As a Martial Artist, one of the most daunting and difficult elements of training is sparring or fighting. It spurs on feelings of anxiety and excitement at the same time. The dangers are real, and a mistimed or misplaced strike can lead to injury. Yet, it is for the reason of developing our fighting abilities that we train Martial Arts and not cross-fit or weightlifting. We want to prepare ourselves for the possible dangers that may arise and an integral part of this is to learn how to fight and train for these types of situations.
I am lucky enough to be part of a dojo that prioritises fighting, sparring and self-defense. I’ve learnt a great deal over the years about how to prepare for intense fighting and I’d like to share some of these learnings with you to help you improve and become more comfortable with fighting and sparring.
Start with the Body and the Mind
I can’t emphasise enough about how important this is. You see, fighting is an extremely stressful activity for most of us, and what happens when we become stressed? Our body tightens up. It freezes, and it can no longer be used effectively. Its’s not just the body. Fear dominates the mind. We are unable to think clearly and look for solutions with a fearful and stressed mind. It’s a recipe for disaster.
If we want to fight effectively and fight well, we need to maintain a relaxed body and a calm composure.
A relaxed body will allow you to react quickly and fluently to your opponent’s movements. This is an integral step to establish good defenses such as quick evasion, parrying and fending off strikes.
Not only will a relaxed body improve your defenses, it will also improve your offense by facilitating good movement and power generation.
Ultimately, relaxed muscles and breathing will stave off fatigue for as long as possible and keep you fighting effectively for longer.
What about a relaxed mind? Why is this important in the heat of conflict? A relaxed mind will help you stay calm and give you clarity during the chaos of a fight. This is extremely important so that you can see opportunities clearly and note weaknesses in your opponent. You’ll make better decisions and will make better use of your tools of warfare.
So, let’s get down to the mechanics of fighting …
The Fighting Guard
Your fighting guard is extremely important. It should be comfortable and economical enough so that you can hold this guard during the entire fight. A solid fighting guard will protect all your vulnerable areas including your head, chin, neck, and torso.
To protect these vital areas, you need your hands up at chin level so that you can cover the head, neck, and chin with minimal movement. Equally important is to keep your elbows down to protect your ribs and mid-section.
You can keep your body facing at a 45-degree angle to minimize the surface area that your opponent can strike at. This also has an added advantage of giving you that extra range of motion to twist at your waist and utilise your hips when striking.
Last but not least, tuck your chin to minimize the possibility of getting knocked out if your opponent gets through your guard.
Delivering a powerful and effective strike is as much about technique as it is about strength. Technique will help you minimize energy waste and allow you to deliver maximum force into your target. Twisting at the hips and allowing your arms or legs to follow through will help you strike with your entire body. This will help you generate maximum power with minimal effort. It’s also important not to merely aim for the surface of the opponent but rather to strike through.
Aim for maximum efficiency. Reduce any wasted movement which will prevent you from telegraphing your movements. When driving through with a straight punch, try to keep your elbow down and in so that energy is not wasted as your punch traverses towards your opponent. An elbow that protrudes out can also give your opponent a visual que of your attack.
Train for Different Fighting Ranges
Your fighting strategy and training must allow you to function at different ranges. This will help you deal with a diverse set of opponents with different skillsets. Being able to fight at different ranges will help you to adjust and adapt to different fighting styles. This will make you a more effective fighter. It is important to focus on the ranges in which you are least comfortable and keep adding skills and techniques to your fighting repertoire.
Here is a break-down of how I like to view fighting at different ranges.
Your opponent is a significant or safe distance away from you. Neither of you are in the fighting pocket to receive any damage. The key at this range is use your footwork, relative speed, and your legs to attack.
If you are willing to keep the fight at a long range, you need to get into your opponent’s fighting pocket very quickly and launch your attack. On completion of your attack, you should exit the fighting pocket as quickly as you entered.
Since your legs can cover a longer range than your arms, possessing a diverse set of kicks will be extremely important to add to your long-range fighting arsenal. Kicks are great to use to begin a long-range combination as they will help you get seamlessly into the fighting pocket as your opponent tries to negotiate them. I also like to end off a long-range combination with a kick as it buys me time to get out of the danger zone.
In short-range fighting, you will find yourself consistently in the opponent’s fighting pocket. This means that you will need to find a way to attack and defend in the danger zone. At this range, your elbows, knees, straight punches, hooks, and uppercuts are vital tools. These help you to attack whilst still allowing you to parry and cover your vital areas. I find it useful to compete for dominance of the centerline during short-range engagements. This will help you protect your own centerline while attacking your opponent’s most vulnerable areas.
You might also find that you regularly end up in the clinch during short-range bouts. At this range, being able to fight from the clinch is vital.
Fighting in the Clinch
Perfect technique in the Clinch is to rest elbows and forearms on the opponent’s upper torso with the hands clasped firmly around the opponent’s head. This allows you to gain full control so that you can drag the opponent to disorient and unbalance them. You will be able to deliver devastating knees and elbows from this position or drag your opponent to the ground if you need.
Timing and Defense
Perfecting your timing and knowing when to counter your opponent’s attack is a key element to becoming an effective fighter. Developing a good fight intuition is complementary to timing. This will help you read your opponent’s movements and intentions and help you seek out opportunities to intercept and finish the fight quickly.
I have covered in-depth, the 3 defensive strategies for striking Martial Artists in another article but here is a quick summary:
- Go No Sen (After) – counterattack after the opponent has completed their attack. This generally includes blocking or parrying an attack before firing back with your own counterattack.
- Sen No Sen (During) – counterattack during the opponent’s attack.
- Tai No Sen (Before) – also known as Sen Sen No Sen, attack as soon as you sense your opponent’s intent to attack. A preemptive strike.
Most fights go to the ground. It is therefore essential to work on effective strategies to defend yourself if you go to ground with an opponent. This includes:
- Protecting yourself when in a defensive position on the ground
- getting into a dominant position on the ground
- getting back to your feet
- how to submit your opponent by obtaining a joint-lock on one of their limbs
- how to restrict the flow of air to your opponent with a specific choke-hold
Fight Training Essentials
Fighting is a strenuous activity that requires lots of energy and stamina. It is best to condition your cardiovascular system so that you can maintain high levels of intensity for long periods of time. For optimal results, you should consider a steady-state cardio activity such as 30 minutes of low-intensity jogging and an intense work regiment that lasts for no longer than 20 minutes. For intense work, I like to shadow-spar at maximum intensity for 2 minutes followed by a 45 second rest period, for 5 rounds.
Body conditioning is vital if you aim to be an effective fighter. I’ve tried to strengthen my midsection with lots of core and abdominal exercises in the hope that I would be able to take a punch to the midsection. Sadly, this did not work for me.
I later found that the most effective way to take a punch to the midsection is to actually take punches to the midsection. Grab a training partner and have them start of light and turn up the power gradually. Tense your midsection during these conditioning drills and you will find that you will slowly build up the tolerance to take rather powerful strikes.
Core work is very important for any Martial Artist. For me, it is the basis of strength and endurance. It helps you coordinate your body in such a way that it optimizes movement. So, do not neglect your core and incorporate it during your strength training sessions. Its best to leave the targeted core work to the end of your strength training routine as you should be using it throughout your session.
Good Fighting Habits
Developing good fighting habits is very important and many dojos and gyms utilise drills to build these skills. I try to incorporate the following into my sparring which directly contributes to how I fight:
- Counterattack immediately after receiving an attack from your opponent
- Keep breathing deep and slow so as not to give away your intention or telegraph your attack
- Relax the muscles in your face and keep your emotions in check
- Never repeat an attack consecutively – aim for diversity in your combinations
- Use foot sweeps, jabs, and leg kicks as distractions for more powerful follow up strikes
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