find efficiency in fighting is like digging in mud during a rainstorm trying to find dry soil. It has a low probability of success.
Effectiveness in fighting, however, is always worth seeking.
Effective fighting is a function of efficient training and efficient learning should be the primary desired outcome of practicing martial arts. Cultivate efficiency in training; seek effectiveness in fighting. This is an authentic approach to both and will improve your outcomes in each.
It is unfortunate, then, that the majority reverses this truth, by design or ineptitude, instead focusing on demonstrating effectiveness to students and encouraging efficiency when tested in fighting. Fighting is ugly, punctuated by beautiful moments of execution amidst the chaotic nature of the battle.
Demonstrating an effective technique to students makes the presenter seem very skilled, but does nothing to enhance the skills of the presentees if the instructor's delivery is haphazard or inefficient; worse, it facilitates illusory thinking and encourages esoteric interpretations of what is ultimately a simple process of desired versus undesired outcomes for the learner.
Some of the weakest kicks I have personally experienced came from fighters who were award winning board breakers in their chosen art. Breaking a board may look effective to students and the kick might appear incredibly efficient in sparring, but the former is more a product of efficiency and the latter is simply not true.
Personally, I do not even know if I can break a board with a kick...but I can provide references from people who do not ever want to be kicked by me again if they can help it. My kicks might not look efficient, but I know they are effective. I have social proof that allows me to state that. I also have social proof from some coaches who hate the appearance of my kicks, though they are willing to concede the effectiveness of them.
Can't win 'em all and can't please everyone, I suppose. The key is to not get swallowed up by ugly lies. You can be efficient but not effective; as a result, you will likely lose. You can be effective but not efficient; as a result, you will likely win.
It is a beautiful truth if you can accept it.
One thing fighting teaches better than anything is consequence. No other sport comes close. When you come face to face with failure in fighting, well, it's different. Don't finish a race, lose a game, get pulled for a bad performance...yeah, none of those feels quite like losing a fight does.
But the beauty of fighting is the consequence. It's why it's fun. You know that you better put your best effort forward because, wow, it can get bad if you don't. The worst thing I have ever seen happen to someone when they lose a race or a game is they have to hang their heads in some semblance of shame. Sometimes, not even that much takes place.
Lose a fight, though? Ugh. Worst feeling ever. It reaches into your soul in a way nothing else does; the closest corollary is having someone break up with you. It messes with you deep inside.
Which is why I have always said that I would rather win injured than lose healthy. If I fight, I am completely at peace with the consequences. (Though as the years go by and the issues of CTE and other brain impairments become realities, we shall see if I am still at peace with my combatives past.) Anyone who knows me is well aware that I am not in this life to leave a pretty corpse when all is said and done; scrapes, sutures, and scars have been constant companions and I expect to get reacquainted again before all is said and done.
I have two major competitions this weekend. Both are in the sport of duathlon, a ride-run-ride hybridization that often gets lumped under triathlons (yes, the ones Nick and Nate Diaz do in their offseasons). The problem is that I was in a foot cast for five months and at the time of this writing, I can't even walk without a limp. Running and cycling? Who knows.
But I'm still going to compete. Partly because I love competing and partly because I have accepted that I might be going to the hospital for surgery right after the first run of run-bike-run, let alone the last one on the second day.
Fighting taught me that.
At this stage of my life, I can honestly say fighting--in whichever incarnation you point to--has made me better. It has opened doors that otherwise would have been closed to me and it has provided a type of perspective that is largely absent in many of those around me. What you learn in a ring or across from another person trying to do you harm as you try to visit the same upon them is something that no other sport has ever given me.
...and I've played a few.
So raise a glass for me this weekend as I step onto the road for yet another sport in which I am going to have compete hurt--something that fighting taught me how to do because, in the end, I would rather win injured than watch from the sidelines healthy.
And I'll raise a glass to the consequences.
Here's to the pain.
There are two types of denial.
The first is acute denial and it has its uses, like when your body wants to quit during a workout. It might be telling you that you are dying, but you are not and you know it; that type of short term denial is helpful.
Chronic denial is another beast altogether and is dangerously misleading. It takes many forms but usually revolves around a self-worth. Chronic internal denial is easy to maintain because it can only be challenged by you. Chronic external denial lasts only as long as circumstances allow because reality will definitely intercede at some point.
In martial arts, you see all types of denial taking place; for example, the belief that your martial art will save you in an actual fight.
It might, but most likely not.
There are myriad reasons why, from nonsensical techniques to low levels of fitness and everything in between, but it really does not change the outcome. One-on-one, someone with no formal training who is comfortable with violence will likely beat most of the "trained" martial artists you and I know.
Hear that? That is the sound of thousands of martial dreams dying.
But why? A lack of reality. A lack of perspective. An overemphasis on their art as being a panacea for all things fighting. An underemphasis on the complementary elements that make martial arts effective like fitness and health. Take your pick.
I have written about this childhood event before, but I am going to tell it again, even though it is only tangentially related to the point I am making about denial.
When I was a child, I was beaten up at a playground by some older kids who were there just to torment the smaller children. I was not good at being bullied, something that seems to be lacking in a good number of people if social slacktivism is any indication, and I stood up for myself, something that social justice warriors have turned into a fetishistic love of the color pink. Either way, I tried to fight back and promptly got a beating thrown into me.
When it was over, I limped home; bloody and crying, I went into the house and was confronted by my father. When he heard what had happened, he put me in the car and took me back to the playground--the scene of the crime, as it were--and asked if the same kids were still there. They were, at which point I honestly thought he was going to go punish them on my behalf.
That is a ridiculous notion to consider when I look back on it from middle age--what was he going to do? Initiate a fist fight with three teenagers because they beat up his five year old son? Of course not, but at the time? Totally my expectation.
Instead, he sent me back out to deal with them alone; it was my battle and it was not done. I will spare you the drama that took place in the car, but it ended with me walking back into the playground as my father drove away. Those taillights did not just signal the departure of a guardian against those who would violently exploit me, but the end of my ignorance about what it meant to face fear.
I took my second beating from the kids in a much different way than the first. It meant less if that makes any sense. I knew I was going to lose because I had no illusions about fighting the same fight twice and the outcome being different. That was the end of denial.
There was no limping home bloody and crying. I essentially stayed in the playground until the kids that were beating me up were literally too tired to keep doing it. Eventually, they left and I sat in the park sulking until my mother picked me up later that night. By then, the blood had dried and I had a brand new perspective on life.
That was a single example of violence in a life full of many--buy me a coffee one day and I will share the rest with you if you are so inclined to hear them.
I recall this particular one now because, when I think back on it, there were so many lessons learned that shaped how I would approach fighting and martial arts as time went on and I gained more experience with both.
Not the least of which was that denial is willful ignorance. Much like I should not have expected my father to fight my battles for me, you should not expect martial arts to fight yours for you. Do not let circumstances teach you that lesson.
Teach it to yourself before reality does.
Do you like ghost stories? I have one for you if you do. It goes like this:
It was Christmas. The police emergency line received a phone call from a woman, clearly in distress, screaming for help. Her husband had a knife and was threatening to kill her and their two children. Police officers were dispatched to the home. It was a two member unit and both officers were relatively new on the job; still, they went because that's what the police do.
When they arrived, the woman was standing in the doorway of the home telling the officers that her husband was hiding in the basement, but still had the knife and that he was going to kill everyone. The police officers moved the children and the woman to a safe spot, held the perimeter, and called for backup to clear the house.
No backup came the reply over the radio. "You're on your own. We have no free units."
The two officers moved in to clear the house and arrest the man before he was able to carry out his threats of harm against anyone, including himself. There were still so many unknowns, but the woman was adamant that her husband would kill someone if the officers didn't stop him. But when the two members reached the front door to enter the house, one of the officers said, "I can't do it."
The second officer replied, "Do what?"
There was a brief pause before the first officer answered, then came his embarrassed and fearful answer. "I can't go in," the terror obvious in his voice. The second officer knew immediately that his partner was afraid--mortally afraid, which was reasonable given the circumstances--and worked through what to say next. This was not something the academy had gone over.
"I want you to draw your gun. All I need you to do is cover me. All I need you to do is cover our entry. I will be on point. If he attacks me with the knife, I need you to shoot him. If we find him and he gives up, I will arrest him but I need you to cover us. Do you understand? I need you to focus on your training. All you need to do is what you have been trained to do. You will be behind me, protecting my six. I will do the rest. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?"
So mindset is mostly bullshit. Let's get that out of the way at the outset and you can decide if you are too sensitive to read any further or not right now.
Still with me? Okay, let's explore this.
Unless your name is Dr. Carol Dweck, your opinions on mindset are likely wrongheaded or steeped in some asinine mysticism from your art or some burly defensive tactics instructor. Let's break that so you can actually become a competent fighter, a more capable martial artist, and just a better all around human being.
Whenever an instructor says "mindset" as an answer to any question put to them by a student, I know they don't have an answer. Mindset becomes this catchall phrase that seems to be the answer to everything but means nothing. It's a shitty response to any legitimate question and I lose so much respect for instructors who are teaching law enforcement, military operators, or any other personnel facing potentially life or death situations when mindset gets talked about in any meaningful way.
I still shake my head over officer safety instructors from when I was a police recruit or coaches from martial arts when I think back to how mindset was spoken of in this nearly religious and reverent tone. Mindset isn't god. At best, it's the church you go to in search of god.
Do you know what god is? Training is god.
Nothing improves mindset, this mythical idea of being mentally strong, more than training does. When you are good at something--and I mean genuinely good at something, not "social media" good--then mindset doesn't factor into the equation.
Skill trumps hope, every time and all the time.
Show me someone who has survived a force-on-force encounter and I will show you someone who had good training, even if they mistakenly believe it was somehow their high level of midichlorians that saved them...oops, I mean mindset. (Because believing in something as esoteric as mindset isn't much different than believing in the Force.)
Mindset doesn't draw a firearm. Mindset doesn't clear a dummy round so you can keep shooting. Mindset doesn't perform an emergency reload for you when the target hasn't been zeroed out. Training does all of that.
So fuck mindset.
I have held another person's life in my hands. A couple of times, if I am being honest; not always by design, but not always by result, either. Time, chance, and circumstance conspired to place me exactly in the moment where I could have taken a life.
But I didn't. In some instances, because I wasn't forced to; in others, because I did not have the authority to. That brings us to the crux of the matter and the title of this essay. Is there such a thing as the ethical application of violence?
Of course there is. Religious beliefs or personal morality notwithstanding, the use of violence when merited is one that I made peace with as a teen, but have reflected upon often as an emerging adult and further into adulthood. I am reflecting upon it now as a man in his middle age. I expect I will ruminate on the topic for as long as I continue to train in martial arts, whether with empty hand techniques or the various weapons that pique my curiosity when the opportunity arises.
This is one of the reasons why my threshold for techniques and training tangents is so low. One of the immediate thoughts that confronts me when I am learning something is "can I kill another human being with this skill" and the answer determines how long I am willing to entertain the training.
This isn't just about lethal force delivery options, either. Anyone can take a life using a knife or firearm. No, I am talking about something as ubiquitous as a punch or a kick--can either of those be deadly? Can I make them deadly?
The answer is usually yes, through volume or intensity--hit someone once, it might just be superficially damaging, but hit them in the face long enough and hard enough? You can definitely kill them.
This is the reality of martial arts but one that few trainees give consideration to. We look at the engagement criteria in our various disciplines and assume a certain amount of risk that is mitigated by equipment, rules, or what have you--we put a tremendous amount of faith into those elements to keep us from doing excessive harm or being harmed by those we share our training with.
But what if you want to harm someone? Then what?
Does your BJJ provide you with anything that would allow you to kill another person? Could you use your boxing to take a life if needed? Do you understand how a knife really works or do you just like the feel of it in your hand?
Because your training is only as good as its purpose. If your purpose is to do exercises that are ostensibly martial in nature but in a closed environment, then recognize that. Don't buy into the myth of "street versus sport" and other intellectual smokescreens. Remember that anything martial can be made deadly and, every once in a while, give due consideration to that fact.
Could I hold a choke long enough to take more than just consciousness? Yes. Could I hit someone hard enough to kill them? I believe so, yes. Am I comfortable with putting a blade into a person deep enough to find purchase in bones or organs? Most assuredly.
I might have to "cheat" in order to find the deadly force element of those arts that are meant for sport, but the potential is there. "Cheating" is contextual. There are definitely limits in sport and those have to be respected.
But if I train boxing for 30 years and someone comes at me in anger, whether I have made peace with the idea that one well-placed punch could kill that person could be the deciding factor in whether I survive a "street" encounter using a "sport" solution.
I am not, to be sure, talking about dim mak or some other nonsense. I mean a well-placed punch that drops a person who then fractures his skull on the sidewalk. Or a strike to the throat that breaks his airway. Intentional consequences or an unforeseen byproduct of your training?
I hope you answered the former. Intention is all; leave nothing to chance. It won't so much be a question of whether I "cheated" as it will be "was that an ethical application of violence?"
That is not a question to be asked in a melee. Ask it early, ponder it often, but not during a force-on-force moment. Your mind should be at peace in those situations so that, yes, you can apply violence ethically.
Punching is a funny thing. There are arguments that the human hand is ill-suited for striking, but there are equally compelling counterpoints that it is almost damn perfect for the duty. I think it is both if you're willing make a couple of adjustments.
When I was a police officer, I worked as a trainer and a quarry in our agency's training section. It was a good experience, but the limitations of the time and training opportunities made it such that you had to get a lot of information out in as short a period of time as was budgeted. It was a little silly in some ways, given the stakes involved in a situation in which an officer might need to rely on combative skills should probably maybe kinda get more attention, but hey--who am I? Nobody, that's who.
ANYWAY, because of those limits, I didn't have the same luxury to explore techniques or concepts with any real depth--at least not the depth that would be afforded my kickboxing or boxing classes--and it came down to two things for me. The first, build off of existing strengths when possible; and second, give everyone something immediately usable.
That latter point? I suppose that's the whole idea of keeping it simple, but simple doesn't help someone if you don't tell them what simple is. I can give you an axe and you might use it as a hammer or a paperweight or who knows what else. But if I hand you an axe and say, "Hold this handle and swing the edge at anything you want to have a bad day, whether it's wood or a skull," well, that is immediately usable.
In much the same way, I created a training video that went on about hand safety and broken bones and straight lines being advantageous and all that, but do you know what everyone who has seen that video remembers? Here, you watch and see if you can figure it out.
There were actually two key pieces of immediately usable advice, or "advices" as Arnold Schwarzenegger would say. (Go watch Pumping Iron if you have no idea what I am talking about. Also, shame on you if you haven't.) The first comes at 1:14 and is as simple "hard against soft, soft against hard" and you know what? Everyone remembered that.
Not only has it kept my hands mostly healthy for as long as I have been throwing mitts, but officers I didn't even know came up to me much later and told me how it stayed with them for years after they heard it. I really can't distill it down anymore than that, so I'm glad it worked. It still does if you can remember it, too. Know when to punch, know when to slap, and let the target decide which. Hard against soft, soft against hard.
The second happens at 1:50 and it is a disclaimer of sorts on my part. Don't punch if you don't practice. Seriously, you will just hurt yourself--and people did. The agency I worked for lost hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to officers with broken hands from on-duty incidents, not to mention the surgeries and rehab that the officers themselves had to deal with away from work. Nobody needs pins and plates to hold their fist together, so why even risk it. Find another way appropriate to your abilities and tools; there is no loss of honor in doing that.
But I have to assume that you train at least a little bit if you're on this site reading these essays, so my advice(s) is to mix it up in your shadow boxing, your drills, your training, and everything else combatives related. Play around with striking surfaces, both what you're hitting and how you're hitting.
In traditional martial arts, hand variations are numerous and everyone thinks they're useless now that MMA has taken over. The truth is, those variations exist for a reason; traditional martial arts was all about anatomy. The originators tried to make hitting something greater than the sum of its parts. Hard parts and soft parts, as it turns out.
Stay true to those principles and keep your hands healthy for years to come.
Martial arts training can be exciting. Having the layers peeled back on different techniques is fun, if a little frustrating at first, but ultimately it is an incredibly rewarding process of discovery. It can feel overwhelming, but once you immerse yourself in the process, it all makes sense.
Then the real work begins.
I am referring to the mind numbing repetition. The toiling away by yourself trying to understand nuance. The research into the techniques to see who knows what and how it differs from what you might know. This is when it goes from being practice to deep practice; mastery the ever fleeting goal.
There is a term for people who seek novelty, neophilia, and with mixed martial arts being more popular than ever, students and instructors alike feel justified in trying to find new techniques all the time.
There is nothing inherently wrong with that attitude, but it will cost you in the long run. I know a great many people who can rattle off the names of various techniques, but have no idea how to insert those same techniques into an actual fight or even sparring for that matter.
These people think they are encyclopedias, but they are mostly just almanacs; a collection of trivia with no depth, providing only the scantest overviews. That is not a path to mastery, though it might satisfy egos and the need for gratification on a superficial level. There just isn't a great deal of credibility there.
The old techniques are the best techniques, in my humble opinion, and repeating them in practice ad nauseam is one of my great training joys. Mastery of boredom and novelty were my first orders of business when I decided to become a martial artist in the truest sense of the title; mastery of skills soon followed.
That martial artists of thousands of years ago did the same makes me believe this is still the right path to follow.
It's been love and hate with the UFC for a while now, mostly since Dana White uttered the idiotic statement "He owes us" about GSP after a decade of being an exemplary employee and champion. That's another story, though.
This story is about watching Conor win a second belt in a second weight class. I saw Randy Couture's debut. Somehow missed BJ Penn's and Conor's. But I did see BJ tear through lightweight to get the belt, then move up and destroy Matt Hughes to secure the welterweight strap (and kiss him right after choking him out, too, in a weirdly endearing way that few could pull off). It was amazing. He was only the second fighter in UFC history to win titles in multiple weight classes.
It was also amazing to watch Randy fight for the title as a heavyweight, lose it, come back as a light heavyweight and do the same, then come back again as a heavyweight and, incredibly, win the championship again. During his time in the UFC, he was a three-time UFC Heavyweight Champion, two-time UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, an interim UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, and the UFC 13 Heavyweight Tournament Winner. It was unreal to watch that happen in real time and Randy did it all with a unique kind of athletic dignity. It never looked easy, but it demonstrated that hard work paid off.
I remember where I was for all of those. They were influential in my decision to fight professionally, to be honest. And I got to watch Conor make history in the same way Randy and BJ did...and it makes me want to fight again in the same way those other fights did.
But those days are past. Maybe for the best. Maybe. Still, watching Conor win the lightweight belt and carry both in the cage post-fight was something that made me thankful for MMA in a way I had never felt before.
See, boxing gave me entry into careers with the lessons it taught me and I am forever grateful for that; but MMA gave me something to aspire to, which not many sports have done over my lifetime. So this morning's post is about gratitude to MMA and the stories it tells when we are paying attention. Try not to take it or them for granted because it all goes by so fast.
One thing I understand about martial arts is that it's as much a life skill as it is anything else. I wouldn't put it up there with swimming, but as far as real world utility is concerned, it's probably higher than rollerskating or even cycling. As a risk management tool, it's definitely more useful than a lot of things.
Risk gets put into one of four categories.
In many ways, you can control frequency but you can't always control risk. For instance, if you can't swim but never go near water, that puts you in category two. Yes, you're at risk (e.g., drowning) but the closest you get to open water is crossing a bridge in your car during your daily commute. As such, swimming doesn't seem all that valuable.
Getting in a fight on the street is another one of those things you probably have some measure of control over, insofar as you can lower the frequency of it occurring and your risk varies with a couple of things. Things like training, fitness level, dedication to craft, and other elements.
When you stand in front of a class, there is going to be a mix of experience levels and capabilities looking back at you; believe it or not, where your experiences and capabilities fit in the overall scheme of the class is immaterial. That's pride and it is often driven by a need to feed ego, not to fuel learning.
Ego is the enemy of sharing and without sharing, you have nothing to offer as a coach. Nobody needs you to be the best martial artist or fighter because, ultimately, neither of those labels matter. What matters is who is the best teacher, not who is the most experienced or the best competitor. I have learned over the years that if I have tacit knowledge of a subject, I don't even have to practice it any longer to still be of value to those I am coaching. It's much more important that I can make that knowledge tangible to my students, not whether I am "better" than them. That doesn't matter.
The only thing that truly matters is the balance between your ability to externalize concepts you may have internalized, and in a manner that is accessible and inclusive--not whether you can line every single student up and beat every one of them in a fight. Because if that is the type of coach you are and the type of school you run, good luck to you; it's not going to last and neither are you.
One of my favorite fights of all time is the Marco Antonio Barrera versus Prince Naseem Hamed bout that took place in 2001.
Hamed was this undefeated phenom with a string of impressive knockouts, but had a style that I personally would describe as "annoyingly unconventional," but that others thought was brilliant and would defend with his results in the ring.
I am not even going to attempt a description of it other than to say that it relied on a lot of body english with the hands hung loose and low. It did nothing for me and, full disclosure, I was never a fan of him or the style.
But, oh boy, did he have his fans and, by extension, so did his style of fighting.
What looked like haymakers and off-balanced posturing to me was this amazing style to others...and it was, I suppose, inevitable that people would come into the gym I managed at the time and try to emulate it. It made that period of coaching miserable for me.
No matter how compelling my arguments for learning an orthodox style of boxing with hands up, body bladed to the opponent, and feet under the hips, it just couldn't compete with the seemingly inexhaustible well of power and flash that Hamed could produce. I'd coach someone and hear "but the Prince doesn't do that" or "Naseem carries his hand like this" and I came to hate Hamed for that as much as dirtbag personality. The worst part of it was that he was winning and doing it decisively with vicious KO after vicious KO.
And then Marco Antonio Barrera arrived. He of the extremely orthodox, very recognizable boxing stance, and it felt like my prayers were answered as he proceeded to school Naseem for 12 rounds of gritty boxing. I finally found the example I needed to shut people up and it wasn't an "old school beats new school" argument.
It was even better.
It was "old school beats no school" and by the next week's classes after the fight, students started carrying their hands nice and high. I was so glad that era was over and we could get back to learning boxing in the classic sense.
But as the years went by, I came to appreciate that match more and more. I hated to admit it, but the fight was pretty even--Barrera was sharp, no doubt, but Hamed had so much power. You had two fighters who weren't afraid of each other, knew how to box, made the choice to brawl on occasion, but definitely knew when things weren't going their way and were willing to nudge the rules to swing things back in their favor or at least shut down their opponent's offence.
Remember when I said it was "gritty boxing" a few moments ago? I might have undersold it. Gritty is more like Mickey Ward fighting Arturo Gatti. Marco fighting Naseem upped the ante on gritty to a near streetfight that should have seen one or both men losing points in every round. It really has that many little fouls in it, but it also has some amazing boxing, which made for an interesting combination.
This fight opened my eyes to the idea of boxing as a means of self-defence. It was all the dirty nudges, pops, forearms, elbows, punches, blanketing, and clinching. Up to then, boxing was great in that it taught you the skill of punching and that was primarily what you saw. This bout showed that, with a little imagination, you could naturally extend some of these exchanges to a place boxing didn't allow, but the street sure as hell did.
I can honestly say that, between studying bare knuckle boxing and this exact fight, I have managed to make a lot of people miserable in the clinch and all I had to do was exercise a little endpoint thinking; as in, where could I take that technique if I didn't just want to hurt someone, but wanted to maim or kill them.
So for fits and giggles, I'm going to walk you through what I saw when I watched this fight and explain what I did with the information I gleaned. I am going to do it in very broad strokes because I could probably write, literally, 10 times as many words as I am going to and mine every little nuanced movement down to nth degree. It would be fun, but so labor intensive as to be a fulltime job; I don't have that kind of time. Instead, I'm going to point out salient moments by timestamp and let you figure things out from there.
That said, you can always ask me questions in the comments or get in touch with me for a lesson if you like what you read.
First things first. This essay and breakdown are largely useless if you don't have access to the fight and watch it. My advice is to watch it in its entirety first, then come back and watch it with my notes as you go through it a second time. I assume you're reading this because you take your training seriously; if so, watch it once then again with the notes. If you're just here for the entertainment, do whatever you want--I'm not your mom.
Anyway, here's the fight:
Learning from a loss is like learning to read from a book littered with spelling mistakes. Unless you have a dictionary handy, it's not a great strategy; and even if you do, your learning process is going to be so much longer and inefficient as to make it untenable.
What can I say? I just don't buy into all the rhetoric that shows up after a loss--all the clichés and idioms and parables are just empty to me and it feels like they encourage the wrong type of analysis. When people talk about learning from a loss, it tells me that they are approaching the situation with binary thinking, as in "If I would have done this, I wouldn't have lost" or "If I didn't do that, I wouldn't have lost."
There is no abstraction approaching it that way and that is where the problems start in properly debriefing a loss or a setback of any kind. Winning, on the other hand, encourages abstract analysis. Losing encourages sweet but mostly meaningless salves, like covering up medicine with sugar.
It's not enough to just show up to class and lead a workout. That's not leadership and I'll tell you why--because any monkey can do it without too much trouble. I can point to damn near any student and say "handle the warm up" and guess what? They will handle it. If push came to shove, let me tell you something else, most competent students could coach the whole session without too many problems.
Something I have learned over the years is that leadership does not automatically arrive with a new belt, in the case of belted martial arts, or a recent fight, in the case of sports combatives. Leadership is one of those things that some embrace, but most don't; even when forced into leadership roles, the majority will fumble with the social dynamics necessary to make it work.
Being a leader is a 360 degree endeavor and requires more than simply showing up, though that's a pretty important piece of the puzzle. Consistency is valuable. But there are also key elements that need to be included. Things like demonstrated values, a grasp of scope, an eye for details, and the ability to externalize concepts that have been internalized.
Communication, understanding the difference between empathy and sympathy (and when one is appropriate when the other is not), problem solving, and a focus on making people better are just a few other things. The list is hardly exhaustive, but you get the point; there are some lofty requirements to leading.
Without those, you're not a leader; you're, at best, just the person in charge. And take it from someone who spent over a decade in a career that desperately needed leaders, but only had people "in charge," that's not enough. It definitely won't be enough to retain students, inspire new coaches or foster mentoring--it will just be enough to keep a business afloat and that's about it.
When a student doesn't get the belt they think they "deserve," it will take leadership. When a fighter loses a fight, it will take leadership. When competitions don't go as planned, it will take leadership. When someone gets injured, it will take leadership.
Someone will need to be in charge, too; but if that's all there is, it's not much at all.
And students deserve better than that.
I competed in my first submission competition as an independent, despite ties with several gyms, two of which I would have defined as "close affiliations." The tournament I entered, held in the rec room of a church of all places, was one I entered for personal reasons, not professional ones; ergo, I left a club off my entry and went in as a solo participant.
Why would I do that? There are two main reasons. First, I wanted to see if wrestling from middle school would work in the competition, as I was just getting into submissions and was still working out how to combine all of my seemingly disparate skills (it was 2004-2005). Second, it would have been unfair to the gyms I was training at to enter a competition under their respective banner having not really put the requisite time into the style of competing I was about to attempt.
I come from a background where it was (a) an insult to the gym you trained at to be unprepared for competitions and (b) an insult to the students who trained every day and were prepared come competition time to flit in and out of classes following your own agenda. So when the moment came for me to try submission grappling, that past informed my decision to go in as an independent athlete.
And I'm glad I did.
The opportunity to test where I was at and what I was capable of was important to me, but in service of a greater goal (which was, ultimately, to fight professionally). What I didn't want it to be was a reflection of the club I trained at--any of them--because then it becomes more about what gets taught there and less about what I already had. That was unfair to everyone, because we hadn't trained enough, at a high enough level, and with the intent to compete, to justify the scrutiny it would place on the gyms and coaches. There were too many variables to make it the right choice, so independent it was.
That choice honored my past coaches as much as the current ones, at least in my mind, as well as students who were training under them. Because competing is important, but not more important than a code of conduct for athletes, classes, and coaches at the respective schools you are training at.
Which brings us to today's lesson in a roundabout way: don't compete if you're not prepared.
I have long maintained that you can't teach mixed martial arts. Mixed martial arts is a sport--you can teach the rules, but it's not something that is codified in a manner that makes it conducive to structure and structure is necessary for instruction.
Ergo, you can't teach mixed martial arts.
What you can teach are transitions, and transitions between arts make the difference between someone who excels at MMA and someone who does okay. Transitions are what put the art in MMA, as far as I am concerned; everything else is a result of base training and whatever supplements it.
So when I see a meme like this:
I get disappointed with the state of mixed martial arts and the perspective this perpetuates. I think we're better than this. Actually, I know we are.
Let's have a training agreement. No more swearing when you get tapped in sparring. It's purely emotional and serves no purpose. When you emotionally react to getting tapped, like muttering an expletive under your breath, you're tapping twice. The first is to avoid a catastrophic physical injury, which is good; but the second is an emotional tap that is entirely unnecessary and only makes you feel like you did something wrong. You didn't.
When it comes to martial arts training, it's very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that what you are doing is all that matters; this, even after decades of mixed martial arts demonstrating that it's pretty important to broaden your training horizons to include a little more breadth and scope.
Even though specialization is mostly tried and true, it can come off a little shortsighted if there aren't some additional elements there to keep it honest. Authenticity in training or the pursuit of any goal, really, is what allows you to achieve more than just the minimum standard--it makes you a better person to have around because you are modeling behaviors that others can emulate. You become a role model and mentor, a compatriot and peer, and a person of a depth and quality. Authenticity of character is a powerful thing.
Winning or losing are states, not definitions; what you are in a given moment isn't necessarily who you are, but it can definitely influence your identity. If you let outcomes decide who you are, you're going to have problems--this comes from the very simple fact that you are letting external factors decide your self-worth. It can create a mindset that is very much about avoiding failure, which is not the same thing as a mindset that is focused on achieving success.
I can't say that one or the other is better, but I can say that the former is more fragile than the latter. I've seen it time and again--someone who is winning is a winner, and all the accolades and parades make them feel valuable. But the moment they lose, they become a loser, because nobody is paying as much attention to them.
Is this healthy? Maybe not, or maybe it is just a reality of how all of us are wired a little differently and "healthy" is in the eye of the beholder. Opinions certainly vary.
Regardless of which type of person you are, the one thing you can do to ensure at least some measure of longevity in your journey toward martial arts or competitive mastery is to understand Root Cause Analysis (RCA).
RCA is a means of addressing a problem by finding the catalyst of it through a series of reverse engineered questions. A popular method of this type of thinking is called "The Five Whys" and you see it applied to everything from parenting to exploding space vessels.
In the end, they all examine beginnings to determine how you ended up with the results you did. THIS is the most important thing of all, because it doesn't just make you a better martial arts practitioner--it makes you a better human being.
Martial arts and sport combatives are all pretty much the same in the sense that long term commitment leads to long term success; yes, the degrees vary, because individual response is subjective, but successes can be measured for even the most challenged practitioner. It's all about grading on a curve at that point.
I want to focus a little more on hacking your personal performance or that of your students than I do the gradations of achievement. This is a quick overview of some guidelines for overall improvement that work well in a limited time-frame, whether you're a coach doing the delivery or an athlete trying to find higher ground, but can also inform a longer timeline of dedication.
We can accomplish that by looking at the low hanging fruit of martial training--things that seem obvious, but once you acknowledge them, they become essential touchstones in your skills development. You increase the quality of your training, if not the scope, and this is a good thing; it makes your training less of a mathematical problem ("I don't have enough time. I don't have enough speed. I don't have enough strength.") and more of a computational one ("How can I combine the time, speed, and strength I do have to be more effective?").
It's a bit of a variation on the Albert Einstein quote, "Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value." Let's improve the value of your training and, if we do that, success will come.
Let's talk about systems for a moment.
Martial Arts are a collection of styles, and styles are closed systems just by their creation; it's a necessary element of their design or they would be chaotic. Closing them off isn't a bad thing--closed systems have a beginning and an end, and the content contained therein is what makes for an effective art (or not) based on how tied to reality it is and, equally important, how often it gets tested.
Techniques are open source, meaning that anyone can access, tweak, modify or otherwise alter them based on personal need. The great thing about this approach is that it leads to untold creativity in the application of a technique without altering the system that it exists within.