There’s a big difference in my mind between fight-toughness, and fighting-smart. If you go into any of the competitive ‘fight’ schools, not matter if it’s Muay Thai, boxing or MMA, and you spend enough time there, you will become tough. This isn’t going to happen however if you train a couple of times a week. To build a good level of ‘fight-toughness’ takes hours of dedication, some insanity, and training every day in the fight gym.
When I reflect back on my time boxing with my coach Willie Toweel in my late teens to early 20’s it was as they say an authentic, spit and sawdust, real boxing gym. I spent so many hours there, even bunking school to train, that given enough time in the ring, I developed a level of toughness that was required just to survive in that type of boxing gym. When I say toughness, what I developed was the ability to both dish out, and take a blow. Taking that blow/or blows was important, because like it or not, it was going to happen in the ring. Having a pounding headache after a day at the gym was a regular occurrence and something you simply had to get used too.
In reflection, what has always bothered me (and still does when I watch combat athletes today) is that old school mindset of taking shots to dish them out — much the same as when I was competing in boxing. Nowhere is the more evident than in MMA. If I look at MMA, clearly the ‘fight sport’ has evolved from it’s early days, yet still the defensive-offensive paradigm is, at best, about taking a shot to give one. Of course, I am to a degree over simplifying this, because clearly fighters do try to avoid getting hit, but they are equally resided to the fact that they may need to take a shot to give one. I would argue here that as much as MMA has evolved, this is one area of the fight game in the Octagon that hasn’t evolved at all.
Here’s the thing, high level fighters in MMA for instance of course don’t get hit as much as new guys walking in. They are able to deflect some shots, get out the way, or slip strikes. But they still take enough punishment, that left unchecked, will come back to haunt them in later years. Lets not even talk about how many shots they took to the head coming up the ranks, even just in training, to even be able to avoid some of the strikes they are now able to in the Octagon. Not least of all, as Joe Rogan and others have pointed out, an MMA glove, only protects a fighters hand to a degree, not the persons face being pounded on. In the end, just because you are fight-tough, and can take a shot, doesn’t mean you should.
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A study entitled, Head Trauma in Mixed Martial Arts found that, “Rates of KOs and TKOs in MMA are higher than previously reported rates in other combative and contact sports.”
A caveat here: If we now look at the NFL and what is coming out on concussions, and the aftermath years later, I firmly believe we will see something like this coming out in the years to come in MMA. As I noted, while training to become fight-tough allows you to take shots that a normal human being could never, there is, and will be, sever consequences to being pounded in the head continuously over the years. Even if you compete, and get caught only two times a round in the head hard, take that times it over a career and that is a lot of head trauma. I can concede and suggest these professional fighters chose to be there and its part and parcel of the sport, but I am seriously concerned for the hobbyist who don’t think (and are not educated about) the long term consequences of getting hit in the head repeatedly night after night. Something that many people don’t know about me, but after years of training in the ‘take shots to give shots’ mindset, I struggle with daily headaches to this day. The most obvious consequence for me from those years, is the amount of problems I now have with my neck — its daily pain, daily headaches. I wish I was shown a better way to deal with defence back then. I wish I had fought smart.
When I teach these days I spend more time on fighting-smart than fight-tough. This means, rather than an obsessive focus on how much punishment a person can take to give it out, is to rather change the paradigm to one of the less you get hit the better. This is even more important, as the vast majority of people who walk into my school have no intention of climbing in the ring or Octagon, and can only give me a couple of hours a week because of their hectic life/work schedules.
My approach with these students is to find ways to keep them the safest possible in sparring, where they are not taught from the onset that taking a shot to give one is a viable long term strategy. This begins even from how we execute the jab and cross, arguably the staple strikes in any real fighting platform. Of course you can throw a jab with your head exposed, but what it does mean is that when the opponent counters, and you are not fast enough to slip your head out of the way, you will invariable have to take that incoming shot to some degree. Or, you can make the jab both defensive-and-offensive at the same time. I call this a Diving Board jab, and while it may limit you slightly on delivering a jab with various angles, it does offer a far greater defence of your head (i.e., your brain).
This is what I view as fighting-smart, where the objective is to land your shots, but not take as many in order to make it happen. As I have written elsewhere, the objective in any fight, should be about taking less punishment than it takes for you to land your own. This however as I have pointed out in this article, seems not to be the case in most fight gyms. It is still about the fight-tough approach, and because they are tough, taking shots, taking punishment, to then give it out, seems a viable and workable strategy. The problem is, it does work as a strategy, because if it didn’t, it would have been abandoned. The bigger problem here of course is the long term effects of this strategy on a fighters health, and of course, as I point out here, not knowing the difference between fighting-tough and fighting-smart. Both will work, but only one equals longevity, and only one is accessible to a wider audience who want to train in real functional fighting.
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