Brad Allan vs. Jackie Chan in "Gorgeous" (1999)

“GET YOUR GEAR!” our instructor shouted, and we all scrambled to grab our sparring equipment. He continued bellowing over the rough-edged music that played in the background of the gym. Music chosen for its ability to stress us out, just like our instructor yelled at us to set us on edge. At the higher levels of Krav Maga, they stress the ability to act under stress.

I’m a graduate student at a rigorous university, so I like to fancy myself accustomed to stress. After a few years at Marquette, I’m used to deadlines and absurd expectations – and meeting both with success. I’m used to pointed questions designed to cripple my arguments, and speaking coherently under pressure. In short, I am accustomed to the fistfight that is academic work. But that’s never quite like an actual fistfight.

This was my first experience with sparring. I jogged over to my gear and floundered a little, not quite sure how to strap my shin guards on and definitely not sure how on earth to get my headgear to fit right. Our instructor kept shouting and I ignored him, well acclimated to his frenzy. I was more worried about my first spar: how much would it hurt to get nailed by a 16-ounce glove? And how in the hell was I going to cope with my height disadvantage? My comrades all had at least four inches on me, and in most cases more.

Everyone else was already back on the mat, ready to go. I glanced at them with envy. My hands shook. I fumbled with my mouth guard and stuffed it in my pocket as I shuffled back to the mat.

I caught the end of our instructions: go at %40 strength and speed. This was to be a chess game, not a strength match. Switch partners when he shouted. We had an odd number of students, so it was okay that I was late. Someone had to be on the sidelines anyway.

I fidgeted with my headgear, which I still could not puzzle out, while my gloves rested lamely at my feet. My head hurt; I didn’t have the damn gear on right. At least I had the shin guards on good and tight.

My instructor walked up to me and asked to see my headgear. “This is your first time with your gear, isn’t it?” I nodded, yanking the intractable headgear off. He smiled and apologized for shouting at me, and helped me get myself together. My heart hammered as I began to realize I was ready for my first fight.

Reduced speed and strength wouldn’t matter if I sucked. A good strike always hurts. I knew that already from months of training. And as I thought about that, my instructor nudged me forward from behind and ushered me to my first opponent. My mind went blank. I forgot about the mouth guard in my pocket. My gloved hands instinctively lifted to protect my face.

This was it. I was going to die.

My first sparring partner was the only other woman there, someone who has been training in Krav Maga the longest of any of us students. I have never seen her go all-out like some of the other students do, so I’m never quite sure how strong she is. She’s a lot taller than me (by almost a foot), so she’s definitely stronger. That’s just how it works. Point is, she never has to be strong. She has most of the skills down so well that she picks apart attacks without ever having to compensate with strength. And that’s just when we’re practicing specific defenses.

She started off by peppering me with a couple of straight punches to the chest. I blocked them awkwardly and missed most, barely able to remember how to defend myself. Adrenaline makes you dumber, you know. She stepped around me; I mirrored her movements, the instinct to keep square with her deeply ingrained by now. She peppered me again with some shots to the chest and then SMACK! – nailed me on the head. I was more confused than angered or embarrassed. I eventually remembered how to perform Krav Maga’s quick roundhouse kicks to the legs, but that little gem never rescued me from several more strikes to the head.

FIRST ROUND: EPIC FAIL

Bruce Lee vs. Jackie Chan, "Enter the Dragon" (1973)

One of the first things I learned in Krav Maga was how to cope with failure. Graduate students are not creatures accustomed to failure – the whole reason they get into their field is because they are naturally skilled at it. There is a lot to learn, sure, but that is not the same as trying something new and watching it fall to pieces. In Krav Maga, everything new falls apart. You don’t know how to use your body quite right yet, and your muscles strain to move in unfamiliar ways. You can’t get the hold right, don’t know where to put your feet, can’t remember how to transition. Heck, at the very beginning, you don’t even know when to breathe. Martial arts are disciplines built on details that eventually become second nature. None of it feels right at first. So you fail. A lot. But that’s how you learn. You eventually start to see failure as the door to finally getting it right. Failure is your friend.

Failure was smacking me on the head every two seconds.

My next opponent was one of our junior instructors. I began to calm down a bit, though my defenses were as effective as rice paper and he also thwacked me on the head a lot. I asked him questions – “How do I defend that?” “How do I attack you because of my height?” Being humble enough to ask how to do it right is the quickest way to learn from failure. If you want to do it by yourself, you’re an idiot and your bruises will prove it.

SECOND ROUND: EVERYONE LOVES TO HIT ME ON THE HEAD

For the rest of the evening, my instructor paired me up with the other woman among the students. It was like an endless Third Round. I began to gain a bit of savvy, and bravely closed the distance between us in an attempt to tactically neutralize the radical height difference. I got in some nice shots to her abdomen, below the ribs – this was easiest for me to reach, and is exposed when your opponent punches at you – but she always managed to strike me on the head. Honestly, it was simple for her: anytime I closed in, my head was at the perfect height for her to counter. That’s what happens when your head only reaches up to someone’s chest.

I began to learn. I blocked her kicks with my legs and pressed her backwards to knife in close to her, ready with a springy kick to the groin. (We were nice to each other – I actually kicked the inside of her thigh.) Normally, groin kicks are performed with the strong leg (for most, the right leg), which in the Krav Maga fighting stance is always the back leg. It produces more power because you can get more leverage. A kick that uses the front leg, the weak leg, sacrifices power for speed. You might not be able to wail on the other guy, but you can get a nasty little strike in before he knows what you’re doing.

So that’s what I would do: snap forward with a quick kick and close the distance to try and get in a few straight punches or hooks to her abdomen before she inevitably knocked me on the head. Roundhouse kicks mostly became an attempt to be annoying. I opened my attack with punches less and less as I watched them fail; I just didn’t have the reach for it. I never went after her head (faces are not allowed in sparring) – the reach alone would have opened me up to some nasty hooks along the side of my ribs.

It got a bit hilarious as we grew tired. Sometimes long moments would pass before anyone tried a strike, as if we forgot we were doing anything but moving in circles. I started laughing when she knocked my head, as if that could possibly be funny. My gloves became heavy; my shoulders ached, unused to the extra weight. Of the two of us, I was particularly exhausted, as I had been to the other class that day, too, and now stood at the long end of two hours straight of martial arts. I’ve resolved to work on my conditioning more, and I paid for it.

THIRD ROUND: I’d say I lost, given the number of times I got a punch to the head, but I put up a good fight.

Jackie Chan, "Drunken Master 2" (a.k.a., "Legend of Drunken Master"), (1994)

THINGS I LEARNED:

(1) How to take a hit to the head. A lot. Thank God we were only at 40%. That way, it only felt like someone had thunked me with a heavy pillow.

(2) Laugh failure in the face.

(3) For someone my height, lightning kicks are the key to opening a series of attacks. They let me transition close without getting rocked by a strike. I am going to have to improve my kicking skills, which is somewhat disappointing since I am more talented at punches. But it’s not like I can grow a few inches, so I’ll have to suck it up and learn.

(4) Move fast. I was too tired to do this consistently, but I was at my best when I was quick about what I was doing instead of focusing on throwing her back on her heels.

(5) Get in, but then get the hell out. I never did this, and I think it is one of the main reasons I kept getting smacked on the head. I remembered to close the distance between us to counter her height advantage, but she still had that advantage and answered with those high strikes to my head. So, I think I need to learn to be more mobile. Knife in with a kick, get in a couple of close strikes, and leap out as if I had never been there. This will require a lot more energy on my part. A lot more movement.

It sucks to be short in a fight. Just does. Good thing I’m working on conditioning.

My instructor was very proud of me. He said he usually works more closely with students when they first learn to spar, keeping them off to the side and drilling them in essential skills. But he likes to just throw me in the fray and see what I do. I guess that’s awesome. Awesome hurts more.

Maybe next time I should remember the mouth guard in my pocket.

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