Bloody Knuckled Algebra: Haywire

Speed and skill versus size and endurance. Do you hit faster, more often and more accurately or do you eat the shots to get close enough to land a single devastating blow? Who’s more experienced? Who can stay calm when they take the first punch? Who’s plan survives contact with the enemy?


Who wins?


She’s brand new, the first fighter. Tall and athletic, raven black hair and a look which is both classical and slightly eccentric. The camera can do nothing but follow her as she comes on screen, wearing street clothes, a woollen cap, rolling her wrists, cricking her neck. She moves with the casual experience that only professional fighters have, the awareness of where their body is at all times, the odd sense of gravity working just a little bit differently for them. She circles her opponent, bunching and unbunching her hands and smiles. She wants this, this is going to be fun.


Her opponent doesn’t move. He’s older than she is, has maybe fifty pounds of muscle on her and decades of experience. He’s dressed simply, wearing black trousers, a black t-shirt, his hair occasionally slicked back, occasionally longer than it perhaps should be. In a certain light he’s Bond, in another, he’s Bourne, in another he’s Ethan Hunt. What remains the same, regardless of his face, of his ability, is the shape he makes in the story. The seasoned operator, the grizzled spy, the lone troubled man doing the best he can in a world where his ethics and morals are challenged and he can only redeem himself by killing an awful lot of people. He’s a contradiction, a man on the edge who stays on the edge, a man pushed past his limits who knows exactly when to push back. He doesn’t smile, this isn’t going to be fun. But he wants it too.


Their eyes meet and there’s a split second of acknowledgement and she moves. She darts forward, bringing her hands up and pushes off from one foot, clearing the ground and hammering her right hand into his face, her entire bodyweight behind it. His head snaps back, his arms pinwheel and she follows him as he staggers, throwing alternating kicks to his chest and head and grabbing him by the back as he slumps forward, driving her knee into his chest and face over and over again. There’s nothing flashy, nothing showy about this assault, it’s all function dictated, very slightly, by form. She moves fast, she hits hard, she does damage and we watch it all, locked off in mid shot. Every grunt, every thud, every crack as bones break, and they will.


He slumps and she backs off, drops her hands. The camera pans round him as he takes a breath, spits a gobbet of blood out onto the floor and looks up at her. He stands, in slow motion of course, and she raises her hands, her eyes blazing as she dares him to come meet her and he does. He’s slower, and she lands another punch as he closes but it doesn’t matter. He’s inside her guard now and they grapple, him using his superior weight to control where she goes, her using her speed and flexibility to get out of one out of every two moves he tries. This is a conversation as much as a fight, red in tooth and claw and syntax and as she scissors her legs around him and he drives her into a wall there’s a moment which is one part intimacy and one part rage. They’re the same these two, hero and heroine. They may be evenly matched, they may not, but that’s something they’re here to find out. That’s the end of the conversation, the resolution, and the only way they get there is through her letting him go as he smashes her into a wall, him throwing her through a flat screen TV, her taking his legs away and trading punches as she kneels on his chest. Smaller vs bigger, experienced vs new.


He stands, she folds around him again and he bounces her off another surface. She puts an elbow into his nose as she drops and he staggers, blood running as she slumps and tries to collect herself. She’s good, the best since Ripley, Conner, Summers, and she’s got a real shot at this, at taking his title, taking his slot. She’s got real life experience, years as a Thai Boxer, as a Mixed Martal Artist, real world, applicable skills that teach her how to wound, how to strike, how to take a punch and keep going.


She’s never fought an archetype before though. That’s what he is as much as a man, a stereotypical spy, an archetypal antagonist, someone with as many faces as years she’s been born. She breaks James Bond’s nose and Jason Bourne punches her in the face. She chokes Jason Bourne out and Ethan Hunt throws her against a wall. She kicks Ethan through a plate glass door and John Scott stands up in his place. There are so many of him, each fresh and ready and each in control of the space as much as the fight. The camera’s locked off and that certainly gives her space to move, to hurt, but it also gives him time. There’s no pace to this fight,these fights, just an endless stream of long shots and knee strikes, pans and right crosses, bloody knuckled algebra being worked out in the middle distance with desperate urgency for everyone in the fight and mild interest for everyone outside it. There’s violence here, there’s emotion but it’s at two removes. No one cheers her on.


But no one cheers him on either. He’s first up this time and it hurts. He’s slow, unsteady and telegraphs his first three punches. She dodges them, fires back with a pair of kicks that knock him sideways and follows with a knee strike to the temple, looking to end this once and for all.


He catches it, picks her up and half runs, half falls through a door into the bedroom. She barely has time to close one foot in the crook of the other knee, constricting his head between her legs before he slams her off the bed. He’s bright red, bleeding from his lip, his nose, his cheeks. She’s as bad, she can tell, an ugly cut on one eye, blood streaming from her nose, her ribs throbbing from where he’s struck her.


She ignores it. She realises he can’t. He flails, throws one, two, three more punches to her face and she eats them all because she can, because she’s winning and she wants, needs, him to see that. His throat bubbles and surges, his eyes roll up into his head. Seconds left.


She rolls them off the bed, hitting him in the back of the head with the floor, her legs still tight around him. She lets go, just a little, demands answers about why this is happening to her. He begins to explain, a halting, almost apologetic tone to his voice. His right hands moves to the underside of the mattress, where she stashed her gun. She pretends not to notice.


He explains that it isn’t personal. That she was simply the right woman in the right place at the right time. This wasn’t about her, even with the camera so fond of her, even with the space left in the story for her and her talent for violence. It’s a revenge story, plain and simple, one where she’s a pawn not a Queen.


His hand closes on the grip of the gun.


She digs further, asks why her, what the plan is, who’s betrayed her. He tells her ‘Everyone’ and smiles as for the first time she feels real pain as a result of his actions. Her boyfriend, her colleagues, everyone she let get close has let her down. Everyone she trusted to get behind her hands, under her guard has used that lack of distance to hurt her so efficiently, so badly, she almost didn’t notice.


He sees her put it together.


He draws the gun


She hits him, once, takes the gun off him, pulls a pillow from the bed and puts it over his face.


There’s a single gunshot.


She gives herself a moment, just one to feel pain. Then she stands up, drags the body into the bathroom and showers their blood off her. The equation’s been solved, the answer’s been reached and she has a lot of work to do, more than she was expecting. This is a victory, but not a clean one. She has work to do, pace to improve on, and she can do it. But this isn’t her world, at least not quite, yet. So she showers and she changes and she runs, not away from her enemies but straight at them. Because she’s brand new, and it’s time to fight this war in a brand new way. Somewhere out past the film reel, her next opponent bunches his fists and waits. She’s ready, but he’s no longer sure if he is.


The Judo Diaries: The Training Dummy Strikes Back


Let’s talk about fear for a moment. There was a time when fear grabbed my jacket before I’d even left the house. My pulse would rise, the bottom of my stomach would fall and I’d walk to Judo with a sick feeling. I was the fat kid. No, not even the fat kid, I was the fat, 35 year old nerd who had no business whatsoever stepping onto the mat with chiselled young gods and goddesses with biceps, pectorals and all those other things that I’d successfully buried under a couple of decades worth of chocolate and pie.


That fear, to my tremendous surprise, has faded. I didn’t even notice it go. It left a friend though; the simple fear of reinjuring myself. I go on about this I know, but its been close to four months that I’ve been working with a busted wheel. It’s better, almost completely better but I still can’t kneel properly, still can’t move quite right, still don’t trust myself with the injured knee. There was a twang, and there was a scream and nothing has been quite the same since.


Then there’s the fear of getting beaten up. Make no mistake, I am 6’1 and over 300 pounds, but I’ve been frightened of fighting my entire life, for two reasons. The first is that, well, I’m a nerd. I talk, I actually talk for a living on some levels and the idea of solving a problem by beating someone up is something which I find massively unsettling and, well, a little uncouth.


Then there’s the other fear. Because I’m Big you see. I’ve been Big my entire life, a little too big for the world. I break things sometimes, or used to, because my spatial awareness wasn’t great because, well, I’m Big. You have to be careful when you’re Big. Careful and patient and you must never, ever under any circumstances lose your temperature. Because not everyone else is Big and if you lose your temper with someone who isn’t Big you could hurt them very badly.


I’m Big. I’m Clever. The two sometimes feel mutually exclusive.


So I’m scared when I step onto the mat. It makes sense, because fundamentally what you’re doing is learning to hurt people. And they’re learning to hurt you. And sometimes when people learn they make mistakes. And sometimes those mistakes lead to twanging. And screaming. And four months of physio.


I do it anyway. This may be bravery. It may be masochism. I prefer to think of it as a healthy respect for my art and my fellow students. And also maybe a little fear.


I’ve been scared recently for a different reason and it’s a slightly embarrassing one. I’m tough. Not in that ‘Can be punched many times without being hurt’ way but rather that I’m difficult to hurt. I’ve been seriously ill maybe three times in my life and seriously injured exactly twice. The first time I broke my arm by literally falling off the ground and the second involved a twang and a scream.


I’m scared of getting hurt again. Because I’m a cynic, and because whilst the black dog doesn’t live at the bottom of my garden he certainly plays there and most of all because I understand story on a genetic level. Now is the perfect time for our hero (Who in ths instance is me) to be seriously injured again just before he completes his recovery. In fact, the only time that’s more narratively smart for me to get injured again is less than a week before a tournament.




The thing I’m scared of is randori because randori is free practice and that means it can’t be predicted. Someone will turn the wrong way, push the wrong way, you’re as likely to do the same and before you know it it’s back to the bottom of the rehab ladder. So I don’t spar, apart from select circumstances and when I do I’m slow, I’m clumsy, I’m cautious.


Let’s talk about caution and violence for a moment. Caution in any martial art is a good thing. Fundamentally, you’re doing a combat sport, you’re fighting someone, and whilst the ‘storm in and blitz them’ approach works in the short term, it won’t work forever. No one’s Rocky, no one has fists of stone or muscles of granite. Everyone gets tired, everyone makes mistakes and everyone gets shut down when they do. So caution’s good, caution’s your friend, up to a point.

That point is when you freeze up and that’s where our old friend fear makes a return. Make no mistake, Judo is scary. Any combat sport is scary, but for me, at least there’s something visceral and frightening about the loss of control inherent in Judo. Your opponent isn’t just trying to beat you, they’re trying to throw you off your feet, hyper extend a joint until you can’t take the pain, choke you unconscious or just hold you still for twenty five seconds. Fighting hurts. Judo hurts.

So there goes the fear again, as the Doves once sang, and the way you deal with it is the way you deal with all fear. You face it. You look it in the eyes and you prepare for pain. You accept that pain, and the fact it won’t and can’t last forever, you can face your fear.


I sparred this week. More than I have for almost four months. I had two standing fights with no ground work and I lost one and won one. I threw a blue belt with Tai Otoshi, the throw that injured me, and it felt great. I turned, yanked, he sailed through the air in a perfect circle and landed on his back. My knee stung, a little, once.


I sparred on the ground too. Three times. I won two and I lost one. Groundfighting is the closest Judo gets to striking forms for me, because it’s there that things get fast. You and your opponent grapple for position, legs get thrown odd places, arms lock and you roll and turn and struggle until one of you is pinned, one of you taps or you’re both exhausted.

That last one happened. I was sparring with a black belt about six years my junior. I’ve worked with before, he’s a good guy, and like a lot of people cross trains with us and Brazilian Jujitsu. BJJ is Judo without the standing work and it excels at moving your opponent on the ground and locking in a never ending stream of extremely painful holds. I excel at being put IN extremely painful holds so I wasn’t exactly brimming with confidence when we started and locked up.

He turned under me, locked his legs around my arm and extended. This is an armbar. It’s the thing that, at the moment, former Judo Olympian Ronda Rousey is using to destroy her Mixed Martial Arts opponents as fast as possible. It hurts.

I stood up out of it. Just put my mass behind it and pulled and got my arm clear. I closed on him, put him down, got one of his shoulders on the mat and just ground. I have a lot of mass and I’m not scared to use it anymore so I pushed him into the ground, looked for a couple of holds, never quite got either and he tried his level best to get out of them.


The drill got stopped. I sort of slumped off him and we lay there for a moment before he patted my arm and said something which I think was ‘nice one’. I may have grunted. My heart rate was up. I was gasping for breath, my throat was dry and I’d not won.


But I had fought. Five half matches in one session, two good throws, a good solid choke attempt, some welcome tips from higher belts and exhaustion. Together those don’t just add up to victory, they add up to something better. Hope, possibility and the very real knowledge that I’m making progress, that I’ve earned my place on the mat. All of it, the pain, the anxiety, the fear, the caution, all of it is worthwhile because of that.

The Judo Diaries: Come to the Dark Side, There’s Cake

It sounds faintly ridiculous to say that Judo is a polite sport but it is. There’s none of the overt brutality of boxing, none of the flashy savagery of Thai Boxing where one of the most effective ways to win is to kick your opponent in the same leg over and over in quick succession until they can’t stand. There’s not even any of the frankly intimidating blurs of motion that, when slowed down, are revealed to be the incredibly acrobatic kicks of Taekwondo.


One of the interesting things about Judo, one of the things that draws me back over and over, is that courtesy though. You’re remarkably clothed (None of the shorts and not much else ‘I’m Spartacus!’ aesthetic of Mixed Martial Arts here), you’re not hitting people’s faces, you’re not actually making striking contact at all. Judo, fundamentally is a grappling form meaning you pick your opponent up here and put them down there. Often at speed, but still, the principle remains the same. You have your set of moves, he has his, whoever executes them first or fast or strongest wins.


Well, technically.


Let’s talk about grading for a moment. I’m five months out from my red belt grading and I am getting antsy. I am, to use another military term I’m rather fond of, short. Short timers were people who didn’t have much time left on their tour and I first came across the term in The Short Timers by Gustav Hasford. This is the book Stanley Kubrick would adapt into Full Metal Jacket, and it refers to soldiers who have a small amount of time left on their tour. The phrase ‘I’m so short I can’t even have a long conversation’ from the book has started to float through my mind as the realisation slowly sinks in. In three weeks, two weeks physio plus a week’s buffer I’m going to be able to spar again. Fear and happiness and adrenalin and sweat and terror all mixed into one and barrelling straight towards me at 24 hours a day.


There are two things that are going to happen when I can spar again. The first is I am going to get beaten, a lot. I’m slow, I’m cautious, I’m not moving my left leg much and I’ve not sparred outside about three minutes in the last three months. I’m going to be a training dummy with vocal chords and rudimentary motor skills and that’s fine because I won’t be that forever.

The second thing that’s going to happen is I will cling to procedure and rules like a drowning man clings to a piece of driftwood. I know, technically, everything I know how to do and I also know that absolutely no plan survives contact with the enemy. Or at the very least, contact with the guy on the other side of the mat.


So I can either accept this and work through it slowly, or improvise and work around. I know which one I’m going to do. I know which one I want to do. They are not the same thing.


I want to stick to rules and procedure and good form because my form’s sloppy in places. I’ve got a lot, in the last three months, out of going slow. Again, and we are jumping all over the pop culture references here a line springs to mind, this time from Mermaids. ‘You drive like old people make love’ applies a lot to how I’ve been practising Judo recently. Slow, precise, deliberate. Still fun, just takes a little longer.

So I’m getting there, and my confidence is going up but the simple truth of the matter is I’m going to be slow and deliberate and the best I can hope for is fighting to a draw for a while. A draw isn’t a loss, although to be clear? I’ll take losses, I’ll take my lumps and come back with a smile on my very pink, very sweaty face. We learn when we fail, so losses are just bigger lessons, ones you have to have the courage to swallow however bitter they may sometime be.


Ladies and gentlemen, the metaphor for this week’s Judo Diaries has just arrived. Why don’t we all give it a round of applause as it takes it’s seat?


We did grading prep this week and, for the first time, the group was split into three. The white belts were taken off to one side and shown some of their techniques, the brown and black belts were taken off to the other and in the middle was myself, Steve and a red belt I’d never seen before who were set to work on grading prep.


There are three throws you need to know for yellow belt. O Uchi Gari where you sweep your opponent’s outer leg out and push them to the ground, Ippon Seoi Nage where you step into them, grab an arm and throw them in a manner that, shall we say, Captain Kirk would find very familiar and Tai Otoshi.


The throw that hurt me.


Tai Otoshi involves stepping into your opponent so your back is to them, sticking your right leg out and hauling them over the top of your leg onto the mat. Done right it puts your opponent exactly where you need them to be and done wrong? Done wrong your opponent gets to spend three months limping and spectating.


I did it. I was scared, for sure, but I did it and throwing and being thrown with that throw gave me a new perspective on fear. This wasn’t terror, just fear, that bottom of the gut flex where you’re waiting for the shot, the punch, the snap, the hard word. The moment before the fight rather than the fight itself. The fear stayed down there, I made sure of it, but it was there and it was real and this week it turned into something really interesting; the desire to push back, hard.


We were taken for this particular lesson by one of the club’s black belts who’s also a high level coach and referee. He’s unforgiving, to say the least, as I find out when for the first time ever, I got given what amount to a punishment drill. Ippon Seoi Nage only works if you drop straight down your opponent before lifting them off the ground and I have a tendency to bend forward which robs it of a lot of it’s power and crucially, risks your balance. Balance in Judo, in any martial art, is vital. If your balance is shot you’ll over extend, you won’t protect yourself and you’ll be thrown, or punched, or kicked, or elbowed or any other variety of ouch that can legally be delivered.

Which is why I found myself standing straight against the wall of the dojo, arms up simulating the throw, bending my knees and keeping my back straight so only my buttocks touched the wall. Apparently, twenty of those every morning and evening will give me perfect balance. I’ll let you know.


Bitter Pill One


We ran through all three throws and then, we took a left turn. You see, it turns out there are two ways to work in Judo, the legal techniques and the techniques which are legal enough. Make no mistake these aren’t anything overtly nasty, no cheeky punches in the nose or knees to the groin. These techniques are grease to the wheels, ways to get your opponent where you want him to be or off you faster or so uncomfortable the only thing he can think is to get you to stop doing that right now.

Case in point; your opponent has you in a side chest hold? No problem. There is absolutely no contact with the face in Judo. None. However, there’s no problem with the throat. So you push your hand, thumb first into their neck and you keep going. They will feel so uncomfortable they’ll move their head down. At which point you pop your legs up over their shoulders, cross your ankles, close their airway, turn them and you sideways and scoot down their body before putting them in a different nastier hold. All legal, all nasty. Or you can push them down, put them in a side hold and yank their arm into a full on arm bar. As was done on me. As was done on me hard enough to make me cry out when the elbow was over extended. Which was greeted with me being gently but firmly berated for not tapping out faster.


Bitter Pill Two


Later the same lesson, we were shown a genuinely impressive transition where you try each of these throws, your opponent steps out of them and you finish with a modified O Uchi Gari where you sweep one leg and yank the other up so you’re only standing on your left leg as you fall. Or, my injured leg, as I like to think of it. We were working through this and, for the first time in months, my inner smartarse came out. I smiled tightly at Steve and said ‘Why don’t I get this wrong first?’ and started in on it. I got it wrong. Of course. So did he. Needlepoint work with needlepoint balance and my left leg is still four inches shy, four inches rusty.


Bitter Pill Number Three. And no water in sight.


Everything we tried wasn’t good enough and it was starting to open a door in my head. A door which led to three months of pent up resentment and fear at the thought of being left behind by my compatriots. There was resentment there too, and a lot of it; about missing the tournament, about being injured, about having to explain my injury over and over, about the pitying looks I’ve caught from time to time, the nagging sensation that other people think I’m sciving. And you know what? If anyone thinks that, they can say it to my face. Because I’ve turned up, damn near every week, when I can’t kneel right, when I can’t throw at speed, when my rhythm is off and I can’t spar and I’m scared to move my left leg. I’ve kept coming, I’ve kept moving, I’ve kept trying because I’ve waited five damn months to get my yellow belt and nothing, not a bad knee, not lack of connection with lessons, not lack of focus, nothing is going to stop me from getting there.


Nice speech isn’t it? It’s also pointless. I’m a red belt. It’s my job to be told how to do it right. My job to shut up and listen and my job to try harder, to fail better next time. Besides, my resentment at being nitpicked so much came at least in part from the fact that these techniques felt…sneaky, a little too close to pushing my luck. I’m hard pressed at times to remember the correct technique let alone the back door cheeky work around to it and it felt, a little, like taking a shortcut. Having spent three months with a bum leg, shortcuts are something I know I don’t get to take.


Until we got to the Kame Shiho Gatame variant we were taught. Kame Shiho Gatame is a hold down where you lie at ninety degrees to your opponent and hold down their opposite shoulder and thigh. Unless you grab their opposite shoulder and underside of their knee and pull your hands together until they cross. Hard. You hold your opponent down and compress their chest, hard, basically choking them with their own leg and neck.


The first time I tried it my partner tapped out.


To me. With a bad leg, three months of resentment bubbling over in my mind and a burning desire to get gobby with an instructor who was frustrating me.


All three bitter pills just slid away.


I still have things I’m good at, straight out, in Judo. Most of them are standard techniques, some of them are modified ones, where my big arms and upper body strength work in my favour. As I realised that, another door opened. One with a yellow glow behind it and the promise of getting back everything I lost and more. I’m still there, I can still do this, I’m still travelling. An hour of being told I’m wrong and how to fix it is a pretty cheap price for realising that.