When I finally got to watch the first UFC, I was pretty surprised. I really didn’t expect any kind of grappling art to have any kind of success. I knew how fast and strong I was, and what kind of damage my limbs could do to other people. I had hard-earned confidence that I could out-speed and out-hit anybody, and there was no way some guy who trained in a sport was even going to be able to touch me. So when I saw good fighters getting taken down easily, I got curious. I wanted to see what was going on for myself.

I had a friend and co-worker who had competed at the university level as a wrestler, and he was keen to learn martial arts. so I told him to come over one fine afternoon, and we’d horse around a little. I told him I wanted to see what wrestling was all about, and in exchange I’d teach him martial arts. We squared up in the living room, and I told him we’d go slow…I didn’t want to hurt him after all. Clarified that slow meant about quarter speed, and away we went. And down I went.

As I lay awkwardly, half crushed into a wall and half upside down, I calmly remarked that we were supposed to be going slow. My friend paused, and said he had been going about one tenth speed. Oh. We scrapped the martial arts lessons and I started to take wrestling lessons. Later we added the punchy bits back in and started to have some fun…

Wrestling is an art that so many people have problems with. They expect the worst, usually from experiences with wrestlers. It’s an instant issue for many women, and a lot of men think of it as something they learned martial arts to avoid. It’s probably as misunderstood as gymnastics for adults. Easily the hardest thing to introduce students to…and easily the thing students love the most once they get past the initial misgivings.

Sumo is my gateway drug. Modified sumo wrestling, anyway. We use a simple rule. Start when both people have both knuckles on the ground, first person to touch the ground with anything other than a foot, or who takes more than three steps back, loses. I make all the other students stand in a circle with arms out to act as a ring. Winner stays in, and anyone can step in to challenge the winner. It’s a favourite way to wrap up class.

Sumo is a good introduction to wrestling because of it’s short contact time. It helps ease a lot of the worries people have about body contact. It gets them used to feeling what it’s like to face someone substantially stronger…and still be able to resist them. They get the chance to see that pure strength or size is only one of many factors that govern the outcome of a bout. It teaches even the weakest that they can have bursts of power that can overwhelm a much larger person, when applied at the right time and place. It teaches balance and tenacity. Most importantly for fencing and boxing, it teaches explosive speed. And explosive thinking.

The true nature of sumo that I want students to experience is the instant decision making. The fastest thinker is always the winner of a sumo bout. You might have a plan in place when you crouch down, but the minute you drive into your opponent and make contact, you have to deal with the strength they meet you with. If you’ve hit them and find them weak, you have to drive them hard out of the ring without thinking. If you’ve hit them and they are strong, you have to bear down and resist, or turn and try to bring them down with momentum. You have no time, no space, to be clever. You have to be decisive. It is the best art I know, paradoxically, for developing what von Clausewitz called the “coup d’oeil,” the cut of the eye, the ability to not just understand circumstances at a glance, but to act on them.

Plus it’s great exercise. I hate the plain squats so many western martial artists do as the only leg exercise. They build limited and static fighters. It’s so much better to work leg strength from the explosive drive of sumo, with the inbuilt plyometric of striking a living human being who resists. It builds a good lunge and fast recoveries. ..and speed. Oh so much speed…

On the flip side, you can feel pretty damned sore the next day. Especially if you head-butt someone’s bony part, and have an egg-sized knot on your forehead when you wake up. And the impromptu submission wrestling bouts after tend to make your arms feel just a tad stiff in the morning…ouch…

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  1. I have long been grateful that my martial arts journey started out with grappling rather than striking. Judo in my case. The lessons I learned about falling have served me time and time and time again in real life whereas the more recent lessons about how to deal with punches and kicks have (fortunately) rarely been applied outside of training. I mainly do striking now (if I am not playing with weapons) but being comfortable at grappling range is not something I had to get used to thanks to that early training. (Playing with bladed weapons at grappling range is a lot of fun…)

    1. I love the blend of arts. In the last year I’ve learned the bridge between weapon and unarmed striking arts, and it’s been an immense change factor in my game. But the good body mechanics for weapons work have all come from wrestling and ground work.

      And easily all of my real-life experience has been grappling, either in challenge matches when I was teaching unarmed, or at work. It’s interesting…I now see grappling as a working martial art, practical for day-to-day, and am now hesitant to use any of my old Karate training…it seems so much more dangerous now. I can’t think of any realistic scenarios where I would use that much force on someone.

      Funny how things change…

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