Ancient and Modern Olympics

Sunday, July 31st, 2016

With the summer games approaching David Stuttard contrasts the ancient and modern Olympics:

While today’s Games stress inclusivity, their ancient counterparts were rigidly exclusive. To compete in this celebration of not just Greek (and, later, Greco-Roman) identity but of proud god-fearing masculinity, you had to speak Greek, be free from the pollution of murder — and be male. Women couldn’t even be spectators. Only the priestess of Demeter could attend.

The chief reason for these restrictions is that the original Games were not really about sport at all. Rather, they were one part of a major male religious festival in honor of the great god Zeus. Indeed, Olympia, site of the Games, was named for Mount Olympus, where Zeus was considered to have had his throne.

I’m not sure sure that the modern games aren’t religious — depending on your definition.

Olympic Vase by Pep Montserrat

The first Games, in 776 B.C., were small-scale and local:

Apart from sacrifices and other religious rites, it included only one sporting event, a footrace of 200 yards, a distance which the Greeks called a stade (hence our “stadium”), and which took well under a minute to run.

[...]

The stade race, run at the midpoint of the Games, remained the centerpiece — so much so that in the fifth-century B.C., when it became desirable to introduce an internationally recognized dating system, the polymath philosopher Hippias hit on the formula, “in the xth year of the yth Olympiad, when z was victor in the footrace.”

The formula caught on, not only promoting the importance of the Games still further but becoming the means whereby a triumphant runner could win everlasting fame.

The words gymnasium and gymnastics come from a time before lycra:

Like other athletes at the Games, runners competed naked. Again, the origins of this tradition were debated, but the most well-known involved Orisippus, a young man from Megara near Athens. Until 720 B.C., loincloths were de rigueur, but that year Orisippus raced so vigorously that his fell off. When he crossed the line to victory, it was seen as a sign from the gods and henceforth any kind of clothing was banned.

But the athletes probably didn’t look exactly naked. By Roman times, if not before, it was common first to anoint the bodies of competitors in oil, then to sprinkle them with dust or powder. One treatise recommended the dust of terra-cotta for helping to open pores, asphalt dust for heating the chilled and yellow earth for softening the skin, commenting that: “Yellow dust also adds glisten, and is a delight to see on a body which is in good shape.” Athletes may well have looked like moving statues.

It was also a time before sunscreen.

There were no team events in the ancient Olympics, by the way.

I find the tone of this passage almost quaint, like something from the pre-UFC 1980s:

The only contact sport forbidden to boys was the pancration, an almost-no-holds-barred free-for-all, in which only biting and eye-gouging were prohibited. A Roman commentator reflected that the competitor must “endure black eyes…and learn holds by which the fallen can still win, and they must be skillful in the various arts of strangulation.”

One pancratist’s win was particularly unconventional. Arrhachion came from Phigalia, a city in mountainous Arcadia. In 564 B.C. the two-time winner came to Olympia where “his opponent, whoever he was, got a grip first and held Arrhachion with his legs squeezed around his neck at the same time. Meanwhile, Arrhachion dislocated a toe on his opponent’s foot but was strangled and expired. At the same time, however, Arrhachion’s opponent gave up because of the pain in his toe. The judges proclaimed Arrhachion the winner and crowned his corpse.”

The ethos has changed most of all:

When Baron de Coubertin revived — or reimagined — the Olympics in 1896, drawing on the ethos of both the ancient Games and English public schools for inspiration, he averred: “What is important in life is not to triumph, but to take part; what is essential is not to have won, but to have fought well.” This may have been a fine late-Victorian ideal, but it was far from the ancient view. At Olympia there were no prizes for coming second, and, fueled by the Homeric exhortation “always to be best,” the desire to win kudos at almost any cost motivated every competitor.

For the aristocratic elite, it was in that most dangerous and exciting of all events, the chariot race, that the most kudos could be earned. Since its introduction in 680 B.C., leading Greek families from Sicily to Libya to the mainland and beyond coveted this prize above all others, because to win it was a sign of immense wealth and good judgment — and, since they hired charioteers to race for them, they ran no physical risks themselves.

Now I’m wondering why there’s no gilded Trump NASCAR car.

Harlem Knight Fight

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

I have trouble taking the Harlem Knight Fight seriously:

It does give some idea what a medieval tourney would’ve been like though, with armored knights fighting in a rough contact sport.

Jocko and Tim Kennedy

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

Jocko (@JockoWillink) recently had Tim Kennedy (@TimKennedyMMA) on his podcast, and they answered a few of my questions — or, at least, they talked about them:

0:25:30 – Bayonet Training thoughts.

0:35:46 – Green Beret VS Navy SEALS?

1:19:33 – Combatives with Full Kit on / multiple attackers.

Is Shooting a Martial Art?

Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

“Do you consider shooting a martial art?” I asked Jocko (@jockowillink). “How has your firearms training been like or unlike martial arts training?” He answered, and it went something like this:

Shooting is absolutely a martial art, maybe not the way people picture martial arts nowadays, because we picture a guy in a gi doing karate, that’s the generic picture. But for me that’s not martial arts actually. For me martial art is the art of war, the individual warrior skills which it takes, and firearms are absolutely a martial art. Because it’s something that you train, something that you get good at, something you need to maintain your skill at. To me it’s another piece of the puzzle, another thing that you need to know how to do, just like tactics that go along with shooting are an important part of being a warrior, you need to know how to shoot.

The training is very similar in my mind to martial arts training, in that it takes repetition, you have to know what the basics are, you have to repeat those basics, then you get more advanced.

It’s about movement and getting efficient with your movement, you want to train very similar to the way you train mixed martial arts. And once you get all those mechanical skills down, then you want to train your mind around this skill, so that your mind knows how to utilize it when things are unexpected and when there’s chaos and mayhem going on.

(Thanks to our Slovenian guest for transcribing that.)

From there, Jocko tells a fun story about Nerf “lazer” tag and the importance of good tactical training.

Edward Byers’ Medal of Honor Story

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

The door-kickers of SEAL Team 6 actually use grappling skills in combat, as Edward Byers‘ experience attests:

As the team got within 25 meters of the compound, a sentry at the door was alerted to their presence. The first member of the team, Petty Officer First Class Nicolas Checque, shot at the guard and ran towards the door of the compound. He fell wounded by an AK-47 round to the head as he charged into the building.

Byers was the second man inside the building, sprinting in on Checque’s heels.

“There were some blankets hanging up; it wasn’t like a typical door, so you couldn’t just open the door and walk in,” Byers recalled. “When I finally [made my way through the blankets], down my area of responsibility there was an enemy that I engaged with and then I saw another person that was moving across the floor. I didn’t know whether or not that person was [the hostage] or if it was just an enemy coming to and trying to get some weapons, so by the time I got to him, I was able to get on top of him, straddle him, pin him down with my legs.”

Locked in hand-to-hand combat with the unknown man underneath him, Byers managed to subdue him with one hand and use the other to adjust the focus of his night-vision goggles. Having done so, he saw that the man was one of the captors and engaged him with his weapon.

“At the same time, we’re calling out, trying to find the location of the American hostage,” Byers said.

Joseph called out, alerting the SEALs to his presence, three to five feet away from where Byers had grappled with the guard. Byers immediately tackled the captive American, using his own body and body armor to shield him from the fighting.

From this position, Byers noticed another man close by.

“It ended up being an enemy who had grenades and a weapon on him within arms’ reach,” Byers said. “And I was able to pin him to the wall by his throat until our team was able to come in and take care of that threat.”

The entire raid was over in a matter of minutes.

Byers is the first living sailor to receive the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War.

Two other SEALs have received the medal posthumously since Sept. 11, 2001: Special Warfare Operator 2nd Class Michael Monsoor, for heroic actions in Iraq in 2006; and Lt. Michael Murphy, for valor during Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan in 2005.

A Martial Art Is Born in Belém

Sunday, February 14th, 2016

Over 100 years ago, a martial art was born in Belém:

The story of how the Gracies created the most potent martial art the world has ever seen began in the heart of the Amazon in 1913, in a city called Belém, or Bethlehem, which is the capital of the northern Brazilian state of Pará. The Gracies were a prominent upper-class family from Rio de Janeiro, the descendants of a Scotsman named George Gracie, who was born in Dumfries, Scotland, on August 14, 1801. George arrived in Rio at the age of 25 with four friends, one of whom died of yellow fever, according to Reila’s biography of her father, Carlos. “A man of Calvinist upbringing,” she wrote of George, “he was handsome and poised, with a shapely face, straight nose, very light skin, blond hair and blue eyes.”

Adventurous and gifted, the Gracies were eager to seek out new worlds. George’s brother Archibald had already emigrated from Scotland to Manhattan, where he became a shipping magnate and a friend to Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. He advertised his wealth by buying a piece of prime property overlooking the East River, where he built a grand house that bore his name. In 1896, the house was sold to the city of New York, which made it the statutory residence of the city’s mayor. In tribute to the tasteful opulence of its builder’s conception, the house retained the name Gracie Mansion, by which it is still known today.

Meanwhile, George Gracie prospered in Rio, becoming a partner in the trading company of Stockmayer, Gracie, Hobkirk & Co., and later a director of the Bank of Brazil. He married Mariana Antônia de Malheiros, the daughter of an elite Brazilian family, and had a son, Pedro Gracie, who also became a successful banker.

Pedro’s son Gastão was an aspiring diplomat who lived in Germany for 10 years. He spoke fluent German, Latin, Greek, and five other languages — none of which seemed to aid his career, which suffered because of his sharp temper, impulsive behavior, and lack of any appreciable aptitude for diplomacy. After missing out on a diplomatic post he badly wanted, Gastão returned to Brazil and embarked on a series of failed business ventures and tempestuous love affairs, in the course of which he fathered nine children, the oldest and wildest of whom he named Carlos. “I honestly did not have a moment of peace,” Carlos later remembered of his disorderly childhood. “My devilry got to a point that, even in my own neighborhood, I only felt safe when I ran through the streets along the streetcar rails. It was the only way of avoiding surprises from possible enemies.” During Carlos’s upbringing, the Gracies lived in nine different houses, and no two of his siblings were born at the same address.

Drawn to the jungle city of Belém by the Amazonian rubber craze, Gastão failed to get rich. He turned next to the manufacture of dynamite, which he stored in the house where his children slept. He also managed entertainers and ran the American Circus, which toured widely in southern Brazil.

On November 5, 1916, Gastão’s circus arrived in the port city of Manaus, where a member of the troupe, an Italian boxer named Alfredi Leconti, challenged a Japanese martial artist named Satake to a fight. As it happened, Satake was not the most distinguished Japanese martial artist in Manaus that day: He had arrived in town a year earlier with Count Koma, a Japanese judo master whose real name was Mitsuyo Maeda. Koma had fought more than 1,000 professional matches on four continents while suffering only two recorded defeats. As Satake fought Leconti, Koma watched from ringside, where he struck up a friendship with Gastão that would alter the history of combat sports.

Count Koma wound up in the Amazon after a chain of unlikely contingencies that parallels the emergence of Gracie jiu-jitsu as a global sport. The determined westernization of Japan by Emperor Meiji in the late 19th century led to the collapse of many aspects of traditional Japanese society, including the ancient art of jiujitsu, whose masters were forced to seek other forms of employment. Sekiguti Jiushin, founder of the Sekiguti style, wound up pulling a rickshaw in the street, while Kawanishi Iikubo of the Kito-Ryu style became a postal worker. “I am profoundly saddened by the agony that jiujitsu finds itself in,” lamented the jiujitsu master Tojuro Takeuchi, in a letter that is widely quoted by historians of judo. “A five-hundred-year-old tradition will likely disappear in my generation. Today, what we see in demonstrations is that the richness of the past is no more, they’ve reduced themselves to technicians and the poverty of those that remain is the general rule.”

In 1882, an idealistic young graduate of the Imperial University in Tokyo named Jigoro Kano conceived of a new fighting style based on traditional jiujitsu that he hoped might serve as a comprehensive source of physical education, intellectual training, and moral instruction for modern Japan. His interpretation of jiujitsu forbade traditional ground-fighting techniques like the ashi garami, a crippling joint lock that targets the leg of one’s opponent. Instead, Kano emphasized throws from a standing position. “When we talk about jiujitsu today, people often think of a technique in which one does only dangerous things, such as choking an opponent and bending his joints, or even, in extreme cases, killing him,” Kano later wrote, explaining what motivated him to create the ju-do, or “gentle way.” He was also determined to separate his new art from jiujitsu’s role as popular entertainment, which he saw as inherently debased. “There are also those who make jiujitsu into a sort of show,” he wrote. “They charge admission and have competitions at venues where sumo and acrobatics are held, so that people have become even more inclined to believe that jiujitsu is something uncultivated.”

Starting in a rented room at the Eishoji temple, Kano and his students founded the Kodokan, where hundreds of disciples would learn the high-toned art of judo, which they spread across Japan and then to the major European capitals and eventually around the rest of the world, where local variants soon emerged. In Russia, judo was transformed into the fighting style known as sambo, whose most famous student is Vladimir Putin.

Maeda, one of Kano’s finest students, made his way to Washington, D.C., where he and his companions arranged to put on a demonstration for President Theodore Roosevelt. The oldest fighter in the group, Tomita, insisted on personally representing judo in front of the American president, whose daughter Alice was wild about fighting and handpicked his opponent — a tall, powerfully built Afro-Cuban boxer named Bill Owens. The ensuing fight set back the cause of judo in America for decades. “Quick like a leopard,” one reporter wrote, “the black fighter completely dominated Tomita, who was literally flattened and unable to make any movement whatsoever, leading to his humiliating defeat in front of the President, his wife and daughter, members of the government, assembled athletes, reporters and members of the Japanese Embassy and expatriate community.”

In the hope of salvaging judo’s North American reputation, Maeda and Satake spent two years traveling across the United States, taking on more than 100 challengers and winning every recorded fight. They then traveled to Russia and continued west across Europe. In 1908, they reached Spain, where Maeda appears to have been given the title of Count Koma. As Maeda later told a European reporter, “An influential Spanish citizen, impressed with my victories, by my posture and my way of being, perhaps to be nice or without meaning to, gave me that title that later spread everywhere.” In 1909, Count Koma and his companions boarded a ship to Mexico City and then fought their way south, until they arrived in the Amazonian port of Manaus on December 18, 1915. The ensuing spectacle was recorded by a local newspaperman, who wrote: “Arriving today, aboard the yacht Pará, is the troupe of Japanese ju-jitsu fighters who come to delight the audience of the popular Politheama Theater. This troupe, led by Count Koma, world champion of ju-jitsu, will disembark wearing Oriental robes and be paraded through the streets in an automobile.”

The Count was eager to demonstrate his judo for the locals; he also appears to have coveted the fertile river basin as a future Japanese settlement. Gastão Gracie helped the Japanese fighter settle in Belém, a nearby city of perhaps 150,000 inhabitants. There, Maeda opened a martial arts school in a wooden hut on the grounds of the town’s rowing academy. (The successor to Maeda’s school in Belém is directed by the judoka’s great-grandson, Professor Alfredo Mendes Coimbra.) Grateful for Gastão’s help, the judoka taught a version of his centuries-old fighting style to four of the Brazilian’s sons — Carlos, George, Oswaldo, and Gastãozinho.

Hélio, the fifth and youngest Gracie brother, was judged too frail to receive active instruction, so he learned judo by watching his brothers practice. Abandoning judo’s showy throws, he modified Count Koma’s teachings to suit his lighter frame, creating a Brazilian variation that reemphasized wrestling techniques and elevated the mastery of mechanics over physical strength and agility. And so Gracie jiu-jitsu was born.

Kayfabrication

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Eric Weinstein presents Kayfabrication for addition to our cognitive toolkit:

The sophisticated “scientific concept” with the greatest potential to enhance human understanding may be argued to come not from the halls of academe, but rather from the unlikely research environment of professional wrestling.

Evolutionary biologists Richard Alexander and Robert Trivers have recently emphasized that it is deception rather than information that often plays the decisive role in systems of selective pressures. Yet most of our thinking continues to treat deception as something of a perturbation on the exchange of pure information, leaving us unprepared to contemplate a world in which fakery may reliably crowd out the genuine. In particular, humanity’s future selective pressures appear likely to remain tied to economic theory which currently uses as its central construct a market model based on assumptions of perfect information.

If we are to take selection more seriously within humans, we may fairly ask what rigorous system would be capable of tying together an altered reality of layered falsehoods in which absolutely nothing can be assumed to be as it appears. Such a system, in continuous development for more than a century, is known to exist and now supports an intricate multi-billion dollar business empire of pure hokum. It is known to wrestling’s insiders as “Kayfabe”.

Because professional wrestling is a simulated sport, all competitors who face each other in the ring are actually close collaborators who must form a closed system (called “a promotion”) sealed against outsiders. With external competitors generally excluded, antagonists are chosen from within the promotion and their ritualized battles are largely negotiated, choreographed, and rehearsed at a significantly decreased risk of injury or death. With outcomes predetermined under Kayfabe, betrayal in wrestling comes not from engaging in unsportsmanlike conduct, but by the surprise appearance of actual sporting behavior. Such unwelcome sportsmanship which “breaks Kayfabe” is called “shooting” to distinguish it from the expected scripted deception called “working”.

Were Kayfabe to become part of our toolkit for the twenty-first century, we would undoubtedly have an easier time understanding a world in which investigative journalism seems to have vanished and bitter corporate rivals cooperate on everything from joint ventures to lobbying efforts. Perhaps confusing battles between “freshwater” Chicago macro economists and Ivy league “Saltwater” theorists could be best understood as happening within a single “orthodox promotion” given that both groups suffered no injury from failing (equally) to predict the recent financial crisis. The decades old battle in theoretical physics over bragging rights between the “string” and “loop” camps would seem to be an even more significant example within the hard sciences of a collaborative intra-promotion rivalry given the apparent failure of both groups to produce a quantum theory of gravity.

What makes Kayfabe remarkable is that it gives us potentially the most complete example of the general process by which a wide class of important endeavors transition from failed reality to successful fakery. While most modern sports enthusiasts are aware of wrestling’s status as a pseudo sport, what few alive today remember is that it evolved out of a failed real sport (known as “catch” wrestling) which held its last honest title match early in the 20th century. Typical matches could last hours with no satisfying action, or end suddenly with crippling injuries to a promising athlete in whom much had been invested. This highlighted the close relationship between two paradoxical risks which define the category of activity which wrestling shares with other human spheres:

  • Occasional but Extreme Peril for the participants.
  • General Monotony for both audience and participants.

Kayfabrication (the process of transition from reality towards Kayfabe) arises out of attempts to deliver a dependably engaging product for a mass audience while removing the unpredictable upheavals that imperil participants. As such Kayfabrication is a dependable feature of many of our most important systems which share the above two characteristics such as war, finance, love, politics and science.

A Highly Subversive, Deep, and Subtle Film

Monday, February 8th, 2016

Eric Weinstein — mathematician, economist, and managing director of Thiel Capital — answers an important question for our time. In Kung Fu Panda, how does Po end up developing the capability to be an awesome Kung Fu fighter? How does he shift from being a total fat slob to becoming capable of defeating Tai Lung?

First one must challenge the assumptions of the questioner. Po is not a slob. He is a panda with an appetite and lack of athleticism to match, and principally fat because of this.

From a defensive perspective, we find out early that Po’s rolls of fat insulate his nerves from being easily accessed by Mantis’ acupuncture needles. We also learn that Tai Lung’s most impressive power is his perfection of various nerve attacks in the style that Master Oogway used against Tai Lung to keep him from the dragon scroll. Thus we see at the climax of the film that it is Po’s very fat that keeps Tai Lung’s nerve attacks from having any effect on Po beyond a tickling sensation.

Next, Tai Lung underestimates Po as an opponent. The snow leopard is so contemptuous of Po that he never focuses on defeating him until it is too late. Instead, Tai Lung is focused exclusively on gaining the dragon scroll as he sees it as his rightful entitlement. This gives Po plenty of opportunity to understand Tai Lung as an opponent while Tai Lung chases the scroll and Po chases them both.

Lastly, and most importantly, Po is not a classic ‘student’ of Kung Fu. There is no ‘bear style’ and Shifu, mindful of his failure with Tai Lung, teaches no one techniques like the WuXi finger hold. Thus Po is left to find the secrets of his own power as a self teacher. And this, in my opinion, is the real secret to the whole film.

Oogway is a self-teacher. As a turtle, he is even less appropriate than a Panda as a Kung Fu archetype. But we learn that it is Oogway who, in apparent solitude at the pool of sacred tears, unravels the ‘secrets of harmony and focus’. Thus Oogway is a self-teacher trying to pass the secret of self-teaching. But how can he do this as to train a student risks crowding out the self-teaching modality? So he decides to pick a self-teacher by choosing the panda whose only achievement is to break into a Kung Fu competition by turning a fireworks cart into a makeshift rocket to hop a wall. Yet this act of improvisation tells the great turtle that he is better off working with this humble unconventional maverick than with the overtrained tigress or other conventionally trained high achievers.

Po then realizes that he can create without waiting to receive wisdom down the chain of masters. Po uses Tai Lung’s own power and vulnerabilities against the snow leopard and finishes him off with a trick that he realizes he can reverse engineer without needing to wait for a knowledge transfer from Shifu that will likely never come.

This is a highly subversive, deep, and subtle film. Pretending it is a comedic children’s cartoon with a simple ‘be yourself’ message is perhaps the ultimate Kung Fu move. You are so busy being distracted, you never really see it coming.

Boys with Sticks

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

Simcha Fisher tells a tale of boys with sticks:

Several years ago, a nice family came over our house. It was partly for a social call, and partly to see if our family would do well as a daycare for their two kids when the mom went back to work. The girl was about four, and the boy was about six.

As we adults chatted, the kids explored the house. At the far end of the living room were the toys, including a tidy bucket full of weapons belonging to our sons and daughters. There were bows and arrows, swords of all kinds, scimitars, light sabers, pistols, slingshots, rifles, daggers, and machine guns. I watched a little nervously, because I knew this mom leaned progressive, and was raising her kids to be non-violent.

Her little girl immediately found a baby doll, sat down, and put the doll to bed. The little boy scuttled over to the weapons, and before I could say more than, “Um–” he had grabbed two swords and swung them, with a natural expertise, in a gleeful arc over his head.

“HAHH!” he shouted, and held that pose for a moment, swords raised. Eyes on fire, happiest boy in the world.

I slewed my eyes over to his parents, not sure what I would see. Horror? Disgust? Outrage? Dismay?

They both looked . . .  immensely relieved. “Well, there goes that,” said the dad, apparently referring to the no-weapons policy they’d followed strictly for the last six years. I tried to apologize, but they both said, “No, no, it’s fine.” And it was fine. There was no tension in the room. Their son had hands made to hold weapons, and now he had some.

I wasn’t surprised to see the boy taking so naturally to swordplay, but I was fascinated to see his parents taking so naturally to the rules of our house, which were so different from the rules in their own home.  Once their son’s unsullied hands first made contact with the weapons of war, the whole family relaxed into that reality immediately.

There’s a larger point:

It doesn’t make violence go away when we always tell boys, “Put that stick down.” Instead, it’s making a world where people, boys and girls alike, have no idea what to do about unjust violence.

[...]

Boys who are never allowed to be wild are boys who never learn how to control that wildness.

[...]

Don’t banish fighting; banish cruelty.

In the issue of violent play, as with so many other issues, we’re forgetting there’s such a thing as balance and middle ground. Parents believe that there are only two choices: we can raise our sons to be quiet, passive, nurturing empaths who could easily slide into a princess dress without making a ripple — or we can raise them to be swaggering, slavering beasts who exist only to give orders and mow down anything in their path.

There is, of course, an in-between. There are men who are strong and tough and in control of their strength, and these men were once boys who grew up with both weapons and rules.

[...]

Violence doesn’t take over when boys are allowed to have sticks. Violence takes over when no one tells boys what sticks are for.

Dictator at the Basics

Sunday, September 6th, 2015

John Danaher, jiu-jitsu coach to UFC champions Georges St Pierre and Chris Weidman, discusses how jiu-jitsu has evolved and how he teaches:

In that regard, I have a very set idea about what I should be doing as a coach, when I’m working a room. At the level of fundamentals and basics, I’m a dictator. I won’t let anything go, at the basic level. You’ve got to have good escapes. The fundamental movements of the sport — elbow escaping. The fundamental body movements — bridging, shrimping. I won’t let you go with your own individual initiative on these things. These are fundamentals that everyone, regardless of body type, regardless of age, regardless of belt level, everyone has to have them. If you don’t have them, you’re never going to amount to anything. So, at the level of fundamentals, I’m a dictator. No one gets through that.

At the advanced level, I’m a libertarian. I’ll let you do whatever your personality and your body type make you favor. I’ve always said with students that ultimately, in the long run, the game that you favor will be determined by your body type and your personality. Some people are more aggressive, some people are more risk-takers, some people are introspective, some people are short, tall, fat, etc., etc. I never try to enforce what kind of game you develop at the advanced level. So, yes, I’m a dictator at the basics, but at the advanced level I’m very much a libertarian.

Boxing for Survival

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

James LaFond offers his advice on boxing for survival:

  • If called upon to fight, you do not. All fights are easily avoidable.
  • If attacked you have no time to box, and if you try and make time you are reacting instead of acting.
  • Overall, you never want to box in a civil or criminal altercation.
  • When confronted by a direct aggressor extend your jabbing hand into an open talking hand, arm half bent. This is your confrontational boxing position.
  • Most attacks are ambushes so learn to throw punches from a hands down position.

The Skull Punches Back

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

A certain savagery and danger is intrinsic to fighting sport and cannot be removed without ruining it, Jonathan Gottschall (The Professor in the Cage) reminds us, but the current level of brain trauma is not intrinsic but is the result of a single, simple mistake:

In an honest attempt to make fighting safer, authorities introduced a single rule that made it enormously more perilous. This is a mistake that can, and should, be undone.

[...]

They added rounds, they added weight classes, and they banned many of the most dangerous techniques. The UFC also ended the practice of bare knuckle fighting, which was the primary symbol, in the public eye, of cage fighting’s irredeemable brutality. After all, when we say “the gloves are coming off”—as members of the U.S. government did after the terror attacks of 9-11—we mean that we are through playing nice, and we are reverting to a ruthless style of aggression. Strapping gloves on fighters was the UFC’s most visible indication that they were changing cage fighting from a red-toothed Darwinian struggle into a civilized, rule-bound sport which would henceforth be rebranded as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).

In PR terms, adding padded gloves was a wise move, but as a safety measure it was a tragic mistake. In the 19th century, boxing made the same mistake. Exactly like the early UFC, bareknuckle boxing was under constant threat from authorities who hoped to—and often did—shut the fights down. In 1867, The Queensbury Rules introduced many reforms intended to make boxing safer, including the mandatory use of padded gloves. The rule seemed logical. After all, if you were going to be punched by a strong, scary man wouldn’t you prefer that he first strap a pillow to his knuckles?

Think twice. The bones of the skull are thick, heavy, and hard; the bones of the fist are small, fine, and fragile. When you punch a man’s skull bare-fisted, the skull punches back. But if you cast a man’s hand and wrist stiffly in tape, and then encase it in foam and leather, you turn the fragile fist into a brutal cudgel. A padded glove allows a fist to attack a brain without having to reckon with its formidable defenses. Gloved-up, fighters can attack the skull savagely and recklessly, with no fear of crippling themselves. If a bare-knuckle fighter threw punches like a gloved fighter, he’d reduce his hands to sleeves of broken bone.

Here’s the bottom line: padded gloves do make fighting sports safer—for the hands. But the consequence of making fighting safer for the hands is making it exponentially more dangerous to the brain. And how would you rather walk away from a fighting career: with gnarled, arthritic hands or with a brain ravaged by CTE?

It’s not that boxing in the bare knuckle era was safe. On the contrary, bare-knuckle fighting was extraordinarily dangerous for a number of reasons. For example, referees didn’t stop fights no matter how lopsided, and there were no time limits—fights could stretch on for many hours in the heat of the day, with both fighters swilling down brandy like Gatorade, and with cornermen repeatedly rousing unconscious fighters and dragging them back into the fray (methods of waking an unconscious pugilist included blowing mouthfuls of brandy up his nose or biting through his ears). Of course, in the bareknuckle era, guys got knocked out. But it was usually because—after hours of scrapping and bleeding–they were too exhausted to rise for the bell, not because they sustained a sudden “lights-out” concussion.

In short, there was exactly one safe thing about fighting in the bare knuckle era, and that was the bareness of the knuckles. Padded gloves instantly turned boxing from a contest of grit and stamina (what the old-timers called “bottom”) into a test of a man’s ability to inflict and absorb brain damage. (It’s worth noting that a similar story has played out in America’s most beloved combat sport, football. Increasingly robust football helmets were introduced in an honest effort to civilize play. But because they encourage players to treat their heads like rams, helmets have been a neurological catastrophe for athletes. Stripped of heavy armor, the brutal smash-up derby of American football would quickly revert to a saner, rugby-like level of mayhem).

Of course, stripping off the gloves would come with costs as well as benefits. The costs might include more injuries to the eyes (ungloved knuckles tuck too nicely into eye sockets) and the hands. But when it comes to hand injuries, I think fighters would quickly learn which punches are more likely to K.O. the barefisted puncher than the punchee (a windmilling overhand right, for example). Bare-knuckle fighting requires a different arsenal of offensive and defensive techniques (for instance, in the bare knuckle era fighters threw hooks sparingly, and threw more punches to the padded torso). Stripped of their gloves, modern fighters would quickly rediscover the lost wisdom of bareknuckle fighting, and they would learn to treat their hands as their most fragile and important tools.

But the fans love knockouts.

Killing the Queen: Ronda Rousey

Friday, July 31st, 2015

Jack Slack gives his advice for killing the queen, Ronda Rousey:

Really it all comes down to avoiding the clinch for as long as possible by circling off as Rousey comes in on a straight line. And using long, non-committal strikes to punish Rousey’s bull rushes, or intercepting elbows to hurt and deter Rousey. This can already be seen frequently in men’s MMA: it’s sound, proven strategy against a rushing opponent, whether he wants the infight, a brawl, a shot, or the clinch. Realistically though, anyone who doesn’t either 1) bumrush straight into the clinch with Rousey or 2) concede the clinch while swinging desperately for a knockout in the first minute is already way ahead of the game.  Then when the clinch does inevitably come, making sure it isn’t the be all and end all of the fight. But let’s face it, even avoiding one or two of Rousey’s charges would be considered a good performance.

The Ecstasy and Agony of Robbie Lawler versus Rory MacDonald

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015

Jack Slack goes beyond his usual technical analysis to describe the ecstasy and agony of Robbie Lawler versus Rory MacDonald — a brutal bout I’m not sure I really want to see:

Much is made of ‘the art of fighting’, but it’s far from a perfect science. The manly art of self defense isn’t really so much about self preservation as it is about survival and reprisal. A competitor can fight an excellent, strategic fight, win, and come out with a more severe injury than his opponent. This game is one of trying to adapt to and make the best of chaos.

For this reason, some fighters develop this fetish for budo or the ‘way of the warrior’. Often, this leads to brilliant fighters throwing away their careers to prove they’ve got guts. In fact, there are men who have lost or come close to losing fights which have no business causing them trouble just because they let their machismo get the better of them.

But no matter how much we can despair at the silliness of it all, there is something stirred deep in the vast majority of us when we witness a battle of wills for stakes as high as a world championship. One of the reasons that combat sports produce such sincere emotion in fans is that the sacrifices and pain endured by the competitor is that of being physically assaulted. I have seen plenty of men beaten to death, I am outspoken against referees who even come close to letting that happen, and I have no desire to see another ring fatality. And yet… there is something about seeing how willing two men are to lay down their health and livelihood while taking a hellacious beating which appeals to a more basic instinct in me.

[...]

As we all rejoiced and said to our companions “What a fight!”, Robbie Lawler went berserk, running around the cage in celebration. The gash in his lip seemed to open as wide as his mouth each time he roared. On one of the most memorable fight cards of the year, this fight had taken the cake. It was the kind of fight you’re lucky to see once every three or four years and even as we joked about it, no-one expected that the main event to follow could live up to this.

And then, amid all of that, there was the reminder of guilt. It went largely missed due to the camera angle, and the tendency to focus on the winner. The same is true when you are live in the arena, the victor grows to become a titan, and the defeated fighter suddenly shrinks down and disappears. But directly behind the champion, as he ran around the ring in jubilation, was MacDonald, collapsing again as he sat up in front of the doctor.

The great tragedy of this story is not that MacDonald performed out of his skin and was unable to take the title, or that imbeciles on the internet are accusing him of quitting because he didn’t fall to the floor unconscious in the manner they were most familiar with, or even that MacDonald has likely done himself some significant long term damage. The real tragedy, and the thing which every fight fan has to try to come to grips with each time he watches a terrific war with a brutal and uncomfortable ending, is that this is exactly the kind of fight we all wish we could watch every weekend.

What’s the deal with the stance?

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

Jack Slack is always recommending Edwin Haislet’s Boxing to students of the sweet science, and they often come back asking, What’s the deal with the stance?

This knock-kneed position is the one which Haislet prescribes as the best for mobility and hitting power, yet if you saw someone in this position without the gloves or shorts, you’d assume they had been in some kind of terrible accident.

Edwin Haislet Boxng Fundamental Stance

What you’ll notice is that the lead knee being pointed slightly inward almost as like a spring. Square your hips as if you had thrown the right hand or as if to load up the left hook. You will notice that your body is providing resistance. You are coiled and ready to explode into a wicked left hook with tremendous speed and force. It’s not as if you are creating force to square yourself up and then stopping and changing direction, your lead hip joint halts your squaring movement and launches you back the other way, you just need to let it go. But equally, throw a right straight and you can get decent pop on it because of the positioning of the rear foot.

His closing paragraph struck me as more of an introduction:

It’s no secret that the art of hitting is about using the feet to drive off of the floor, and that the art of boxing is about hitting and not getting hit. But the combination of the two often seems to involve more complexity in the footwork than the most elaborate of flamencos. That is why the old timers always say, don’t look at the hands while you’re watching a fight, the hands mean nothing. Now the feet, those are what do the boxing.