It was in the middle of a session of sumo wrestling that I suddenly realized I was strong. Stronger that most people, actually. I was tied up with Adam Lein, who had just barreled into me and was working for a grip. I was doing the usual thing I do…trying to counter his movements, trying to not resist and find a superior position so that Adam would trip himself up. And suddenly my brain clicked a little bit. I remember that I had a collar grip on Adam with my right hand, and I just thought…wait a minute, I think I might actually be stronger than him. I’ll test it out. I gripped the back of his head with my right hand, and shoved. Down. I think I just about slammed his head into the ground. Oops.
When I was younger, I was a wee little guy. I had a 28″ waist and sunken chest. And I was shorter than everyone I knew. I instantly connected with Antonio Banderas in “13th Warrior” because that described all my martial arts training…being the wee small man in an ever changing group of giant hairy warrior-barbarians. Except instead of being Arab, I was a Hobbit. My take on martial arts reflects those early experiences. I learned to be fast and deceptive. I learned to accept that I was always going to be outclassed by everyone, so I had to learn to win right from the point of being a hair away from losing. I learned to take huge amounts of punishment so that my opponents would feel strong and capable…and then hit them with one punch that would put them down, because I knew I would never get a chance for a second punch. When I wrestled I’d let my opponent crush me almost to the point of unconsciousness…while I carefully slipped their shoe off and put a brutal toe lock on them.
I’ve always applied the same approach to my swordwork as well. Working with the excellent Mr. Teague at Cascadia in the summer, he commented that I was constantly shorting my cuts, giving him the high line every time. I was, indeed. I threw every cut to his head with a drop of my hands, pulling my sword down and under his. I wasn’t about to meet him at the point of his art. I just assumed I would come out the worst in any such encounter. I reasoned that making enough contact to make him think I was going to play the straight game would keep him comfortable and happy…while my shorting of the cut would allow me to gain the space between his sword and his head. Not much of an advantage against KaffeeFechtMeister Teague, but I’ll take what I can get…
With rapier, I expect my opponents to be better trained than me in the close lines, the disengages and other subtle gains. I expect them to be stronger than me at the meeting of blades. I expect them to be faster in the lunge, to see all my tactics and strategies ahead of time. I always expect I will lose, and I always hope to try and gain my one last chance before loss.
But I am strong. I’m faster than most people. I’m better trained, and have a finer eye. If I chose to dominate I can, usually with ease. But it’s never my instinct. Whatever my nature might have been, it’s been trained out of me by experience. And that experience is now proving to be a poor teacher. Reality, in some ways, lied to me.
I’m making an effort with my current students to make sure they can see the truth. Everyone comes to martial arts with their own experiences and lessons. Often their body is held in such a way that you can read the abuses they have suffered. They come in feeling fragile and broken, but I see how they made themselves strong. That strength, like my learned strength opposed to my actual strength, is often the biggest difficulty in really breaking through to a student. In order to get them to their true and natural strength, I first have to remove the strength they have built up.
I have to change the perceptions that have given them backbone when they needed it. I have to alter the body mechanics that armoured them against heavy blows. I cannot just break them, but the old habits can prevent new ones from being formed correctly. It’s a balancing act of shoring up a strong point, while knocking lose a little bit of support, while hoping they will discover for themselves they don’t need that support any more.