In one of my very favourite books of all time, there is the immortal line: “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?”
On Friday the 25th of July, I lined up with dozens of brown and black belts to fight fifty fights of two minutes as part of the long journey to black belt at our yearly Randori challenge. Attendance is compulsory for those who want the coveted black belt, and those who are grading candidates wore white belts to signify as much.
Randori is free-fighting, the opportunity to apply the techniques displayed and hidden at all levels of kata. It is a way to explore the facets of a martial art. In Goju Ryu, it is the study of hard and soft attacks, circular versus straight, evasive versus direct. It is not bouncing, points-allocated bullshit tournament fighting. There are no points, no medals and no applause. This is martial arts boiled down into one clear goal: pressure test your knowledge and yourself.
After a lesson covering some of the basic principles, gumguards were shoved into mouths and half-gloves pulled on. We lined up, the timers began, and so went 100 minutes of fighting. Here are ten things I learned while getting the shit kicked, punched and thrown out of me. Take them as dojo advice, or life lessons – I think the two are inseparable.
1. Cover your goddamn face
You know, this seems really obvious and yet not always so easy to enact. It is easy to be distracted by a kick to the thigh, a feint to the left. Hands come down, punch lands on mouth (or worse, nose) and the lesson is repeated over, and over, and over. Covering your face on the mat is like covering your metaphorical ass everywhere else in life. Forget this rule at your own, stupid risk.
2. Things don’t hurt as much as you think
I must have been kicked in the stomach at least twenty times. I got picked up and hurled to the ground, had seasoned black belts (who have as many years training under their belts as I’ve spent being alive) pin me to the floor and fetch punches into my head and sides. I got knuckles to the eye, a punched sternum, bruises up and down my shins. And yet, within minutes the pain would fade away, whether due to adrenaline or as a testament to the finely honed control of others. The shock passes, the throb quietens down and look, you can lift your fists again and keep going. It’s not the end of the world to take a few bumps and bruises.
3. This too will pass
There are some people are genuinely terrifying in their strength and technique. There were fights where two minutes felt like ten, where I was backing away and trying my hardest not to cry into my dirty, sweaty gi. But those fights passed, and I survived. No fight lasts forever – nothing really does, and while its hard to remember that in the heat of a bout, it is still worth etching into the back of your eyelids.
4. Sometimes, size matters…
The six foot guy with biceps the size of watermelons will have an advantage. The woman with longer arms and the teenager with bottomless energy will keep coming at you like a hive of wasps. There were many times when being a five-foot, six-inch runty, bowlegged, uncoordinated idiot like me was physically outclassed. And most of the time, we are not perfect physical specimens, and there will always be someone bigger, better and faster.
5. …and sometimes, it doesn’t.
I can run for three hours, non-stop. At the end of the fighting, I could keep going because there weren’t many fitter than me. The tireder they got, the sloppier they got. I, on the other hand, had energy and lung capacity to spare. Being able to hit hard means nothing when I’m not there when it lands.
I know it’s a cheesy old saying, but the size of the fight within matters so much. Not to say that indomitable spirit will always carry the day, but you’d be amazed how many people shrink in the face of a relentless energy. My Cypriot yaya may often have somewhat dodgy advice, but she did wisely say once “we’ll see who gets tired first”.
7. Even if you don’t give up, you’ll still lose
It’s the most bitter, shitty pill to swallow. We’re all protagonists, but there’s no one pulling strings and deus ex machinas to make sure we always win. You can train the hardest, go to the most classes, be unrelenting and read all the books, and still get your ass handed to you by someone who is just that little bit more talented. Intention isn’t enough to win, no matter how far it carries you. And fighting people from all kinds of backgrounds, of all kinds of sizes and all kinds of spirits is enough to remind me that for all my book-learning and hours in the dojo, I am still not as good as I think I am.
8. Use what you have, not what you wish you did
I have a relatively wide knowledge of techniques gained from cross-training across four martial arts. I have cardio and stamina. What I don’t have is reach, precision and strength. My biokineticist explained to me that some of my muscles are carrying a third of what they should be able to. I have a hip defect that I was born with and will have to manage for the rest of my life, lest I end up with a hip replacement at 35. I am a weak, slow and uncoordinated idiot. But what I can do is tire someone out, spot the gap and try to put the right technique in there. To be sure, I would almost definitely lose a street fight, but this isn’t about that one fight that may never happen (and I hope it won’t). This is about knowing exactly who you are, and where you stand.
9. Fear will bury you alive
There is one redeeming passage from the tiresome, endless work that is Dune, and has been beautifully illustrated by Zen Pencils.
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
Randori is a calculated risk. It is a relatively safe arena to explore your limits. It is not a street fight in a dirty alley, or a hijacking, or a natural disaster. But holy shit, going up against fifty people is still terrifying. It still scares me when I stand opposite a Sensei, someone who has immense technical ability and the strength and power to implement it. Everything I know pales in that fear. My entire purpose is focused on one point – to evade, and evade, and evade. I forget everything. I panic. I make stupid, stupid mistakes. My own Sensei is one of the fittest people in Africa (for reals, she represented South Africa at the international Crossfit games). She has been ranked in the top ten best karate-ka female fighters in the world by the World Karate Federation. She is fearless, she is strong and she is one of the very best at what she does. (She will deny this, probably, but we know how frighteningly strong she is). Then you get me. I get graded out of pity, I’m sure. See above point about what I can and can’t do, and the latter category is far bigger.
How can I not be terrified? And terrified I was. But the best thing I could have learned was how to at least put the fear to work, rather than letting it white out my vision and tremble my limbs. Sometimes, I succeed. Sometimes, I don’t.
Fear makes sense, but letting it rule you doesn’t.
10. This is still the best thing to do on a Friday night
At nine o clock, we finished. I was wrung out, and bruised, and a bit shaken. I pulled out my disgusting gumguard, hugged my fellow dojomates and helped pack away the mats. And at the end of it all, in spite of all the fights I barely finished, the ones I wished I’d done better in, I could still be proud. I landed many, many hits. I was not severely injured. I learned so much – not just technically, but about myself. Things I sometimes forget, in the miasma of work and life. That under this clumsy, nerdy, occasionally well-dressed exterior there still lies a Spartan’s spirit. That primal fear can spur better fighting, if it doesn’t drag you under first. That fighting, the siren song of strength and exertion still beckons me. That working physically hard and learning more about this beautiful art is still a fine, fine way to spend a Friday night. That being pushed hard is better than lazing on the couch. That everything being a martial artist involves – sacrifice, self-reflection, physical endurance, mental agility, humility, courage – is worth all the missed parties, easy nights at home, Saturday braais. Being forced to truly look at myself, at who I am under fire, is not comfortable. To know that I am in ways a coward hurts, a little. But not allowing that cowardly fear to make a final decision is an achievement of itself.
There are many ways to spend a Friday night. Spending it with fellow martial artists in the crucible of randori is definitely the best.