Wrestling with Finesse

A lot of people out there in the ether are saying that real martial arts must include ground fighting and must practice throwing techniques all the way to the ground.  This new critic has come about because of Mixed Martial Arts and the dominance of Brazilian Jujitsu in that market.

In a way this is just a continuation of the, "Everything must be tested in a real situation" critic.  The problem is, we don't know what's real for us until it happens.  And as they say in military circles, we are always fighting the current fight the way we wish we had fought the last one.

If I were stupid enough to say I don't like testing I'd have a whole bunch of people writing me nasty notes.  I think every single thing you practice should have some sort of testing but I'm not that into free fighting as a test.  Every form of limited fighting, push-hands, rosho, sparring, judo, shuijiao, grappling games, wrestling--they all have draw backs.  Each method, if seen as a testing ground, has elements taken out.  If they didn't, serious injury or death would be the result of every bout.

I'm conflicted about the best way to teach, not because I'm uncertain about what is the best training for myself, but because my early experiences with fighting are hard to recreate and I don't think my students would be game for them at this point in their lives.  (Still, if I had a dojo with mats I would use them, because that's just fun.)

Early History

As a kid I never missed an opportunity to wrestle.  Never.  I loved it, I breathed it.  My earliest memories are of wrestling.

My father wrestled in high school.  He challenged me to one final match when I was 13, because he said he didn't ever want to lose to me, and he nearly did lose that one.  I wrestled every kid in my neighborhood, big or small, even the ones who like to bite.

Because I didn't wrestle a lot after about the age of 12, my wrestling skill is intuitive, not very technical.  The thing about wrestling is that certain body types have an advantage.  Thick, wide, guys with big bones are often able to beat me if they are 15lbs heavier.  Technical skill can help in wrestling but it's no substitute for body type and weight.

In my twenties I had a friend named Neil I used to wrestle with.  He had that Scotish thick body type.  He was a foot shorter than me and 30lbs heavier, without fat.  He was also an Oregon State champ, and he won a gold medal in the Gay Olympics (This was before they got sued by the International Olympic Commitee, it's now called the Gay Games.  He actual gave his metal back in protest and made a speech about how they should include transsexuals.)  Anyway he kicked my ass every time.  But he never seemed to get injured and I too often did.  My lean, small-boned body just isn't made for that kind of thing.

The rules of wrestling are pretty strict.  For wrestling to be "real" it would look more like "dirty" wrestling or even "rough and tumble."  My elbow strike really hurts, and I know where to pinch to make it really hurt, but still, a ground fighting battle to the death with a bigger opponent is a tough thing to win.

I also loved tripping games as a kid.  Loved them.  I was the conscience-free terror of the second grade school yard.  When I started training Chinese martial arts, I already had great confidence in my ability to take someone to the ground.  But after about age 7 the risk of injury starts going up fast (and I developed a conscience).

In middle school I learned something about avoiding fights.  My best friend's cousin was the leader of a gang.  The two of them taught me something about how to not trigger a fight with a predator.  How to seem dangerious without being directly threatening.  It took some years to get good at.  I got close to older, tougher gang members in high school too, so by 17 I felt comfortable unraveling the meanest looking guys using my eyes, movement and wit (without any sense that I could actually beat them).

I taught myself how to fall.  When I was a junior in high school I had a daily lunch time ritual.  I would go down to the field and eat my lunch quickly.  Then I would run full speed and practice dive rolls, over and over.  At the end I would be covered in grass stains and sometimes a bit of mud, but it didn't matter because my afternoon class was ceramics (I was in the School of the Arts).

All of this training makes me conflicted about teaching.  Honestly, if you were a kid who hardly ever wrestled, I can teach you a bunch of chin-na, joint locks and even submission holds, but you are never going to have confidence unless you wrestle roughly with a lot of different people.  Same goes for take downs.  Technique is not as important as finesse, and finesse comes from rough play.

I'm focused on teaching the aspects of Martial Arts that I find most exciting, and which can be practiced everyday without injury.  Should I be trying to provide a place for students to get that basic experience that I picked up naturally just by being a wild and crazy guy?