What An Experience

written by Burton Richardson
Martial art is a strange endeavor in our modern society. We strive to better ourselves and understand the art better, but we have one restriction that no other artists have to endure: we are forbidden to truly express the art to its fullest extent.

The arts that we practice are about subduing a violent opponent through various methods under the most stressful conditions when our very life is at risk. Now this is a situation that we are supposed to encounter in the first place. Urban problems do make it more likely that we will find trouble, but most people will go through a lifetime without facing death at the hands of another.

So how long does the martial artist hone his skills without going into battle? How do we get that invaluable attribute known as “experience”? By finding the instructors with the most realistic training methods.

By realistic, I mean those drills that closely simulate the all-out combat condition without the grave risk that we find in the back alleys and deserted parking lots of our cities. Risk is important, but you needn’t face the prospect of losing life or limb as our warrior predecessors did. Of course, the intensity of the training should follow a progression to be sure that you can defend yourself reasonably well at the level of drilling in which you engage. You should also be supervised by an experienced instructor who knows when the training is getting out of control.

There is that word again-experience. Experience is the difference between knowing a technique and understanding a technique. Experience promotes true, deep-down confidence. A confident person doesn’t just believe that a technique will work, he knows that the technique works at full speed and full power because he has already done it. There is a big difference between believing and knowing. Some of my greatest experiences in martial arts training revolved around testing my skills under the most stringent conditions.

I had been learning the Filipino art of kali for a few years when I decided to get some new insights by entering a stickfighting tournament. My instructor, guro Dan Inosanto, had been telling me that it would be good for me to spar with people I didn’t know, so I finally took his advice and drove to Stockton, Calif. for a dose of reality. I did fine in the tournament, but I found out that I was lacking in a few areas: head movement and basic defense to name two. During the eight-hour drive home I kept hearing Inosanto’s voice in class telling me to do all the things that I didn’t do in the competition.

I knew what to do, but I didn’t take the time to train them as I was advised. Inosanto would often show us a simple stroking drill or defense, let us practice a few minutes until he was sure we had it, then tell us to practice these at home so that he could show us some of the complexities of the art. Well, after the tournament I started putting in the homework time on the essentials.

In subsequent events I was pleased to fare much better. It was the experience that made the difference. It felt good to be a seasoned stickfighter-that is until I met up with a group that took the whole reality concept to new heights.

About five years ago, Marc Denny, a training friend at the Inosanto Academy, coaxed me into meeting his friend for some stickfighting. One night after class, I was introduced to Eric Knauss; six-foot-five, six-time national champion in the pekiti tersia system of kali. Eric looks more like a computer consultant than a fighter, so I figured that I would take it easy on him, especially considering that we were using unpadded rattan sticks that were much heavier than those used in the tournaments.

No body armor either except for headgear, hand protection and an elbow pad. Marc gave me one piece of advice before the session began. He said, “Hit him, because he is going to hit you.” At the time it sounded like strange advice because that is what sparring is all about.

Later, I understood.

Imagine my surprise when Eric unleashed a monstrous backhand strike-with that heavy stick-aimed directly at my head. Before I could congratulate myself for deflecting the first blow, the follow-up landed square on my mask. What a shot! I had assumed that Eric depended on light contact for safety. I quickly realized that he depended on his skill to protect his body.

What a concept-relying on your art to defend yourself. As you might guess, I took some major welts and bruises home that night, but I really didn’t notice. My mind was in a frenzy remembering the power of the strikes, the quickness of initiation, and that rattan club blasting into my unprotected shin. Instead of merely practicing against a forehand strike, I had experienced a forehand strike. The mentality of the fight was much more realistic because a missed block didn’t mean losing a point; it meant pain. What a difference it made in my point of view. The focus of my training changed forever after that night and I am eternally thankful for Marc and Eric for that night and subsequent evenings and weekends of invaluable experience.

I have had similar experiences in boxing gyms, kickboxing bouts, and rough sparring sessions under the guidance of Dan Inosanto and Richard Bustillo. I am now also under the tutelage of Rigan Machado and his brothers in Brazilian jiu jitsu. This what the martial arts is about and we should remember that the arts serve as a microcosm of life. Don’t be a spectator, experience life. Live your life to the fullest, go where you want to go, do what you want to do, and, most importantly, do whatever it takes to become the person you want to be.

-Burton Richardson

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