Last weekend I went to support my friend who was competing in a martial arts tournament. It was a Free Form Fighting tournament, open to all styles and all levels of skill and experience. To make it safer for the competitors, attacking the head, neck, groin or joints was strictly prohibited (which excluded grappling techniques as well). Throws were permitted so long as the person being thrown wasn’t at risk of landing head-first. I’d spectated at one about half a year ago where my friends competed but I’ve never really had an interest in signing up myself. I’m still not entirely sure of my reasons, but the conclusion that I’ve come to is that I’m not interested in winning or losing a match fight. I don’t find there to be much practical gain from a fighting style where head strikes are not allowed – it takes out more than half of the attacks that I would normally use during training. I also don’t particularly relish the thought of risking injury, coming away with bruises and limps and mangled teeth. Yet when I went to cheer for my friend on Saturday, there was a mix-up with the number of fighters participating from my school. They had scheduled in someone who wasn’t able to be there, and so when Kancho asked me if I wanted to sub in for him, I thought “The hell with it. Why not?” and signed up.
It was a really long and stressful hour as I rushed home to grab my fighting gear and back to the venue. I found it exceedingly difficult to calm down, and by the time I was called to get ready for the fight my heart had started palpitating. But when I stepped onto the mat, something inside me seemed to shut down. I almost felt too tired to be stressed any more. From the moment the fight started everything seemed to move lazily. Every movement I made seemed purposeful and well-placed. It’s curious that on the brink of battle I was filled with peace.
Based on the advice my friend gave me, I avoided the temptation to go 100% and try my hardest – instead I relaxed as much as possible and waited to see what happened. Throughout the three two-minute rounds I kept my composure, and by the end of it I was barely out of breath. I was declared the winner, but I honestly didn’t care. In hindsight, I realised that I hadn’t gone in trying to win or lose. I was just trying to do my best, to be proud of the way I acted and to reflect well on my teachers and my school. And I think because of that I avoided the pitfalls of trying to beat my opponent that would have lead to unnecessary risks and possible injury and failure.
It was a truly wonderful experience for me because it shows me how much I’ve changed since I’ve joined The Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts. My last karate tournaments were in 2009, and in both of my bouts I failed to score even a single point let alone win a match. But I didn’t buy into any of that sports-style fighting this time. I fought my own way, and for the most part I had reasonable control of myself, the environment and my opponent.
Things I did well:
- I maintained good form and good technique for most of the fight.
- When knocked down I recovered quickly.
- I was courteous at all times, even in the face of adversity.
- I maintained good control of the range. His attempts to rush/overwhelm me were mostly warded off.
- At one stage I backed Jarod into a corner and then paused my assault so that the referee could pull us away from the crowd. Jarod got two hits in before I pushed him back and towards the audience. I’m proud of myself for not endangering the audience unnecessarily, even if it cost me points.
- When Jarod got me in a one-legged take-down I was perfectly set up to elbow him in the back (just off the spine), dropping the full weight of my body into the blow. As I brought my elbow down I pulled it at the last second because I was reluctant to inflict so grievous an injury on him. I let myself be thrown instead.
Things I did not do well:
- I dropped my guard to lure him into attacking me. While I was confident he was tired and slow enough for me to intercept his attacks, it was unnecessarily risky and he didn’t buy into it anyway.
- I moved straight back more often than I would have liked. I wish that I had moved sideways or diagonally more, but I got tired and lazy as the fight wore on.
- Many times Jarod threw attacks and left himself open to counters which I did not capitalise on.
- When I did choose to attack him, I did not always press for multiple attacks, even though the opportunity was there. At times I was a little too conservative.
- A few too many spinning recoveries.
- As I rushed him in the third round he raised he knee perfectly into my solar plexus. I’m not sure if it was accidental or deliberate, but it winded me and forced me to desist my assault for a few moments as I recovered.
- A few of my retreating kicks were thrown when I was back-weighted. Even if they had hit, it would likely have knocked me over.
- Several times I raised onto one leg as a guard posture. It was neither stable, nor agile.
- At one stage I telegraphed my intention to attack by leaning forwards and bending my knees like a tiger waiting to pounce.
Things Jarod did well:
- He caught me beautifully with a front-push kick that I was too slow to avoid.
- He showed good sportsmanship during and after the match.
Things Jarod did not do well:
- He punched me in the face and moved one of my teeth out of line, despite his gloves and my mouthguard. He also punched me twice in the throat. If it was deliberate, it was unkind. If it was accidental, it was sloppy.
- He was very tense throughout most of the fight, and it tired him quickly. He started moving slower very early, creating openings that might not have been there otherwise.
- After the first round he started to abandon his stance, his guard and much of his technique. From tiredness or the sports style environment, he started engaging in a bit of a slugfest.
- He made a few half-hearted attempts at grabbing my hands and wrists which I shrugged off easily. If I had been more aggressive I might have used his attempts for purchase to bring him into consequent attacks.
- He allowed me, and the judges, to see how tired he was feeling.
I also want to mention some of the kind things people said to me after the fight. Sifu Vincent told me that I was the only fighter who looked like they had technique. Kancho agreed that I was one of the handful of people who looked like a trained martial artist rather than a brawler. I was complimented on my breathing, and on my groundedness. I got a special mention during the award ceremony for stepping up at the last minute, to which I was surprised and touched. Both Kancho and Shihan expressed pride in me, and I was glad that my best had gone well for me. And perhaps best of all, the next day I had hardly any bruises. It was an excellent experience, but I don’t think I’ll repeat it in the future.
EDIT: For a more detailed breakdown of when I used traditional martial arts techniques, I wrote this follow-up blog some time later.