My First Tournament Victory

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.


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Iga, the village of the Ninja

Heyo friends! Sorry for the lateness of this update. I’ve been back in Australia for a few weeks now but I’m still keen to share my adventures through the medium of weblogging. (Did you even remember that that’s what blog is short for? I had forgotten until now, too. God, I’m so cool.)

 

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20140223_163538My favourite part of the trip was undoubtably the Ninja Museum of Iga-ryu (i.e. the school of ninja from Iga). In short, there were many clans and families that were famous for their ninja, none moreso than those from Iga. The town that exists there today is nuts about ninja, and it was clear from the way they painted their trains, to the statues on the sidewalk, to the dozens of stores selling merchandise, to the ninja mannequins perched on the rafters of the train station, that they were very aware of this. It took about two hours from Tokyo to journey there, but in my mind it was totally worth it. It was a surprisingly quiet place for a weekend, and the path to the Museum took us past a castle and beautiful parkland. The moss growing on the ancient stones, the dancing of the shadows and light and the indescribable heaviness in the cool winter air made for a majestic approach. It was such a peaceful place, rich in history with a beautiful shrine (whose red torii gates marked the distinction between the mundane and the spiritual).20140223_161719

 

20140223_152745The museum itself was the knees of the bee. I made small-talk with out guide, “Swift Kunoichi Kei” (female ninja) who would be taking us through the tour, and she said she’d lived in Australia for a while. We entered the well-used ninja house and were taken through it room by room, its hidden compartments, pathways, hiding places, switches and secrets explained. We were the only gaijin on the (very popular) tour, but the demonstration was clear and easy to follow, with scrolls containing English explanations on the walls. In the first room, she ran at a wall and disappeared through it as it revolved, and then burst out again sealing it behind her. She asked for a volunteer to try it, and I felt Craig’s silent encouragement from behind me as my excitement prickled and I stepped up. I ran at the fake wall and was surprised to see that there was only one foot of empty space before I’d collide with the wooden boards on the other side. As I burst back through, there was a small smattering of applause as our guide explained I was Australian and pondered aloud if I was secretly a ninja. My heart soared. She showed how a ninja could remove the brackets of a wall shelf and turn it into a ladder to gain access to a translucent observation chamber in the roof. With startling fluidity, Kei took a sheaf of paper from inside her jacket and flicked open a latch in the wall, swinging through it to gain access to the garden. I was in amazed at how unassuming she seemed, and yet how smooth and flexible she could be at the drop of a hat. In the next room, she showed us how a surprised ninja might suddenly equip themselves if under attack. With no warning, she stamped on a specific part of a floorboard which flipped open and she grabbed a wakizashi from it, unsheathing it with a smoothness that amazed me. She then reached in again and flung a shuriken which stuck into the wall with a definitive thud as if to say “This could have been your chest”. She revealed a hidden hiding spot underneath the frame of a sliding door, which contained secret letters and so forth. Needless to say I was in raptures.

 

After the tour was over there was sadly no cheesy ninja fight performance. I learned when we got there that they closed during the colder winter months, but I hope some day to return. We wandered through the museum (or rather, Bethwyn and Craig drifted through while I poured over the exhibits, reading and studying each artifact intensely). The clothes, weapons, lifestyle, training and tactics of the ninja fascinated me. The ridiculous amount of myth and pop-culture that has sprouted up around them simply adds to their mysterious and superhuman allure. In addition to the artifacts, there was also a hilariously bad video of ninja weapons like kusarigama (sickle and chain) being used to defeat a static swordsman and tie him up while he tapped furiously in pain, and some kind of mystic palm reader while a woman demonstrated hand positions for chakra based “jutsu”. I shared the joy of two kids dressed in bright ninja outfits wandering around, and I lingered so long the next tourgroup overtook us.

 

DSC_2012Finally there was the moment I had been waiting for: the shuriken throwing. I paid some inconsequential amount of money to practice hurling throwing stars at a wooden board as a dude who looked remarkably like Scorpion talked me through it in Japanese. To my amazement, my first throw stuck cleanly in the board, just a little higher than the target. To my further amazement, my next throw stuck as well, almost on the same vertical plain but just a little higher. Three out of five of my stars landed cleanly, and all five of them were in a straight line directly above the bullseye. I dearly wish I had spent another handful of yen to practice getting the correct height. At the end, just like archery and shooting, it’s just a matter of lining up the parts of the body and letting the weapon do what it was meant to do without trying to interfere with it. As the thrower, you are the conduit who helps the star to reach the target it was always meant to strike. The more you interfere, the worse it flies – you must be empty and let it pass through you.

 

Whoa. That just got real deep.

 

DSC_2014I tried blowdarts as well, but there were too many variables to keep consistent: the strength and suddenness of the blow, as well as the height of the pipe. With time I’m sure I would have gotten it, but it just wasn’t as cool or practical to develop the skill to push aero-resistant weighted darts through a cylinder. It was still excellent to see Scorpion do it so cleanly.

 

Stay tuned for the next installment of my adventures: the Kyoto Saga.