This summer I’m due to travel to New York City for black belt training. I’m very excited (i.e., scared witless) about this trip, but one downside is that I won’t be able to attend the annual National Women’s Martial Arts Federation Special Training. Every summer the NWMAF hosts this three-day conference of female martial artists from around the world. It features instructors from all styles, with astounding qualifications and experience. And one of the best things about it is Open Sparring.
Open Sparring means just that: Anyone can spar, regardless of belt level or system. You may spar practitioners of Tae Kwon Do, judo, or aikido; Tukong Moosul, karate or Wing Chun, or jujitsu or Kajukenbo or any one of a thousand other martial arts. If you can kill people with it, someone at Special Training has studied it, and is ready to kick your ass with it.
It’s potentially very dangerous, sparring people you don’t know, and you do take a risk by participating in Open Sparring. But I’ve never seen an injury there, which is remarkable. Nor have I ever been injured there myself, which is, frankly, astonishing.
When you spar with strangers, it’s easier to get hit, it’s harder to land anything, and the whole experience can be much less satisfying than you want it to be, given that your health and safety are at stake. Open Sparring sort of magnifies what goes on every time you spar, even in your own school, with people you know. Any time you fight someone whose size or skill or style is not what you’re ready for, the match can quickly turn into an ordeal; something to endure rather than enjoy.
I’d much rather enjoy life than endure it, so over the years, in Open Sparring and at my own dojo, I’ve developed various strategies to deal with those situations. I thought I’d share some of them here, because those of you who don’t spar might find them interesting. And those of you who do spar will find them horrifying, and wonder how it’s possible that I have any facial features left un-obliterated. It’s a mystery.
What I call “strategy” is highly idiosyncratic. I’ve developed it during moments of panic, often by simply doing the first thing I could think of, however unlikely or ineffective. So the strategies I employ are not likely to help anyone “win” a sparring match, or even come out of one looking particularly good. In fact, if you’re desperate enough to fight like me, I can almost guarantee that you’ll take a lot of (largely unnecessary) damage. That’s sort of my style. I’m not proud of this; I’m just trying to be honest.
Nor is my approach to sparring concerned with scoring “points.” Tournaments are usually conducted with point sparring, and Open Sparring is nominally organized around a point system. But to me, point sparring feels a little too much like fencing: A gentlemanly pastime for bored aristocrats and thoughtful people, neither of which are my peer group.
I almost never point spar because, to be blunt, I didn’t come here to fucking play croquet. I don’t want to hurt people either, but apart from that my goals in sparring are not tournament-oriented. I want to avoid getting seriously injured (note the “seriously”), I want to learn something, and above all, I don’t want to get bored and discouraged.
I have never fought wisely or too well, but I’ve always loved it anyway. You have to, or else it’s just a lot of emotional trauma that leaves you with quicker reflexes and some interesting bruises. Most of us had our fill of that in the sixth grade.
Here, then, are my methods. You should not use them; I probably shouldn’t either. But you know, when someone is kicking you in the head, you have to do something.
Big people: Knock them down. They hate this. I, on the other hand, find it vastly entertaining. I grew up puny and while I’m larger now, you never outgrow ten or fifteen years of being crushed and pummeled by bigger folk. You may think it’s hard to knock down a large person, if you’re not very big yourself. But if someone weighs over two hundred pounds, one thing I can tell you for sure is that gravity is not their friend. Big people topple easily. Also, they have bad knees. All of them, even if they never played football. If you want to liven up a match with a big person, take out whichever foot they have the most weight on at the moment, and get the hell out of the way.
Remember that if you’re point sparring, you’re supposed to finish a takedown with a punch or stomp. If you aren’t point sparring, you can do this anyway; it’s pretty fun.
NB: It’s polite to help your opponent back up onto her feet after a takedown.
Fast people: Fast people want to pick and choose—come in and attack, then move out, rest, and reconnoiter. I see no reason to let them. I find it best to stay in close, protect my head, and work their midsection, hard. You may not have as much to fear from their punches as you would from a larger, slower opponent. Very often fast fighters have come to rely too much on their speed, so they don’t consistently deliver power. But not always.
Fast people are usually keen on outfighting, too—fighting at the extreme range of their reach. People who fight at the edge of their striking range often develop a habit of dropping their guard. Thus if you can stay in close, you’ll probably get a chance at a head shot. You just have to hang in there. Sometimes it helps to tell yourself, “I’m not getting beaten to a pulp; I’m waiting for her to drop her hands.” See? That sounds much more strategic.
NB: Speed is less of a problem when the person only fights fast. You can adjust to a single speed, whatever it is. (“The faster they go, the slower you go,” an instructor at my first school once told me.) The really dangerous fighters are the ones who can change their tempo at will. These are the people who will one day rule the world.
Spinning kickers—Tae Kwon Do students and the like: Most of my training has focused on straight-in, stand-up styles of fighting, so people who spin and jump a lot tend to mesmerize me, the way a moth mesmerizes a cat. In this case though, the moth can generate over a thousand foot-pounds of striking force. Rather than wait around for the moth’s complex and powerful kicking combinations, I prefer to invite some spinning kicks; say, by fading back to mid-range and dropping my guard a little. Then you can come in fast when their back is turned, jam the kick, and either knock them down or take the head shot. Theoretically, anyway.
In reality, about half the time this tactic is absolutely suicidal. But the other half of the time it yields spectacular results. I’ve found that most spinning kicks are fairly easy to anticipate, and you don’t have to get too far inside them to avoid the danger. You do have to be careful about your timing. Spinning kicks are about the most powerful technique you’re likely to encounter, and small miscalculations will hurt a lot.
NB: Be cautious about sweeps, too. The perfect time for a rear sweep is when some idiot, like me, is blindly rushing in on a spinning kick.
Power kickers: The standard advice with hard-kicking fighters (a lot of heavy, low-built people fight this way) is to move in quickly, and get inside their range. Well, I’ve tried moving in, and unless you’re really fast, I can predict with confidence that you’ll get the stuffing knocked out of you. I don’t care about footwork and angles and whatever; it’s just plain stupid to try to outfox a mule. If I come up against a straightforward power kicker, I’ll hover at the outside edge of their range. Power kickers often lack the speed to recover their foot quickly after a kick, which gives you a good chance to jam or grapple it. Then you can just walk them backwards until they fall down.
Kicking also tires people faster than punching, so if you stay out of the way for the first part of a match with a heavy kicker, you’ve got a better chance of catching hold of something or getting past them. Of course, when people start to tire they also lose some control, so that can be dangerous too. But at least you have options.
Boxers and former boxers: Some martial artists have a lot of trouble adjusting to the close fighting style and rapid footwork of people who’ve trained in boxing. You have to keep your guard up and block very persistently. Really, that’s about all you have to remember with boxers: They’re going to stay in close and punch you, and that’s only a problem if you don’t expect it. If you normally fight people who spend most of a match trying to kick you, it can be very disorienting to deal with so many punches. And even if you’re used to blocking headshots, it’s easy to slip up. The stakes are high, and you can’t afford to be careless.
One way to get boxers out of your face is to kick them, hard. This can be tricky when someone is in close, but if you can get your knee up near your chest, you can kick someone who thinks they’re safely inside your range. This is a very satisfying thing to do; people always look surprised when you’re close enough to punch them, but kick them instead. It sort of feels like cheating, but trust me, it isn’t. It’s just reminding them that, in fact, they aren’t boxing.
Grapplers: Aikido and jujitsu artists, and other people who like to throw and sweep, can be a lot of fun to spar, provided you know how to fall. Keep your feet underneath you as much as possible. Go fast and contained (something of a stretch for me), to reduce their chances of grabbing anything. Be careful for as long as you can, take a shot when you see one, and if (when) they take you down, make damn sure they go with you. Jump on them if you have to.
NB: If they pin you or try to get you into a lock, break their grip by pinching them. The inside of the thigh is especially effective, but anything you can reach is good. Pinching isn’t strictly kosher in free sparring (it’s a great self-defense technique), but grapplers are usually open to improvisation. Try not to bruise them though; it’s rude.
Young guns: More and more often now I find myself facing opponents who are significantly younger, faster, and stronger than me. These are excellent opportunities to remember that proverb about old age and treachery defeating youth and skill. In other words, it doesn’t hurt for your opponent to think you’re a little older, slower, and weaker than you really are. At first.
People who are much more skilled than you: These matches are pretty simple. Protect your head, don’t do anything stupid, and enjoy the ride. If you don’t trust them to not hurt you, don’t fight them.
People who are much less skilled than you: The strategy here is also pretty simple: Make them look good. It’s supposed to be fun for them too, remember? But also, protect your head. The inexperienced are some of the most dangerous fighters out there.
Everyone has to fight in their own way, and I can’t stress enough that you really, really shouldn’t fight the way I do. Seriously, you’ll get slaughtered.
It still beats playing croquet though.