Sunday, October 16, 2011

Martial Art Styles --- Key elements that separates good from the bad for real fights

Note: This is a very long article. It will take you some time to finish reading it with full understanding. It took me even longer to write this. If you find this topic interesting or have your own thoughts on this topic, by all mean share it. One thing I want to note though, if you can read this article again after your first read, I promise that you will have some different thoughts from the initial one you get. Enjoy!

Just a few days ago I wrote an article discussing how Wing Chun would work or not against other skilled fighters in full-contact scenario, the feedback I have been getting are amazing and very thought provoking too. I had originally planned to write about martial arts topics as a side effort as I am mainly focusing on just living life with gratitude. However, I am a thinker and a searcher too, especially when there is inspiration that I raises from within. The response I have been getting offline for that article has gently pushed me to think and examine everything I have trained for. Having trained and studied many different styles of combat, I have realized this deep yearning of searching for what works and what don't based on my experience and my understanding. This yearning combined with all of the great thoughts and feedback I have been receiving is what is driving me to write this topic, which is one of the very common question any aspiring martial artists have: What Style Should I choose?

This question is often coming from a deep desire of becoming a great fighter and a successful martial artist. Therefore, it is normal to have doubts about what you are getting into; it is also healthy to be skeptical about what others are telling you. You have to go and try it out on your own. Martial Art is not only a journey of mastering combat techniques, it is also a journey of self-discovery. Having said that, you know if you do martial arts only for general wellness, then any styles are equally good. However, is it also true for the purpose of martial combat?

What I mean by 'Martial Combat' is that it is a prearranged combat between two combatants under the rules mutually agreed or commonly accepted by certain code of honor. I do not mean the kind of fight where you jump on someone with weapons, or sneak up on an unready person. There is a modern style of fighting in China that does that, which is a true 'no-holds-bar' or 'unlimited fighting'. If you want to stab someone in the eyes with scissors, biting someone's fingers off like a mad dog, then go ahead and research that. I do not comment nor endorse that style of fighting personally, needless to say I have never practiced it neither. What this article will focus on are the styles that can be used in the above-mentioned 'Martial Combat' situation. 

So, let's first start by analyzing the techniques of different martial arts. There are thousands of techniques from hundreds of styles. They are all applications of the principle and philosophy of the styles. So what work and what don't? Having seen and read endless debates and arguments of what technique is useless and what isn't, I am compelled to say that they are all missing the point. It isn't whether the techniques work or not, it is whether they are used or not. You see, all techniques work, that's why they were created and able to stood the test of time for decades if not centuries. However, techniques only work if you apply it. In fact, in any technique exchanges, the technique that prevails is because it is applied. Due to the fact that it is successfully applied at that moment, It un-applies the counter technique at the same moment. The reverse is true too. 

A lot of us spend months and years perfecting the execution of techniques in the dojo until we can perform them seemingly flawlessly. When you watch any seasoned martial artists doing demos, they are all equally impressive with their flows of movements. If so, shouldn't they be all equally masterful at fighting each other? When they do, why some win and some lose? 

The key missing point of those endless arguments of technique against technique is the ability of applying those argued techniques. Training the execution of techniques is relatively easy, but training to apply the techniques is not similarly nor equally done in all styles. That's where the separation of winner and loser begins. So let's get to this point, which is the center theme of this article. 

You see, in order to successfully apply any techniques, regardless of striking, grappling, throwing, trapping, the common requirement is the degree of physical relaxation of the body. This is the common thing among all martial arts. Like I mentioned in the discussion of whether Wing Chun will work or not, total body relaxation is what determines the success or failure of technique execution. So, what do we know about being physically relaxed?

Being physically relaxed means that we are not wasting our energy on unnecessary movements, we eradicate any unnecessary muscle tension, we just let our body be at ease. Not every technique requires the same degree of relaxation, but relaxation is a common requirement. The only time we tense our whole body or certain part of our body is during the moment of technique execution, then we quickly relax again. Physical relaxation allows us to move faster, more easily, more smooth when transitioning to other techniques and it saves our strength. The reason why any martial art techniques on demo all look beautiful is because the practitioners are completely at ease with their body. The demo or drill is a safe environment intended for total body relaxation. This is also why the beautiful flow of techniques are rarely seen in actual combats against an equally trained opponent, because maintaining such level of relaxation is almost impossible in the face of physical pressures and struggles. 

The question is, how do we develop and cultivate such physical relaxation for real combat? The answer has already been among a lot of the martial art training routines. I am just breaking it down for those who have yet to realize it.

You see, in order to be physically relaxed, we need to have more control of the situation during the fight. The more we are in control, the less our bodies are going to tense. In demos where opponents offer very little resistance against our technique, it makes our relaxation come more easily. However, in a real fight where opponents are struggling for lives, we need to impose more control and dominance in order to obtain such level of relaxation. This ability to impose control and dominance is what I call 'base strength' for lack of a better term. 

Let me give some examples of what I mean by base strength:

1. An expert wrestler or Judoka imposes his control over opponents by having strong grips, body control, balance and overall body strength. When they get a hold of their opponents, their grips and holds enable them to keep their opponent where they want despite the struggles he may put up while still being relatively relaxed themselves. I have sure you have seen some of those outstanding wrestlers perform. Their techniques flow naturally when they are so relaxed because their base strength are so strong that the struggles their opponents put up isn't enough to make them physical tense. In other words, they are totally in control. 

2. A great striker, kick-boxer is completely relaxed as he moves, attacks and evades regardless how intense the situation is. He is always relaxed as if he doesn't care about any 'what-ifs'. Because of his relaxation, he is able to control the distance, dictate the pace of the fight and land his every attack. Through constant training, his body reflex is at such a high level that he just flows like water. His base strength allows him to physically relax. this enables him to throw his combinations quicker, time his counters more accurately, hit harder and outlast his opponent.    

As we can see, base strength is the prerequisite of body relaxation, which is then the base for the flow of techniques that eventually ends the fight. If I had to generalize the dynamic of any hand-to-hand duels, I would say 'All duels of empty hands are competition of base strength of the combatants before the competitions of the actual techniques.' It applies to fights between 2 untrained persons; trained martial artists against untrained person; or both highly trained combatants of the same or different styles. 

Base strength can be trained and improved by various methods. Certain traditional martial arts of the far east utilize the concept of internal energy and body alignment to develop it's base strength, they are call 'Nei Jia' styles in general. Other commonly practiced arts use various physical exercises to improve muscle strength and explosiveness for better base strength. Even a common gymnastic exercise is a way to improve base strength to some extend. While strength training is important among most of the professional fighters, nothing can replace full contact sparring, drilling and grappling in improving base strength. The more you grapple with full force, the more your body will get used to the struggling force your opponent puts up and hence makes your ability to remain in control while being relaxed more natural; The more you spar against better opponents, the more adapted your body and mind are when fists are flying at you, hence the stronger you will be as a fighter in handling that level of intensity. Full contact sparring is an irreplaceable method of building your base strength of the style you train for. It is absolutely necessary training however, only after you obtain certain level of basic mastery of the techniques, not before..

When it comes to style vs style, the fact that different styles require different level of body relaxation means the level of base strength required will also vary. Wing Chun and Aikido techniques require much greater body relaxation compared to the techniques in boxing and wrestling, therefore they are harder to apply in the fight because the base strength needed for obtaining the level of relaxation for those techniques is simply much greater, it doesn't mean the technique itself is ineffective.

So having said the above, one of the key things to consider about which style you should choose for the purpose of becoming a better fighter is to know what training method does that style use to improve its base strength along with the techniques being taught. Does that method of training make sense to you? Don't get too caught up with analyzing technique for technique comparison, it's a waste of time.

I followed the above thought process and made some decisions in my personal Martial Arts journey. I walked away from Aikido, Karate and Kempo KungFu after trying it for a short period of time. I just didn't see the effectiveness of the particular training I was getting at that time for meeting my then purpose of becoming successful fighters in full contact sport. What would yo do? 

Assuming you have the techniques down and you have the base strength for becoming relaxed during the fight. The next thing that determines the direction of the fight in general is the ability to stay relaxed. This is the next level of martial art training. Being able to relax as much as we can without losing control of the fight is more difficult than the training of base strength. It requires constantly physical training, technique training and mental training. In my opinion, there are two kinds of relaxation, they are physical and mental relaxation. Both are important at maintaining total body relaxation. 

1. Physical relaxation: I have mentioned earlier, it is the relaxation of body muscles before the execution of techniques. It is based on having better base strength over opponents at that particular moment of the exchange. I also mentioned earlier that different styles require different level of physical relaxation, some are easier than the other. Another thing is that the fighter's particular physiques and level of toughness also vary the requirement of their relaxation. Some can get away with sloppier techniques while others can't. Nevertheless, physical relaxation is being taught in all styles. However, is the application of such physical relaxation in a real fighting situation being taught by your style? This is another key element you need to consider  when choosing your style.

2. Mental relaxation: This is a tough one. A lot of martial artists claim they have the mental relaxation, but they really don't know what they are talking about. Mental relaxation goes much deeper and beyond just martial arts, it is a reflection of your life. Your martial art training is just one area of your life being reflected by your level of mental relaxation. Before I get philosophical and specific about what I mean by mental relaxation, let's first ask ourselves this question: Am I taking myself too seriously? If the answer is 'Yes', then you are not mentally relaxed. This mental tension is going to get in the way in your training, your sparring and your competitions. In other words, 'It's all about the attitude.'

For those who have trained and fought Muay Thai in Thailand will be able to tell you their experience of the Thai fighters there. They are mentally completely relaxed at all time. They take their training seriously but they don't take the outcome of the sparring/fight seriously like the westerners do. The Thais train and fight with passions and joy. It is conveyed by their smiles, their attitudes and their reactions before and during every fight. They are completely at ease with themselves. Westerner boxers on the other hand, take themselves way too seriously. They might be physically relaxed but they are not mentally relaxed. They look too intense in their training and in their fight as if they have things to prove. I have personally met and trained with many people who are constantly concerned of not being good enough, not getting where they want to get quick enough. Because of their mental tension, they get frustrated with their progress, they even push themselves too hard that results unnecessary injuries. 

Mental tension also undermines the level of physical relaxation you have obtained. When I was learning Wing Chun, I learned a combination of attack from Chi Sao. I would chop my partner's neck, if my partner blocks with a Wu Sao, I'd then do a Laap Sao of that hand and strike his face with my other hand at the same time. All these movements have to be done with great body relaxation so I can sense my partner's movement. For a long time I just wasn't flowing with this until I realize how to mentally relax, then things started changing automatically. You see, when I chopped my partner's neck, I put too much expectation on that attack that I was going for the kill. Then my mind was counting on my opponent blocking my attack so I could then do a Laap Sao. Because of my mental tension, I was waiting and expecting, then reacting based on what happened. This process creates blockage in the flow of techniques, even if the delay maybe a split second, that makes a world of difference. The same goes for Muay Thai and any other competitions. A lot of combatants although look relaxed, you can feel the mental tension underneath. They are too nervous, too concerned and too eager perhaps. Because they focus too much on what their opponents might do, what outcomes they want to achieve, they lose focus on the very moment that matters the most. This is why not everybody performs equally well in fights as they do in training. 

So how can you achieve mental relaxation? Like I said before, the answer goes much deeper. This isn't obtained by doing certain exercise routines, it requires a change on the outlook of life. Are you focusing on what you can get from life to make you happy? Are you constantly hoping you can get more money, respect, sex and fame so that you are happy? Or are you focusing on doing what you absolutely love to do and let the happiness and fulfillment naturally come to do during the process regardless of the outcome of the activity? Your attitude towards martial art training is the attitude you have towards your own life. It is why some are able to fight at the full potential regardless of win or lose; it is also why others get frustrated and burned out in training over time and eventually walk away. 

Mental relaxation is about focusing on the very moment without the interference of thoughts and judgement of one's ego, the worst enemy we ever have. It is a live-long practice for all of us, not only for martial arts but also for how to handle lives. You can be mentally relaxed when training in your dojo, but can you be mentally relaxed when sparring people you don't want to spar? Or even fighting in front of millions watching around the world with your ego, championship, money, dream and respect on the line? Especially in the west where fight promotion has the habit of overly hyping the fight for months in order to build tension and anticipation of the fights. If you are in the midst of all these attentions, animosity and drama, can you feel you have nothing to lose and be at complete mental peace?

Therefore, having known what mental relaxation is, the third element of considering what style to choose isn't about the style itself surprisingly. It is about you. There isn't an easy answer for it, because it requires listening deeply to your inner voice with complete calm. The question to ask is "What do I want out of mastering this style?" Only you can answer that.

In summary, all styles work when they are being applied. The degree of base strength determines the level of relaxation of each combatant, which then determines the degree of technique display and application during the fight. The mental relaxation is the highest level of state of combat, which enables the combatant to fight at its full potential. 

By no mean I am saying this is all there is to win a particular fight. There can be a lot of x-factors that will effect the outcome of one particular battle, and I am not here to discuss that. This is only about how to fight your style at the fullest, be completely self-expressive in every fight. This is the only way to fairly access the capability of any styles when pit against others. I hope I have given you some thing to consider before choosing the style that you can stick with. We are all on this journey together.

Best of luck!

Thank you 



  1. Hey dude! read both of your articles and they made a lot of sense. you have a very practical and calm voice in your writing. Here is a zen article that has to do with the subject of relaxation!

    1. Thank you for the link, it was a great read and I appreciate your support :)


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