Friday, December 21, 2007

Tight defenses, old offenses

It’s winter. When it’s cold, energy sinks to the roots. Time to focus inward, do things that take a slower pace. Core work. Conditioning. Fundamentals.

Today I worked on the latter in front of a mirror. I want to see what an opponent sees. I want to know what I’d think if I had to fight myself. This was a breakdown of movement, looking for that one-inch gap, subtle shifts from one position to another.

I recently saw a reality show on aspiring MMA fighters. One talked about learning to “protect his home”, meaning his belly. In close quarters the key is keeping forearms tight, elbows straight down and touching the body.

You can see this in Muay Thai. At longer range the elbows are out from the body, hands high. As the action gets closer, the defense closes up to protect the ribs and belly. All an attacker sees is bony forearms and elbows.

Lifting the knee to defend against kicks extends that bony armor to cover the body from top to bottom, especially when the knee and elbow reinforce each other seamlessly. This is why mirror practice is valuable, because what feels secure may reveal a gap through which an opponent can wedge an attack.

There are also ways to psychologically exploit those gaps. Throwing a kick directly at a protected area that you wish to hit, like the floating ribs, may cause an opponent to react by moving to cover an area he feels is exposed, effectively unlocking the vault for you. In other words, the tendency is to strengthen less defended areas, thereby weakening the secured ones, which are probably the more high-value targets.

Another example of this is watching a boxer pound away at the liver or solar plexus. Like water eroding a rock, each blow weakens resistance. If nothing else, it spreads the defense by forcing coverage of that area at possible expense elsewhere.

I’ve been watching some MMA lately. I like so much of what they do, but there seems to be a consistent paradigm in this style of fighting. It’s different than martial art fighting in the 70’s or 80’s. MMA has its advantages, one of them being “combat tested” all the time, and the strength of the ground game. At the same time, there is a self-reflective quality that they are all working the same material.

Is there room to look outside of that? I feel like I’ve stepped out of a time machine, because I look at the stand-up sparring and see opportunities for attacks that are not thrown. Mostly these are straight-line moves. I rarely see aggressive jabbing, for instance. I almost never see straight kicks, either front or side, that were bread and butter at one time. My Kenpo teacher used to “teach us to fly” with those kicks L

I’m not saying my old style is better than MMA, just that from these eyes I’m seeing things nobody is using. While I have no doubt there are effective counters in their repertoire, a lot of fighting is about seeing opportunities. You can’t exploit what you don’t perceive, and conversely you may not defend what isn’t thrown. A move that’s been long retired can seem new and innovative when revived. After all, isn’t that what the Gracies did by repopularizing grapping in the arts?

These techniques are not some secret sure-fire way to beat another style, though a good side kick to the brisket can be a spine-altering experience, but different ways to put pressure on an opponent. Any time you force an opponent to react to your lead is an advantage. Think of fights where fighters circle each other, pawing the air. If one steps up and applies pressure, it can create opportunities that aren’t to be found in dead space.

This is where a good short punching game is a strength, as is a robust defense. Elbows often feature prominently in both aspects, and arts like Wing Chun or some FMA are able to attack and defend at the same time by angle of elbows while punching.

Pressure up top can create openings below, so it’s useful to integrate some techniques utilizing both hands and feet to strike, just as punching combinations coordinate left and right hands. Arnis has four-corner patterns of high/low left and right, as do Kenpo and probably many other styles. While these offer sound defenses, on a deeper level they’re counters that probe for openings through which to strike.

Low kicks can be a high percentage move if used judiciously in the right situations. If you can get an opponent to react or look upwards, the kick comes in under the radar. For instance, against the speed of a stick one might feed a high strike that is countered by an umbrella. As the opponent’s hands move up, you kick underneath.

This is why the mirror work is important, to spot your own gaps and tendencies when moving. You need to see the possibilities both defensively and offensively.

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