Sparring Toward Enlightenment

Aggravated Assault. Ordinarily, that’s what you’d call it: an armed person attacking another person. In the case of stick fighting, they’re both armed. And wearing protective gear. And when sparring is over, it’s all hugs and handshakes rather than police reports.

Studying Kali over the years, I’ve spent many hours in classes learning and improving technique, developing footwork and working drill after drill to put it together. Normally, I’m striking an invisible opponent or working cooperatively with a partner who attacks and defends in a pre-determined pattern. With time, those interactions become more dynamic and less scripted. Action initiates reaction. It is a wonderful feeling to find your body reacting spontaneously and effectively without mental deliberation. It takes time to get there.

A friend recently told me about a student who attended a Muay Thai camp that did not incorporate sparring  and returned expecting martial dominance. Surely, he had developed conditioning and skills, but the challenges of range, timing and an uncooperative opponent conspired against him when sparring began.

As a young judoka, I recall observing a traditional jujitsu class. The moves they were drilling looked vicious, but they never practiced at full speed against a hostile opponent. I understand the reasoning. Some techniques are too dangerous. But the absence of sparring is a liability. Though their techniques were fearsome, they could not know with confidence if they could execute under adverse conditions. In contrast, I knew that I could perform my body of technique against a skilled opponent trying at maximum effort to stop me. I knew that because I did it on a regular basis.

Whether it be Muay Thai, Boxing, Judo, Kali, etc., sparring reveals the truth. In a fight, windows of opportunity open and close rapidly. Skills you’ve been working hard on, but aren’t quite ready for prime time won’t work. I like that hard truth. Not what I know intellectually, but what can I really do. What I don’t want is the illusion that because my katas are on point, I’m going to smack down hordes of ninjas. Sparring reveals the truth.