Kick In the Ribs

Valkyrie WMA had it’s first all-sparring class last night. No workout, no  lessons, just fighting, all night long. It was a blast. With our recent heat wave, the school was baking hot. The door was kicked open for breeze, and we had a huge industrial floor fan blasting fresh outside air in, but the wooden dance floor was still hot to the touch through the entire class. It was kind of a nice touch.

The wrestling mats got dragged out first, with the boxing gear piled up on the side. Knife trainers made an appearance. We got some solid fights in. The pace was tight…competitive but fun. We all got a chance to see where we were now, what our new benchmark was for performance. We spar every class, but that’s after the workout, drills and lessons. This was us fresh and strong.

During the rapier bouting, Squeak and I were having a few good passes, looking for a good solid opening on each other. Our blades tied up and became bound in the quillons. Back in the SCA days, that would have been an immediate halt, followed by a careful detangling of the blades and a restart. We don’t play that game anymore, so the binding didn’t stop us. We moved like two bulls with locked horns, testing each other with pressure while trying to subtly move to the more dominant position, or to manage a quick disengagement and attack. I was planning on yielding the pressure and closing in to grapple…

Squeak slammed a roundhouse kick right into my ribs, just a few inches above my liver. It was a lovely shot, hard and precise. I was a bit miffed, but also a lot pleased…my secret plan for the night was to try and land a kick on someone while bouting with rapiers. I wanted to see if my sense of structure had developed enough to allow me safely land a kick. It made me happy to see someone else manage it before me. Had she hit my liver, that would have ended the fight for me.

Boxing is a beautiful art to add to fencing. As Marozzo advises with wrestling, though, it is best practiced separately from swordwork. The mechanics are substantially different from fencing, but complementary. Wrestling teaches strength and tight position, but boxing gives us speed, tactical footwork, and breaks our joints out into more mobility. If you can kick and punch with ease, you’ve likely got mobility to spare.

Kit can take some care to put together. Boxing is a contact sport, and should be learned as such. The problem with contact is that training is far more grueling on the body than fighting. Fights are short and infrequent. Training is constant. The human body isn’t made to slam into things repeatedly. Elbows and knees are tough, but hands and feet aren’t. Receiving blows is always hard on the body. Conditioning to become used to being struck is fine, but you always have to err on the side of limiting damage to the body…especially the head.

Hand-wraps are the first thing to look at. All students should use them for boxing drills involving pads or bag work. For in-class sparring they are less necessary. We aren’t going to try to be hitting each other at pro levels of impact…and if we are, we need to be in a proper boxing gym with real trainers anyway. Wraps work by supporting the bones in the hand. This support helps prevent stress fractures from being an issue over time, and they should lock the wrist up to prevent sprains when punching power exceeds what the boxer thinks they can output. For my money, wrist push-ups are a must, but students seems to hate those with a fiery passion.

A cup for men is just a given. A mouthguard is something a lot of people seem to think they can skip, but you can’t. Everyone thinks they can grit their teeth together. Everyone also thinks they can dodge every blow. Get a good mouthguard, shape it correctly, and wear it always. They suck at first, but you get used to it quickly.

Headgear is next in priority, and you should never do any contact work without it. I like the giant puffy full-face ones, but that’s because I have a proper Gallic nose that seems to attract punches. I want my pretty protuberance protected! Newer headgear is rigid and light, and highly recommended. You can get away with second hand stuff for a while if you use care while shopping. Headgear doesn’t make things stop hurting, but it does take some of the zip out of blows. You can’t just haul off and hit someone just because they’ve got headgear on. It’s meant to reduce injury, not prevent it.

Body armour is a pretty good thing to put on. If you are going super-light, this is probably the first thing you can skip. It comes in two types…light and rigid, and giant and puffy. Rigid takes the upper edge off of shots, puffy reduces the overall impact. If I’m coaching, I want giant and puffy so I can take a lot of shots. If I’m fighting, I want rigid. I occasionally skip it, but I have some good training on blow-taking.

Everybody wants the fancy UFC gloves. I like them, but they aren’t the best for sparring. It’s good to have a set around when you want to incorporate grappling and go a little lighter, but for regular boxing work, wear boxing gloves. Much easier on your hands and your partner. Remember boxing gloves are meant to protect your hands, not your partners face. Don’t go full animal when you put the gloves on, thinking you won’t hurt anyone, because you will.

Shin and foot pads might seem unnecessary…until you kick someone in the elbow with your instep, or fight someone who knows how to jam a kick. These are worth the money. Elbow and knee pads are also not a bad idea.

Students should start out boxing with partner drills, one side holding focus mitts, the other side punching and kicking. This introduces students gradually to the feeling of hitting and being hit. Graduate up to heavier thai pads and kicking shields for more powerful blows. Impact is not as important as people think it is to boxing, though. Most drill time should be spent working combos and footwork…just wraps on for speed work, gloves and headgear on for slower, light contact work to get timing and targeting down. Light, slow sparring with headgear and gloves on to finish each session. If students are more experienced, sparring can be at speed with substantially reduced power.

Proper sparring should only happen with students that are pretty eager for it. If a student is unsure…don’t force them or guilt them. Getting punched in the face sucks. No one likes if the first time, and you have to have some bonus resilience to keep going after getting socked. It’s a patient process, but very rewarding. And so far, interesting to incorporate into fencing. Definitely not for everyone, though…

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